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4.0 out of 5 stars Perhaps the most important novel of the 20th century, 29 Jan. 2014
This review is from: Lady Chatterley's Lover: AND A Propos of "Lady Chatterley's Lover" (Penguin Classics) (Paperback)
Do I think this is a great novel? Its greatness is up for debate but what cannot be denied is that it is an important novel- perhaps the most important of the 20th century, if not the entire history of literature. Lady Chatterley's Lover was the most famous of the books tried until the Obscene Publications Act of 1959. Penguin Classics were daring to publish the unexpurgated version- until then, the only version available was one with all the naughty bits cut out, which was a bit pointless. 34 witnesses stood in defence of the novel, including academics (male and female), a bishop and a university student. The prosecution called no witnesses.

The trial revolutionised literature and indeed sexual mores. What was once shocking was now perfectly acceptable. There was nothing inherently wrong or dirty about four-letter words; the context was everything. A book's moral values had nothing to do with its literary merit. All the book banning you see in dystopian novels- that was all happening here in England. Lawrence was no stranger to obscenity charges: The Rainbow, an earlier novel, was banned for eleven years, and the reputation stuck. Indeed, it sticks today.

However, some of the things he argues in Lady Chatterley's Lover appear in dystopian novels like Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World. One of the ideas in Nineteen Eighty-Four is that through sex, the individual is defying the state; which is why the state had created the Anti-Sex League. In Brave New World, the state encourage sexuality but they have full control over it so it does not become a threat. So Lawrence's equation of sex with personal freedom, and as a rebellion against a mechanical age was actually a modern and progressive thought. Yes, he could have replaced the sex scenes with some dots, or glossed over it, but that would have undermined his message. Far from being a bit of titillating fluff like Twilight or Fifty Shades of Grey, Lady Chatterley's Lover is a highly political novel. Without any cap on what he could or could not say, Lawrence was able to portray an honest love affair that became a powerful rebellion against society and convention.

I would venture to suggest that 99% of first-time readers of the novel are reading it to judge whether it is a smutty book or not, whether it's really as shocking as all that. If you are reading purely for titillation, you will probably be disappointed- not because there isn't a lot of sex in it but there's a lot of philosophical and political stuff too. Lawrence was highly moral, perhaps to the detriment of the book as your average reader is really waiting for all the naughty parts and when Lawrence is on his soapbox, it's hard to get him off. However, there is some interesting stuff in the philosophising; one of the upper class men makes a point that applies pointedly to Lawrence and his own career: "It's the one insane taboo left: sex as a natural and vital thing. They won't have it, and they'll kill you before they'll let you have it. You'll see, they'll hound that man down." Though to us that sounds terribly overblown, Lawrence paid the price for his sexual candour, and if you think about it, how many mainstream writers can write candidly about sex without it being laughably embarrassing?

It is interesting that Lawrence chose to write from the viewpoint of Lady Chatterley. His portrayal of female sexuality is far better than you would imagine from a bloke- very tender and intimate. There's a scene where Lady Chatterley (Connie) studies her body critically in the mirror and it's quite an accurate representation of how women judge themselves and the effect age will have on their sexual attractiveness. Connie's not hideous but she's no babe; Lawrence is not writing from the female viewpoint in order to please himself but in a genuine attempt to portray (or maybe understand) female sexuality. Readers may (and have) question Lawrence's sexuality, particularly as Oliver Mellors, the gruff gamekeeper, is the bit of rough manly man that creeps up a lot in Lawrence's work as an object of desire. To credit Lawrence with a more fluid sexuality does help to understand some of the nuances- if you take the quotation from the novel in that respect, Lawrence's statement is perfectly accurate.

Though sex is obviously important in Lawrence's novels, it does him an injustice to focus on it in a purely literal sense, which is where I think Lady Chatterley's Lover hinders him. What Lawrence is really passionate about is the 'life instinct'; the desire to go out and live life, seeking vitality, fertility and sensuality in all its forms and fleeing from the deadening and mechanical aspects of society. The novel does however provide the clearest example of Lawrence's belief that until the mind can accept the body and the body can accept their mind that a person will never be truly fulfilled. It's not simply a reference to sexual fulfilment; sex is simply an easy way of stating it because it is an experience of fulfilment that is achievable and that people can relate to.

I've been talking quite vaguely about themes and Lawrence's writing as a whole rather than this specific book because if you read it under the impression that it's a spicy book, you'll be disappointed and so caught up in the duller philosophising passages of the book that you'll ignore the bits that are interesting. For readers who just want a love story, the novel does explore sexuality quite tenderly and you do root for Mellors and Connie to defy class barriers and find happiness together, so it's worth putting up with the boring contextual bits for that. Personally I don't think Lawrence wanted to write Lady Chatterley's Novel because he wanted it to have an erotic effect on the reader. Sure he wanted the reader to understand the eroticism but I don't think he wanted us to go all shivery at the mention of Mellors. This is where Lawrence's taste in men comes into question. Mellors is not exactly every woman's sexual fantasy; he's inarticulate, forty, not particularly attractive, more hearty than sexy bit of rough. He's Lawrence's fantasy, basically. When Ken Russell cast Sean Bean for the 1993 adaptation, he had it spot on.

If you're not particularly interested in Lawrence's wider themes, he did write more accessible and entertaining novels. Women in Love is best avoided until you've dabbled in Lawrence a bit more because it's Lawrence's philosophies at their strongest and strangest. It does however have an erotic scene with two men wrestling; much more erotic than anything in Lady Chatterley's Lover. Sons and Lovers is a nice little intro, being a fictional autobiography, and it has interesting things to say on the mother-son bond, which is intensely portrayed. I'm reading The Rainbow at the moment and it's good- basically the story of three generations of one family and their search for a satisfying relationship. It is quite sexually candid but more in the sense of the part sex plays in relationships, and how men and women interact in romantic relationships.
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