With its four-letter words and its explicit descriptions of sexual intercourse, Lady Chatterley’s Lover is the novel with which D.H. Lawrence is most often associated. First published privately in Florence in 1928, it only became a world-wide best-seller after Penguin Books had successfully resisted an attempt by the British Director of Public Prosecutions to prevent them offering an unexpurgated edition. The famous ‘Lady Chatterley trial’ heralded the sexual revolution of the coming decades and signalled the defeat of Establishment prudery.
Yet Lawrence himself was hardly a liberationist and the conservativism of many aspects of his novel would later lay it open to attacks from the political avant-garde and from feminists. The story of how the wife of Sir Clifford Chatterley responds when her husband returns from the war paralysed from the waist down, and of the tender love which then develops between her and her husband’s gamekeeper, is a complex one open to a variety of conflicting interpretations.
This edition of the novel offers an occasion for a new generation of readers to discover what all the fuss was about; to appraise Lawrence’s bitter indictment of modern industrial society, and to ask themselves what lessons there might be for the 21st century in his intense exploration of the complicated relations between love and sex
There is something to the writing of this period. Fitzgerald occupies a similar space in my literary estimation, although on balance, I prefer Fitzgerald to Lawrence. This book was banned in an unexpurgated form for a long time. It is frank in it’s depictions of sex, although it does appear to be amusingly phallocentric. Mellors has such a profound case of ‘honey dick’ that all he has to do is penetrate and Connie goes into paroxysms of delight. It is refreshingly frank about the internal politics of women’s sexual selves and in possession of some glorious language. It is the platonic ‘bit of rough’ fantasy, the female gaze expanded upon in such a way that it serves as fuel for Connie’s liberation from the loveless artifice of her marriage.
Some of the observations about class and society are cringeworthy, but it was written in 1928 and I can read a book without automatically absorbing every sentiment as gospel truth. What remains, and what lasts, is an expression of feminine energy finding definition and completion in masculine, presented in beautiful language and an earthiness that even now, with the relative freedom of expression that we enjoy, feels shocking for it’s setting. Mellors is almost animal at points, an expression of masculinity that resonates on a mythic level, and his primal energy inflames Connie, who is written as a soft, beguiling vessel of the feminine who is libertine and progressive in her experiences for the time, but feels a measure of dissatisfaction until she gives in to her attraction to Mellors. The book works with this tension and truly comes alive in the scenes between them. Clifford, her crippled husband represents an infantile pomposity and is almost a figure of pity until his prejudices reveal themselves.
The third act wobbles a little but Lawrence brings it all together, in an ending that was emotionally honest and satisfying, embodying the earthy realism that made this such a controversial book for the time. If you haven’t read it, you should. There’s a lot to suggest that erotic and sexual literature can punch on the same level as the MFA fuelled, ‘my parents didn’t love me’ type of work and it comes to something that we have to go back a long way to find it but like any classic book, new readers discover these all the time.
If Clayton Cubbit did a session of Hysterical Literature reading a section of this, it would be exquisite indeed.