The first edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover was printed in Florence before being smuggled into England and, less successfully America where Customs and public moralists were more vigilant. It found its way to bookshops in London in one of which worked my father. Then a young man new to the trade, in later life he recalled selling the book ‘under the counter’, an incident I am researching for my family history which has now got as far as his life.
My own copy of Lady C is from the 1961 Penguin edition with an introduction by Richard Hoggart. It was produced after the collapse of the obscenity trial brought against the publisher, a landmark in cultural history that exposed philistinism and hypocrisy in high places and helped pave the way for the Great Unbuttoning that followed. The paperback is in pretty good condition – or was until I started reading it. Lawrence’s final, most scandalous novel is one of those works which more people know about than have experienced directly – a category containing myself until a few days ago. The trouble is, coming to it now feels far less consequential than at any time in the book’s history. This change in fortune began in the 1970s with the pasting it received from feminists. Latterly academic opinion has also turned, Lawrence dropping from University syllabuses like a file from Recent Documents; and his message of sexual frankness has been left standing by internet porn.
The first thing that strikes me is how poor the writing is. The sentences have no rhythm and words are repeated, not for effect or out of disdain for Elegant Variation but with a clumsy, graceless kind of negligence. Worst of all, his argument (make that Argument) muscles in on everything, hectoring rather than earnestly didactic, intruding on descriptions of people and places, playing gooseberry in the infamous bouts of dirty talking and sex. The plot also suffers, the set-up taking forever while the narrator vents his spleen, a story struggling to emerge from the invective.
What cannot be doubted or begrudged, however is the violent energy of the performance. Lawrence was a dying man which would explain his desire not to compromise, his stylistically disastrous emphasis on message at the expense of everything else. In terms of major fiction at least this was his last testament and like a candle flaring before it expires he burns with an indelible brightness and force of will. That alone is remarkable, salutary, poignant even.
And in the character of Mellors he provides a valedictory portrait of himself. Not only are the views largely his own (the hatred of class, of money, of the disfiguring effects of industry) but there are biographical overlaps. The high-born Connie is an echo of Frieda Wheatley, the socially superior professor’s wife whom Lawrence wooed from her husband and made into his muse. The gamekeeper has pneumonia, a weakness and a cough invoking the author’s own tuberculosis. And both men are outcasts, divorced from the people they rose from and the class which success bade them join. Mellors, like Lawrence, navigates between the dialect of his birth and the King’s English of the educated. Perhaps his creator shared the sense of power such code-switching confers, and the loneliness of belonging nowhere.
Finally, the gamekeeper projects some of the author’s own testiness: a bitter, opinionated man he is hard to like most of the time. Indeed there is more than a hint of browbeating in his dealings with Connie which predicts psychological and even physical cruelty in the longer term, the sort of simmering anger which scalds when it overflows. Does she realise this, or in imagining release from inhibition is she signing up for victimhood? This has implications not only for Lawrence’s view of the world but also for the novel’s credibility. At times her seduction, a stretch even before you consider the difference in class, does read a little like male working class wish fulfilment. But elsewhere the tension between their backgrounds intrudes to add some depth to the relationship. Lust has to overcome the differences that separate them, or perhaps be sparked by the force of their collision; and she remains prey to surges of disgust at how commonly he behaves.
It is this tension between the polemicist and the artist in Lawrence on which the case for liking the novel turns. That being so the second half of the book is more rewarding. Once Connie and Mellors have consummated their secret woodland marriage the dramatic possibilities begin to multiply. The inevitability of being found out; the uncertainty regarding whether their love will survive; the subterfuge of the trip to Venice and the surrogate father for the gamekeeper’s child; the bouleversement of Mrs Mellor’s reappearance; even the mechanisms of spiriting Connie away and reuniting the lovers in London. What seemed like a single wheel turning to static effect becomes a more artful contraption with several moving parts and a sense of forward motion. And in the process Lawrence’s message, whatever you think of its merits, drives his plot and his characters instead of weighing them both down.