Novel * D.H. Lawrence * The Sexiest Post-Apocalypse * 1928
This is a novel about a pleasant, if dull, lady in England who learns how to properly get it on. If that sounds a bit reductive, I will add that Lady Chatterly in fact has two lovers over the course of the story. Scandalous! Lady Chatterly, or Constance, or Connie since we’re going to become very familiar with her later on, is married to a boring aristocrat. Beyond being a tiresome example of an early 20th century industrialist, Clifford Chatterly is also paralyzed from the waist down. Connie, who is a healthy, buxom woman in her early 20s, is essentially married to a man who can’t physically attend to his marital duties. That’s cool, though, because hey it’s the 1920s and we’re all properly modern and Clifford basically gives her permission to have the occasional affair, so long as it doesn’t turn into a scandal. Lady Chatterly, eventually, takes advantage of this, and most of the novel is an examination of various intertwined romantic relationships. So where, one might ask, does the decline of Western civilization and/or the apocalypse come in? Allow me to share the very first passage of the novel:
“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.”
I don’t know if it is possible to more artfully describe the concept of a post-apocalypse. Obviously, it helps if you’re D.H. Lawrence, one of the major Modernist writers. The ‘cataclysm’ in question here is, of course, World War I. The war is responsible for Clifford’s injury, and thus responsible for Lady Chatterly’s unenviable position in life. Yet the scope of the novel is more broad than one woman’s desire for a good lay. Lady Chatterly’s Lover is an examination of the entire ‘tragic age,’ and Lawrence ranges from how society is dealing with repairing itself after the apocalyptic war to the class struggle to industrialism to the changing morality of the public.
This last theme that the novel deals with is probably the most obvious and well-known aspect. If you’ve heard of Lady Chatterly’s Lover, it’s likely because of the novel’s reputation as borderline pornography. My copy, which I found at a used book store somewhere I don’t even remember, was printed in 1956. It was published and manufactured in the Netherlands and features a tiny note at the beginning which reads: “this edition must not be introduced into the British Empire or the U.S.A.” Three years later, Penguin Books attempted to publish the novel in the U.K. and there was a trial under the Obscene Publications Act. This was important, since the jury ruled in favor of Penguin Books, thereby allowing the publication of works that may have dirty bits in them so long as there is literary merit. Also, it is still astounding to me that it took so long to come to this conclusion (although here’s a contemporary piece of commentary that suggests it may have been silly then, too).
Considering this is a novel by D.H. frickin’ Lawrence, there is literary merit to spare. His use of the forbidden words such as ‘fuck,’ was of course a deliberate provocation of a society in flux. It’s what the Moderns did. They challenged the social standards because they correctly realized that the world has changed, was changing, and will continue to change at a faster and faster rate. Lawrence looked around the world he lived in, realized that hey, people fuck, and he wrote about it. In addition to using swears with abandon (and in the presence of a lady!), there are also quite a few racy bits. These are all described in an oddly detached, Modern kind of way. Also, there are a lot of old-timey euphemisms and other silly phrases happening here (there is more than one reference to fondling ‘secret entrances’, which is admittedly more poetic than – ugh – ‘two in the pink, one in the stink’). If you’re fourteen and skimming around for the hot parts, you will likely be disappointed even if there’s a lot of entering and shuddering going on. For everyone else, D.H. Lawrence’s last major work has a lot of important things to say about the course of 20th century history. So let’s take a look at a few of those things.
While World War I was certainly a turning point of world history, an apocalyptic event that changed the trajectory of the ascendant civilization of the time, it was still only a consequence of an even larger, more insidious, and more powerful change that was transforming the human race. It would be reductive to give these forces a single name, but I don’t want to be here all day so I’ll go ahead and reduce it. Industrialization will do for our purposes here, which is to say a culmination of technological advances that have been building since humanity started banging rocks together in an African cave. The difference, of course, is speed. Humanity, over the course of a few thousand years, had managed to create great wonders from great societies. Our species spread across the entire planet, and managed to leave its mark on every continent. Compared to the advances of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, however, these accomplishments amounted to nearly nothing.
Take a look around you. I don’t care where you are. Now try to picture the same area 200 years ago. Unless you’re in an Alaskan cabin (which, lucky you) or deep in the untouched Amazon forest (that still has to exist, right?), the landscape is vastly different, as to be unrecognizable. London in 1816 was an entirely different place than the London of even 1916. This change – which occurred during the lifetime of a single generation – is utterly unprecedented in human history. An English village in 1300 would be pretty much indistinguishable from the same village in 1400. Or 1500. Or 1600. Sure, there were advancements over the course of those centuries, but they were incremental. Further, regressions occurred all the time, due to plague or invasion or whatever. Still, these were highly localized. Communication and transportation were unfathomably slow, and change was slower still.
Somewhere in the middle of the 19th century, humans figured out how to harness the power of coal, which launched the Industrial Revolution, which triggered the lightning-fast technological progression that eventually gave us the automobile and Buzzfeed. There were, obviously, consequences to this kind of incredible mechanization of civilization. The most important was when humanity figured out how to industrialize warfare. The result was World War I, in which huge amounts of life were lost pretty much instantaneously. Yet as technology continued to advance, and civilization continued to industrialize and spread, other, more subtle consequences began to arise. Some sensitive souls, such as Mellors, the titular lover of Mrs. Chatterly (who is presumably speaking for D.H. Lawrence, and are issues that repeatedly come up in his work), would look around at their world and depair.
“The fault lay there, out there, in those evil electric lights and diabolical rattle of engines. There, in the world of the mechanical greedy, greedy mechanism and mechanized 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.”
Lawrence is not subtle. I believe he would argue that the mechanized transformation of civilization was not subtle, either. Yet it seems to me that these advancements happened just slowly enough to be unstoppable. Yes, compared to all of human history, the “world of the mechanical greedy” sprung up overnight. But when it comes to a single human life, such things as factories and engines and the telegraph must have come along just slow enough to not be actively noticed. To put this in a modern context, there was a time that was probably not even ten years ago, that I did not bother to own a cell phone. The other day, my phone spontaneously factory-reset itself and I damn near had a panic attack (I might be dramatizing this event, although it was super annoying, like why would it even do that?). I’m referring to a device that would be utterly alien to someone in 1816, a device that not even a decade ago was something of an extravagance. Yet I can’t point to a single moment where having my phone on me became a necessity. And this is just a single tool. What D.H. Lawrence and his contemporaries were dealing with was every single aspect of human life. Manufacturing, transportation, communication, finance, commerce, thought and literature were all undergoing rapid transformation, and it all put a massive strain on the population.
“She felt weak and utterly forlorn. She wished some help would come from outside. But in the whole world there was no help. Society was terrible because it was insane. Civilized society is insane. Money and so-called love are its two great manias; money a long way first. The individual asserts himself in his disconnected insanity in these two modes: money and love.”
Lady Chatterly spends the entirety of the novel trying to come to terms with her life in this insane civilization. She is the aristocracy, and her husband is a man who is learning to become a cold, calculating capitalist. While the world may be moving beyond the classic definitions of ‘aristocracy’ and ‘commoners,’ society is still quite obviously segregated. Clifford understands this, and is striving to keep his position in the world by remaining a relevant industrialist. The working masses are resources to be exploited to this end. Connie, on the other hand, is appalled at this way of life and attempts to find solace in her affair with the working-class Mellors. It is a fractious relationship, but there is a foundation of love beneath their differences. This is why the ending is satisfying in its ambiguity.
I was preparing myself for the novel to end tragically. That’s the cliché, right? Lovers from two different worlds find each other only to be torn asunder by the harsh social mechanizations of the indifferent world order. It’s the Romeo and Juliet problem. Yet Lady Chatterly’s Lover does not end this way. The lovers remain together, even if they both bring their own set of troubles to the union. Clifford refuses to grant a divorce because he’s a dick. Mellors has serious issues with misanthropy. Then there’s the problem of bringing a child into the ailing modern world. Over and over various characters pop up who say delightful things like: “our old show will come flop: our civilization is going to fall. It’s going down the bottomless pit, down the chasm.” That’s the mind-set of post-war England, ten years removed from the most horrific industrialized nightmare the world has ever seen. All of this progress was often seen just too much, that there was no sane way for it to continue.
The novel ends with a letter from Mellors to Mrs. Chatterly, and addresses their temporary separation. Here the trepidation of living a modern life is expressed, and only partially mitigated by the soothing effect of human love. Mellors is afraid to bring a child into a world that he despises, and yet that child is still a product of a cherished love between him and Lady Chatterly. That child, then, is the organic symbol of human vitality in an industrial, mechanized wasteland. So there is hope, despite the often dire tone of the work as a whole. We’ll end as we began, then, and let Lawrence speak for himself.
“But of course what I live for now is for you and me to live together. I’m frightened, really. I feel the devil in the air, and he’ll try to get us. Or not the devil, Mammon: which I think, after all, is only the mass-will of people, wanting money and hating life. Anyhow I feel a great grasping white hands in the air, wanting to get hold of the throat of anybody who tries to live, live beyond money, and squeeze the life out. There’s a bad time coming. There’s a bad time coming, boys, there’s a bad time coming! If things go on as they are, there’s nothing lies in the future but death and destruction, for these industrial masses, I feel my inside turn to water sometimes, and there you are, going to have a child by me. But never mind. All the bad times that ever have been, haven’t been able to blow the crocus out: not even the love of women. So they won’t be able to blow out my wanting you, nor the little glow there is between you and me.”