On why DH Lawrence should leave sex alone

It’s been a long time since I read any DH Lawrence, probably twenty years or more. I don’t have fond memories of him, I just recall clumsy, repetitive prose and a pervasive air of misery and depression. But maybe that was just me…

Anyway, I was not a fan of his work and had no plans to read anything of his again. Until, that is, a couple of weeks ago when I stumbled upon the opening paragraph of Lady Chatterley’s Lover:

Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically. The cataclysm has happened, we are among the ruins, we start to build up new little habitats, to have new little hopes. It is rather hard work: there is now no smooth road into the future: but we go round, or scramble over the obstacles. We’ve got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen.

This chimed with me because I have been doing a lot of research into life in Britain in the years immediately followingChatterlyLady Chatterley’s Lover. Because of my pledge never to read Lawrence again, I didn’t have a copy on my bookshelves, but a quick scour of the local charity shops turned up a battered and rather grubby Penguin paperback from 1960 – the first edition after the trial which overturned the ban on publication.

So I began to read. And there it was, as I remembered it: the clumsy, repetitive prose of a man struggling to find the right vocabulary to express human emotion. A man, in my opinion, who really does not understand women at all, yet is convinced he does and who writes obsessively about sex in a way that makes me laugh out loud. It’s all about wombs and loins and heaving and swelling and soft plunging. I mean, wombs? Really? Seriously man, get a grip! Who are you trying to convince here? If there had been a ‘Bad Sex’ award back in 1928, this would have been at the top of my list.

But. There is so much more to Lady Chatterley’s Lover than just the sex that everyone links it with. So much more than I remember from my first reading all those years ago. There is a rich, multi-textured narrative about a country that has lost its way; about loss of identity, the blurring of class boundaries, modernity trumping tradition. It is an incomparable commentary on the consequences of a world war upon the British psyche.

Take Constance Chatterley; she nurses her husband Clifford who is paralysed from the waist down after being injured during the war. She cares for him and encourages his career in writing. This she does without bitterness or regret, but as time marches on Constance becomes bored to tears with the endless ennui of life in the stifling, hermetically sealed Wragby Hall. She is cut off from society, from excitement, from life. Her only consolation is to wander alone in the woods on the Wragby estate as she grows increasingly dissatisfied with life. As she succumbs to depression, she is advised by more than one acquaintance to take a lover – even Clifford accepts that this may happen, as long as it doesn’t affect the ‘ideal’ of their marriage. Constance is a lost soul, lonely, isolated and confused by her role and the expectations placed on her as Lady Chatterley; she is unable to make a real emotional connection with anyone.

Then there is Clifford; seemingly accepting of the injuries that confine him to a wheelchair and render him impotent. Having inherited Wragby and a secure income, he cares nothing for the coal mines under his ownership, the mines that created the wealth he takes for granted. Clifford turns his attentions instead to the Arts; he makes a name for himself in the smart social circles of modernity. Clifford Chatterley is an impotent man on many levels, he is stranded between the past and present, literally unable to move. Wragby is both his home and his gaol. The relationship between Clifford and Mrs Bolton, a working class woman from the nearest town is beautifully, tenderly drawn. Initially resistant to ‘outside’ help, Clifford grows to accept Mrs Bolton’s care. Paradoxically, he is more at ease in her company than with his own wife. Holding Constance in the high regard and affection that his class dictates, he keeps her at arms length; yet with Mrs Bolton, who is paid to attend to his needs, he develops the very kind of connection that should exist between man and wife. Mrs Bolton puts Clifford back in touch with life outside the walls of Wragby Hall, fills him with the enthusiasm to engage with business, to invest in his mines, develop them. The working class woman is on intimate, albeit non-sexual, terms with the upper class man, bringing him back to life in a way that his wife cannot.

Then there is the gamekeeper, Oliver Mellors. Perhaps the most complex character of all. A man well and truly stranded in the hinterland of the class system. The son of a working man, Mellors is intelligent and educated but, until the war, lacks the opportunity to progress. Joining the army as a private, he is promoted through the ranks to Lieutenant – a ‘temporary gentleman’ in the parlance of the day; living and working among other gentleman whilst knowing he doesn’t really ‘belong’. Returning home after the war, he is peculiarly wedged between classes, so returns to what he knows best – the working life. Tellingly, he slips between broad Derbyshire vernacular and clear, concise English; he knows which class he ‘belongs’ to, but also knows he is more than equal to those who consider themselves better than him. Symbolically, Mellors lives in solitude, in his beloved woods where he hopes to be bothered by no-one. His solitude is punctuated by the sound of the mines; of traffic on the roads, of the electric lights of industry at night. Everywhere around him, the old world is being encroached upon by the new; centuries old stately homes are demolished with their parkland given over to the urban sprawl of redbrick houses for working families.

Obviously, the relationship between Constance and Mellors is central to the story, but it is about more than just a salacious sexual liaison; it is the embodiment of the social tensions that gripped Britain after the First World War. Although the class system remained rigid, cracks were already visible and growing. Four years of war had made working men question their traditional ‘place’ in society and demand more, while the landed gentry were finding themselves increasingly impotent and outmoded.

If only Lawrence hadn’t been so hung up about sex, so determined to proselytise on the nature of sexual relationships – if only he had left sex the hell alone! Perhaps he wouldn’t have been so widely read? Perhaps, even, he would have disappeared into literary obscurity, which would have been a great shame because Lady Chatterley’s Lover has so much more to recommend it than just the graphic (badly written) sex that earned its notoriety. I have been astounded by my re-reading of Lady Chatterley, and a little ashamed that I missed all this the first time round. Maybe I just have more experience of life now, and certainly a greater awareness of the social history of the period. Lawrence’s prose is at its most potent when describing the Derbyshire landscape, the old and the new, the crumbling stately homes being overtaken by the march of industrialisation. The desire to be left alone versus the need for progress; the soot, the dirt and the grime of the mines making its presence felt across the surrounding countryside. A feeling of loss and confusion as individuals struggled with their identity in the rapid changes of post-war Britain.

I’m not sure I’ve added anything at all to the literary criticism of Lawrence here, but I have felt more excited about Lady Chatterley’s Lover than about any book for quite a while and just had to write about it. If you’ve never read it, you should. If you’ve read it once simply because of it’s notoriety, then wondered what all the fuss was about – read it again and ignore the sex. It’s brilliant.