I’ve recently read a book that, in its day, and despite an utter lack of social media on which people could vent their anguished outrage, sparked a firestorm seldom seen in the literary world. Lady Chatterley’s Lover, probably D.H. Lawrence’s most famous work, sparked obscenity trials and bannings across the globe, and on every continent.
As you can probably imagine, I approached this controversial book with a lot of curiosity: what kind of naughty, explicit, sticky and uncomfortable prose would cause such a stir. Making it more interesting, the book was published in 1928… in the middle of the Roaring Twenties, an era described by our experts as the greatest epoch of partying ever.
So, how was it?
From a literary and sociological point of view, it was a great book which probably deserves its current status as a classic in its own right which just happened to get off to a rocky start. Lawrence was a good writer whose characters are motivated by realistic forces and who struggle against class restrictions that, though they no longer exist, are easily relatable by the reader. In fact, this, not the sex, is the focus of the novel: Lady Chatterley’s “bit of rough” as Mellors is described in the book’s introduction is, you can tell, an object of sneers and knowing looks. That sets a brilliant tone, and will likely be the book’s enduring legacy.
The supposed obscenity, on the other hand, is essentially a non-issue today. Yes, there is sex, explicitly described, in this book, but it isn’t remotely erotic sex. Mechanically described, and with only the kind of overwrought and unrealistic wording one might find in the words of a pre-Raphaelite poem it’s the weakest part of the book. The prose style there was more suitable, perhaps, to a medical journal.
That isn’t to say that the sex scenes aren’t important. They are. Editions in which the sex have been omitted are worthless, because of the supreme importance that they have in the character’s development, and because Lady Chatterley’s actions during and reactions to sex are paramount to the story.
So what happened? I think it’s a conjunction of two things. The first is that Lawrence knew he was breaking all the taboos when he wrote this. One thing is to poke a socialist finger into the holes in the unraveling British class system… quite another to talk openly about intercourse in the way of the lower classes. Lawrence knew it perfectly well.
The second, and the impression I get when reading, is that Lawrence himself had a complicated relationship to both women and sexuality. I might be wrong on that score, but it’s certainly the sense a modern reader has when laboring through his descriptions of what is supposed to be illicit pleasure. Of course, compared to his contemporaries, Lawrence was a regular Hugh Hefner, so maybe that is just a modern impression.
Nevertheless, it’s the lasting impression I left with. As a writer, I’ll write erotica if either the market or the story calls for it. The main thing one strives for is that the sex actually be sexy, provocative and, if possible, titillating. One can fail spectacularly, of course, but that is the aim. If your readers are reading one-handed, you’ve succeeded.
Lawrence either wasn’t aiming for this, or simply missed his mark.
Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer whose popular novel, Siege, has no sex in it (but people liked it anyway). If you’re curious to see what he does when sex is involved, please check out Sinisterotica, an anthology that contains his story “Top of the Food Chain” and has one of the greatest covers ever created (and do you imagine the stir that one would have caused in Britain in 1928?).