D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover: That was strange.
Everyone knows the story. Lady Chatterley’s husband, Clifford, is paralyzed from the waist down due to blast in the Great War. Though she doesn’t seem to miss the sex, having seen what all the fuss was about in her youth, and she was never that keen on it anyway, she starts looking for someone or something to connect with physically, and after a brief and unsatisfying few romps with a family friend, she catches sight of her estate’s gamekeeper stripped to the waist and splashed with water, and after that, the lady just can’t help herself. Though the story is often remembered as an attraction of opposites or a scandalous bridging of the gap in social class, that’s more in the perception of others than in the facts; in truth, Mellors, though born in the working class, is educated (Mellors often speaks "broad," slipping into his lower-class accent, but he's slumming, doing it partly for effect and partly to comfort himself) and has been an officer, and Lady Chatterley, though of the landed classes, doesn’t wear easily the mantle of her husband’s title and expresses strong sympathy for the workers.
It’s a love story, replete with scenes of explicit sexuality and largely inexplicit sex, but larger crises are at work in the novel than the crisis caused by the affair. WWI has physically and emotionally damaged everyone involved, but Clifford’s inability to either stand or produce children is Lawrence’s way of saying that the entire class structure is hobbled and impotent. Intellectual discussions take place in the Chatterley’s Wragley Hall, but they’re weightless, modern in the worst possible ways (and strangely reminiscent of Brave New World, as these colorless upper-class twits discuss making children in bottles). As for the outer world, industrialization is stripping away whatever was beautiful in England. It’s also causing encroachment on the estates of old, which can no longer survive, and though the loss of these estates is painted in morbid tones, it’s clear that Lawrence doesn’t truly bemoan that world's demise. Sterile, out of step, and inward, the old England has nothing to recommend it, but neither does Lawrence find anything to recommend the world to come, nor the lower classes bound to inhabit it. They have babies, and they’re not a bad sort, but they’ve become unmannered, their lives governed by money (a foul word in this novel) and gossip.
I was often reminded of Orwell’s 1984, which, for all its interest in the politics and psychology of fascism, also has some of Lawrence’s concerns and solutions. Life too sterile? Go off to the woods for a romp among the flowers. Worried about the future? Eventually, this present structure will fade. But Orwell’s characters are all in the Party, making it easy to forget, for much of that novel, that most people are leading rather different lives than the protagonists. “Salvation will come from the proles,” Winston Smith thinks, but Orwell doesn’t tell us much about them, keeping them at arm’s length. Lawrence shows us something of working-class life, and the ability (and marked tendency) of the working classes to reproduce is pushed in the face of Lady Chatterley, who does want a child. And though salvation won’t come from “the proles,” we’re given to understand, in the novel’s strangely melancholy ending, that a return to honest work, and an embrace of some sort of honest relations between the sexes, will at least make life feel meaningful.
As most know, what got the novel in trouble was all the sex. Three pages in, Lawrence is waxing about the female orgasm. You have to sympathize with Lawrence, who wants to write about sex but doesn’t have any literary model to follow. In the early going, he seems to struggle with how to talk about it, even saying “orgasm” and “crisis” in the same sentence as if they were two different things. He often says that Lady Chatterley is moved “in her womb” or “in her bowels” when she feels sexual stirrings. There’s an odd vacillation between bluntness and euphemism. I think, though, that what Lawrence wants to have happen is for the language to become more direct as Lady Chatterley herself comes to embrace a more vivid sexuality than she’s previously known. Thus, though sex enters the story early, the scenes gradually become more explicit and the characters grow more comfortable with the language and with their own bodies. It often reads goofily, but it works better than I initially thought it did.
Further, the book is tonally ragged. It's funnier than I expected. There are sharp exchanges and clever observations, but there are also just silly moments in which you feel Lawrence’s revealing honesty. The characters are hard to picture, as Lawrence’s descriptions seem inconsistent. Characters speak inconsistently, too, allowing Lawrence to vent his spleen about some subject and then, moments later, take it all back. And the book ends without completing what would appear to be its climax, leaving the characters suspended between the choices they’ve just made and the consequences. That follows 40 pages of jumping about in a rushed way that doesn’t fit with the rest of the novel. Perhaps he just wanted to be done, having put everyone though quite enough hell.