A guide to the classics: Lady Chatterley’s Lover
|September 20, 2011||Posted by Jess Kadow under guide to the classics|
Controversial novels such as this one inspire intrigue beyond the usual lure of the printed page, not only because they have been deemed inappropriate for a substantial amount of time, but because it is our nature as humans to desire what is denied us. Lady Chatterley’s Lover, written by D. H. Lawrence in 1928 but not published in the UK until 1961, tempted the reader with its promise of hidden secrets, kept locked up within its pages until it was so suddenly attainable for the public, declaring the decade of free love, passion and sensuality. D. H. Lawrence, it is described in the introduction to my particular copy, intended for there to be no “obscene” sections, a word that many members of the prosecution during the publishing trial used to excess. Indeed, what he crafted was a journey through one woman’s life, charting the boredom of her home in Wragby with her husband and the contrasting joy found in the love of another man. Aware of the argument that surrounds the novel, I found myself pulling the small paperback off the shelf, dusting it off and seeing for myself what treasures or explicit horrors were to await my eyes.
One thing that I soon discovered was that the novel is not all about sex, as some people would lead you to believe. It does comprise a substantial part of conversation, consideration and action, especially in the second half of the novel, but it is not anywhere near the kind of thing Mills and Boon try to pass off as literature. The story actually starts in setting up the life of the young woman, Constance Reid, her explorations of her own interests and pleasures, and the adventures she had as a teenager in travelling the world. From this comparative whirlwind of action, she settles into a rut of a relationship in the form of the intellectual and well-bred Clifford Chatterley, who satisfies her mind with interesting conversation and philosophical debate, but is paralysed from the waist down very early in the war and becomes impotent because of this. Connie’s excitement in his company and her love for him slowly deteriorate into a reluctance to care for him, as he gives her nothing back, and then disgust at his arrogance, feelings of superiority and his empty words.
With these pages the words stagnated the air around me and I felt I needed breaks in order to trawl my way through the ordeal of living through such a boring routine along with the protagonist. The various disagreements at meal times, the intellectual and utterly pointless musings of Clifford’s friends and Connie’s frequent walks into the wood to find variation in her life rotated round and round until I could hardly bear to read anymore. This was a style of writing that drew me close to the character and made me understand her situation, but did nearly put me off, forcing me to be patient with the story and wait for a resolution to this hideous episode.
Her discovery of the gamekeeper, Oliver Mellors, is what eventually daubs the colour back onto the dreary landscape of Wragby, through a complicated mixture of anger, contempt, arrogance, curiosity and compassion. Connie does not seem to be able to decide between her life as Lady Chatterley, shut up in the house with the man she no longer loves, but instead is forced to mollycoddle day in day out, and Connie, her young self striving for love and passion. She simultaneously tries to make friends with this strangely quiet man and also alienates him with her status and the wish for company, despite his wish to be alone. In return he shows her tenderness and passion fraught with bluntness, the two sides mirrored by his precise, military English, in comparison with the broad Derbyshire accent that he slips into. This technique works beautifully to accent the contrasts in their relationship, although the dialect is quite difficult to fathom in places, perhaps intentionally to force the reader to become frustrated with it, as Connie does.
D. H. Lawrence and his supporters defend the sexual scenes in the novel by emphasising their focus on love and devotion, rather than seeing women merely as sex objects. Yet it is clear that many times, Mellors is the most dominant and needy in their relationship, whereas Connie is indifferent or even disgusted by their actions in several of their encounters. I expected to see this horror and ambivalence fade away and be replaced with burning love, as the novel suggested to me, but instead the contempt at the feeble nature of the human body and its functions clashes with her need for him and her contrasting descriptions of his apparently fluctuating beauty. However, it was clear that she forms a far closer bond with her lover than with her increasingly cantankerous husband, provoking a will for them to succeed together, unhindered by marital ties or social differences, of which there are both in this novel.
The narrative style is soft and reflective, strangely observant of human nature and its frailties. Connie notices her husband’s sudden weakness in becoming paralysed along with the fading strength of the country in the midst of the First World War; the brute forcefulness of the industrial, dirty towns creeping over the peaceful countryside and what she sees as the end of mankind, as the men are no longer men in her eyes. Her hatred of the new model of man is reiterated several times: as the working class rise and swell in number the men are becoming more industrialised, and as a member of the more genteel classes Connie regards this as a revolution by robots in the guise of men, automatons with no emotions. She believes that the only thing men want now is sex and that a relationship without this factor is meaningless for them. Mellors confirms this to some degree by focusing on it as the reason his previous relationships have failed, perhaps indicating that Connie does not seek a perfect man in Mellors, but a passionate partner who contrasts to her boring and strict husband. And whilst Connie’s relationship with her lover isn’t perfect, it brings life to her, as well as freedom from her social upbringing and restrictive past.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover is not what I expected from the title. I expected a passionate whirl of secrecy and fierce love, culminating in bitter recriminations, or fraught with difficulties. Yes, there was passion, although I wasn’t sure ever how strong Connie’s love for Mellors was. She seemed so contradictory in her depictions of him that it was difficult to trust her judgement as a narrator at times, yet at others she seemed so assured. And there were few difficulties for the pair to overcome until near the climax. The rest of the novel compiled the encounters of the couple as they followed their affair through, encompassing a large amount of sex scenes and explicit conversation amongst their more tender scenes. I had expected obscenities akin to the time of 1928, not the ‘c’ word, used in abundance by both characters in a seemingly affectionate conversation. But whilst it was different from how I first envisaged it, the novel was enlightening to the attitudes of the time and provided a great insight into the characters, who I came to care for and wish along their future paths. This is not your everyday romantic novel, nor is it a pornographic depiction of two people who have covert visits in the woods, to dispel any myths. This is an exploration into life, its emotions and its characters. It struck a chord in me and this controversial little bundle of paper folded up on my bedside table helped free the nation from taboo and secrecy, thrusting it into a decade of love and prosperity, and still remains a great, engaging read now.