Friday, November 23, 2012

Classic Fiction: Lady Chatterley's Lover by D.H. Lawrence

This is my first attempt at a D.H. Lawrence book and, like a lot of people, I picked it up because of the controversy that has always surrounded the story, and not necessarily because of my limited knowledge of the actual plot and characters. Lady Chatterley's Lover is one of those books that will probably always live in some sort of infamy, and that alone will be enough for people to pick it up.

The Situation: Lady Constance Chatterley lives with her husband, Sir Clifford Chatterley, in Wragby Hall, their estate in Nottinghamshire, England. Sir Clifford has been left paralyzed from the waist down from his military service, and therefore will not be able to provide an heir to Wragby. He has officially but kind of unofficially given Connie permission to have a child by someone else in order to produce an heir, and he would simply raise the child as his own. Taking on a lover wouldn't exactly be a stretch for Connie since she has done it before and was more sexually experienced than Clifford even before they got married. Connie has already carried on one affair with a painter, and has now started seeing the estate's gamekeeper, Oliver Mellors.

The Problem: It would be one thing if Connie could have a brief affair with Oliver, get pregnant, and then go back to Clifford and live happily ever after. But of course, things don't quite go that way. It starts with the fact that Connie doesn't actually much care for Clifford. And she is increasingly enamored with Oliver. Oh yeah, and he is technically still married to someone else as well. So while Connie has found someone who can cure her sexual frustration, she is still legally bound to someone who never will, and she is growing increasingly anxious and annoyed and feels more and more trapped in her situation. And soon, all attempts to "fix" things only make matters worse.

Genre, Theme, History: This has been classified as a romance, but it is also an argument that Lawrence is presenting about the mind and body. Essentially, you need both to be engaged in a relationship for it to work. Connie is dissatisfied with her husband because he is all mind, and literally cannot perform sexually. Oliver left his wife because of her overbearingly sexual nature. In each other, they are able to find both, and their relationship slowly builds over time into something real. There is also the underlying theme of class conflict. There are several characters, Clifford included, of which it is stated that they cannot stand any sort of rising up of someone beneath them. Clifford likes clear class lines of where people are and he would like for them to stay that way. There is the obvious social contrast between Connie the aristocrat and her lover, Oliver the working man, but there is also the conflict between Clifford and the men who work in the coal mines he owns.

This is also one of those books that will always show up on banned books list, and has one of those interesting publication histories that involves false copies, copies that were smuggled into countries where it was banned, copies that were published but heavily edited to omit certain words (when it was first published, it was against the law to publish many of the words Lawrence used), and there was even an obscenity trial in 1960 when Penguin books finally published the full unexpurgated version. And now would be the usual time when I would say something about the book being pretty filthy by 1920s standards but that no longer applies today...except that is does still kind of apply today. Even for 2012 standards, the book is still pretty filthy.

My Verdict: I think this is one of those instances where if there wasn't so much controversy surrounding this book, it wouldn't be that popular, because honestly, it isn't that good. The dialogue isn't all that coherent, the relationships aren't believable, and overall the writing just wasn't that great for me. And the ending leaves much to be desired. If it wasn't for the filthy words and dirty scenes, I don't think anyone would care. And this is one of those stories that has been told to death and told better. And that fact that this is an argument doesn't really help anything.

Favorite Moment: When Clifford has to be helped up a hill by Oliver due to his disability, despite him obviously wanting to make it up on his own. Eventually even Connie helps as they have to push Clifford (who isn't  exactly light) as well as the motorized chair he uses to get around outside.

Favorite Character: She may be tiresome, but I do like Clifford's nurse, Mrs. Bolton. She's perceptive enough to see what is really going on, but is loyal to Clifford and does take really good care of him.

Recommended Reading: I've decided to recommend Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. It isn't the exact same type of story, but it is pretty close, and I think Tolstoy does an infinitely better job. However, be warned, Anna Karenina is a door stop. So when you have a few months free, I'd say it is worth taking a look at.

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