Reviewers and government censors condemned D.H. Lawrence's last novel as radically pornographic, a vision of a relationship and a society without moral boundaries. But Lady Chatterley's Lover is not really a radical novel, unless it can be said to be radically reactionary, a profoundly conservative response to the modern condition. What was the modern condition that Lawrence found so foul, and who was the author, a paradoxical man whose somewhat puritan mind raged against modernity through an unprecedentedly unconstrained celebration of sexuality?
David Herbert Lawrence was born on September 11, 1885, the product of an unhappy marriage between a coal-miner father and a schoolteacher mother. His birthplace, Eastwood, was a mining village in Nottinghamshire, the heart of England's industrial midlands. Lawrence became deeply attached to his mother, who was deeply committed to helping her children escape the working class. In was Nottinghamshire that Lawrence developed his hostility towards the mining industry that had dehumanized his father and destroyed the pastoral English countryside of his birthplace, a hostility evident throughout Lady Chatterley's Lover in Lawrence's fulmination against industrialism and modern technology.
Lawrence supported himself by teaching school, although his ambition was to become a poet. In 1909, he published his first poems; in 1911 and 1912, he published his first two novels: The White Peacock and The Trespasser, respectively. In 1912, he left England with Frieda Weekley (née Von Richtofen), the wife of one of his college professors; they were married in 1914, after the publication of his third novel, the autobiographical Sons and Lovers (1913). His elopement marked the beginning of a nomadic lifestyle. Except for a stint in England during the First World War, Lawrence spent practically the rest of his life traveling the world, from Germany to New Mexico, in search of a healthy atmosphere in which to rehabilitate his lungs (he had been diagnosed with tuberculosis, the disease that eventually killed him in 1930, at the age of 44). Lawrence's elopement also marked the first of his rejections of conventional morality, rejections that would play themselves out in sexual experimentation that almost ruined his marriage, and that informed his later writing, especially Lady Chatterley's Lover.
In the sixteen years between his marriage and his death, Lawrence was remarkably prolific, publishing many novels, including the novels generally considered his finest: The Rainbow (1915) and Women in Love (1920); nonfiction, including history textbooks, travel memoirs and scholarly psychological tracts; and several collections of short stories and poems. In the last years of his life, wracked by tuberculosis, Lawrence wrote three very different versions of what would prove his final novel, the sexually explicit Lady Chatterley's Lover. He survived to see the final version--first published in the spring of 1928--ripped by most reviewers and censored in England and America.
Lawrence was not the only author writing in the decades after the first World War whose work was considered radically immoral; famously, for instance, a furor arose over the publication of James Joyce's great novel Ulysses years before Lady Chatterley's Lover was written. Many of the modernist writers and poets who dominated postwar avant-garde literary art placed a high premium on discarding social convention, which they believed had been exposed as empty by the carnage of the war. Society was morally bankrupt, empty of real meaning, composed of individuals between whom no real connection or understanding was possible. In response, artists began to experiment radically with form, and they set a premium on art that was "real," that eliminated convention to get at the core of life.
D.H. Lawrence was not really one of these formally and thematically radical modernists. While he shared the modernist belief that the postwar world was virtually bereft of meaningful values, Lawrence laid the blame at the doorstep of technology, the class system, and intellectual life. He believed that modern industry had deprived people of individuality, making them cogs in the industrial machine, a machine driven by greed. And modern intellectual life conspired with social constraint to bleed men dry of their vital, natural vigor. Lawrence wanted to revive in the human consciousness an awareness of savage sensuality, a sensuality which would free men from their dual enslavement to modern industry and intellectual emptiness. He was in many ways a primitivist: he saw little reason for optimism in modern society, and looked nostalgically backwards towards the days of pastoral, agricultural England.
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