Launching the 1960s: “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”
Having just read “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” for the first time, I’m inclined to believe that it was in large part responsible for much of the social upheaval of the 1960s.
Think about the timing. The book, written in the 1920s, was not legally available in England or the US until around 1960. The themes of the story include class conflict, environmental degradation, the status of women, and sex, all of which attained enormous prominence throughout the decade that followed publication of the book.
In the story, Connie Chatterley gradually awakens to the realization that she lives in a gilded cage. Her husband Clifford has been maimed during World War One and is confined to a motorized wheelchair, unable to have marital relations with her. Because Clifford prides himself on being an advanced and open-minded intellectual, he encourages Connie to find herself a suitable lover by whom she can become pregnant, thus bringing an heir to the Chatterley estate, a son (not a daughter, of course) who Clifford will be glad to own as his own. The estate is ringed with coal mines on all sides, and noise, lights and fumes assail it at all hours. Metaphorically, the place is a lonely island lashed by ugly seas. And there, as time goes by, Connie slowly becomes aware that her husband, whom she initially believed to be a friend and companion, is actually a cold and withdrawing man who has no interest in providing the human warmth and tenderness that she needs. Clifford is filled with intellectual and social arrogance as he tells Connie he’s confident that she will choose a suitable lover “of the right sort” to make her pregnant. But instead she turns to the estate’s gamekeeper, Oliver Mellors, who is similarly unhappy and lonely, and the two become secret lovers.
When the book was written in the 1920s, it was scandalous to suggest that people from two such different classes might become sexually involved. However, D. H. Lawrence is careful to point out that class barriers are arbitrary. Connie was an upper-middle class girl who married into the aristocracy, while Mellors served as an officer during the war, which technically made him a gentleman. Class is imposed by man, not by Nature. Nevertheless, society does not smile upon such unions, and after the affair is discovered by others, everything goes wrong for the couple.
The plight of the environment is depicted as a parallel to the plight of mankind itself. A loving and beautiful Eden has devolved into a cold and ugly modern world despoiled by the coal mines that operate 24 hours a day near the Chatterley estate. In nearby villages, working men and women are debased by hard labor and capitalist bosses enrich themselves by the toil of the poor. Similarly, Connie because of her gender is legally a pawn of her husband, unable to divorce without his consent. The book depicts a system in a state of great unbalance. The spring earth gives rise to lovely wildflowers that are crushed beneath the wheels of Clifford’s wheelchair. The people of England stubbornly cling to arbitrary reasons why lovers of different classes should be deprived of happiness. When men aren’t oppressing women, as Clifford does to Connie, women oppress men, as Mellors’ angry wife does to him. And the powers that be—wealth, status and gender—all need to be overturned.
The book was banned when written because of its frank depiction of sex acts and the use of words like “fuck” and “cunt.” But this is not a dirty book, and its plot is not an excuse for sex scenes. Instead, sex is shown as a shared act of tenderness that strengthens the participants as they struggle against the bonds that have made them deeply unhappy. Each successive coupling rips away another layer of societal constraint that has imprisoned them. Sex makes them free, or at any rate freer than they were at the beginning. And yet its power to heal is limited. The story ends with both partners separated, unable either to divorce their existing spouses or to be with each other, due to the legal system as well as the criticism of society. Connie is pregnant and Clifford is pressuring her to come home. Nothing is resolved, and yet anything could happen.
Written forty years before the 1960s, “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” sums up in a single story the struggle, the thwarted longing and the self-disgust of the turbulent decade that witnessed race riots, assassinations, the space race, women’s liberation and the back-to-the-land movement.