Lady Chatterley’s Lover has been one of the most controversial books of 20th-century classical literature. Branded as pornography and called “the foulest book in English literature”, the book has faced severe censure as no other written piece of British literature. Its copies were hunted down. It is true that the book didn’t conform to the accepted standard of morality of English literature, but it is by no means “pornography”. If you go by the 21st-century standard, you can laugh at the description, for this is no Fifty Shade of Grey. There is nothing erotic in the book, although Lawrence’s expression on sex and sensuality is quite bold, perhaps, too bold, for the time it was written.
In criticizing the book for its choice of subject matter and its blunt language, however, those who were responsible for stigmatizing the book have totally failed to appreciate the sensitive themes Lawrence wanted to explore and expose. There is a lot Lawrence says in this comparatively short book, but among all, I would like to see the book foremost as one written about a woman’s loneliness, a woman’s awakening to sexuality, and a woman’s yearning for motherhood.
Constance Reid is stuck in a marriage in which she feels physically and mentally isolated. Her woman’s idea of intimacy is constantly thwarted by Clifford, her crippled husband, with his philosophical ideas of intimacy. Constance is affectionate, but this is returned only in half degrees. And in Clifford’s pursuance of a life of his own, bending towards success and money, what tenderness and affection remain in them die a slow death. Constance is aware of a void in her life, and a strong need to fill it. She yearns for affection, tenderness, and real intimacy, both physical and mental; she yearns for the fulfillment of herself as a woman; she yearns for motherhood. And she chooses one man, not in her status, not even in her class, to fill her womanly desires, womanly needs. She defies convention and compromises dignity for happiness. Judged by the strict British moral standards, Constance Reid was in the wrong. She had no business to feel the way she did and desert her husband. Women were seldom seen as having an identity of their own, so their needs, their wants were considered unimportant. In a society, where the woman was defined by the standards set by men, it is not surprising that Constance Reid and her story are chastised.
Lawrence’s portrayal of Constance Reid (Lady Chatterley) is strong. Her inner feelings are exposed to the minutest detail. We feel her struggle as it was our own, and can both sympathize and empathize with her. In contrast to the strong female character, Lawrence’s men are weak. Both Clifford and Oliver Mellors are in a sense impotent and need Constance to define them. But Lawrence has a reason for making his men weak, for he truly believes they are weak because they are dehumanized by industrialization. When men pursue success (‘bitch goddess’ in Lawrences’s words) and prostitute them to reap their reward of money, they become inhuman, with no capacity to feel affection for others, let alone for a woman. Accordingly, human intimacy is killed. This is what happens to Clifford. But, Oliver, on the other hand, is one who swims against the tide, and is severely battered for daring to pursue such a path. He needs an anchor to tie him to the ground to prevent him from being washed away by the tide, and Constance is that anchor, the strength that helps him to hold on to the ground.
As I’ve said earlier, Lawrence talks of many issues through this book, and class distinction plays a key role. Lawrence chooses Lady Chatterley’s lover from the working class, to show how severe this distinction operated. If Constance wanted a man, she should have done better to choose one equal in class. This seems to be the general unspoken opinion. The unbelievable hypocrisy of it all was what Lawrence was driving at.
The book is quite expressive on sex and sensuality, and Lawrence’s language is, perhaps, indelicate for early 20th-century British literature, but were those the real reasons for censure? Didn’t the story bring out the nakedness and hypocrisy of society? Wasn’t the very social and political core of Britain subtly attacked? It is said that none other than the then Home Secretary himself, who carried out a “moral crusade” against the distribution of the book on English soil. And why does a man of such power take it upon himself to suppress and censure a piece of literature on sex and sensuality? There is certainly more to the censure than meets the eye, for I think, if the book is controversial, it is truly controversial for all the political, economic, and social truths that it exposes.