This month we reveal how a copy of the “filthiest” novel of its era – Lolita – could be found in only one place in the whole of the land, guess where?
Tunbridge Wells; the bastion of conservative Middle England, where retired colonels spend their days on bowling greens and their evenings playing bridge, while discussing the latest political scandal.
Although now – and perhaps always – an inaccurate stereotype, the mid-1950s saw the peak of such caricaturing, prompted by the emergence of the now immortal pseudonym, ‘Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells’.
Meanwhile, the novel Lolita, the infamous creation of Russian-born American author Vladimir Nabokov, was due to be published in the UK in 1955, after months of dominating bestseller lists across the Atlantic.
Noted for its themes of illicit desire and patent sexuality, the storyline is about a middle-aged man’s obsession with a teenage nymphet; its publication in France earlier that year had been marked by widespread condemnation from literary academics and the public.
Notwithstanding this apparent setback, it soon became an underground sensation, with British novelist Graham Greene (no stranger to controversy himself) describing Lolita as one of the best books of the year. Intrigued by this statement, John Gordon, the then Editor of the Sunday Express, ordered a copy from Paris and promptly called it “about the filthiest novel I’ve ever read”.
Set against the background of an ensuing public spat between Graham Greene and John Gordon, the book began to be circulated around British publishers. Many rejected it on the grounds of its perceived dubious literary merit – one supposedly tore it up in disgust.
Eventually, one publisher, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, agreed that it would bring out Lolita in Britain.
However, there still existed one major stumbling block: British law enabled police constables to seize copies of literature deemed obscene or prosecute any purveyors of such material.Furthermore, any copies of Lolita entering the country were to be confiscated by customs officials.
A Bill was proposed in Parliament, advocating that prosecution should only occur if a piece of literature as a whole was judged to be obscene, rather than individual sections. Having been revealed as the publishing firm to have taken on the job of distributing the controversial text, Weidenfeld and Nicolson came under severe criticism for their decision.
While the row raged on, it was discovered that there was just one copy of Lolita available for public consumption in the UK. Where? In the public library of Tunbridge Wells which, with remarkable foresight or perhaps merely by fortune, had ordered a copy from Paris three years before the public furore.
But, even with the book receiving huge amounts of publicity and no attempts to prohibit local distribution of the novel, Lolita did not seem to be raising the eyebrows of the Tunbridge Wellian masses. The assistant librarian at the time was quoted as saying: “Demand has never been particularly high… Our top favourites at present are Doctor Zhivago, Monty’s Memoirs (World War II Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery) and The Life of King George VI.”
Weidenfeld and Nicolson eventually published the book in the UK in 1959. Although the passing of time has seen a gradual realisation and acceptance from the public of the true nature of Tunbridge Wells, there are still those who stand by the cliché of ‘Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells’.
Perhaps a look into the colourful, quirky history of the town, as evidenced by this particular incident, might convince these people otherwise…