I remember the 1960 obscenity trial very clearly. My mother bought a copy of the book of the moment and carried it about in a brown paper bag so that we wouldn’t know she’d got it. Do parents still underestimate their children’s awareness so naively, I wonder? Of course I knew where she kept it and gleefully read it then – and understood very little of it except for gasping in amazement at seeing in print, words I’d hitherto heard only in the playground from boys showing off.
I’ve read it several times since but never before with the warm enjoyment and empathy I felt this time. When I reached the final page I actually sighed with regret. “Connie, I shall miss you” I thought. “You too, Oliver”. My old paperback copy, incidentally, fell apart when I took if off the shelf so I had to buy a new one for this re-read.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover was DH Lawrence’s last novel. He published it in privately in Florence in 1928 and it sold well so that for the last couple of years of his life he had a bit of the financial security he’d almost never known before. By then he was already sexually impotent owing to the tuberculosis which killed him in 1930, aged 46, and his volatile, highly sexed wife, Freda had long sought her pleasures elsewhere. So although little seems to have been made of this, I reckon personal experience probably informed his depiction of Clifford Chatterley, paralysed by a war injury.
The plot is simple. Connie, Lady Chatterley, falls in love with her husband’s gamekeeper, becomes pregnant and eventually plans a future with him once they have both divorced. Lawrence – unlike rigidly moralistic Tolstoy whose Anna (Anna Karenina, 1878) has to die under the famous train because she is an adultress – allows his pair a hopeful ending.
The sex is as explicit as anything written since – and that, obviously, was the issue. When Penguin Books published it in paperback in 1960 they knew there would be a trial but they also knew that for someone as respected as Lawrence they could line up some big names for the defence: John Mortimer and Rebecca West, for instance, along with clergy, academics etc and win the case, thereby clearing the way for freedom of expression in other books. And that is exactly what happened.
It is actually a book of great lyrical beauty and truth. It’s worth reading for page 144 alone – the most accurate description of female orgasm I have ever read. Goodness knows how Lawrence knew. (Needless to say I didn’t notice this when I first toiled, in a very juvenile way, through the novel everyone was talking about.) Mellors falls in love with Connie and she with him because they’re equals and they’re honest with each other about sex and their feelings, both physical and emotional, and I really like that. Mellors eschews what he calls “false sugaries”. I’d remembered that he speaks to her, at intimate moments in broad Derby “caressive dialect.” I had forgotten that he is actually a drop-out, a grammar school boy, who’d been commissioned during the war and normally uses received pronunciation. Connie’s sister, Hilda, who is very cross about the affair tells Mellors that his dialect use is “affected.”
It’s easy to scoff at Lawrence’s lexical tics. Once you’ve noticed his prediliction for “loins” and “thighs” it becomes a minor irritant but for the most part he writes beautifully: “But Clifford’s voice went on, clapping and gurgling with unusual sounds” we’re told as he reads Racine to his wife. Or: “To Connie, everything in her world and life seemed worn out and her dissatisfaction was older than the hills”.
DH Lawrence is currently out of fashion. He shouldn’t be.