Lady Chatterley’s Lover was first published in 1928 and though its author, D.H. Lawrence, was British, it was then published and distributed only in Italy and not in the United Kingdom. When Penguin published the book in England thirty years later in 1960, they ended up going to trial, accused of violating the Obscene Publications Act of 1959. A handful of witnesses, including E.M. Forester were called forth to attest to the book’s literary merit and in November of 1960 the jury reached a verdict of “not guilty.”
The story mostly concerns a woman named Connie (Lady Chatterley) who marries Clifford, an aristocratic man who becomes paralyzed and impotent due to injuries from fighting in the war. Connie has an affair with the gamekeeper, Oliver Mellors, and as their relationship deepens, she becomes more and more agitated by her superficial relationship with Clifford.
Early on in the novel, we encounter a number of discussions among Clifford and his associates about sex and male/female relationships. They espouse their theories on women and love-making but particularly in the character of Tommy Dukes, Lawrence seems to be demonstrating that there isn’t much value in all that theorizing, as Tommy pays lip service to certain beliefs about love that he is incapable of putting into practice in real life. These intellects talk openly about sex, but in reality it remains either meaningless or nonexistent.
Lawrence also explores the disparity between the classes in his novel, and his story demonstrates the effects of isolation, industrialization, and individualism.
Clifford Chatterley represents what Lawrence thought was wrong with the “modern” English nobleman. He’s isolated, vain, and only concerned with his own self-interest and promotion, which he pursues through vacuous, but popular, writing and through industry. He has no familial pride and no connection with the larger society. He is a man of himself, for himself, and to himself. An individual. In A Propos of Lady Chatterley’s Lover (which was appended to my Bantam Classics edition) Lawrence expounds,
“In the old England, the curious blood-connection held the classes together. The squires might be arrogant, violent, bullying, and unjust, yet in some ways they were at one with the people, part of the same blood-stream.”
In contrast with the statement above, Lawrence describes the mindset of the new nobility as “the sharp knowing in apartness instead of knowing in togetherness.” Clifford typifies this. Lawrence himself says it best,
“All warmth is gone entirely, the hearth is cold, the heart does not humanly exist. He is a pure product of our civilization, but he is the death of the great humanity of the world. He is kind by rule but he does not know what warm sympathy means.”
Mellors (Lady Chatterley’s Lover – and gamekeeper) is Clifford’s opposite. Working class, poor, passionate, sensual, and human. At the beginning of the novel even Mellors risks slipping into isolation, but he has not completely lost that “togetherness,” which Lawrence believed hung on in the working classes after it disappeared from high society. Mellors still retains the spark of humanity, which is present in his relationship with Connie. He becomes learned and intelligent while retaining his human instinct – he represents sensuality without savagery.
I’m only a quarter of the way through Leaves of Grass so I certainly don’t intend to say this with any kind of authority, but Lawrence’s approach to sex in this novel feels very Whitmanian to me. Very much like Whitman, Lawrence puts forth the idea that sex is just as much a part of life and what it means to be human as any of our other cerebral functions. Also like Whitman, while speaking out against Puritanical ideas, Lawrence also cautions against licentiousness. Balance is the key for both Whitman and Lawrence – a balance of the mind and body.
My only qualm with the novel is with the characters, which were very obviously mouthpieces for conveying Lawrence’s ideas. Some of the dialogue and interactions felt a bit forced and unnatural. In a previous post, I wholeheartedly defended Anne Bronte for her use of characters as blatant literary devices in Agnes Grey. And I admit that I don’t have a really good justification for why I so readily defended Bronte but remain a twinge skeptical of Lawrence for doing very much the same thing. But perhaps it’s because Lawrence’s ideas and method are so deeply human, personal, and intimate that I expected the characters to be more fully realized. I didn’t feel as though I deeply knew them, which was odd since I was witnessing the most intimate aspects of their lives.
I am glad that I gave this novel time to simmer after I finished it. I admit that the actual experience of reading it, for me, was just okay. My appreciation for it heightened with a greater understanding of the author’s purpose. I’m not sure if it’s included in every edition, but I highly recommend reading Lawrence’s own response to his novel, A Propos of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. This essay does a lot to clarify Lawrence’s vision. I’ll conclude with an excerpt from that:
“When the great crusade against sex and the body started in full blast with Plato, it was a crusade for ‘ideals,’ and for this ‘spiritual’ knowledge in apartness. Sex is the great unifier. . . The idealist philosophies and religions set out deliberately to kill this. . . Now they have done it. Now men are all separate little entities. While ‘kindness’ is the glib order of the day – everybody must be ‘kind’ – underneath this ‘kindness’ we find a coldness of heart, a lack of heart, a callousness, that is very dreary.”
Published: 1928 (Italy), 1959 (United States), 1960 (United Kingdom)
My Rating: *** 3/5
- Classics Challenge: Banned Book