Lady Chatterley’s Lover

Lady Chatterley's Lover Book Cover

Author: D.H. Lawrence
Original Publication: 1928
Genre(s): Fiction (Romance)
#676 on “1,001 Books to Read Before You Die”

I was excited to read this one in part because of all of the controversy surrounding the original publication. Classified as “British Erotica” (an oxymoron if I ever heard one), the book was the subject of obscenity trials in Britain and Japan, and outright banned in Australia and Canada. Australia went so far as to also ban a book which described the events of the British obscenity trial. Britain’s primary objection to the novel seems to have been less about its explicit sexual content than its frequent use of the “F” word, the dreaded “C” word; and the suggestion that well-to-do Britons would deign to use such language.

When Constance Reid marries Lord Clifford Chatterley, she has the somewhat dim view of sexual congress between men and women that the odd affair in college has afforded her. Indeed, she has never given herself over emotionally to a man before, and believes that the only reason that men talk to women is so that women will have sex with them, and the only reason women have sex with men is to entice them into continuing to provide them with lively conversation (she finds the conversation of women boring.) She respects Clifford and enjoys his company, but has no real interest in the physical aspect of a relationship – sex is a woman’s duty to a man. After a month’s honeymoon, Clifford goes to war and returns in pieces; paralyzed from the waist down and confined to a wheelchair. At first, Connie thinks it terribly convenient to be able to enjoy her husband’s company without ‘giving back’, so to speak, but the reality is that Clifford is vain and childish, and Connie becomes a reluctant nursemaid.

As time wears on, Connie begins to wither physically, and crave sexual intimacy with a man, and children. Not wishing to hurt or embarrass her husband, she has a secret affair with an Irish playwright, but feels so guilty that she breaks it off. Clifford, noticing that her humor had been much improved during the affair and her despondency after, suggests in his ignorance that she “have an affair, to cheer herself up.” His only stipulation is that Connie be discreet. Clifford even gives her carte blanche to have a child with another man, saying that as long as she is committed to the arrangement of their marriage, it doesn’t matter who the natural father of their children is, or who Connie is sleeping with. Bored with the playwright, Connie seeks to find a man whom, if her husband were to find out about the affair, he wouldn’t be embarrassed about who it was. Failing this, she takes up with one of Clifford’s servants, the gamekeeper, and becomes pregnant.

Knowing that Clifford would be horrified that Connie is pregnant by the gamekeeper, she and her sister plan an impromptu trip to Venice together. When they come back, Connie plans to continue her life at the estate, claim that she had an affair while she was in Venice, and thereby spare Clifford the indignity of knowing who she was sleeping with. She realizes, however, that what she really wants is to be married to the gamekeeper. The novel ends on a hopeful note, where you’re really pulling for each of them to follow their hearts rather than what society dictates they should do.

Fun Fact: In 1930, Senator Bronson Cutting proposed an amendment to the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act, which was then being debated, ending the practice of having U.S. Customs censor allegedly obscene books imported to U.S. shores. Senator Reed Smoot vigorously opposed such an amendment, threatening to publicly read indecent passages of imported books in front of the Senate. Although he never followed through, he included Lady Chatterley’s Lover as an example of an obscene book that must not reach domestic audiences, declaring “I’ve not taken ten minutes on Lady Chatterley’s Lover, outside of looking at its opening pages. It is most damnable! It is written by a man with a diseased mind and a soul so black that he would obscure even the darkness of hell!”

Bother if: I really enjoyed this one. It’s a relatively short read, and I laughed out loud in places. I found the antiquated language particularly amusing – the novel refers to having an orgasm as having one’s “crisis”, for example. Lady Chatterley and the gamekeeper are endearing characters, and I liked them very much. Lady Chatterley discovers that one cannot live merely out of one’s head; one must also live with one’s body.

Don’t Bother if: I thought it was a wonderful story, but it certainly contains obscene language and sexually explicit sections. While it may not be as extreme today as it seemed in 1928, it’s certainly a little racy. The social themes may also be off-putting to certain readers – it is suggested that men and women are more useful to one another in marriage if it is treated more like a business arrangement than a love affair, and as long as the business arrangement is respected, one can seek love elsewhere. Indeed, the general sentiment seems to be that since love is an illusion and infatuation is fleeting, that one should marry sensibly, and take their pleasures of the flesh where they can find them.

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