Warning: The following post contains adult content. You can not really discuss this novel without talking dirty. There are some smutty adult words here, all quoted from the novel reviewed. Read them responsibly.
Long-time readers know that I try to maintain a certain health regime and lifestyle. Part of that is regular sex. There are numerous studies that indicate the health benefits of sex, the benefits to relationships, and to piece of mind. No need to revisit all that here other than to say that after practicing this for many years, I have discovered that in my mid-50's I am a more erotic person than I was as a college student or when I first married.
The erotic is an accentuated part of my life. It inspires, motivates, entertains, and brings fulfillment. It can be a strong thread tying otherwise loose ends of life together in a holistic fashion. For years I have read erotic novels and watched erotic films (both pornographic and artsy). As you know I also enjoy reading classic literature. So, it makes perfect sense why I would finally get around to reading D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover.
The novel was considered obscene when it was privately published by Lawrence himself in 1926. It was illegal to print it in the United States as recently as 1960. So, it is only in my lifetime that this piece of classic literature has been widely available. Eros has always competed for its survival and struggled to thrive in spite of being somebody's taste of immorality. But, slowly and steadily, it triumphs - which is only right since it is more essential to the sacred than most of religion itself.
Today it is certainly Lawrence's most (in)famous work. There are several moderately vivid descriptions of sexual intercourse throughout the work. Generally, however, Lawrence does an excellent job of describing what his characters feel as opposed to what they are doing in these acts. Nevertheless, the language he chooses is still shocking to most of our herd-like society today. To my knowledge, Lady Chatterley is the first serious literary work to use the words "fuck" and "cunt" with frequency throughout its narrative.
Constance Chatterley, Connie, was no innocent woman. As a teen she traveled to Dresden during the summers, met attractive German boys, and make love to them. She learned during this time not to give herself to any boy, but to take pleasure and keep it for herself, thereby avoiding the sex trap of getting too involved with another man. In this way the novel establishes a philosophical aspect, in this case exploring basic sexual relations between male and female and how that relates to satisfaction and possession.
Later, shortly before World War One, she married the baron Clifford Chatterley and entered the world of English aristocracy proper. The two spent a long honeymoon traveling together before Clifford went off to serve in the war. Clifford came back in pieces from an artillery blast. He was alive but paralyzed from the waist down and confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. For years Connie was supportive and nurturing to her wounded husband. Eventually he became a famous post-war author. Gradually, writing became Clifford's entire world and Connie was less and less a part of his mind. Connie languishes through much of the first part of the novel and Lawrence uses this to investigate the nothingness of human experience in the post-war reality of that time.
She has a brief affair with an acquaintance of her husband's. This is more out of erotic desperation than actual attraction. The sex is one-sided and unfulfilling for Connie. He comes too quickly for her and she struggles to satisfy something deep inside herself with him as her tool, without much success. She struggles with being trapped in the poverty of her innermost desires. Until she meets Oliver Mellors, the gamekeeper of her husband's estate. This is the main event in the novel and the two proceed to have numerous, often intense, sexual encounters.
Sex in the novel is always performed in the missionary position except for occasional allusions to oral stimulation by Connie's lovers upon her (at no time does Connie give a blow job). Lawrence is fond of the phrase "coming to one's crisis" when orgasm is achieved. When a character does come as such it is always alone within the couple. This creates all sorts of frustrations amidst the ecstasies experienced. Except once, when things are simultaneous between Connie and Mellors, an experience which fundamentally changes Connie and leads to her ultimate (if conditional) freedom in the novel. This is some of Lawrence's best prose in the work, representative of how he describes sex acts.
"Then as he began to move, in the sudden helpless orgasm, there awoke in her new strange trills rippling inside her. Rippling, rippling, rippling, like a flapping overlapping of soft flames, soft as feathers, running to points of brilliance, exquisite, exquisite and melting her all molten inside. It was like bells rippling up and up to culmination. She lay unconscious of the wild little cries she uttered at the last. But it was over too soon, too soon, and she could no longer force her own conclusion with her own activity. This was different, different. She could do nothing. She could no longer harden and grip for her own satisfaction upon him. She could only wait, wait and moan in spirit as she felt him withdrawing, withdrawing and contracting, coming to the terrible moment when he would slip out and be gone. Whilst all her womb was open and soft, and softly clamoring, like a sea-anemone under the tide, clamoring for him to come in again and make a fulfillment for her. She clung to him unconscious in passion, and he never quite slipped from her, and she felt the soft bud of him within her stirring and strange rhythms flushing up into her with a strange rhythmic growing motion, swelling and swelling till it filled her cleaving consciousness, and then began again the unspeakable motion that was not really motion, but pure deepening whirlpools of sensation swirling deeper and deeper through all her tissue and consciousness, till she was one perfect concentric fluid of feeling, and she lay the crying in unconscious inarticulate cries. The voice out of the uttermost night, the life! The man heard it beneath him with a kind of awe, as his life sprang out into her. And as it subsided, he subsided too and lay utterly still, unknowing, while her grip on him slowly relaxed, and she lay inert. And they both knew nothing, not even each other, both lost." (pp. 140-141)
Mellors speaks in a thick vernacular throughout the novel. He is an earthy man, a physical man who has had troubles with his own marriage. When he and Connie engage in their torrid affair he is married as well but has not seen his estrange wife since he was shipped off to India for his military service in the war. Connie is attracted to his manner but more so to his sculpted yet unrefined body. He is certainly more of a worldly and crude man than Connie has previously known. He teaches her things.
"'Th'art good cunt, though, aren't ter? Best bit o' cunt left on earth. When ter likes. When tha'rt will in'!' 'What is cunt?' she said. 'An doesn't ter know? Cunt! It's thee down theer; an' what I get when I'm i'side thee, and what tha gets when I'm i'side thee; it's a' as it is, all on't.' 'All on't,' she teased. 'Cunt! It's like fuck then.' 'Nay nay! Fuck's only what you do. Animals fuck. But cunt's a lot more than that. It's thee, dost see: an' tha'rt a lot besides an animal, aren't ter? - even ter fuck? Cunt! Eh, that's the beauty o' thee, lass?'
"She got up and kissed him between the eyes, that looked at her in the dark and soft and unspeakably warm, so unbearably beautiful. 'Is it?' She said. 'And do you care for me?' He kissed her without answering. 'Tha min goo, let me dust thee,' he said. His hand passed over the curves of her body, firmly, without desire, but with soft, intimate knowledge. As she ran home in the twilight the world seemed a dream; the trees in the park seemed bulging and surging at anchor on a tide, and the heave of the slope to the house was alive." (pp. 188-189)
The relationship between Connie and Mellors is not always sexual yet it remains totally sensual, physical and emotional, and, therefore, highly erotic. When not having sex they explore the wooded area of Wargby, the Chatterley estate. In one of the most memorable passages of the novel they are caught up in a rain storm. Connie runs and dances in the falling wetness, eventually stripping herself naked. Mellors is initially reluctant to follow suit but when he finally does so the two become childlike with laughter and delight. It is a totally erotic moment though not sexual. It is also a contrasting moment. The rain brings innocent playfulness which serves as a sharp contrast to the serious intensity of their sex and their separate, rather mundane and depressing, intimate situations in life.
There is a second, dominant theme throughout the novel, indeed intertwined with the sensual aspects of the narrative. The post-war European reality was one of a shattered world, changed forever, and driven by the quest for "success" in a heartless industrialized reality. Lawrence calls success "the bitch-goddess" whose demands make the world less sensual. Beyond this, there is the ruthless and dehumanizing effects of industrial capitalism.
From the edge of the peaceful wooded estate, a sleepless Mellors gazes one night down toward a nearby mining town. "There was no sound save the noise, the faint shuffling noise from Stacks Gate colliery, that never ceased working: and there were hardly any lights, save the brilliant electric rows at the works. The world lay darkly and fumily sleeping. It was half-past two. But even in its sleep it was an uneasy, cruel world, stirring with the noise of a train or some great lorry on the road, and flashing with some rosy lightning-flash from the furnaces. It was a world of iron and coal, endless greed that drove it all. Only greed, greed stirring in its sleep." (page 151)
Connie drives through the mining community in another section. "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 absence of the instinct for shapely beauty which every bird and breast has, the utter death of the human intuitive faculty was appalling." (page 160)
Lawrence has many passages where the natural splendor of Wargby is vividly captured in wonderful prose. The beauty of the estate and the beauty of Connie's relationship with Mellors serves a sharp contrast with the industrialized world outside that is changing the English countryside. "The industrial England blots out the agricultural England. One meaning blots out another. The new England blots out the old England. And the continuity is not organic, but mechanical." (page 165)
I am reminded of Tolkien here and how his fantasy works contain a similar, profound theme of industry as a disease against nature. It may have been a common thread in English literature In this post-war reality. The realization of this affects Connie as deeply as her sexual relationship with Mellors. "The world was so complicated and weird and gruesome! The common people were so many, and really, so terrible. So she thought as she was going home, and saw the colliers trailing from the pits, grey-black, distorted, one shoulder higher than the other, slurring their heavy ironshod boots. Under-ground grey faces, whites of eyes rolling, necks cringing from the pit roof, shoulders out of shape. Men! Men! Alas, in some ways patient and good men. In other ways, non-existent. Something that men should have was bred and killed out of them." (page 168)
The novel ends with a letter written by Mellors from a farm where he is working, having left Wargby after impregnating Connie. She is waiting for the spring to join him, having decided to abandon Clifford and join her lover to try to make a life together after the baby arrives. Mellors reveals to Connie his personal philosophy on capitalistic progress and, of course, about their shared sexual attraction. The ugly and beautiful juxtaposed thusly by Lawrence. All of this, the erotic and the dehumanization, seem as applicable to me today as it was in Lawrence's time.
"The young ones get mad because they've no money to spend. Their whole life depends upon spending money, and they've got none to spend. That's our civilization and our education: bring up the masses to depend entirely on spending money, and then the money gives out....If you could only tell them that living and spending isn't the same thing! But it's no good....They ought to learn to be naked and handsome, and to sing in a mass and dance the old group dances, and carve the stools they sit on, and embroider their own emblems. Then they wouldn't need money. And that's the only way to solve the industrial problem: train people to be able to live and live in handsomeness, without needing to spend." (pp. 319-320)
Mellors looks forward to being reunited with Connie, even though Clifford refuses upon "principle" to grant her wish for a divorce. The future is complex and uncertain, but their intimacy is well-established and they honor one another in the discovery it is not the sex itself but the sex with each other that is the ultimate turn-on. That is the powerful message of their twisted fidelity. "My soul softly flaps in the little pentecost flame with you, like the peace of fucking. We fuck a flame into being. Even flowers are fucked into being between the sun and the earth. But it is a delicate thing, it takes patience and the long pause. So I love chastity now, because it is the peace that comes from fucking. I love being chaste now. I love it as snowdrops love in the snow. I love chastity, which is the pause of peace of our fucking, between us now like a snowdrop of forked white fire. And when the real spring comes, when the drawing together comes, then we can fuck the little flame brilliant and yellow, brilliant." (page 321)
Some of Connie's "naïveté" with Mellors strikes me as misplaced. It seems her sexual experiences in her teens, with Clifford prior to his paralysis, and with her first lover would have made her more fully informed than she often expresses in the narrative. Mellors is her guide and her tutor in ways that I just don't buy. Also, Lawrence has a tendency to overuse words in sections of his prose. The repetitiveness seems more misplaced than effective in establishing erotic meter. He is overly fond of the word "ruddy", for example. I had to look that word up. It sounds sexy but he uses it to describe almost every major character in the novel at one point or another.
But these are minor quibbles compared with what the novel achieves. Lawrence captures the erotic at its archetypal boundaries. The sex is not really all that varied but the intensity of it and its emergence at an emotional level for Connie and Mellors is coupled with the delicious prose for erotic effect. That power shocked early readers and led to its specific banning to be printed in many countries. The shock seems quaint to me now, even though some of you who have read the above will likely be shocked by it. I am much more relaxed and comfortable with it. It really captures how the erotic affects me at a physical and psychic level. This book is not the least bit kinky, you have to go to The Story of O for that, but it is an intensely sexy read. Some time in the future I will come back for more.