With a book like this, it’s easier to have a conversation about the novel’s history than about the novel itself. Censorship trials everyone hears about, but few people talk about what’s actually going on in the book.

The eponymous lover is Oliver Mellors, and for someone who is so important to the book, his name is used very seldom. He’s more often ‘the gamekeeper,’ or just ‘the keeper.’ When he and Lady Chatterley are alone, he’s just a masculine pronoun, as if his maleness is the most important thing about him. The two of them take on an allegorical quality, just a he and a she, doing what comes naturally. But the title identifies him primarily in relation to her, and her in relation to her husband.

The grin flickered on his face.

‘The money is yours, the position is yours, the decisions will lie with you. I’m not just my Lady’s fucker, after all.’

‘What else are you?’

‘You may well ask. It no doubt is invisible. Yet I’m something to myself at least. I can see the point of my own existence, though I can quite understand nobody else’s seeing it.’

He holds himself and his self-worth independent – as if there are some things about himself that are no one else’s business, not even the reader’s. We seldom see the story from his point of view, except when he’s getting aroused. In some ways he remains a mystery to the end of the book.

Sir Clifford Chatterley is much easier to figure out. Clifford gets married in the middle of World War I and comes back paralyzed. Without the use of his legs or his cock, he goes through some times of depression and anger. At first he devotes his attention to the life of the mind to compensate for his bodily losses. Then they hire a nurse for him, and she changes him. Mrs Bolton quickly becomes the most important person in his life; he becomes the kind of man she expects him to be, a businessman. Under her influence he becomes the representation of industrialized progress – sterile, childish, self-important, mechanized, successful.

The fault lay there, out there, in those evil electric lights and diabolical rattlings of engines. There, in the world of the mechanical greedy, greedy mechanism and mechanised greed, sparkling with lights and gushing hot metal and roaring with traffic, there lay the vast evil thing, ready to destroy whatever did not conform. Soon it would destroy the wood, and the bluebells would spring no more. All vulnerable things must perish under the rolling and running of iron.

Then there is Lady Chatterley herself, formerly Constance Reid, and most frequently called Connie. Daughter of one baronet and married to another, her class position is clear. The novel traces her personal growth and development as she learns to love someone with a dramatically different background. Connie has a democratic sensibility and a hopeful naivete where people are concerned, and I identify strongly with these qualities in her.

Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically. The cataclysm has happened, we are among the ruins, we start to build up new little habitats, to have new little hopes. It is rather hard work: there is now no smooth road into the future: but we go round, or scramble over the obstacles. We’ve got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen.

Like Connie, it’s hard for me to admit that the world is not always precisely as it ought to be.

This is history. One England blots out another. The mines had made the halls wealthy. Now they were blotting them out, as they had already blotted out the cottages. The industrial England blots out the agricultural England. One meaning blots out another. The new England blots out the old England. And the continuity is not organic, but mechanical.

Connie, belonging to the leisured classes, had clung to the remnants of old England. It had taken her years to realise that it was really blotted out by this terrifying new and gruesome England, and that the blotting out would go on till it was complete.

People sometimes talk about this novel as if the sex were the only important thing about it, but I don’t think that it’s even the most important thing. It’s about this change, from a life in contact with nature to a life that destroys nature. Clifford is the industrialist who leaves a black swathe on the world, and the gamekeeper is the remnant of the feudal agricultural age, tending to various forms of life. He and Connie wreath flowers into each other’s pubic hair, but Clifford chugs along on his motorized wheelchair, smashing the flowers and everything else.

Tevershall pit-bank was burning, had been burning for years, and it would cost thousands to put it out. So it had to burn. And when the wind was that way, which was often, the house was full of the stench of this sulphurous combustion of the earth’s excrement. But even on windless days the air always smelt of something under-earth: sulphur, iron, coal, or acid. And even on the Christmas roses the smuts settled persistently, incredible, like black manna from skies of doom.

So Connie’s choice of lover is not just a matter of finding a good lay, it’s a choice of lifestyles, of economic systems, of periods of history. She chooses life and nature over money and mechanics.

Another thing about Connie that I identify strongly with is her inability to articulate her ideas in an argument. I can usually express myself well in writing, but when it comes to conversation or verbal disagreement, I end up a sputtering mess, either stuttering or silent.

Logic might be unanswerable because it was so absolutely wrong.

She runs into this problem discussing her gamekeeper affair with her sister:

‘But you are such a socialist! you’re always on the side of the working classes.’

‘I may be on their side in a political crisis, but being on their side makes me know how impossible it is to mix one’s life with theirs. Not out of snobbery, but just because the whole rhythm is different.’

Hilda had lived among the real political intellectuals, so she was disastrously unanswerable.

And in discussing the lives of coalworkers with her husband:

And she wondered with rage, why it was she felt Clifford was so wrong, yet she couldn’t say it to him, she could not say exactly where he was wrong.

‘No wonder the men hate you,’ she said.

‘They don’t!’ he replied. ‘And don’t fall into errors: in your sense of the word, they are not men. They are animals you don’t understand, and never could. Don’t thrust your illusions on other people. The masses were always the same, and will always be the same. Nero’s slaves were extremely little different from our colliers or the Ford motor car workmen. I mean Nero’s mine slaves and his field slaves. It is the masses: they are the unchangeable. An individual may emerge from the masses. But the emergence doesn’t alter the mass. The masses are unalterable. It is one of the most momentous facts of social science. Panem et circenses! Only today education is one of the bad substitutes for a circus. What is wrong today, is that we’ve made a profound hash of the circuses part of the programme, and poisoned our masses with a little education.’

When Clifford became really roused in his feelings about the common people, Connie was frightened. There was something devastatingly true in what he said. But it was a truth that killed.

There’s no doubt that people perform better at their tasks when they only have the education they need to accomplish those tasks, and that ignorant people are often happier than educated ones, but there are types of satisfaction that are unavailable to them without an education. Moving up Maaslow’s hierarchy of needs, or the hierarchy of thinking skills, is difficult without the type of education that Clifford would deny the masses. He would rather they not be actual human beings; while he calls them animals here, I think he’d be happier if they weren’t even that, but just gears in his machinery of wealth. The keeper is an individual that emerges from the masses, but people like Clifford ignore just how hard that emergence is without an education.

And after he’s emerged, it’s not always clear if he’ll do the crowd he came from any good.

If you could only tell them that living and spending isn’t the same thing! But it’s no good. If only they were educated to live instead of earn and spend, they could manage very happily on twenty-five shillings. If the men wore scarlet trousers as I said, they wouldn’t think so much of money: if they could dance and hop and skip, and sing and swagger and be handsome, they could do with very little cash. And amuse the women themselves, and be amused by the women. They ought to learn to be naked and handsome, and to sing in a mass and dance the old group dances, and carve the stools they sit on, and embroider their own emblems. Then they wouldn’t need money. And that’s the only way to solve the industrial problem: train the people to be able to live and live in handsomeness, without needing to spend. But you can’t do it. They’re all one-track minds nowadays. Whereas the mass of people oughtn’t even to try to think, because they can’t. They should be alive and frisky, and acknowledge the great god Pan. He’s the only god for the masses, forever.

Even Mellors wants the mass of humanity to become picturesque peasants. In this elitism he and Clifford agree. Neither of them recognizes that the problem is the wealthy. The people with money give the people without money something to aspire to; since the rich won’t live in sensual simplicity without spending a lot of money, neither will the poor.

Personally, I rather like the life Mellors associates with red trousers. I was converted to a life of the arts at a young age, and I’m fond of singing and skipping and making my own things. I won’t comment on my own handsomeness or lack thereof, but I wish I was a better dancer more than I wish I was better at making money. Unlike Lawrence’s characters (and perhaps the great DHL himself), I think that this life of continuous self-expression, and pride in self-expression, is not incompatible with education. Maybe a different type of education than what we typically receive would be better suited to it, but the problem isn’t the eduation; it’s the type and manner of it. Our educational system in the West teaches children to be good factory workers, to distrust difference, and to value mediocrity. This is the way to get them to be good little cogs winding the machinery of commerce, but it doesn’t help them to be good men and women. Some schools have begun teaching good character, as if it could be learned like arithmetic, but defying society and its obsession with financial gain to express the self is seen as sentimental, quixotic, and ultimately tragic. And that attitude doesn’t help anyone but those with a vested interest in keeping the machine going.

Having lived among the owning classes, he knew the utter futility of expecting any solution of the wage-squabble. There was no solution, short of death. The only thing was not to care, not to care about the wages.

Yet, if you were poor and wretched you had to care. Anyhow, it was becoming the only thing they did care about. The care about money was like a great cancer, eating away the individuals of all classes. He refused to care about money.

And what then? What did life offer apart from the care of money? Nothing.

While Connie does seem to have problems with her husband’s elitism, she doesn’t seem to realize that she has a little of her own.

The world is supposed to be full of possibilities, but they narrow down to pretty few in most personal experience. There’s lots of good fish in the sea . . . maybe . . . but the vast masses seem to be mackerel or herring, and if you’re not mackerel or herring yourself, you are likely to find very few good fish in the sea.

This is a problem I run into, too. There have never been very many people I’ve been attracted to, either as friends or lovers. I try to convince myself that this isn’t evidence that I’m an elitist, and sometimes I succeed. I recognize that some people are good, worthwhile people with valid thoughts and opinions, but that doesn’t mean I want any sort of intimacy with them. My life seems to be spent among genial, uncongenial people.

The gamekeeper gets some criticism for his attitude toward women as well. He is in favor of simultaneous orgasms, and I think that most people are, but he hates women who want to use him to get off on without getting him off as well. He calls them all unconscious lesbians, which is amazingly offensive. But at least he recognizes that this is a completely selfish viewpoint.

‘But do you think Lesbian women any worse than homosexual men?’

I do! Because I’ve suffered more from them. In the abstract, I’ve no idea.’

Lawrence tends to write sympathetic roles for men who might be bisexual, like Birkin and Crich in Women in Love, and there’s a possibility for the gamekeeper to be. He grew close to a colonel when he was in the army, and this colonel got him an officer’s commission. Lawrence mentions that the two loved each other, but he doesn’t go into the details of how. It’s exposition rather than story, so it makes sense for the author not to get explicit here, but it’s fun for me to imagine Oliver Mellors fucking his way up the ranks.

People talk about this novel like it’s second only to Fanny Hill, and while there are a couple of explicit descriptions of sex, those descriptions are actually not a large proportion of the book. The sexy bits are very sexy indeed, but they adorn rather than drive the narrative. People who read it also sometimes complain about the language, and I’ll agree that it’s a bit unexpected to see these words in a book published in 1928.

‘Th’art good cunt, though, aren’t ter? Best bit o’ cunt left on earth. When ter likes! When tha’rt willin’!’

‘What is cunt?’ she said.

‘An’ doesn’t ter know? Cunt! It’s thee down theer; an’ what I get when I’m i’side thee, and what tha gets when I’m i’side thee; it’s a’ as it is, all on’t.’

‘All on’t,’ she teased. ‘Cunt! It’s like fuck then.’

‘Nay nay! Fuck’s only what you do. Animals fuck. But cunt’s a lot more than that. It’s thee, dost see: an’ tha’rt a lot besides an animal, aren’t ter? – even ter fuck? Cunt! 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.

He really makes that word sound like not such an insult. When we’re young we tend to imagine that our profanity is like our slang terms, invented on the moment and only belonging to our time. But Chaucer wrote about piss and shit, and if I had access to the OED I could give other examples of contemporary profanity being used centuries ago.

So, in the end, yes, Lady Chatterley’s Lover is a book full of graphic sex and offensive language. But it’s also a book about industry trampling the environment, which is an important precursor to today’s debates on climate change; it’s also a book about the artificial barriers between people created by economic differences, which include education, manners, and speech patterns; it’s also a book about how love can separate individuals from their respective herds and unite them in joy, and how the herds fight to reclaim their own. It’s about society and the direction we’re moving in, and the world we’re destroying in the process. Lawrence doesn’t have any answers about how to resolve these conflicts, how to keep technology without losing the flowers and the pheasants, and the book itself ends unresolved, with a letter from the keeper to his absent love hoping for the future:

John Thomas says good-bye to Lady Jane, a little droopingly, but with a hopeful heart.

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