I find great similarity between knowing nothing about a book before reading it, and thinking I know everything about a book before reading it: in both cases I’m surprised, though in the latter case, perhaps less pleasantly so. I approached D H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover with the conviction that it was a sexy book. Not just gleaned from the title, but from years of being told by those I know personally, and by the wider literary world, I felt sure when I first sat down with the book that I would be reading in the vein of erotica.
To be fair the novel does narrate some steamy, and deeply arousing, sex scenes. But if I were made to describe what this book is “about,” I’d find myself pressed to say “sex” or even “an affair.” Instead I might have to say that it is about class conflict, industrialization, the animality of humans, and the alienation of the post-war period. Hardly the stuff of sexy drama.
How then does Lawrence succeed in making coal something sexy? Well, the illicit cross-class affair between Lady Chatterly and her plebeian lover – the gamekeeper of all people! – ground the thematic questions in their respective characters and I suppose trick the reader into suffering through long passages on the plight of colliers with the promise of wet thighs. I shouldn’t say ‘trick,’ because the affair stands as synecdoche for the post-war, industrial age, and we’re likely meant to be as titillated by the violation of class strictures as we are by the descriptions of variously flaccid and erect penises.
And perhaps I would have been, had I not been expecting a book banned and talked up for its sexiness. Rather, when confronted with long passages on the utility of coal I found myself wondering whether everyone else had been reading a different version of the text, or were perhaps better at skimming, or whether I might have, in my terrible expectation, done the book a terrible injustice. And this, I think, is most likely the case. Had I not been turning each page waiting for the affair to begin, and then waiting for the affair to get steamier, and then waiting for the affair to be over, I might have better appreciated the rich and provocative descriptions of class conflict and a society coming to terms with loss and bewilderment. In the few moments when I put aside my adolescent preoccupations, I was moved by the clarity with which Lawrence captures suffering and loneliness. It’s my suggestion then, that if you do decide to read, or re-read, Lady Chatterly’s Lover that you do so draped in a cold, wet towel after watching scenes from a factory farm documentary. For the book isn’t (only) sexy, and you’ll spoil it something awful if, like me, you try to read it that way.