D.H. Lawrence’s scandalous work was banned in many places, and it raised a great ruckus for its explicit sexual content and frank discussion of sex and the body. However, perhaps it would have been best to ban it for the greatest crime of all: it is badly written.
The first sin is the title heroine herself, Lady Chatterley, who is the former Constance Reid. We do not ever fully get a sense of who she is, as she is rather opaque. We get her perceptions of the world and other people, but very little of how others react to her, a rounded sense of her personality, and her true inner feelings. She seems muddle-headed, depressed, and never truly satisfied, as per Lawrence’s depiction of her, a sort of symbolic figure around whom the other characters and action revolve. Connie Chatterley is one in a long line of sexually unfulfilled heroines who try to meet their desires, including Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, and even Scarlett O’Hara. However, with these other heroines, their journey to sexual and romantic fulfillment is clearer; their path to achieving it is defined distinctly and their motivations are transparent. For example, Emma Bovary’s life in the country bores her, and her goal of escaping provincial life and going to the city is evident throughout the trajectory of the story. Connie, as revealed through the dialogue, does not always seem entirely happy even when she is alone with her lover, Mellors. Perhaps Anna Karenina’s opium might have done her some good.
Lawrence spends virtually no time discussing Connie’s childhood and family life, the time spent abroad in Germany with her sister Hilda, and how unique, progressive, and radical her upbringing was. Connie was a thinker. She was a free spirit, intellectually and sexually, and her father encouraged it. We see very little of this in Connie throughout the novel, not even when she is feeling free with her lover. Only when Hilda comes to take her to Venice at the end do we get an inkling of her family background and earlier life, and how bohemian and fascinating it was. The introduction of Duncan Forbes in the end seems like a cheap device to try to resolve the problem of Connie’s socially scandalous pregnancy. Lawrence should have introduced him early on, made him an integral part of the sisters’ lives.
Lawrence’s clumsy, clunky prose aims to illustrate Connie’s dissatisfaction with life at a manor called Wragby, in the industrial English Midlands. She is surrounded by factories, collieries, and the like, and her husband is the ultimate symbol of that world. These scenes are contrasted with her idyllic trysts in the woods with Mellors. While some might argue that the way in which these contrasting scenes are drawn is rather simplistic and pedantic, to illustrate modern industrial life and the necessity of “going back to nature” by living in it and embracing the body, what is even worse are the long speeches on these subjects. Both Clifford and Mellors are guilty of this. They go on and on for pages on their philosophical viewpoints that are essentially undisguised treatises; the most unforgivable situations are when Mellors does this after sex. This leads one to point out another flaw in Lawrence’s writing–poor dialogue. We can get the gist of what the character is trying to convey in a paragraph; there is no need to go on for pages. Even with page after page of dialogue, there is still a rather opaque quality to what is revealed about the characters’ thoughts and feelings. The reader comes away scratching her/his head wondering what was said and what the point was. Too much is told through the narrator throughout the novel, rather than shown. Perhaps in this case, the cliché of “show, don’t tell” should have been applied meticulously. Ultimately, this all affects the pacing of the novel, which is too long, too drawn out, and ragged.
Mellors almost seems cartoonish, or more generously, two-dimensional at times. He is certainly an interesting man who has lived an interesting life–a working-class man who was “bumped up” through education, a failed marriage, a child, sexual experience, time spent in the Army in India, Egypt, South Africa–and yet he is reduced to a gruff woodsman does not who speak, but my, isn’t he good between the sheets? His lapses into the broad Derbyshire accent are absurd and most distracting to the reader; it recalls Ricky Ricardo’s outbursts in Spanish on “I Love Lucy” when he is highly emotionally charged.
Mrs. Bolton and Clifford’s romance is the only one that seems the most plausible because it is organic: we see it develop very naturally, and the pacing feels very appropriate. She is a widow and a nurse, Clifford is a cripple and essentially a widower. She is in a position of power, he is in a position of vulnerability. Naturally, over time, it is bound to lead to love. Mrs. Bolton seems the most complex of all the characters, for we see her noble side in nursing, as well as her gossipy side in suspecting Connie’s affair, her wise woman side in knowing how to defer to Connie, and also her dark side, as she, too, had been involved with Mellors. Michaelis must also be mentioned in the same breath, for his character as an outsider who is a successful social climber, yet a vulnerable man inside, is also complex and interesting to read. However, too much of him is told rather than shown.
Finally, one cannot ignore the sex scenes and explicitly sexual language in the novel, which is why it became famous. Simply put, it is TMI, too much information. While initially, it feels honest and refreshing, over time it becomes ridiculous, soft-core pornography folded into Victorian sensibility. The reader simply must laugh with scenes of threading wildflowers into nether regions, names for genitals, and metaphors of ocean waves. (Surely, clever readers will notice the choice of the word “crisis” in the title, which was Lawrence’s description of the orgasm.) While it might seem initially that Lawrence’s subject matter and style is very modern for its time, I would argue that the book is really rather a (Victorian) moral treatise, or “amoral treatise,” for the author is trying to tell the reader very specifically that sexual fulfillment in connection to nature is the most important thing in life, and that one must choose to live as such. I quote Lawrence himself, when he writes in “A Propos of Lady Chatterley’s Lover” about Colonel Barker, who was a woman living as a man, supposedly unbeknownst to his unsuspecting wife: “The revelation at the end is beyond all thought for the poor woman… Yet there are thousands of women today who might be so deceived, and go on being deceived why? Because they know nothing, they can’t think sexually at all…It is better to give all girls this book, at the age of 17.”
Thus, Lady Chatterley’s Lover is an instructive tome above all, rather than a work of literature meant to entertain and provoke deep thought and emotion, something that evokes a crisis of boredom in the reader. Frankly, I would take Anna Karenina any day over Lady Chatterley, for it is the truly scandalous, groundbreaking book. It does not instruct; rather, it shows everything without passing judgment. Perhaps Fifty Shades of Grey is the new Lady Chatterley’s Lover?