D. H. Lawrence published Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1928, two years before he died, however the novel wouldn’t appear in its unexpurgated form until 1960. The story centres on Lady Constance Chatterley and her affairs with two men. Although the title focusses on the singular lover, Lady Chatterley does engage in two extramarital affairs. Lady Chatterley is married to Sir Clifford, who was paralyzed in World War I and left impotent. The Chatterleys are childless and Sir Clifford gives his wife approval to have a whirlwind affair for the sole purpose of getting herself pregnant to produce an heir to his estate and fortune. I am sure the British censors had reasons to disapprove of the novel on this basis alone, before any sex is depicted at all. Permitting members of the aristrocracy to fool around under the full knowledge of both married parties (early twentieth-century “swinging”) was taboo, regardless who was doing it. Lady Chatterley’s Lover also caused so much controversy because it crossed British social classes with Lady Constance’s long affair with Oliver Mellors, the estate’s pheasant-tending gamekeeper.
The language used in the novel is another issue in itself, as Lawrence writes unflinchingly with swear words and depicts various sex acts and sex play. In 1928 England, such writing was considered obscene. I myself was surprised that the foulest language of 1920’s England would be so close to what is still said today. The lover in the title, Mellors, feels most at ease when he speaks in his Derby dialect, and Lawrence approximates his speech within the confines of modern typeface with plenty of apostrophes and elisions. It was not difficult to read, and easy to figure out if I read the dialect aloud. Mellors often shifts from dialect to proper and formal English, and often confounds the upper classes by being able to speak to them like a perfect gentleman. Mellors speaks like a college-age drunken sailor when engaging in sex or sex play with Lady Chatterley, and Lawrence’s Harlequin Romance euphemisms seem beautiful, and not trite, in their imagery.
Over the course of my reading of Lawrence’s novels, I have noticed his tendency to write one observation then immediately afterward contradict that point or write its opposite. This is encountered throughout Lady Chatterley’s Lover. While Constance sits in on a meeting her husband has with some gentleman friends:
“She liked to hear what they had to say, especially when Tommy was there. It was fun. Instead of men kissing you, and touching you with their bodies, they revealed their minds to you. It was great fun! But what cold minds!
“And also it was a little irritating.”
Clifford, paralyzed and in a wheelchair after the Great War and seeking to find new ways to occupy his time, aspires to fame and fortune by being a successful writer. As he embarks on his literary career:
“Clifford, of course, had still many childish taboos and fetishes. He wanted to be thought ‘really good,’ which was all cock-a-hoopy nonsense. What was really good was what actually caught on. It was no good being really good and getting left with it. It seemed as if most of the ‘really good’ men just missed the bus. After all you only lived one life, and if you missed the bus, you were just left on the pavement, along with the rest of the failures.”
I wonder if Lawrence projected his own literary aspirations onto Clifford. Lawrence probably felt the pull of mass popularity with mediocre work versus obscurity with well-reviewed, yet unsold, work. I found it amusing that he used William James’s term for success, the “bitch goddess”, throughout the novel, in Clifford’s quest for fame.
Lady Chatterley discovers that she is pregnant by Mellors, and while Sir Clifford did give his consent for her to go out and have a fling for the sole purpose of conceiving, he expressly forbade her to carry on a relationship with whatever man who fathered her child. Lady Chatterley and Mellors decide to divorce their spouses and move away, perhaps to British Columbia (I love the Canadian connection) and when Constance tells her husband of her plans, he is left stupefied, immobile, unable to talk and virtually paralyzed across his entire body when he discovers that the man his wife had been carrying on with was his own servant. The final chapters are filled with tension, drama and suspense. I could not put the book down as Lady Chatterley and Mellors devised ways to save their reputations, try to live discreetly and to counter their critics. The tangled web they wove was a rapid page-turner, and made me sad that the novel was not two hundred pages longer like Sons and Lovers or Women in Love.