Lady Chatterley’s Lover
By D.H. Lawrence
364 pp. Penguin Classics. $20.
Why is it called “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”? There’s no doubt that the primary character here is Lady Chatterley herself, while her lover never really rises to the status of anything more than a supporting character.
We’ll ignore the fact that Lady Chatterley actually has two lovers here, three if you include the dalliance with the young German that takes place before these events begin and isn’t much recounted, because it seems evident at least that the lover in question is Oliver Mellors, the gameskeeper for the Wragby estate.
Lawrence labeled Mellors a “real man” at a time when he believed there were far too few of those (I doubt he’d believe the situation today to be much improved), but Mellors is merely an outlet for Lady Chatterley to shake off the shackles of societal expectations and become sexually liberated.
It’s clear when reading that Lady Chatterley — that is, Connie — is the driver of this relationship. Mellors is cautious, and you can’t help but feel that he’s dragged into this affair much against his will.
Even well into their little dalliance, Mellors is still harboring doubts. When Connie announces she’s pregnant, Mellors reiterates the fact that he doesn’t want a child, doesn’t want to bring one into the world. Connie, as she always does, ignores him. Connie, as a later interaction with her father will make clear, has long been used to getting her way.
She seems to be saying, every step of the way, “You will have me, Mr. Mellors — you will ravage me and have my child — and that is that!”
So while he may be Lawrence’s idea of a “man,” Mellors himself comes off as something a more modern society might call quite “whipped.”
Of course, a more generous reading might be that Connie isn’t emasculating Mellors but rather remasculating him, coaxing the stout-hearted man who once was there — before marriage and war shattered him — back out.
The point is, the book isn’t about the lover. It’d be the equivalent of titling the book we now know as “The Great Gatsby” instead “Daisy Buchanan” or perhaps, “Jay Gatsby’s Desired Lover.”
It might be about forbidden love, about sexual liberation, about the physical and emotional scars left on a society following World War I, about the abuses of capitalism … but about Oliver Mellors?
Rather, “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” reads like an indictment, the headline on a supermarket tabloid, English society’s exclamation after learning about this unauthorized and most unnatural mixing of the classes.
The notoriety that surrounds “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” has to do with its alleged obscenity, which kept it from being available in the UK and the US until the 1960s — more than 30 years after it was written. But that just goes to show how blinkered Western society is and always has been about sex. The “unmentionable” deed.
One of the ironies of this novel is that it’s famous for being lascivious, for being naughty, when Lawrence’s intention was precisely the opposite. He saw it as his mission to rescue England through “tender hearted fucking.” In short, Lawrence saw the sex act as sacred and holy. Similar, in a sense, to how the Catholic Church may have viewed it, minus — one hopes — the child rape.
That damn dirty protestantism had cheapened sex, made it “unmentionable,” and Lawrence set out to rescue the reputation of the carnal.
We know this because Lawrence said as much in his “A Propos of ‘Lady’s Chatterley’s Lover’.”
It’s just hard, at least today, to find much to get excited about in that. Lawrence’s writings seem to indicate that, yes, “Lady Chatterley” really is about the sex. Not the trauma of war, the damage wrought by capitalism, or any number of what are, frankly, more interesting things.
This book blew the knickers off of 1920s England, but in 2020s England? In the Western world at large?
There’s not a whole lot to get excited about — in any sense of the word.