On Literary Censorship: Lady Chatterley’s Lover

Of all the books I chose for this series, D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover seems to be the most notorious. Banned as soon as published, it’s the only one I’ve found to have a landmark trial around it. Published in Italy in 1928, it was declared “forever banned” by English officials due to its explicit content and attack of morality. Forever, it turns out, only lasted about 31 years. In 1960, the book would be examined in a trial that would shake England and release the ban. The trial isn’t the most interesting part of Lady Chatterley’s history for me, though. Rather, it’s the response to the trial’s outcome. Who could have imagined a book Lawrence self-published because he knew it would too scandalous for the publishing houses would become one of the most popular novels in England just a few decades later?

And make no mistake, Lady Chatterleys was scandalous for its time. It used coarse language in an incredibly casual way, depicted several scenes of sex in more explicit ways than ever before, and it made a great deal of society uncomfortable. Even in post-acquittal 1960s England the book was a landmark piece of literature that solidified a dividing line between old Victorian modes of thinking and more modern ideas of what was culturally acceptable. While high society celebrated its publication and the release of its ban, most “ordinary” people found it to be so repulsive they took to burning it in the streets.

Book burning as a response to being challenged by something has always baffled me a little, and it’s a practice that has followed us around for longer than I care to try to understand— even as recently as this year. It’s a lot of trouble to go through to mirror an act that echoes back to one of the most horrific times in human history. Perhaps the most perplexing thing about it happening at all though is that in order to burn or otherwise damage and destroy something you hate, usually the first thing you have to do is buy it. And here’s the thing — buying the art you seek to destroy is a pretty big step in the direction of supporting the artist. First, because any scandal or notoriety surrounding a work automatically brings it to the attention of the public and makes them wonder just what all the fuss is about. And second, capitalism doesn’t care about your hatred. In some way or another, you have financially contributed to the author’s ability to keep working on their craft.

My favorite part of the Lady Chatterley’s trial is a perfect example of this phenomenon. A man walks into a courtroom, and with an air of panic in his voice asks, “would you let your wife read this book?”, and the publishing house is acquitted. Soon after the trial ends, people flock to find a copy of this morally salacious text. Nobody tells any modern woman what to do or not to do, and it doesn’t take long for sales to reach into the millions. You want to sell some art? Challenge people. Tell them they can’t have it. Sales out of spite are still sales.

Even more than the trial, though, there’s something about the text itself that I love. With every chunk of time that passes, and every new lens of social critique to look through, it seems Lady Chatterley has something to offer. What once was morally abhorrent is now totally commonplace. More than just the language and the descriptions of the scenes, Lawrence has told a story of a woman with the freedom to seek her sexual pleasure from anyone she pleases. Her husband, disabled from the war and unable to have sex or bear children, consents to her bearing another man’s child if it means she is happy and that the family will have an heir. Instead of the usual disabled and angry literary villain, here is a man not only letting the woman he loves do whatever will make her the happiest, but also pursuing his own passions independent of her. His only protestation comes when he finds the man Connie Chatterley loves is below both of their social stations.

In addition to the sexual liberty Connie Chatterley is allowed to take — she chooses each of her lovers and leaves when no longer satisfied, learns more about what she wants for herself, and for the most part makes her own choices about when and with what frequency her affairs take place — her husband is an independent force in his own right. Intellectually brilliant and fierce in his beliefs, the only reason Connie falls out with him at all is because they each begin to grow bored with one another. Where once he was able to dazzle her with his stories and knowledge, and she doted on him because he needed her, once she finds herself possessed with the desire for a child and falling in love with the gamekeeper there is nothing more Clifford Chatterley can do. But he isn’t entirely heartbroken. He and Connie have a mutually dependent, if open, relationship and while she’s out having her affairs, he’s in falling in love with his new caretaker — yet another woman dazzled by his wealth and intellect. Both Connie and Clifford find what they want in a mate without altogether giving up on one another.

Perhaps the only time the mask slips for Clifford is when his chair gives out. He feels the loss of his independent mobility most keenly when he cannot get himself unstuck and has to rely on both the fawning Connie and her lover to free him. The scene is a step toward the reveal of Connie’s love for a poorer man that ultimately angers Clifford, but it is also a poignant scene for any disabled person who has ever felt the total loss of their freedom against their will and in a most unexpected way.

Reading Clifford’s battle with himself and those around him as he tries to unstick the wheelchair from its rut hit me more abruptly than I had expected. I can remember times when the mobility aids I used, whether it be a wheelchair or my crutches, hindered me more than helped, even as they gave me a sense that I could navigate the world without the feeling of being a burden on others. Clifford’s motivations are a little different from my own — he seems never to worry about being a burden to anyone, only about maintaining independence in the only area of his life he’s been granted it — but the idea is the same. The wheelchair is motorized and when it dies Clifford refuses to believe the situation isn’t one he can get out of on his own, that he cannot maintain control over the one thing he has been able to independently operate whenever he chose. Total loss of agency in life is something everyone fears, but no one so keenly as a disabled person, and in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Lawrence engages with it directly.

Despite, or maybe because of, its 1960s trial, I don’t think Lady Chatterley is going anywhere. If it takes the lure of “salacious sexy banned novel” to bring readers to it then so be it, but there’s so much more going on than just racy sex and explicit language. Feminists have engaged with this text at one point or another for years, and rightly so. The role of Connie’s sexuality is more complex than at first glance, after all, and there is at least one scene which reads very much like a rape that — fortunately for the court outcome — neither side of the trial seemed to engage with or take note of. No one I’ve found, though, has yet to discuss the role disability plays in the novel. When we’re not being turned into horrendous looking villains, it seems, we’re outright ignored or discounted. But maybe the time just hasn’t come yet. People have been shifting their views about this novel’s portrayal of women for years, perhaps one day someone will take a closer look at Clifford, too.

Until then, take note from the trial that skyrocketed the sales of D.H. Lawrence’s last novel and curl up with a banned book and an open mind.

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Katelyn Nelson

Katelyn Nelson

Katelyn Nelson’s writing interests lean mostly toward pop culture analysis and representation. She tweets @24th_Doctor, mostly about horror.