DH Lawrence. Lady Chatterley’s Lover. First Published 1928.
I think it’s Stella Gibbons fault. After reading her wonderfully funny parody of English rural melodramas I decided to segue into Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and from that starting point it was hard to take this classic quite seriously enough.
And it is serious book, with a serious place in literary history. It’s appropriate to include Lady Chatterley’s Lover in a blog dedicated to Popular Penguins. It was Penguin who took the provocative step of publishing the unexpurgated book in the UK for the first time, complete with its c and f words, and was pursued in the celebrated obscenity trial.
I won’t go through the whole story here, there’s plenty of other places you can seek it out. As both of you probably already know, Penguin sought to test the new Obscene Publications Act, which allowed literary merit as a defence for publishers of otherwise obscene works. Lady Chatterley’s Lover passed the literary merit test, and who am I to disagree with the findings of a court of law?
Not everyone agreed, though. Some big literary names of the period damned it with faint praise. I particularly like Evelyn Waugh’s contribution, reproduced here from the pop culture website Dangerous Minds:
I have not read Lady Chatterley’s Lover since it first came out. My memory of it is that it was dull, absurd in places and pretentious. I am sure that most of its readers would be attracted by its eroticism. Whether it can “corrupt” them, I can’t tell, but I am quite certain that no public or private “good” would be served by its publication. Lawrence had very meagre literary gifts.
While I wouldn’t be so heretical (or perhaps egotistical) as to join Waugh’s assessment of Lawrence’s “meagre literary gifts”, I’ve got a bit of sympathy for his assessment of Lady Chatterley as “dull, absurd in places and pretentious”.
Take, in Tea and Penguins tradition, the opening paragraph:
Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically. The cataclysm has happened, we are among the ruins, we start to build up new little habitats, to have new little hopes. It is rather hard work: there is now no smooth road into the future: but we go round, or scramble over the obstacles. We’ve got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen.
The fallen skies are the war, the industrial revolution, the blight on the pastoral landscape by coal and electricity, the widening distances between the classes, and particularly in their relative wealth, and the triumph of intellect and progress over emotion and an attachment to the earth.
Just as I don’t need to tell you the story of the famous trial, I probably don’t need to sketch out the plot for you. What I found amusing rather than profound, and what I guess Gibbons was playing on, was the book’s sometimes relentless oppositionism. Nature is good, industry is bad. Connie Chatterley’s lover Oliver Mellors is a gamekeeper, charged with nurturing and protecting the woodland creatures (albeit for someone else to come along and kill later). Her husband Clifford is a coal baron, and increasingly obsessed with modern uses for the black gold that runs through his land. This dichotomy is akin I think to the theme critics and reviewers frequently identify: intellect and emotion, mind and body. They are not necessarily sentiments that I disagree with (although I am a girl who prefers balance in most things, rather than definitively taking one side or another). I did find it all a bit dull and obvious after a while, and I think it made Mellors in particular a bit flat and one dimensional for me. He has only one view on everything, and you can guess up front what it will be on most issues:
Their spunk is gone dead. Motor-cars and cinemas and aeroplanes suck that last bit out of them. I can tell you, every generation breeds a more rabbity generation, with indiarubber tubing for guts and tin legs and tin faces. … Money, money, money! All the modern lot get their real kick out of killing the old Adam and the old Eve.
Mellors seeks refuge in “the darkness and seclusion of the wood”, but even there the industrial noises of Clifford’s modern world intrude, and the “world allows no hermits.” When Connie encounters Mellors bathing, naked to the hips in the yard of his cottage, she is somehow shocked, and has to remind herself “After all, merely a man washing himself; commonplace enough, Heaven knows!” But the shock is the tingle of emotion, of body, of nature. Common sense, intellect and modern industry won’t compete.
The very practical Flora Poste would have had a brisk response to Mellors and his bleak world view. But Lady Chatterly is being guided by DH Lawrence, not Stella Gibbons, and the outcome is very different indeed.