**Warning: like the novel, this post contains sexual references and obscene language. Please do not click ‘read more’ unless you actually do want to read more.**
First published in 1928, D. H. Lawrence’s last novel has become a byword for illicit, illegal, erotic fiction. It’s the story of the unhappily married Lady Constance ‘Connie’ Chatterley and her affair with her paraplegic WWI veteran husband’s gamekeeper, Oliver Mellors. There is also a minor sub-plot involving Sir Clifford Chatterley’s relationship with his widowed caregiver, Mrs. Bolton. To cut a long story short, from a modern perspective these people don’t need romantic relationships nearly so much as they need counselling.
It was the sex, shockingly explicit for its day, and the vulgar language (just about every encounter between Connie and Mellors is peppered with the words ‘fuck’ and ‘cunt’) which gained Lawrence’s work notoriety and, with any publicity being good publicity, has guaranteed it a readership which has spanned almost ninety years. I am informed that this is somewhat distressing to fans of D. H. Lawrence, who reckon it to be of far less merit than his other novels, and at some point I intend to see whether they’re right.
But ‘Lady Chatterley’ is far more than vulgar eroticism, and Lawrence does address a number of social issues within its pages.
For a start, there is the ongoing suffering caused by the First World War. Sir Clifford was shipped back to England towards the end of the War ‘more or less in bits’, and it is his ongoing physical impotency which drives a wedge between him and his wife. This story would have been all too familiar to readers at the time, and if the wounds weren’t physical they were psychological (PTSD, or ‘shellshock’, destroyed a marriage in my own direct family tree during the inter-war period).
Then there is the emptiness of life for a woman like Connie – educated, intelligent, vivacious – in a world where ‘wife’ is the only career she can ever hope to have. As Sir Clifford’s aunt, Lady Bennerley, informs Connie ‘a woman has to live her life, or live to repent not having lived it.’ Lady Bennerley is speaking of relocating to London and entering into the life of the ‘smart’ set there. Connie has other ideas, and under the circumstances it’s easy to see why.
Class is also a significant issue. Sir Clifford doesn’t seem to have a huge problem with Connie having an affair, but he expects it to be with someone of a similar social standing – upper-middle-class, like Connie, if not actually upper-class, like himself. It is the discovery that her affair is with the working-class Mellors which upsets him more than the affair himself – and part of what he seems to enjoy in his relationship with Mrs. Bolton is the ‘degradation’ of submitting to a woman who is so far beneath him socially.
But at the heart of the novel lies what seems to me to be a rather ridiculous idea: the idea that a relationship, in the sense of a romantic relationship, between a man and a woman can be either intellectual or physical. That is, that you can have stimulating, intelligent conversation, or you can have hot monkey sex. You can’t, apparently, have both. Connie, as I have already remarked, is an intelligent, educated woman, and Sir Clifford is likewise an intelligent, educated man. This is how they met, and it is the basis on which their relationship was formed. Lawrence gives us no insight into what their sexual relationship was like in the month between their wedding and Clifford’s return to the Front, and it appears not to have occurred to either of them that physical intimacy does not necessarily require penetrative sex. In Lawrence’s view, the problem with their relationship is that it is all mind and no body, and it is therefore a ‘bad’ relationship. Meanwhile the relationship between Connie and Mellors is based pretty much entirely on sex (when they aren’t actually having sex they’re usually either paddling in the conversational shallows or arguing about something), and is therefore a ‘good’ relationship. It honestly doesn’t seem to occur to Lawrence or, therefore, any of his characters that it might be possible, even healthy, to have a romantic relationship which achieves some sort of balance between the two. This, for me, is by far the most frustrating part of the story. By the end, when Connie is separated from Sir Clifford and expecting Mellors’ child, I found myself raising a cynical 21st century eyebrow and giving them six months.
But ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ was written during a very different time, and it is this which led to the incident which garnered it so much fame: the 1960 trial of the publishing house Penguin under the Obscene Publications Act 1959, following the first British publication of an unexpurgated edition (Lawrence first published his novel in Italy, as in 1928 no British publishing house would touch it). Officially the problem was with the explicit sex scenes and frequent use of obscene (if technically correct) language, but the fact that wider social issues were also at play during this, the turbulent dawn of the sexual revolution, can be seen in the much-derided words of Chief Prosecutor Mervyn Griffith-Jones, who famously asked the jury (which included three women) “is it a book that you would even wish your wife or servants to read?”
All in all, I’m glad I read it, not because it’s especially titillating – once again, this is the 21st century, and I’ve read raunchier Mills and Boons – nor because it’s especially good, although when the protagonists aren’t exercising their basic Anglo-Saxon there are similarities to the often-enjoyable lyricism of James Joyce. I’m glad to have read it because it represents a significant period in social history, not only within its pages but in the way the world reacted, and continues to react, to it.
Have you read ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’? What did you think of it?