July 21st, 2011

early 20th century

Book 71: Lady Chatterley's Lover by D. H. Lawrence

Book 71: Lady Chatterley's Lover.
Author: D. H. Lawrence, 1928.
Genre: Modern Classic. Period Fiction. 1920s Britain. War. Social Issues. Erotic.
Other Details: Paperback. 400 pages. Introduction by Doris Lessing, 2006.

The protagonist of this infamous novel is Lady Constance (Connie) Chatterley, who had married minor nobleman Clifford Chatterley in 1917. Six months later he returns from Flanders 'in bits'. He recovers to some degree but remains paralysed from the waist down and impotent. In the summer of 1920 the Chatterleys retire to his familial estate, Wragley Hall, in Nottinghamshire where he turns his attention to writing and business. Connie, who is used to the whirl of London society, feels more and more isolated. Unable to fulfil her physically or emotionally, Clifford encourages her to have a liaison with someone within their own class. Connie attempts this with rather unsatisfactory results. She then finds herself powerfully attracted to the estate's proud surly gamekeeper, Oliver Mellors. The attraction is mutual and soon they embark upon a passionate secret affair.

I'd certainly seen Ken Russell's 1993 BBC TV adaptation and over the years heard plenty about this novel, famous for having been banned in the UK from 1928 until 1960 when Penguin Books published its unexpurgated text and were brought to trial under the 1959 Obscenity Act. Obviously they won this landmark case. Yet I had never actually read the novel and so I was pleased when it was chosen as the June selection by one of my reading groups. What surprised me most about it was the sensuality and tenderness of its central love story along with its themes linked to social and economic changes in Britain in the aftermath of the Great War. It also has a strong anti-war message and is a plea for a return to a more natural relationship with our bodies, a cause dear to Lawrence.

It is a complex, character-led novel with philosophical asides and as such it proved a very satisfactory reading experience. Yes, there are sexual scenes but they are tame compared to some I've encountered in contemporary novels and other media. There is also a prolific use of words that were shocking in their day. However, they are used in the context of a loving relationship rather than as expletives and I found that an important difference. After reading it I felt that there was a great deal of richness within and if there hadn't been the controversy about the explicit sexual relationship between an upper class woman and her working class 'bit of rough', it would still been heralded as a modern classic due to its relevance to this period in British social history and the wider human condition.

Aside from Doris Lessing's insightful Introduction, my edition also contained notes by Michael Squires, and a glossary of dialect terms and Lawrence's own essay 'A Propos of Lady Chatterley's Lover', where close to death he defends his novel from the storm of criticism and also has a bit of a rant about people pirating his books. Certainly demonstrates that this is not only a 21st century phenomena. Its cover art is a specially commissioned oil painting entitled 'Lady Chatterley's Lover' by Aaron Robinson and while not to my aesthetic taste, is a powerful image.

Doris Lessing on 'Lady Chatterley' - Guardian article which is an edited extract of her Introduction to the 2006 edition.

Penguin's Page on 'Lady Chatterley's Lover' with excerpt, time line of its publication history and obscenity trial, cover art over the years and responses to the book then and now.