Lady Chatterley’s Lover is another book that has risen to fame or infamy because of the controversy that surrounds it. Initially published in 1928, it was heavily censored with the full version only released to audiences in 1960. Even then, Penguin was prosecuted under the Obscenities Act but were found not guilty. As a result, the first thing that springs to mind when most people think of Lady Chatterley’s Lover is sex. I thought this might have been an over exaggeration, but there is a fair amount of explicit sexual content within the book – enough for me to understand the furore that surrounded it at the time.
I think the perception of the book from the outset is either one of gratuitous erotic content, or of a great romance. On actually getting to read it, I think I disagreed with both of those assessments. I think all the passages about sex are necessary and underpin the entire point of the novel. However, as a direct result of this, it’s not quite the great romance I thought it might be.
The novel centres around Connie Reid, educated and intellectual daughter of a bohemian Scottish painter, who marries Clifford Chatterly, baronet of Wragby. The marriage takes place during WW1, within which Clifford is seriously injured – he is rendered paralysed from the waist down and impotent. Despite the fact that Clifford is intelligent, relatively wealthy and generally considered not a bad match for Connie, there is no passion in their relationship, partly down to the emasculation Clifford feels as a result of being reliant upon others and unable to satisfy a woman sexually.
Connie is an interesting female protagonist – she’s not like the eighteenth century female leads in romantic novels; she has been raised to appreciate the importance of sensuality and sexual connection – her father, Sir Malcom encourages this in both his daughters throughout the book. We are also told that both Connie and her sister, Hilda, had sexual relationships in their adolescence. We see, therefore, that Connie is a very sexual person; it is frustrating for her to have this element of a relationship missing from her marriage. She seeks this satisfaction elsewhere – firstly with an Irish intellectual who comes to stay at Wragby, and secondly (and more importantly) with Oliver Mellors, the gamekeeper of the estate.
This second relationship is the central piece of interest within the book – it’s responsible for the scandal surrounding the novel back in the ’20s and the surprise and disappointment that I felt in reading this book. Given the coldness of her marriage to Clifford (and the reputation of the novel), I was anticipating a passionate, lustful but deeply romantic connection between Connie and Mellors. I’d already imagined in advance the lingering stares as their eyes met across the wood, sexual tension that could be cut with a knife until it all boiled over into deep, raw passion – the kind that Fifty Shades could only dream of reciprocating – and, within that sensuality, the two would find an intense bond that would fill the holes of their respective loneliness. It would be the kind of relationship to make you envious, and convince you to try and inject some of that into your own life. Alas, no. I was disappointed.
Maybe it was my own fault for trying to presuppose what the affair between Connie and Mellors would be – perhaps if I hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t have felt so let down. But, even so, the relationship between the two is complex and often uneasy. First encounters aside, which are unsurprisingly awkward and cold given their class differences, the relationship never managed to convince me. The initial sexual encounters are not passionate or satisfying for Connie, and there remains a distance between her and Mellors for a long time. Connie is bright and savvy as well as being deeply sensual. Mellors is not stupid, by any means, but the vast majority of his conversation with her seems to be around how much he appreciates her body, enjoys having sex with her and worries over the difference in their stations. Even at their most intimate, he seems to suggest that he feels differently about her to other women because she is someone who can match his passion and with whom he can enjoy mutual satisfaction in sex. Not really what I think would constitute a solid basis for a meaningful relationship. The entirety of their connection is based on their sexual appetite for one another and their physical intimacy – indeed Connie only seems to really fall in love with Mellors after they achieve simultaneous orgasms; it is this experience that she holds as evidence of their compatibility. I liked this in so far as it is so different from other novels of the time in placing sex so firmly at the centre of a relationship, but I think it lacks realism in the long term.
Having said this, there is certainly the comparison to be drawn between Mellors and Clifford and the two relationships that Connie has with each man. Clifford delivers on the intellectual stimulation – Lawrence is careful to document discussions with groups of bright young men at Wragby on all sorts of subjects. The point here seems to be, however, that these men talk an awful lot about things they don’t know very much about. Mellors may not talk an awful lot, and when he does it is often crude, but the honesty of his admissions and the simplicity of his character is presented as attractive to Connie.
From a feminist perspective, Lady Chatterley’s Lover confuses me. I like that Connie is not one of those whiter than white female leads – I like that she has a sexual appetite that she is not ashamed of, that she goes after what she wants, and that she is prepared to find a way to make herself happy and not just live to satisfy a man. However, on the flip side, I am troubled by the fact that a relationship where Connie is the dominant physical partner and an equal party intellectually is presented as less appealing than one where she is a passive object – something for a man to have sex with, and it is on this basis that she is so frequently appreciated. In many of the sexual encounters between her and Mellors, Connie is not a partner as much as vessel, and that doesn’t seem to marry with the rest of her character. Although this improves throughout the book, I never really got the sense that Mellors’ love for her grew to the mutual respect and appreciation of her whole person, which sort of ruined the romance. It’s not that I would have preferred her to stay with Clifford – I just wish that she retained a little more of her own person within the relationship with Mellors.
As a book, Lady Chatterley’s Lover surprised me, and for that reason I’m glad that I read it. I obviously have my issues with it, but it’s still an interesting novel. It’s pretty easy to read but the conversations between Mellors and Connie sometimes seemed to drag a bit – perhaps because, as I mentioned, I expected more from them. The ending is also a bit of a non-ending; I was surprised again at Connie’s character in accepting this uncertain situation. After the intensity of parts of the book, it felt like a bit of a soft finale. It wouldn’t be top of my list of books to read again but I did enjoy it, and I think it’s always good to read a book with a reputation if merely for conversation’s sake!
Star rating: ♥♥♥♥♥