Lady Chatterley’s lover – a critical view

Temptation, mixed media, Xenia Marita Riebe, 2004

Lady Chatterley’s Lover is undoubtedly the most generally known of Lawrence’s books, however first of all it owes its fame to its history of legal repression: For thirty-two years after its first publication in 1928 the book was banned in England. An unexpurgated edition was not published openly in the United Kingdom until 1960, when it was the subject of a watershed obscenity trial against the publisher Penguin Books. Penguin won the case, and quickly sold 3 million copies.

David Herbert Lawrence was born, the fourth child of a miner, on 11 September 1885, at Eastwood, some eight miles north-west of Nottingham. Coal had been mined in the district for centuries, but until about forty years before Lawrence’s birth the process was still practically medieval.. The miners lived in thatched cottages and worked their small mines in the hillsides, the coal being drawn to the surface by donkeys that plodded wearily in a circle round a gin .

About 1850 the scene was transformed by the arrival of the capitalists and the railways. Large collieries were built among the fields, the old cottages gave way to decent but dull rows of brick dwellings built by the colliery companies. Although the population of Eastwood could be classified as almost entirely „industrial working class“ it was a world far removed from the densely populated areas of London, Sheffield or Liverpool.

According to Lawrence, the miners themselves did not care very much about their wages. They lived an almost purely instinctive life, developing an a great sense of intimacy and comradeship with one another as they worked half naked down the pit and continued this intimacy as they drank together in the pub after work. They were not at home in the daylight world of hard facts, of money and home responsibilities. But the colliers’ wives had to live in this daylight world; they had to worry about the material things and do their best to make decent homes for themselves and their children. And the closer the wives got their desired middle-class standard of living, the more their collier husbands appeared to them as blundering intruders from an alien, more primitive world.

It was this conflict between Lawrence’s own parents that had an decisive effect on his life.

So his background was different from that of any novelist of his time.If the background was different, so was his inner experience. Modern civilization thwarted his spirit and he could find no consolation as Wells had done, in making blue prints for a new world. The disease was one which admitted no intellectual cure, for the modern world seems to Lawrence to have corrupted man’s emotional life. Even passion had become some niggling by-product of the intelligence. To discover again a free flow of the passionat life became for him almost a mystical ideal.

His early novels such as Sons and Lovers (1913), The Rainbow (1915) and Women in Love (1921) had only hinted at these later developments. The European war increased his sense of isolation, as he showed in Kangaroo 1(923), the most revealing if not the most satifactory of his works. This detachment from civilized life now became mixed with a certain irritability accompanied by a sense of surrender of the intellect to more elemental and irrational elements, and, as he shows in the The Plumed Serpent (1926), he sought among more primitive people in Mexico for the more natural life which Europe could not give. In its emphasis on the physical, his work had aroused criticism in some quarters and some of his novels had been banned. As if in revenge, he published in Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928) a franker description of the physical relations of two lovers than had yet appeared in English fiction.

The scene is back in the Nottinghampshire-Derbyshire area of the English Midlands, and the theme is largely that of the man-woman relationship.

Bird Woman, Collage, Xenia Marita Riebe, 2004

Due to its infamous history, the novel is most widely known for its explicit descriptions of sexual intercourse. These occur in the context of a plot that centers on Lady Constance Chatterly and her unsatisfying marriage to Sir Clifford, a wealthy Midlands landowner, writer, and intellectual. Constance enters into a passionate love affair with her husband’s educated gamekeeper, Oliver Mellors. Pregnant by him, she leaves her husband and the novel ends with Mellors and Constance temporarily separated in the hope of securing divorces in order to begin a new life together.

The book at its simplest level is in a very old romantic tradition. The aristocratic lady dissatisfied with her husband leaves behind the empty sophistication of the great house to find love in a cottage, in an atmosphere of arcadian simplesse (the homely furniture, the brick floor, the simple fare of beer and cheese and meat).Everything is very clean and neat, of course, and the lover, despite his lowly station, is civilised, sensitive and intelligent. to the excitement of a clandestine affair is added the delectation of being loved by a man one moment, and addressed as “Your Ladyship” by him the next. And in the end, true love wins and the wicked baronet is thwarted. It is very much a woman’s romance, with everything seen from a woman’s point of view. Thus all the feelings described are the woman’s and nearly all the physical description is of the man. Characteristically female, too, is Connie’s assurance that she has got the only real man in the whole world:

‘Shall I tell you?’ she said, looking into his face. ‘Shall I tell you what you have that other men don’t have, and that will make the future? Shall I tell you?’
‘Tell me then,’ he replied.
‘It’s the courage of your own tenderness, that’s what it is: like when you put your hand on my tail and say I’ve got a pretty tail.’

All lovers feel themselves unique, that is natural and proper. But on the romantic talk of the lovers there constantly intrudes Lawrence’s moral purpose. When Connie talks about “her pretty tail” she is talking like a woman; when she talks about “making the future” she is talking lie Lawrence.

We accept the fiction that the lovers feel themselves to be unique, what is not acceptable is Lawrence’s implied assumption  throughout that they are in fact  unique, that no other lovers have any tenderness, that Connie and Mellors are almost the only couple in the country to have a satisfactory sexual relationship, and that they alone will “make the future”. The touching romantic story of a man and a woman is always being threatened by a morality in which they lose their humanity and become the paradigm of fulfilment and regeneration in an otherwise sterile and degenerate England.

We are told that Mellor can find no one else to fight with him against the mechanical “Thing” – The men were all outside there, glorying in the Thing, triumphing or being trodden down in the rush of mechanized greed or of greedy mechanism. But the industrial background of the book, superbly though it is invoked, remains purely a background and not an integral part of the story. Neither Connie nor Mellors has been affected in any way by pressures by this outside world. One cannot see that Connie’s problems would be any different if the whole industrial world had been abolished. It is Lawrence, not his story, who constantly makes the point that the world of the mines and mechanism has killed all tenderness between men and women. Lawrence included some of his most brilliant polemics against modern society in this book, unfortunetly they have no connection to the story he is telling. Lawrence himself said Never trust the artist, trust the tale! And in the tale the one beautiful example of a fulfilled marriage is that between Mrs Bolton and her husband. He was a miner and they spent their lives in the mining town of  Tevershall, which Lawrence desribes as the negation of all beauty:

The car ploughed uphill through the long squalid straggle of Tevershall, the blackened brick dwellings, the black slate roofs glistening their sharp edges, the mud black with coal-dust, the pavements wet and black. It was as if dismalness had soaked through and through everything. The utter negation of natural beauty, the utter negation of the gladness of life, the utter absence of the instinct for shapely beauty which every bird and beast has, the utter death of the human intuitive faculty was appalling. The stacks of soap in the grocers’ shops, the rhubarb and lemons in the greengrocers! the awful hats in the milliners! all went by ugly, ugly, ugly, followed by the plaster-and-gilt horror of the cinema with its wet picture announcements, ‘A Woman’s Love!’, and the new big Primitive chapel, primitive enough in its stark brick and big panes of greenish and raspberry glass in the windows…What could possibly become of such a people, a people in whom the living intuitive faculty was dead as nails, and only queer mechanical yells and uncanny will-power remained?

Yet this was the scene of Mrs Bolton’s warm and tender marriage.

Paul Morel, the character who stands for Lawrence himself in Sons and Lovers says The difference between people isn’t in their class but in themselves. Only from the middle classes one gets ideas, and from the common people- life itself, warmth. But in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, for the first time the common people and life itself are joined by a third term, the “four letter words.” There is no doubt, that they were an essential part of Lawrence’s avowed purpose in the book. He claimed that one of the reasons why the common people keep or kept the good natural glow of life, just warm life, longer than educated people was that they  could use these words without either a shudder or a sensation. For while it is true that these words are used chiefly by the common people it is also true that they are used almost entirely as abuse or as intensitives, regardless of their original sexual meanings. The way in which they are used is, in fact, the very negation of warm life. Of course Lawrence’s intention was to disinfect the words – to do away with the dirty little secret, the snigger, the sexy joke. He once said Pornography is the result of sneaking secrecy – so away with secrecy. But how does this comply to Lawrence’s deeply held conviction that sex should be a great mystery, a coming together in darkness, for how is this to be maintained if everything is to be made explicit and put into words?

The experiment with the four-letter words causes some havoc in the character of Mellors, the only person to use them. For also he sprang from the common people, he is also an educated man, and for that reason, according to Lawrence’s remarks, quoted above, should no longer be able to use the words naturally. Thus at one moment he will be talking in dialect liberally sprinkled with these words, and in the next he will be saying:

To contemplate the extermination of the human species and the long pause that follows before some other species crops up, it calms you more than anything else. And if we go on in this way, with everybody, intellectuals, artists, government, industrialists and workers all frantically killing off the last human feeling, the last bit of their intuition, the last healthy instinct; if it goes on in algebraical progression, as it is going on: then ta-tah! to the human species! Goodbye! darling! the serpent swallows itself and leaves a void, considerably messed up, but not hopeless. Very nice! When savage wild dogs bark in Wragby, and savage wild pit-ponies stamp on Tevershall pit-bank! te deum laudamus!

Poor Connie! She has escaped from the cerebral Sir Clifford only to find herself amongst algebraic progressions of exterminations and Latin tags in the arms of her lover. But in a minute or two Mellors will turn on a dialect and the four-letter words again. This is the fatal inconsistency in his character. Can one really believe in the integrity of a man who switches at will bewteen two such widely different vocabularies and ways of speech? Connie’s sister Hilda diagnoses: He was no simple working man, not he: he was acting!

The split is due to Mellors being partly afictional character, but also obviously Lawrence himself in many respects. But while Lawrence’s genius, his personal magnetism, and his cosmopolitan life made him a classless citizen of the world, Mellors is still in his Midlands cottage, behaving and talking have like a game keeper and half like his creator.

Mellors is obviously also a symbolic figure – the preserver of natural life, the bringer of fulfilment to a woman, the adversary of the mechanical world. On the face of it, Mellors, being partly a symbolic figure, partly Lawrence himself, partly a fictional character, might appear to be hopelessly incoherent. In fact one must admit, that for all the apparent inconsistencies he stays in the mind as a very vivid figure – immediately recognisable if one met him in ral life.

On the other hand Sir Clifford is too much a symbol. By the end of the book he has become a caricature monster, the embodiment of all that Lawrence hated. The case against him is weakened by being overstated.

Connie herself is an oddly colourless character, partly because she has to bear the symbolic weight of being Everywoman. Despite her obvious intelligence one tends to think of her – as Mellors did – as just a young female creature. Of the minor characters the most successful is Mrs Bolton: She is far more than the village gossip, because she really does stand for marriage in a way that Connie and Mellors cannot. She had been really warmed through by her husband whos has been killed in a pit accident and believes that if there is a heaven above he’ll be there and will lie up against me so I can sleep.  So when Lawrence actually  uses his novelist’s gifts to create a real character and marriage like this, he defeats the moralist in him who has been denying the mining villagers any rich tender life.

Lawrence at one time considered calling the novel Tenderness, and made significant alterations to the text and story in the process of its composition. One thesis would be that the author first wrote the love story as a self-contained work and then had reservations about its daring content. The socio-critical superstructure was therefore added later as an alibi function, so to speak. That would explain the many inconsistencies.

Anyway, modern readers generally accept Lady Chatterley’s Lover as an improving, liberating and sophisticated literary work.

Bernd Riebe, 2020;  Anthony Beal, D.H. Lawrence, London, 1961;  Sir Ifor Evans, A Short History of English Literature, London, 1966;


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