The Godfather: Peter Corris on Lady Chatterley’s Lover
I recently listened to a reading of the unabridged version of DH Lawrence’s 1928 novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Before that, if I’d been asked if I’d read the book I would have answered that I had, but I found this was not so.
At most I might have read the bowdlerised version that was published before the book was widely available in an unabridged version in 1961. More likely, I knew about the book or had read excerpts. This was underlined to me by my daughter Ruth, who said she had watched an episode of the TV program Midsomer Murders in which one character mentioned the book and asked another if she’d read it. The character replied, ‘Bits.’
Lawrence’s novel, first published in a limited edition in Florence, has been more discussed, written about and ‘known about’ than read.
When I listened to the audio version I was astonished to find how much I hadn’t known and, I suspect, was not always covered by the many film, TV, radio and theatrical adaptations of the book. For example, Sir Clifford Chatterley was a successful writer. It is one of the many weaknesses of the novel that we never learn what his ‘stories’ were about. Similarly emphasised was the fact that the gamekeeper Oliver Mellors had attended grammar school, was familiar with foreign languages and had been a lieutenant in the army in India. He could speak standard English as well as the broad Derbyshire dialect for which he is best known from quotations from the text, like ‘Eh, but tha’rt nice, tha’rt nice!’
Lady Chatterley’s Lover is one of the weakest of Lawrence’s novels, far inferior to Sons and Lovers, The Rainbow and Women in Love. In those books Lawrence’s loathing of industrial society and detestation of ‘modernity’ – jazz, women’s emancipation, capitalism – is part and parcel of the narrative and is dramatised. In Lady Chatterley’s Lover he often descends into out-of-control ranting on those themes as if he has forgotten that he is writing a novel. This leads to ludicrous passages, like a letter from Sir Clifford to his wife that is a manic diatribe about the human condition and alludes to sodomy – totally implausible in terms of class and period.
As for sex, not everyone who would claim to know the book would be aware that Constance had a lover when studying in Germany before her marriage and another, an Irishman, when married. The account of the sex in these instances, though graphic, is more or less clinical. The detailed sex passages involving Constance and Mellors, with overheated references to ‘molten fire in the bowels and womb’ read like nothing so much as Lawrence writing to excite himself rather than describing sexual activity.
When clueless Mervyn Griffith-Jones, ineptly attempting to prosecute Penguin for its publication of the book, asked if the jurors would permit their wives or servants to read it, he lost the case in one sentence. Sex was then the issue, but if criticism is to be directed at the book, it should not be on that account but for bad writing.