Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence

Naughty, naughty Lady Chatterley goes off and has an affair with her groundskeeper causing much strife and controversy throughout the world in the first half of the 20th century. How could you!

Seriously, I think the main reason I decided to read this book was to see what the fuss was about. I read, I saw the fuss. Seriously, this book is a little racy even by today’s standards. OK, so maybe there’s a lot more sexually explicit material available today, but it’s still not a book I can see showing up in a high school library any time soon despite its literary relevance. In any case, I can see why the book was banned when it first came out. It must have been a real shocker, although I’m certain it was sold and lent and borrowed and passed on a lot more often than people would have admitted, although I’m sure a great number of people read it for the same reason I did, namely to see what the fuss was about.

Lady Chatterly marrys Clifford before the war half thinking that he would never return. Defying all the odds, he does, but was wounded and lost not only the use of his legs, but his “manhood” as well. Lady Chatterley does the decent thing and remains with him, both of them trying to convince themselves that the really important thing is that they are close in mind and spirit, if they can’t be in body. Constance, however, soon realizes, although perhaps not so concretely, that mind and body are not only two separate things, but that they both need attention for a human to be healthy. She becomes bored with Clifford and his friends with their talk of intellectualism, especially as she is supposed to be the pretty, decorative piece on the occasions when they are together and her taking part in the discussion does not come into question. The men are happy for her to listen, but only listen. She also tires of the constant care her husband seems to require. For him it is the only way for them to be physically close, for her it is a chore, like taking care of a child all day long.

As she becomes increasingly discontented with her life, she begins to seek out other sources of amusement, i.e. men. Not that she became veritably promiscuous, but she does have the odd affair before meeting, and falling in love with, the grounds man, Oliver Mellors. They come from different worlds and Mellors is the exact opposite of Clifford. He is taciturn and uncouth, a man more of action than of words. His own personal life is less than ideal but instead of seeking refuge in intellectualism, he seeks solace in nature and in work. At first he is reluctant to allow Constance anywhere near him, but soon relents and their relationship begins.

The whole book is one big juxtaposition of physical and mental well-being. One is no good without the other and those who try and resist either become something like half people. Constance, Clifford and Mellors are all half-beings, but those who have a choice, i.e. Constance and Mellors, soon come to realize that they are only half alive. That one without the other is simply no good. Even poor Clifford seems to realize that it’s all only pretence. He betrays his own postulations on the subject when he repeatedly tells Constance he would claim any child of her for his own and make it his heir, the only stipulation being that she remains with him.

Because she is already throwing all caution to the wind, Constance also feels free to discover herself and think about her own needs and wants, which was frowned on by society. Women were there to care for men and behave themselves, not to act as sentient beings with wants and needs just like men. She also doesn’t feel bound to propriety anymore. Somehow, considering the situation with Clifford, her affair would have been acceptable had it only been with an acceptable man, i.e. someone from her own class. Instead, she really does abandon all propriety and takes up with the groundskeeper, something her own sister takes exception to despite her intense dislike of Clifford. It’s as if she must stick to rules while not sticking to rules. It’s sort of the sexual equivalent of Thou Shalt not Lie, but little white lies are OK as long as no one gets hurt. Her behaviour would have been acceptable had it been carried out discreetly within certain bounds. Alone the fact that Lawrence choose to air such a thought would have been considered scandalous at the time, regardless of how true it may have been.

His confrontation of social rules and boundaries coupled with the philosophical bent of the book is what keeps this book alive as a classic. Had this been lacking, it would have been nothing more than a blip in literary radar with its only note being that it caused much moral outrage and indignation. My only qualm is that it occasionally seemed repetitive and overly dramatic on the philosophical front, the latter is probably down to the change in moral behaviour between last and this century. It would have all seemed much newer than and less old hat. Still, it is undoubtedly a classic and the fuss is justified by more than just its racy reputation. 4 out of 5.


Jeane said...

You know, I never had much interest in reading this book or even finding out what it was about- it sounded like some romance after all. But you make it sound so interesting!

Mari said...

I have heard of the book but never really wanted to read it. May have to check it out now. :)

Trish said...

I'm SO on the fence about this one. I've always been afraid that the writing might be too tough for me (it's the name Chatterly that does it, I swear!). My mom read it and liked it but she also mentioned how surprised she was at how racy it is. I like the idea of juxtaposition between physical and mental well-being.