So, Lady Chatterley’s Lover is about a woman who can’t have sex (or a child) with her paraplegic husband, who gives her permission to take a lover so she can conceive a child that he can raise as theirs, and then gets mad when she does exactly that.
And there’s lots of sex in it.
Like, explicit, full-on-erotica, “he entered her, and she cradled his penis and balls” sort of stuff.
So naturally it got banned when it was first published, but as any modern reader of the book will report, the sex scenes are tame in comparison to the way sex gets represented in books, TV, and movies today. And in fact, it wasn’t even really the sex scenes that seemed to be the problem: most of the trials for obscenity appear to relate to the language used, in those scenes or just in the conversation around them. It’s a striking example of paternalism when those in power believe adults are unable to bear the sight of some small, four-letter words.
It’s also easy to mock the censorship of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and its like, to dismiss it as absurdity of an earlier era. This would be a mistake. People can and still attempt to censor books, even in Canada. We must always remain vigilant for attempts to curtail our freedom to read and our children’s autonomy as responsible readers.
But enough about censorship. If Lawrence hadn’t included explicit sex in this book, it still could have been banned for its incendiary depictions of class and gender. Constance (Connie) Chatterley is a woman protagonist, and Lawrence dares to portray her affairs (yes, plural!) in a sympathetic light. Imagine that, a married, upper-class woman cheating on her poor, fragile husband—a paralyzed veteran!—first with a playwright and then (shock! gasp!) a groundskeeper from the village near their estate!
Sorry, ladies, I should have warned you of the impropriety of it all. Give me a moment to pass around the smelling salts….
There we go—better? Yeah, so Lawrence goes out of his way to try to make these characters sympathetic, at least at the outset. Connie and Clifford Chatterley have a functional relationship; they don’t exactly love each other, but they seem devoted to each other in a kind of resigned acceptance that they could have come off far worse when it comes to marriage. Yet Lawrence also doesn’t waste time in introducing Connie’s first affair, which she begins before Clifford broaches the subject of her sleeping with another man so she can get pregnant.
The clue to where Lawrence wants to direct the reader’s attention lies in the title: Lady Chatterley’s Lover. He could easily have called the book Lady Chatterley if he wanted to make it about Connie; he could even have called it Lady Chatterley’s Most Spectacular Sexytime Adventures had he desired. (This is why I’m not allowed to come up with titles for things any more….) But no, he explicitly focuses on Mellors, because his existence as a working class man having an affair with a woman of higher social status is the true scandal of this book. Clifford’s harshness towards Connie in the last third of the book is more about this perceived betrayal, on her part, of this covenant not to mix the classes—of all his character traits, his classism is the most constant even as Lawrence infantilizes him—than any real anger that she betrayed him.
My reaction to Lawrence’s characterization is … mixed. On one hand, I love that he so clearly and unapologetically ascribes to Connie a sex drive that extends beyond making babies. Having sex—and not just having it, but deriving pleasure from it—is on Connie’s to-do list. In the middle of the book she has a very frank scene where she strips and looks at herself in the mirror, and Lawrence describes—lushly but not all that erotically—how Connie observes the aging of her own body. And while I don’t think (obviously I don’t know) he succeeds in always portraying the thoughts and desires of a frustrated woman like Connie, at least he’s trying. Despite the ending, I don’t think that Lawrence is punishing Connie for straying; if anything, he makes his disapproval of Clifford and others like Clifford very clear.
On the other hand, characters like Mellors and his estranged wife are less easy to applaud. Mellors is quixotic: in his actions and demeanour he seems every bit the stereotype of the working man; however, lest we are too quick to judge, his Derbyshire accent is affected—he can speak the King’s English when he wants to. Doubtless it’s this paradox that is supposed to make Mellors so attractive to Connie; similarly, Lawrence needs to set him up as a more conventionally masculine figure when juxtaposed with Clifford, or even Connie’s first lover. But he isn’t an easy person to sympathize with, and at times it is difficult to see what Connie sees in him.
His wife is worse—if Connie is Lawrence’s attempt not to employ common tropes vs. women in literature, then Bertha Coutts undermines that aim. She is the stereotypical “crazed woman” out to spread lies and drag her husband through the muck, and pretty much all the main characters are derisive and dismissive about her (and we are supposed to go along with it, because otherwise Connie and Ollie can’t be happy together!). Indeed, Bertha seems to imply by her very existence that the reason Connie is desirable and appropriate as a mate for Mellors is because, by her very nature, she is compliant and there for his satisfaction—the fact that he expresses happiness at being able to give her satisfaction is merely a bonus, and just another feather in the cap of his prowess as a lover.
Infamy aside, Lady Chatterley’s Lover is not a stand-out novel. It is memorable as a part of Lawrence’s oeuvre, though, and yet another example of his willingness to court controversy. Whatever its merits or lack thereof, though, I liked it. It took me a while to warm up to it—the story, short though it is by our standards, is a dense narrative with meagre dialogue and mostly exposition about Connie’s life. But by the end, though, I bought into the relationships among Connie, Clifford, and Mellors, and that’s what matters.
Oh, note to Dover, the publisher: margins. Seriously, next time, have some.