The first time I read D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, I was a junior in high school chemistry. I’m sure that the teacher–let’s call him Mr. E–knew that I was reading under the desk. I was the sort of girl who always had a book handy, as the world of whatever book I was reading felt far more exciting than the blankness of high school. Mr. E intuitively understood this. I knew he intuitively understood because he told us, point-blank, that he was psychic. He also believed in aliens. When we grew bored or fidgety, he’d turn off the overhead projector, sit lightly on a chair, and recount his experiences with teleportation and visits to outer space. We all sort of believed him. Once he even showed us a circular piece of paper, covered in strange blue markings. This was a message from the aliens to Mr. E.
I remember nothing about the chemistry itself, except that oxygen and carbon figured prominently. What sticks with me is Mr. E and his belief in another world. Literally. At that time, like almost every bored teen, I needed to believe in another world. I wasn’t too picky about it. I spent a lot of time watching The Real World on MTV and Dawson’s Creek marathons on TBS. I sort of hated those shows, but watching them was better than the alternative: feeling stuck and bored.
My very favorite escape was the novel. YA novels were for babies. I wanted big, fat, adult novels. If those fat novels also had romance and actual sex–well, all the better. My first truly adult novel was Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, which I surreptitiously read on a family vacation at the ripe old age of 11. Fear of Flying is wild: pop culture ’70s feminism at its weirdest and “sexiest.” I put “sexiest” in quotations because Fear of Flying isn’t really that sexy: there’s a lot of sex, sure, but, at 11, it definitely did not make me want to have any, as Jong spends a lot of time talking about the heroine’s lover’s “prick at half-mast.” Not exactly sure what that was all about, I blushed, and read on, giggling behind my hands so as not to grab the attention of the adults.
So, when I came across Lady Chatterley’s Lover five years later, I felt like an old salt in terms of sexy novel stuff. I’d been there, done that (at least in the imaginary kingdom of fiction). However, as it turned out, nothing had prepared me for D. H. Lawrence. He wrote Lady Chatterley’s Lover in five weeks, just before he fell ill and died; I can feel the speed, the almost manic urgency in Lawrence’s breathy sentences. I know that speculating is futile, but I feel that if Lawrence had had more time, Lady Chatterley’s Lover might be chiseled down, the sex tamed, edited, and made more palatable to a larger reading audiences. Of course, that never happened, and Lady Chatterley’s Lover was banned as pornographic in the United States and England upon its publication in 1928.
In an introduction to the Modern Library Classics edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, novelist Kathryn Harrison writes, “As for the sex, by today’s standards the coupling seems quaint, sentimental, glorified–not very interesting.” Harrison has a point. As I read Lady Chatterley’s Lover in high school, and as I reread it recently, I squirmed, due to the less than positive qualities that Harrison enumerates. But I think she misses the larger point: real sex can be quaint and sentimental, it can be fantastic, quotidian, surprising, almost anything. This is the nature of the game. And Lawrence, for better or worse, captures its every mood.
It’s easy to disparage or poke fun at Lawrence, especially his sex scenes. He is earnest. Very. His extended descriptions of sex can be cringe-worthy, so cringe-worthy I won’t quote them here. I will say, however, that for Lawrence, a woman’s lust springs from her “womb.” Both men and women feel desire in their “bowels.” Bowels? Bowels. (Frank O’Hara on the subject: “I don’t know as I get what D. H. Lawrence/ is driving at/ when he writes of lust springing from/ the bowels/ or do I”.) The word “phallus”–which, let’s be honest, is not my favorite word–is used throughout the book with abandon.
But to focus exclusively on where Lawrence fails as a writer of erotica is to trivialize the book, which has a much broader aim than titillation. High School Claire thought the book was basically a very beautifully-realized bodice-ripper–Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles on Ecstasy, if you will–but Adult Claire, the Claire who’s typing these sentences, feels differently. This time around, the sex takes back burner to Lawrence’s larger project: his quest for an answer to a Big Question, namely: how can we unite the body and the mind into an integrated whole? How can we reconcile the body’s desires with the rationale of the brain? A good question, I say.
The stage for exploring the inherent tension between body and mind is sex, namely the sex of Lady Constance Chatterley. Her husband, Clifford, was injured in World War I and is now paralyzed from the waist down. This means, among other things, that he cannot have sex. Clifford is a cold man, obsessed with writing “clever, spiteful” fiction and making money off coal mining. Isolated on a manor in the remote English countryside, Constance grows desperate, until (wait for it!) a handsome man strolls into her life. His name is Oliver Mellors, he wears green leggings (yes, like Robin Hood; I never promised you Lawrence wasn’t heavy-handed), and is the new Chatterley gamekeeper. Connie develops rather an intense crush, and … well, I recommend you read it. What I will say is that eventually Lady Chatterley must make a choice: between the two men, between the two ideas of a life
On the pleasures and perils of rereading a favorite book from one’s youth, Man Booker judge Stuart Kelly has written: ‘What if it’s not as good as I thought? Worse: what if it showed my earlier critical capacity to be gauche and easily-impressed by trickery?” He goes onto muse, “I think I might prefer for some books to be the memories of themselves, not a repeat performance.” I disagree. I’m okay with my younger self’s gauche and gullible sensibilities. I’m actually interested in why some books affected me so deeply–the only way to find out, of course, is to read them again.
From the vantage point of adulthood, I can see now that what initially drew me to Lady Chatterley’s Lover is Lady Chatterley herself. Even though she doesn’t know quite how to do it, Lady Chatterley wants to make her life her own. Funny, that’s just what High School Claire wanted, too. She would do anything for it.
*Cover image: Andrew Wyeth