Edward Hockin reviews D. H. Lawrence’s classic novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover
Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928)
Penguin Modern Classics, 317pp
Review by Edward Hockin
The ‘Chatterley Ban’ famed in song and story was, perhaps, the best and worst thing to happen to D.H. Lawrence. The trial of Lady Chatterley gave the novel a degree of infamy which has seen its fame, and readership, last well into the 21st century. Whenever the name of Lawrence is mentioned we instantly think of Lady Chatterley, which is a shame because Lady Chatterley is a poor example of his oeuvre.
Constance Chatterley is not long married to her English husband, Clifford, when he is maimed on the Western front during the Great War. She finds herself stuck in a decrepit country house, in the wastelands of post-war industrial Derbyshire, with a husband who was pretty sexless even before his balls were blown off. The only relief and fulfilment she can find is in the arms of the game-keeper, Mellors, a sensitive, intelligent and robustly working-class individual.
Lawrence admired the philosopher Frederic Nietschze, in particular his work ‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra,’ which had a great influence on his writing – an influence, I feel, for the worst.
The first chapter of Lady Chatterley’s Lover reeks of Nietschze, and begins with an aphorism, “Ours is a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically.” An aphorism is a technique that works for philosophy, but not so much in fiction. So much of Lady Chatterley’s Lover is Lawrence telling you, not only his beliefs, but the histories and motivations of his characters. We have to wait until page eighteen until any of his characters speak for themselves; it breaks the great rule of expression – show, don’t tell. Lawrence is forever telling us what to think in this novel rather than allow his characters to speak and act for themselves, and for his readers to draw their own conclusions.
Often his characters are only symbols, vehicles to espouse contrasting philosophies and lifestyles, most particularly in Clifford Chatterley who cannot find fulfilment in art, work or life, just because the Germans shot his bollocks away.
Connie and Mellors, the central characters, do elicit sympathy, though. Lawrence is a skilful enough writer to make us care about these characters eventually.
Here I should say a word on the sex scenes; by modern tastes they are pretty innocent. If you want titillation buy pornography, reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover just for the sex scenes is like eating the Bolognese and neglecting the pasta. Bland as it may be the pasta is an integral complement to the savoury richness of the meat.
Keeping with the supper analogy, the pasta, the bitter side of Lady Chatterley, represents the theme of modernity. How modernity dehumanises, what a death-in-life it is, when the human is subservient to the mechanical world. His bleak descriptions of Teversall pit and the grimy terraces surrounding it are where Lawrence really comes into his own. I would also argue this is the reason why we should read Lawrence’s work. Technology robbing us of our humanity is a message we can ill afford to ignore.
In terms of reading, it is bearable, though paltry compared to earlier works. Sons and Lovers and Women in Love reflect Lawrence at the height of his powers. We feel for Paul Morel in Sons and Lovers when he feeds a morphine overdose to his beloved Mother. Likewise, we are empathically drawn to Gerald Crich in Women in Love who, cuckolded, walks alone to his death in the mountains. Compared to these operatic set pieces, Lady Chatterley’s Lover is lacking. So much of the novel is written in cod-philosopher style it’s difficult to relate to characters outside of Mellors or Chatterley. Its mantra (a fulfilling sexual relationship will see the individual truly fulfilled) overshadows all. Do I agree with this message? Certainly not. The Germans shot my bollocks off too, so if I believed in Lady Chatterley’s message I would kill myself. Will you agree with it? Read it and find out.