Lady Chatterley’s Lover

I’ve just finished reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence and I really enjoyed it. It’s a great book, give it a try.

On one level I liked it for its careful delineation of the effects of external, societal pressures on the internal life of individuals. More than that, what I thought was both so shocking and so admirable was Lawrence’s honesty and sympathy in describing the most intimate shades of his characters’ emotions, whether Connie’s or Clifford’s, Mellors’ or Mrs Bolton’s.

The magic of Lawrence’s accretive prose style helps create this effect; his repetitions speak volumes and hint shades in a manner enormously expressive of actual experience; one comes to understand the characters from their own perspectives.

Aside from the actual experience of reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover, one cannot ignore its place in modern culture. Chatting to friends, it’s amazing how the book still draws such a double response. Some people love its emotional intimacy and truth, while others find that obscured by all its vigorous (and sordid?) ‘intercourse’.

But here’s the rub, you simply cannot separate one part from another; to do so would be to rip the soul from the novel.

Lawrence writes that “we are, today, as human beings, evolved and cultured far beyond the taboos which are inherent in our culture.” Lady Chatterley’s Lover springs from this meeting place of the taboo and culture, awkwardly, like an elbow. Lawrence aims to show that we are in danger of losing something real and true, something almost spiritual, about love and human connection. For him, scandal is only a societal label. Emotionally, Lady Chatterley and Mellors’ affair makes complete sense. It is a compelling argument; as reader we are made to feel there is no shame or unfaithfulness in Lady Chatterley’s actions because of the absolute emotional divorce between her and her husband. The earthier portions of the novel, including the obscenities, were essential for Lawrence to mark this difference between the life of anaesthetised intellect, the worship of ‘the bitch-goddess Success’, which Clifford indulges himself in, and the internal life of emotion and feeling. When English publishers offered him a fair amount of money to publish an expurgated version, Lawrence exclaimed “Impossible! I might as well try to clip my own nose into shape with scissors. The book bleeds!”

Adaptations have this same struggle to contend with. After finishing the novel I watched the beautiful but largely incoherent BBC production (2015). It is a totally different beast, and in my humble opinion doesn’t make a lot of sense. If we are to understand Connie’s decisions Wragby needs to be dour, oppressive and horrible. Clifford needs to be a “tiny bit of a man pretending he was whole” (to quote Julia in Brideshead). Mellors needs to be afraid of the world and the future. The effect of Wragby, the colliery, and the increasingly mechanised and mechanical Clifford is to make us realise that really, once the first blush is off the rose there can be nothing between husband and wife. Mellors, earthy and elegant, is the supreme contrast. He offers real life, real love, to Connie. When we judge her, then, it should not be as a brazen hussy, but as a woman starved of an essential emotional, and physical, manna.

Lawrence himself is quite aware of the novel’s own licentiousness, and how it is liable to be dismissed (or indeed taken up) by all sorts of people with all sorts of (perhaps less than admirable) opinions. In the foreword to the third edition he actually goes into rather amusing detail about the different kinds of people it won’t appeal to.

The first group are the perhaps slightly priggish conservative type, who will be shocked by the obscenities and how explicit the novel is on taboo subjects. In large part, they are the standard against which all ‘progressive’ artistic achievement must be measured. Lawrence doesn’t devote much space to their reactions, except to say that their inner turmoils, their repressions, come out in other, and more despicable, ways than obscene words. It should be noted that this is the view of most ordinary people in the 1960s (when the unexpurgated version was finally publishing the UK) and up and down the country there were protests about its circulation during and after the 1960 obscenity trial.

Next are the fashionable set, the ‘bright young things’ of Waugh’s Vile Bodies and Fitzgerald’s Gatsby (The novel was written in 1928.) This reader is young and “jazzy” and “does as she likes”. She, and others of her set, will see the novel as “too simple and ordinary for them. The naughty words they care nothing about, and the attitude to love they find old-fashioned.” They say you should take love and sex “like a cocktail”, and that Lady Chatterley’s Lover “shows the mentality of a boy of fourteen”.

Lawrence’s conclusion is that “between the stock old puritan who is likely to fall into sexual indecency in advanced age, and the smart jazzy person of the young world, who says: ‘We can do anything. If we can think a thing we can do it’ — and then the low uncultured person with a dirty mind who looks for dirt — this book has hardly a space to turn.”

So where can Lady Chatterley’s Lover turn nowadays?

At the conclusion of the obscenity trial over the novel, Wayland Young of The Guardian wrote, rather grandly, that “Time will show, but I think it is possible future generations may say that on 2nd November 1960, a giant who had laid in chains, the English imagination, was at last unshackled.”

That this giant remains unshackled is evident from even the briefest survey of pop culture, from Fifty Shades to ‘WAP’, but whether Lawrence intended, or would approve of, such an imaginative rampage is another matter entirely.

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