Give me books, fruit, french wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors. --John Keats

Saturday, September 6, 2014

"Lady Chatterley's Lover" by D.H. Lawrence

This is a strange novel. It is famous, of course, for the controversy and censorship surrounding its publication (it was first printed in 1928 but not freely available in England until 1960), for its themes of class and adultery, and for the use of certain four-letter words. But reading it purely as a novel, it strikes me, more than anything, as bizarre.

Actually, it makes me think of the Sex Pistols: a band inextricably linked with the whirlwind of controversy that blew around them. Listen to their music now, though, and it just sounds odd, for the most part: there are inspired moments, and John Lydon’s sneer is distinctive, but many of the songs are clichéd, old-fashioned, poorly played and produced, almost boring. You’re left wondering what all the fuss was about. But the fuss, of course, was not about the music per se, but about the band’s impact on their times.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover is a similar case in point: there are lines, paragraphs, scenes that are striking and well-written, but others that just seem contrived or ludicrous or dull or plain embarrassing, and throughout the story, the author’s voice intrudes, not only as an omniscient narrator thundering from the clouds but as a sort of ventriloquist, making his characters think and spout what are clearly his own opinions, not even trying to conceal the movements of his mouth. The overall effect is just a weird hodge-podge of good and bad, brilliant and banal.

This is the first D.H. Lawrence novel I’ve read, although I did also read a collection of short stories (The Woman Who Rode Away and Other Stories) and a collection of his letters. I remember particularly enjoying the latter, as the non-narrative form gave him free rein to joke and declaim and hypothesize about life and the world without any need to invent characters or fit it all into a story. I found myself liking and admiring him as a person and even a writer (and I also felt some affinity, as we both grew up in what he calls, in Lady Chatterley, ‘the smoky Midlands’ – or, more specifically, Nottinghamshire), and I agreed (and still agree) with many of the points he makes in this novel about the dehumanizing effects of industrialization, the need for tenderness, the balance between mind and body, and so on. I just didn’t enjoy being lectured to, somewhat haphazardly (or so it seemed), as I was reading a novel – particularly as I was genuinely interested in the story.

So… the story. Upper-class woman meets lower-class man and falls in love, in a nutshell. However, the contrast between Lady Chatterley and her lover was less obvious and striking than I expected: she is not aristocratic, but upper-middle-class (back when such distinctions actually meant something) and she was brought up with fairly liberal views about sex too, while Mellors, the gamekeeper – although with a working-class background – is an educated man who has been an officer in the British Army in India. I was also surprised that everything was made so easy: Lady Chatterley’s husband is wounded in the war and consequently impotent; he even gives his wife permission to go off and have sex with another man so she can bear a child, and she has a casual affair before meeting Mellors anyway. So, in many ways, the tension and conflict and drama that you expect from the basic set-up are not there. As a novel of adultery, it seemed less satisfying and persuasive than, say, Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary. It was almost as if Lawrence found the theme too simple and melodramatic, so he felt the need to undercut it, blur the black and white to grey, as well as using it as a sort of platform from which to air his opinions.

As for the sex… well, there were a couple of erotic passages. There were also some very repetitive and purple ones, some amusingly clumsy and realistic ones, and others that were kind of embarrassing. And I suppose that in itself is an achievement: for an author to make a (pretty open-minded) reader squirm almost a hundred years later merely by writing about genitalia and orgasms. 

But I think what embarrassed me most – far more than any graphic detail – was Mellors’ use of Derbyshire vernacular. Mellors is capable of speaking ‘normally’, yet for some reason (a reason that baffles most of the characters in the novel) he occasionally reverts to ‘broad Derby’. And it is in this voice that he makes most of the obscene pronouncements that made Lady Chatterley’s Lover so infamous. Some of those passages are almost unreadably bad, though not ‘bad’ in the moral sense that led to the book being outlawed for thirty years – just bad in the sense of being excruciatingly awful.

Anyway, I’m glad I finally read it, but even gladder that I’ve finally finished it and can now move on to something else.

1 comment:

Ti said...

This was a book club pick many years ago and we all had a good laugh over it. It was almost over the top.