Saturday, March 19, 2011

Books: Lady Chatterley's Lover

Finished reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover last night – a book that has been notorious for its descriptions of a sexual relationship between an aristocratic woman and her husband’s servant, sometimes in words that were, at the time, unprintable.

When Penguin Books first published it in the UK in 1960, they were prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act. Based on testimony that the work was of literary merit, Penguin won their case and opened the door to greater freedom in publishing explicit material.

So it’s interesting to read such an (in)famous book. Certainly there is a fairly prolific use of four-letter words (including that ‘c’ word generally despised by women yet which receives its own sort of elegy in this text). But what is shocking to the modern reader is not likely to be the descriptions of sex, but rather the bits of misogyny, racism and just plain terrible writing. For example, the key male protagonist, the ‘lover’, rants against women who do not allow men to pleasure them. “When I’m with a woman who’s really a Lesbian, I fairly howl in my soul, wanting to kill her”. Or that sex can be good with black women but “somehow, well, we’re white men: and they’re a bit like mud.”

But mostly the author rambles and meanders his plot. In fact, this book is as much about Lawrence’s critique of industrialism and capitalism as it is about his determination to write freely about sex. His descriptions of collier towns and the drudgery of the working class are some of the better parts of the novel.

So while I found it interesting to read such a historically important work, the writing itself wasn’t great. In fact, the book ends with a rambling letter from the lover to Lady Chatterley, filled with more ranting against capitalism, while not bothering to answer questions like if and how the two actually end up together!

But for all its faults, the book does make one think about how sexuality and relationships have changed over the past century (the book was written in the 1920s). And as with Frankenstein, it’s interesting when a book that is not particularly well written can alter literary history.

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