Sexual Healing for End Times

The man and the machine in Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

Sexual Healing for End Times

One gets an apocalyptic feeling reading D.H. Lawrence’s 1928 novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover. What was characterized as a “dirty book,” banned for obscenity due to its graphic depiction of sex, is just as much a tale about the ills of progress. Lawrence thought automation, especially, was having calamitous impacts on British society and the world at large.

In the story, Oliver Mellors (lover of the eponymous Lady C.) represents opposition to modern industrial and class systems. He attempts a hermetic existence as gamekeeper for the Wragby Estate, living in a small cottage with his dog, Flossie, and opting out of society. The nearest town, Tevershall, which has been built up and sustained through coalmining, is a hellscape to Oliver. “Soon it would destroy the wood, and the bluebells would spring no more,” he thinks. “All vulnerable things must perish under the running and rolling of iron.”

Throughout the novel, he articulates a back-to-nature ethos, where people might “drop the whole industrial life” and “carve the stools they sit on.” Central to his thought is a certain four-letter word in gerund form, and sexually neglected Connie Chatterley gets a tutorial.

The spinal paralysis suffered by her husband, Sir Clifford Chatterley, and his resulting impotence, is one of the story’s big metaphors. But it works more sensitively as a device to explore the wounds of post-WWI British society, rather than as a crude allegory for Clifford’s severed emotional life — a disconnect that renders him immature and blocks other forms of intimacy with his wife.

Clifford’s strange idealism, a highly qualified progressive conservatism, and grumpy ambition deliver the book’s subtext on a time when, according to Lawrence, England was blotting out sentiment (even more than usual, I guess) and “getting on with things” via a technological push forward.

Clifford roars over the bluebells Oliver is worried about in his motor chair and mouths harsh, essentialist judgments about the working classes, lending him all the charm of Mr. Hyde. Other times, his views are more urbane, like when he gives Connie his blessing to seek a life of the body elsewhere, even suggesting she might have a child.

The stage is set, then, for her to flit back and forth between “civilization” — her obligations to Clifford at stately Wragby Hall — and so-called “nature”: the makeshift cottage in the woods where she experiences Oliver’s gentle passion. Why Lawrence relegated love and tenderness to the ranks of nature alone is anyone’s guess. Perhaps he favored Rousseau’s dreamy philosophy over realist thinkers like Hobbes and Voltaire?

Whatever the reason, he takes pains to show how each social class harbors its own forms of brutality, the class system itself being an unnatural runoff of “insane” civilization. Oliver exemplifies this by occupying different positions in society: Once a collier’s son, then a commissioned officer in the war, and now an employed recluse, he finds each of his stations alienating.

As for the novel’s lewd content, I do not make much of the claims that the sex scenes in Lady Chatterley’s Lover should fail to move us given how much society has progressed since 1928. The sex in the book is neither romantic nor pornographic. Rather, it is erotic, before its time, and in some ways, before ours, too, given that Lawrence writes about the act with a sense of spiritual emergency.

Arguably, the most progressive sex happens outside the act itself when Connie is overcome with admiration for the male form. If contemplating “the balls between his legs” as an object of beauty does not shock contemporary Western sensibilities, it at least surprises them. Even today, more than 50 years after the sexual revolution of the 1960s, heterosexual women still capitulate to being desired over being the ones who do the desiring. (When was the last time you heard of a woman lusting over the beauty of a penis? There’s a reason dick-pics fail to elicit the intended response.) But Lawrence has Connie kick off this norm, along with her petticoat, almost a century ago.

The book’s sour notes are amusing. Private moments between Connie and Oliver turn to parody when they poke forget-me-nots into one another’s “love-hair.” Meanwhile, Oliver’s catch-all phrase for his personal philosophy, “cunt awareness,” sounds like it merits its own public-recognition month. That’s to say nothing of his lunatic anger about clitoral stimulation — a problem that throws into question whether he’s as aware as he thinks.

And what of poor Clifford? My reading suggests he has his own pseudo love affair with his personal caretaker, Ivy Bolton. In many ways, theirs is the more singular and enduring relationship of the story, even as it devolves into Freudian spectacle near the end. Ivy resents Clifford and wants to overtake him in some ways, but the same can be said of many lovers. The scene where she shaves Clifford for the first time might be the novel’s hottest: She strokes the blade against his skin “with a soft, lingering touch, a little slow.”

Her fingers will come to know all the contours of his face, and the two often stay up all night, spending themselves against one another in raucous card games. (Sponge baths are not mentioned in detail, but one can imagine.) Even their breathless discussions about the mines and the people of Tevershall have a sensual hum.

Yet Clifford is the clear antagonist of the book, and Lawrence works hard to make us hate him. A generous interpretation of Clifford’s arc, however, suggests something useful to the contemporary reader: Intimate relationships come in many forms, and carnal yearning might well be satisfied through subliminal means.

If Lady Chatterley’s Lover convinces readers of the need for “tender-hearted fucking,” it has grown less persuasive over time in its dire warnings about industrialization and its discontents. This may not have been the case when it first became available to the public in 1960. Back then, I imagine the fallout from World War II was still on people’s minds, and in that sense, the book can be read as predicting the carnage that followed through the rest of the 20th century.

But what about the 21st? Not so much. Yes, the polar ice caps are melting. Wars have never really stopped. Inequality remains, of course, but has diminished in some cases. At the very least, billions of humans around the world have benefited from science and progress, even if “one problem solved” creates untold new ones. Perhaps it’s too simplistic to say the world has improved since Lawrence’s time, but one thing is for sure: It stubbornly persists.

D.H. Lawrence was dying of tuberculosis when he wrote Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and I suppose it’s natural to conflate the end of an era with the end of the world, especially as one approaches the end of life. Yesterday, I googled “bluebells in the midlands” to see if his dire prediction had come to pass. Here is what I learned: Every spring, with some tender coupling from nature and civilization, the bluebells return.

Please share your thoughts on Lady Chatterley’s Lover in the comments below. You can join Dorothy in next reading Against Nature (A Rebours), which will be the subject of her column on July 24, 2023.

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