Book 42: a classic romance, Lady Chatterly’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence
One of the best and surest ways to get people to read something is to ban it. Such was the case with D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover. Published independently in 1928, the unedited book did not see the light of day in England until 1960. Critics proclaimed it obscene and unfit for readers due to explicit sexual content and unprintable words (such as “fuck” and “cunt”). This led to a landmark trial against Penguin Books, who won the case and went on to publish millions of copies. This was a pivotal moment in the battle against censorship, and it significantly turned the tide on the banning of art, literature, and film for future generations to come. The fame (or infamy) of the explicit content made this a scandalous must-read for millions of women. Think of it as the Fifty Shades of Gray for a simpler time. It was the first time in the English literary tradition that anyone wrote about sex from the perspective of a woman, and the first time such “explicit words” were published. It was the first in a long and (unfortunately, still current) hard-fought battle for women’s sexual liberation, so I kindly tip my hat to Mr. Lawrence.
To summarize the plot, the novel revolves around Constance Reid. Constance marries Clifford Chatterly and becomes Lady Chatterly, head of Wragby estate. She and Clifford enjoy a brief honeymoon before he heads off to fight in the Great War. He returns to her paralyzed from the waist down, and though Connie tries her best to maintain the semblance of an emotional relationship with her husband once the physical realm is no longer a possibility, he neglects her emotionally and spiritually, and they grow apart. Connie begins to wither from a lack of any sort of enjoyment in life; she subsists day after day caring for an invalid that only acknowledges her existence in very shallow, selfish way. Eventually, she feels compelled to seek out physical relationships with other men in the hope of freeing herself from the mental ennui living with an invalid has caused her. Connie embarks on the frustrating and seemingly impossible journey to find not only a physical connection with another human being, but one that satisfies her on all fronts—the physical, emotional, and intellectual. She uncovers just how lonely and isolated human beings truly are from one another despite appearances to the contrary.
I probably should have done a little more research and realized that this book isn’t much of a romance, which was my main reason for selecting it for this year’s book challenge. True, there are romantic relationships and plenty of sexual relationships. Yet, while so much of the hype surrounding this novel focuses on the sexual content, the truly shocking part for me was the intellectual despair and the inability to truly connect on any level.
We are privy to Connie’s thoughts as she engages in sexual relationships with various men, and from her perspective, we see for the first time a woman’s agony in the throws of “bad” or disconnected sex. She becomes merely a vessel to satiate man’s desire. Closed off and separate from the physical act, her mind wanders while others use her body. Despite her best efforts, Connie finds only more sadness during these encounters. Her inability to truly connect and find that intimacy with another person is something so true and sad that it resonates with me far more than the “juicy” sexual content (which honestly isn’t all that juicy to modern readers given the onset of easily accessible pornography on the internet and the over sexualization of women on tv and films). Also, we see the lack of fulfillment in the men she engages with, and see that this lack of connection affects both genders and the ways that they interact with one another. Seeing this inability to find true fulfillment written so expertly, so beautifully, was truly shocking to me. I have never encountered another writer who so poignantly hits upon the scariest of truths: we are truly alone in this life. Very rarely, if we are truly lucky, we gain rare moments of intersection in which we are truly intimate and “one” with another human being. Mostly, we’re alone in our experience of the world and life around us.
This unavoidable truth comes about due to the mindset of Connie’s generation. As a member of the intellectual youth of her time, Connie considers herself somewhat of a free spirit. She and many of the others in her generation are disillusioned and forlorn at the world failing to deliver the glimmering promise it held for past generations. They are unsure how to navigate this despairing, bleak new world and as such, live from one unfulfilling experience to the next, clinging to the hope of finding some meaning yet failing at each turn.
This resonated with me, as my adult life (the onset of which began in George W. Bush’s post 9/11 America) has been a clawing struggle to merely survive after a youth of promises to hold the world in my hands if only I “worked hard and did the right things.” Once the economy crashed, there were no jobs. Owning a home, having a family, all of these things became a wisp of a dream. The American dream as it were felt just out of reach to my generation. The entire country felt supreme disillusionment in the wake of those eight horrible years, and it has been difficult to see any hope or point to life as we slowly try to rebuild. Life became merely scraping by for a middle class that had been previously flourishing. The future continues to be a bleak prospect for many in my generation, just as Connie and her comrades felt after the horrors of the Great War. When the veil of life’s distractions is pulled to the side, some of these awful truths creep in when there is little distraction to keep us from seeing them. For this reason, I strongly identified with Connie, particularly in her moments of despair and inability to feel connected to the decaying world around her.
Though set in a definitive time and place, I feel this is an accessible novel to everyone, regardless of their generational position. It speaks to some of the darkest and most universal truths of every human being and our individual struggle to find meaning in an uncaring world.