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Lady Chatterley’s Lover (thoughts)

September 26, 2009

bannedbooksLet’s kick off Banned Books Week with a review, shall we? I signed up for the Banned Books Challenge, which involved me reading one banned book during September. But being me, I came up with four options, and the only one of those I won’t have read by the end of this week is The Perks of Beings a Wallflower, because I’m #13 or something on the library’s hold list (yay for popular banned books!). First I read Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin, and you can read my gushing review here. Next up this week is Rudolpho Anaya’s coming-of-age classic Bless Me Ultima.

But for now, we are talking about D.H. Lawrence and possibly his most infamous novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover. A little backgroud. Before I started blogging, Lawrence was on my mental list of ‘Scary classic authors I don’t want to read.’ I’m not sure why, but there you go! Then towards the end of 2007 Imani of the now-defunct Books of My Numberless Dreams hosted an Outmoded Authors challenge, where we read books by authors who used to be popular and aren’t anymore. Lots of participants seemed drawn to Lawrence, and that softened me up. (As a side note, I loved that challenge! Someone should bring it back! I made the buttons, so feel free to use them if you want to host!) Then last year (for Banned Books Week!), Nymeth reviewed Lady Chatterley’s Lover. She was so enthusiastic, I decided to give Lawrence a try and asked for a short story recommendation. She suggested “Daughters of the Vicar, which I read and loved back in January. At that point, I knew I’d read one of Lawrence’s novels this year. Flash forward to me making my Banned Books Challenge list-I wanted to keep the books under 250 pages since the challenge only lasts a month. On Amazon, this was listed as 272 pages, which was close, so I decided to go for it.

I’m telling you all of this first because I love finding out why people read the books they do, but more importantly so you can know my expectations going in, because they had a large impact on how I read the book. Here they were:

  1. It would have a late nineteenth-century setting and style to it.
  2. It would pretty short.
  3. There wouldn’t be that much sex in it, especially not to my modern sensibilities.

Imagine my surprise when I picked it up at the library and found that in the Modern Library hardcover edition the text itself is 457 pages long (it also includes the US judge’s decision on a court case brought by the publisher agains the Post Office for refusing to deliver unexpurgated copies of the book). I can only imagine the book I looked at on Amazon was one of the edited versions (and now that I look it up on Powell’s, it’s listed at 400 pages. Yet another reason to prefer Powell’s!). So if you’re planning on reading the book, and it’s not significantly longer than 300 pages, you’re probably not reading the full edition!

So when I actually began reading it, and it wasn’t reading super-fast, I was a little confused. My mind was expecting a short book that I wouldn’t spend hours on, so it took awhile to adjust my reading and not be impatient.

LadyChatterleysLoverMy biggest shock was that this is very much a Lost Generation book. It’s set post-WWI (the husband Lady Chatterley, or Connie as she’s mainly called, has been paralysed from the waist down during that war), and the style isn’t anything like “Daughters of the Vicar.” Now I’ve looked it up and discovered that this novel was published a full 14 years after the story collection that include “Daughters,” but when I began reading I thought this would be early Lawrence. Once again, it took me awhile to adjust my expectations.

Now on to that last expectation. Darlings, this is the first banned book I’ve read that I fully understand why people in the 20s sought to ban it. Not that I encourage that sort of behavior, and not that I found it pornographic per se, but sex plays a large role in the novel. I wouldn’t call it gratuitous, since the book is all about relationships, and some of those relationships are borne out through sex. But I haven’t encountered this many sex scenes since my mom had me read Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series! And the characters talk about sex a lot as well. The language is very direct; here are some quotes (I’m using astericks to prevent creepy internet searches ending up at my blog)

“You do believe in love then, Tommy, don’t you?”
“You lovely lad!” said Tommy. “No, my cherub, nine times out of ten, no! Love’s another of those half-witted performances today. Fellows with swaying waists f*cking little jazz girls with small boy buttocks, like two collar studs! Do you mean that sort of love? Or the joint-property, make-a-succes-of-it, My-husband-my-wife sort of love? No, my fine fellow, I don’t believe in it at all!”
“But you do believe in something?”
“Me? Oh, intellectually I believe in having a good heart, a chirpy p*nis, a lively intelligence, and the courage to say ‘shit!’ in front of a lady.”

“Th’art good c*nt, aren’t ter? Best bit o’ c*nt left on earth. When ter likes! When th’art willin’!”
“What is c*nt?” she said.
“An’ doesn’t ter know? C*nt! It’s three down theer; an’ what I get when I’m i’side thee; it’s a’ as it is, all on’t.”
“All on’t,” she teased. “C*nt! It’s like f*ck then.”
“Nay, nay! F*ck’s only what you do. Animals f*ck. But c*nt’s a lot more than that. It’s thee, dost see: an’ tha’rt a lot besides an animal, aren’t ter? ever ter f*ck! C*nt! Eh, that’s the beauty o’ thee, lass.”
She got up and kissed him between the eyes that looked at her so dark and soft and unspeakably warm, so unbearably beautiful.

I picked these two dialogues for a reason, besides the amount of direct language in them. Throughout the book, at one point I’d be happily surrounded by Lawrence’s beautiful language, as in the latter selection. And then suddenly there’d be a bit that had me rolling my eyes and thinking of adolescent boys, like in the former (or in some of the sex scenes, which are often described from Connie’s point of view and which I sometimes thought ‘only a man would write that’). The phrase “that bitch goddess success” was used at least ten times and every time my hackles rose. I’m not sure if these parts of Lawrence’s writing felt hackneyed at the time. Probably not, in fact, since the Roaring Twenties were the first really ‘modern’ decade. But as a twenty-first century reader, I was not impressed by character’s ‘insights’ into love, sex, or money.

Fortunately, most of the time, Lawrence’s prose is beautiful and introspective. Take this:

She was like a forest, like the dark interlacing of the oak-wood, humming inaudibly with myriad unfolding buds. Meanwhile the birds of desire were asleep in the vast interlaced intricacy of her body.

Doesn’t it take your breath away?

DH_Lawrence_1906In addition to marvelous visual imagery, Lawrence’s other strength is almost exhaustively analysing the relationships between people. The main characters in the book are Connie, her husband Clifford, and later her lover Mellford and his nurse/caretaker Mrs. Bolton. The way that history, attitudes, social class, affection, etc. all combine to make the characters interact with each other, and how those interactions and relationships change over time (the book covers quite a stretch of time in the beginning, with several years flying by, and then focuses on several months) is handled beautifully. I could sympathise with, in the literal sense of ‘enter into someone else’s feelings and thoughts’, all of them (Lawrence does a third person narrative that shifts focus, although it spends by far the most time on Connie), and I truly cared how the novel would end, what their various fates would be (and I loved the ending!).

So to sum up: the poor book had a lot going against it when I began, due to my misplaced expectations. However, Lawrence managed to overcome that, and I’m very glad I read this novel. I don’t think this is a perfect book, since the writing is uneven and at times unconvincing. But when Lawrence gets it right, which he does about 70% of the time, he gets it so perfectly right I want to quote whole pages to you. I don’t completely love this one the way I did “Daughters of the Vicar,” but I definitely want to read more of Lawrence in the future, and in a couple years I plan to reread this one. I have a feeling, the second time around I’ll end up adoring it. Even though I’m at 1500 words, so I’m going to stop, I haven’t talked about half of the things I’d like to-this would be a marvelous book club selection! (Plus, wasn’t Lawrence a cutie? I totally would have discussed the meaing of love and class with him.)

Have your expectations ever had a strong effect on how you read a book?

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29 Comments leave one →
  1. September 26, 2009 8:11 am

    Reading that bit of dialogue makes me a little more sure of my decision to reject the book so many years ago. Recently I’ve started thinking maybe I just didn’t connect with the characters because I was 22 and a young mother with a 6 month old baby and I’d been reading a classic a week all year and was having a bit of reader’s fatigue. I barely remember this book, I only remember that I couldn’t stand any of the characters and by 2/3rds of the way in, I didn’t care what decisions the woman made for herself. I didn’t care if she stayed with her husband or left him or did something else entirely. I just didn’t want anything more to do with her. I believe that was the first book in my entire life that I gave up on, and a good ways in at that. But now, reading those passages, I understand even more why I gave it up so long ago. Lawrence’s writing doesn’t agree with me.

  2. September 26, 2009 8:22 am

    Phew! I’m so glad you didn’t hate it!

    One of the main reasons why I love Lawrence really is the way he writes about relationships. Like you said, when he gets it right, he REALLY gets it right. Also, part of my enthusiasm for him has to do with the fact that the professor that taught my Lawrence was one of my favourite profs ever. His own enthusiasm was truly contagious. He didn’t pretend that Lawrence’s writing was flawless, but he looked at his flaws with humour and even tenderness, and I began to see them that way too, you know? For example, have you noticed how he has the habit of saying something in a paragraph and then paraphrasing it one paragraph later (or even in the SAME paragraph)? He makes the same point twice a bunch of times, and while this normally would have me rolling my eyes, in Lawrence it makes me smile, because it’s SO him. Does this even make sense, lol?

    Then there’s the fact that I was taking that class in Nottingham, walked past Lawrence’s statue every day, went to visit his birthplace, saw so many of the places he was writing about while studying his writing… all those positive associations make me much more forgiving of him than I’d be of another author.

    PS: Abridged Lawrence editions that don’t say anywhere they’re abridged are unfortunately a common problem. If you ever read Sons and Lovers (which I think you might like more than this), watch out for that too!

  3. September 26, 2009 9:02 am

    When my book club read this (at least 5 years ago), I was the only one that even finished the book. I didn’t like it all that much, but didn’t hate it either. Was disappointed that there wasn’t really a discussion :-(

  4. September 26, 2009 9:19 am

    I have absolutely had my preconceptions color the way I’ve read a book. One book that immediately comes to mind is Stella Gibbon’s Cold Comfort Farm – I didn’t realize it would be a satire, and I thought it would take place during early 1800s, not the 1930s, so I found it really jarring to have all these discussions of motor cars and “talkies”! I was never able to really get into the groove with that one, sadly.

    I’ve never read any Lawrence and I’m not quite sure what to think. I am not a prudish reader by any means, but I found the two excerpts you posted showcasing how explicit he could be to be really vulgar and unpleasant. I wouldn’t enjoy reading an entire book that was so crude in its depictions – I definitely didn’t find those parts poetic, although there were elements of fluffy froufiness that didn’t sit well with me either! I think this might be an author whose style is just not a good fit for me…

  5. September 26, 2009 10:16 am

    My, the language! For an old book! I have Women in Love on the tbr and am half-hesitant, half-excited to know which way I’ll lean towards when I read it!! Do you plan to read that one?

  6. September 26, 2009 10:38 am

    I think Lawrence is very good at analysing relationships. I read SONS AND LOVERS too, which is partly autobiographical. It tells how , the presence of a tight bond between a mother with a strong personality and a son, may create troubled relationships man/woman for the latter. It happened to Lawrence himself. As for Lady Chatterley’s Lover, I didn’t particularly like it when I read it for the first time, but then I had to study it and I found it more interesting!

  7. September 26, 2009 11:38 am

    I really enjoyed Son and Lovers in college but have never read Lady Chatterley’s Lover. I supposed I have always shied away from it but not really sure why. Your review is so thorough that it makes me think I should put this one back on my TBR list.

  8. September 26, 2009 12:05 pm

    I read this in high school (and should really give it another go) and barely remember much of it at all. The strongest memory I have is being impressed by the fact that Lawrence didn’t tip-toe around sexuality. Rather than using common innuendo and metaphor he was in your face about it. Maybe my reaction would be different now, but I’ve always been the type to appreciate the direct approach to things.

  9. September 26, 2009 1:06 pm

    Mark me down as a big fan of Sons and Lovers and Women in Love. I think they’re both wonderful. Even the things that are wrong with them are still wonderful in their way.

    I’ve not read Lady Chatterly, because most of the big time Lawrence fans I know think it’s one of his lesser works.

    But it certainly was banned a lot.

  10. September 26, 2009 1:15 pm

    I think Lawrence is also on my list of ‘Scary classic authors I don’t want to read’! Might give his short stories a try, but I have all of these preconceived ideas about “classic literature”, no doubt due to having them shoved down my throat at school. Had one English teacher who really turned me off of literature for a long time. Slowly coming back though, so there’s hope! *L*

    I really enjoyed your review! Especially your explanation of what you expected before you started the book and how you had to adjust as you were reading. Great job!

  11. September 26, 2009 2:33 pm

    90% of classic authors are on my list of “scary classic authors I don’t want to read” lol ;) I am just not such a fan of the classics. But maybe I will have to try some short stories first to get myself more accustomed and then do better at reading the classics in book form. :)

    Also, I’m excited to hear what you think about The Perks of Being a Wallflower. I <3 that book so much. If you don't want to wait for your library copy, I can send you my copy. Just let me know!

  12. September 26, 2009 3:43 pm

    Yep, Lawrence is on my “scary classic authors” list too! :)

    Really enjoyed reading this and I’ll have to get over my “fear” and jump into one of his books one day. Can’t wait to read your review of the Anaya book.

    I don’t think I have time to read a book for Banned Book week but I’m looking for maybe short stories that might fit.

  13. September 26, 2009 3:58 pm

    I’ve chosen to read this as part of my fill-the-gaps challenge list, because I’d heard of heady love scenes and wanted to find out myself. But it has beautiful prose as well? Wowsers.

    -Aimee
    http://www.myflutteringheart.blogspot.com

  14. September 26, 2009 4:42 pm

    I think Lawrence writes beautifully much of the time and I enjoy the contrast provided by the more colorful dialogue. The explicit language didn’t phase me and it’s somewhat fascinating to me how off-putting it can be for some people. Lawrence was interested in physical intimacy and human touch and every aspect of a relationship and these interewst come out in his writing.

  15. September 26, 2009 8:12 pm

    I read Lady Chatterley’s Lover about ten or eleven years ago. I was housesitting/babysitting for my friend, and she had a copy. She also had a waterbed. Nice combination. All that was missing was chocolate..

    The language in LCL doesn’t bother me at all, but I think that Lawrence has unneccessarily worried generations of couples with his stuff about how the uh, happy ending must be simultaneous or it’s not really love or satisfying. I was amused when I read Mansfield by C.K. Stead (a novel about Katherine Mansfield) and Frieda, Lawrence’s wife, is talking to Katherine about it, and she admits that she thinks it’s a wrongheaded idea.

  16. September 26, 2009 8:15 pm

    Okay. I’m back. I’ve been thinking about this for much of the day and I think I figured out what bothered me so much about this book. Actually, it lead to a whole new realization about myself and my relationship to characters. I really, really, really don’t like it when characters talk in dialect. In nearly every book I can think of with dialect in it, I have extremely low opinions of the speakers. That goes even for, say, Hagrid in Harry Potter, who is my least favorite character in the series. On the other hand, something like Their Eyes Were Watching God didn’t bother me at all. I’m just beginning to make this connection (somehow I never figured this out about myself before), so I can’t be sure everything I’m saying here is 100% correct for myself, but i really think I have a difficulty connecting with books and characters that are heavy on dialect: My Fair Lady, anything by Mark Twain, parts of Wuthering Heights, etc. Crazy.

  17. September 26, 2009 10:49 pm

    I read Lawrence many, many years ago and thought he was fine. I would think a lot of couples in relationships have both “earthy” and “poetic” languages when talking together. More than a lot of us might want to admit ;-).

  18. September 27, 2009 1:58 am

    I read this in my late teens as part of a huge Lawrence marathon (my English teacher used to say that most of his pupils went through a Lawrence phase). Not his best though in context you can see the prejudices he was trying to break down. The thing I rememember most was reading it on a train and a woman sitting opposite me moving away when she spotted the title of the book…..

  19. September 27, 2009 8:31 am

    I’m not a huge Lawrence fan but I didn’t mind this as much as his other books. I think I probably preferred Women in Love. Actually, I was quite surprised how tame the language in this was compared to the huge controversy over it – Everyone said this book was really steamy, etc. but, I guess, given the time that it was written, that *was* classed as steamy. :)

  20. stacybuckeye permalink
    September 27, 2009 10:04 am

    I haven’t read this one, but do have it on my shelves. I’ve read the Outlander series, so I’m prepared for the sex ;) Great review! I like hearing how you chose to read it.

  21. September 27, 2009 10:53 am

    I read this one several years ago for a Banned Books discussion group, and it was slooowww to start. In fact, there were times when I had to force myself to read a chapter a day just to finish it in time for the discussion. However, once I was done, I was really glad I read it because it was rich beyond the intrigue of reading something considered so naughty for so very long. I’ve read a couple of Lawrence’s short stories since then, and I think I favor them, but I do hope to re-read Lady Chatterley one day, and even venture into some of his other, longer works.

    If you have an urge for a DH Lawrence short story any time soon, give “The Horse Dealer’s Daughter” a look. I read it in a grad class over the adaptation of short stories to film, and I loved it! There are copies of it all over the internet.

  22. September 27, 2009 2:34 pm

    I’m not sure this is a classic I ever want to read! But I like the pretty quote above so I do want to read Lawrence at some point.

  23. September 28, 2009 4:57 am

    I first read this when I was 13 after stealing it from my then 20 year old sister’s bookshelf, and were my eyes opened! I was quite an innocent teenager and I think a lot of my sex education came from D H Lawrence! I didn’t really get it at the time so I have reread it since and as much as it is about sex and relationships I also read it as very much a eulogy to a lost generation, and to a lost idyll of England as a green and pleasant land. A lot of people find it too wordy and too descriptive of countryside and natural imagery etc as they expect it just to be filled with sex, but Lawrence’s love of the countryside really comes through his prose and I think people should stop and appreciate that part of the book too rather than just wondering when the sex is coming!

  24. September 28, 2009 5:49 am

    I read this a couple of months ago for one of my book groups and although I didn’t love it I am glad that I read it. I hadn’t fared too well with other Lawrence novels in the past and I’m not entirely convinced to try any more in the future.

    I am quite surprised how colourful the language was in the second quote because of the strong reactions even now in readers when the c-word is used. I find it curious to think of shock value and literary merit expectations not actually having changed much in eighty years.

    My expectations and preconceptions affect my reading experience all the time; I try not to create too much personal hype around a book because it is a lot of expectation to live up to.

  25. September 28, 2009 7:11 am

    Amanda, that makes sense.

    Nymeth, I totally picked up on Lawrence’s redundancy habit! It made me smile too, in a ‘look at the little boy’ kind of way. :) I loved this whole comment-thanks for sharing why you love Lawrence!

    JoAnn, I’d be so annoyed! (This might be why I’ve never joined a book club.)

    Steph, isn’t it tiring to readjust expectations?! (Of course, just from what you described of Cold Comfort Farm now I want to read it!)

    Claire, I know-right! I haven’t decided which of Lawrences novels to read next. :)

    Maria, I’ve heard good things about Sons and Lovers!

    Kathleen, thanks-I feel like my review just touched the surface, lol. It sounds like everyone enjoyed Sons & Lovers!

    Joanne, I liked how his characters talk to each other directly about sex (although the simultaneous orgasm thing left me very, very skeptical).

    CB, I’m glad you enjoyed them both! I didn’t know anything about Lawrence before, so I didn’t realise this is considered not the best. But I’m glad, since there were parts I really liked, and I hope his other novels have more of that style. ;)

    Alexia, thanks so much! I was lucky-I’ve always loved classics so even though I had to read books I loathed in high school, it didn’t turn me off the whole genre.

    Heather, lol! I’m just not a fan of contemporary ‘literary’ books, so I totally understand. :) Thanks so much for offering to send me your copy of The Perks of Being a Wallflower! I’m very tempted to take you up on it!

    Iliana, I’m glad I’m not the only one who has that list! :) Banned short stories would be awesome-I hope you read some!

    Amy, I didn’t like all of the explicit language, but it isn’t a definite turn-off for me. I too loved much of Lawrences writing, so it was worth a little crudity!

    Bybee, LOL @ your experience reading it! And yeah, his orgasm discussions were kind of weird. At first, I was just amused, because it seemed like he was all ‘women don’t really orgasm just from intercourse’ and I was like ‘right on! a man ahead of his time!’ But then later the simultaneous part was just kind of silly.

    Amanda, I have issues with dialect frequently as well. It didn’t bother me in this one, but I totally understand where you’re coming from!

    Valerie, I think you’re perfectly right! Perhaps there’s something about seeing it in black-and-white print that makes people uncomfortable?

    BrideoftheBookGod, that’s crazy in this day and age!

    Ceri, I wouldn’t call it steamy, so much as very direct! I think even a book published today that used c*nt that often would be considered risque!

    Stacy, lol-it’s a different style of sex scenes (not erotica the way those bits of Outlander are…though my mom disagrees, lol), but there’s definitely a lot of it! And I’m glad you enjoyed the review!

    Andi, I think it definitely picked up about 100 pages in! Thanks for the short story rec-I’ll read it soon. :)

    Rebecca, lol-maybe start with one of his other books? All the comments here seem to point towards Women in Love or Sons & Lovers as better.

    Rachel, I definitely agree about the elegy part-I loved his descriptions of the countryside and really wanted to discuss them in the review too (but I thought it was too long as it was). I enjoyed the non-sex bits more than the sex bits. ;)

    Claire, yeah-I myself have strong reactions to c*nt (even though I read a feminist book earlier this year that was entitled C*nt!), but the way Lawrence uses it surprised me…it’s used as loving word instead of an insult. I’d go so far as to say he affect my attitude towards the word itself. I’m not sure if I’ll end up being a huge Lawrence fan after I’ve read a couple more of this novels, but he gives me so much to think about!

  26. October 5, 2009 5:55 am

    Great review!

    This book has been sitting on my shelf for years. Don’t know why I haven’t read it yet. I’ll have to make time for it soon.

    –Anna

  27. October 18, 2009 9:59 pm

    This was so interesting to read your review. Lawrence is on my “scary classic authors” list too. I have never seriously considered reading a book by him. My impression was/is that his books are all about sex and I’m not sure that’s the sort of thing I want to read (not because I’m prudish, but just because, well, I don’t know exactly… Maybe partly I am a little worried about what other people will think if they know I’m reading Lawrence?). It sounds like much of his writing is beautiful, though, so maybe I will try him someday.

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