Doris Lessing on Lady Chatterley's Lover

In the popular imagination, Lady Chatterley's Lover is a period sex romp. But, writes Doris Lessing, DH Lawrence's landmark novel, created in the shadow of war as he was dying of tuberculosis, is an invocation to intimacy and one of the most powerful anti-war novels ever written

Lady Chatterley is as alive in the popular imagination as is naked Lady Godiva riding on her horse through Coventry, hiding behind the curtains of her hair. But Lady Godiva was a heroine of purity and integrity, and most people were ashamed to take even a peek at her, whereas Lady Chatterley is always good for a laugh, or rather a dirty snigger: Lady Chatterley and her bit of rough. Because of DH Lawrence, any comic has only to mention game- keepers to get a laugh, and what an irony, for Lawrence was preaching sex as a kind of sacrament, and more than that, one that would save us all from the results of war and the nastinesses of our civilisation. "Doing dirt on sex," he anathematised; "it is the crime of our times, because what we need is tenderness towards the body, towards sex, we need tender-hearted fucking." So he went on, but what happened? He stands for dirt and the snigger, at least on the popular level.

Many novels do not gain by relating them to their times. Others, usually the polemical kind, may only be understood in context, and Lady Chatterley's Lover is one. To read it unenlightened, particularly the feverish third version, can only leave the reader wondering what on earth is all this urgent preaching about, particularly now, when it is hard even to remember what a mealy-mouthed society Lawrence was writing in. It was prudish, repressed and priggish, and as always in such a time the dirty snigger was never far away.

The three versions of Lady Chatterley's Lover were written in the four years before his death. It was his way to completely rewrite, not so much as revision as a fresh vision. He valued the liveliness of the new more than a reworking. We may argue that the third version is not the best, and many people have, but it is the one Lawrence took his stand on. It is the most emotional, insistent, urgent: perhaps it is the intensity of the novel that has earned Lawrence his reputation as a sex-obsessed writer.

So, what were the circumstances? First, he was dying of tuberculosis, but he was, as we put it, in denial, though it had been properly diagnosed, and with part of his mind he knew the truth. He had always had "a weak chest": in those days this was often a euphemism for tuberculosis. Even as a young man he had suffered all kinds of pneumonia, bronchitis, colds, coughs. It looks as if he succumbed to the great flu epidemic of 1918-19. Yet he refused to admit to tuberculosis, talked of his bronchials, his colds, his coughs, he had caught a chill - anything but TB. And this was strange in a man who valued the truth, and clear thinking and speaking, particularly on physical matters.

Before Lady Chatterley's Lover he had earned the reputation of a sexual crusader. His novels and tales had been banned, confiscated, caused scandals. He was sometimes reviewed more in sorrow than in anger: such talents, allied with such grossness - this was often the tone of literary criticism of him and his work. Women in Love had particularly shocked people. He was always in an embattled position, defending, attacking, being defended by others.

He had the temperament that goes with tuberculosis: hypersensitive, excitable. Very irritable, are these sufferers, given to explosions of temper. They know their time is short. They are reminded of their deaths with every rattling breath, every cough. The incessant coughing of Lawrence's later years got him thrown out of hotels, meant he had to choose his lodgings with care. As a young man Lawrence had been proud of his body, his "weak chest" notwithstanding. What comes out of the earlier novels, particularly The White Peacock, is the picture of a youth at home in the countryside, with friends, alert to every bird, animal, insect, plant. He could have said with John Clare, "I love wild things almost to foolishness."

This body-proud countryman with "a weak chest" became the man whose rotting body filled him with miserable self-loathing. So many weltering aggravating emotions were at work in this very ill man as he wrote and rewrote Lady Chatterley's Lover

His wife Frieda was having an affair with a lusty Italian, and Lawrence knew it. Never the most tactful of women, she did not go out of her way to conceal her assignations. She did not spare his feelings in anything. She is supposed to have told friends that Lawrence had been impotent since 1926. Tuberculosis does two unkind contradictory things: it heightens sexuality and its feverish imaginings, and it causes impotence.

The sexual life of these two was always noisily combative; nothing secretive about it. Friends, visitors and the enamoured acolytes Lawrence attracted were informed about the stages of their love and their love- making, in prose and in verse - Lawrence wrote about everything, what he thought, what he did, all the time, in letters to friends everywhere, in talk. Frieda complained to sisters, ex-lovers, friends, about his sexuality. He did not satisfy her, he was really more homosexual than normal. Frieda was a woman who had had, and would have, many lovers: she got Lawrence into bed within a few minutes of their first meeting.

In spite of all her earthiness and her expertise, he retained some ideas not far off the mystical. He always believed that nothing would do in lovemaking but the mutual orgasm. "We came off together that time" - or words to that effect, occur in more than one of his tales. Some of his fantasies, as exposed in Lady Chatterley's Lover, were those of a romantic boy. This was a sexually ignorant time to the point that these days it is hard to remember it or understand it. Lawrence did not know about the clitoris, which he called "a beak". A beak that rubbed and tore "in the old stagers, particularly". To him the clitoris was a weapon, against the male. This level of ignorance about the clitoris was common. It would be mentioned in sex manuals without emphasis, or not mentioned at all.

As for me, I learned of the clitoris from Balzac - not of its existence or its uses, but that it was part of the lexicon of love, with a status. Lawrence knew everything about the G-spot, though he would not have heard the term and probably would have found the idea of localising it and naming it abhorrent. The vaginal orgasm at its best, as described by him - his informant must have been one of his lovers - is as accurate as his talk about the clitoris is ignorant. But we are in an emotional battlefield here: Lawrence came too quickly, said Frieda, and then, complained Lawrence, she had to bring herself to orgasm with the aid of the pesky clit. But with sexual accomplishment as a banner of progress in this polemical war, what they said in their times of complaint was probably not more than the half of it.

When Lawrence discovered anal sex, things went well, for him at least, though his amiable pet name for her was "shitbag".

If the lovemaking in Lady Chatterley is a mix of the misleading and the wonderful, then the talk, as reported from the ranch in Taos, the quarrels, the gossip, was repellent. While Lawrence was shocking and thrilling the world with his novels and tales, visitors to the ranch were often disappointed and even driven away from the couple because of the violence, sometimes the sheer nastiness of it all. Visitors might report that Lawrence would "punish" Frieda for some misdemeanour by making her scrub the floor, and Frieda obeyed, weeping and whining and thoroughly enjoying herself. Lawrence hit Frieda. She hit him. It all went on noisily and publicly on that stage peopled by the acolytes, hopeful future lovers, invited visitors, the uninvited; and yet a young disciple reported that this man who was in the newspapers as some kind of monster for his writing was the most charming host, a wonderful talker - he enthralled his listeners - and a fine cook. He was good to children, who liked him.

The frequent unpleasantness of their emotional life was clearly not what the two thought important, or central. They shared something deep that transcended the sadomasochistic games, the quarrels. Lawrence told Frieda that she was and always had been the central experience of his life and that he would have been nothing without her. When somebody sympathised with Frieda after Lawrence's death because of what he saw as an ugly marriage, Frieda told him that he knew nothing about it: Lawrence had been wonderful, and together they had enjoyed an experience that was beyond most people.

It was not only the embattled marital relations that often shocked witnesses; it was reported that Lawrence was sometimes cruel to animals. He beat a little bitch for being on heat, and he hanged a hen upside down "to cool her off down there" when she was broody. There he was, impotent, while preaching about the importance of sex; here they were obdurately female, as if the Bacchae had assumed the shape of domestic animals, and he had to punish them. So, he was capable of lapses into craziness, but the trouble was, he had always to be in the right, even though so contradictory. This man, who was capable of hurting animals, wrote wonderful poems about them, unforgettable stories.

Which brings us to the tales that have infuriated feminists. "The Fox" is one, but I can't see it. More and more do I feel the bleak cold threadbare dismalness of England after the war, struck by the great flu epidemic, short of food and warmth. And who is that red fox flickering through the grass, his knowing eyes on the two young women and their struggle for survival?

"St Mawr" is described as woman-hating, that magical tale about the horse, but what surely is strongest in it is the rage of complaints about men, who are not male enough, not men at all, for this is Lawrence's perennial discontent, that men have become effeminate. St Mawr, the horse, is male and marvellous, but no real horse was ever such a creature of myth and the demonic, this fiery glowing stallion which - if we do have to diminish the power of the thing - is probably an emanation of Lawrence's wish-thinking, poor Lawrence, so ill, so weakened. St Mawr is all male, and the women in the tale compare him to modern males, who they say are so tame and so feeble.

From the start of Lawrence's work, to its end, we find men described as inadequate, weak, without balls, unmale, feeble, and women are always looking for "real" men. In Women in Love, in "St Mawr", in stories like "The Captain's Doll", men are mocked, derided, women ride away in search of "real" men, look for gamekeepers, gypsies, Indians, all the time cruelly jeering.

Lawrence is described as a misogynist. This is surely one of the great ironies. What we do have from him is a report on the sex war of his time, and no one has done it better. His men and women are usually at odds, or in strange spiritual conjunctions, as in "The Ladybird". "Men and women do not like each other" - the theme comes up again in Lady Chatterley's Lover. No one ever wrote better about the power struggles of sex and love. What a paradox. Lawrence often wrote nonsense about the mechanics of sex but is full of insights about men and women.

"We are among the ruins," says Lawrence, opening the tale which is supposed to be all about sex, and announcing what I think is the major theme of the novel, usually overlooked. It is permeated with the first world war, the horror of it. And against the horrors, the rotting bodies, the senseless slaughter of the trenches, the postwar poverty and bleakness - against the cataclysm, "the fallen skies", Lawrence proposes to put in the scales love, tender sex, the tender bodies of people in love; England would be saved by warm-hearted fucking.

Now, looking back from our perspective of over 60 years after that second terrible war, we see Mellors, who was a soldier in India in the first world war, and Constance Chatterley with her war-crippled husband, clinging on to each other, and just ahead the next war that would involve the whole world.

It is not that, once having seen how war overshadows this tale, threatens these lovers, the love story loses its poignancy, but for me it is no longer the central theme, despite what Lawrence intended. Now I think this is one of the most powerful anti-war novels ever written. How was it I had not seen that, when I first read it?

But I had. I remember reading it and thinking - Yes, that's my father (and it was my mother too, but I was years off seeing that). I was a young woman, and here was this novel with all its scandalous fame at last in my hands. It had come across the U-boat haunted sea, from the London bookshops. The expurgated edition, of course. I was soon besotted with the lovers, in their little hut, with scenes like Connie crouching to hold the baby pheasants on her palm, while Mellors bends over her to help; her tears; the wonderful scenes of spring beginning in the woods where she walks; the invocations to tenderness; the great theme of two against the world.

Rereading this novel many years and some loves later, the great sex scenes have lost their power. We have had a sexual revolution, and a great deal of information. Some of the lyrical passages still thrill young women. In parts of the world where women are not free, may be stoned to death or publicly hanged for adultery, this novel is being read as Lawrence wanted it read, as a manifesto for sex, for love.

Some of his scenes are on the edge of the ridiculous, but surely we have to salute him for his courage. Lovers do behave absurdly, in love talk and in intimacies they might not want outsiders to guess at, but Lawrence is not shy about making his lovers run about in the rain, the woman dancing - it was the fashion then, Isadora Duncan was responsible - or twining flowers in each other's pubic hair. It is precisely his courage that sometimes brings him to the edge of farce. A more canny, and a lesser, novelist would have excised these passages that were bound to invite mockery. But throughout all his work, the wonderful can be side by side with the absurd.

Lawrence, the miner's son, had a great deal to say about the class war. His verses about the upper classes, the middle classes, are among the silliest ever written. Hard to believe that the same man wrote some of the most beautiful poems in the language. "Snake", "Bavarian Gentians", "Not I, ... but the wind", the lovely poem "The Piano", about the grown man remembering his mother playing to him as a child. The Lawrence who wrote "The Ship of Death" was surely never introduced to the man who wrote about the beastly bourgeois.

He married a German aristocrat, and wrote a novel about a Lady Chatterley who was married to a baronet. Among his friends were aristocrats. When some scribbler snipes at the people living in fashionable areas of London he will probably be living there himself as soon as he can afford it.

Lawrence may have chosen to live far from his origins, but he never wrote better than about the unforgettable daughter of the mining community, Ivy Bolton, who is as solidly inside the values of her class, though she aspires to the refinements of the upper classes, as Clifford Chatterley is inside his, believing that "there is an absolute gulf between the ruling and the serving classes".

Ivy Bolton's husband was killed in a mining accident, and she says, "No, I'll abide by my own. I've not much respect for people."

A sentiment expressed by many of the people in this book, in their times and seasons. Which brings us to Clifford's cronies, who come to visit and who sit around exchanging their disillusioned views. They are all officers from the trenches, and the skies have very thoroughly fallen for them, and they see themselves as bound to set things right, or at least to define them. They believe in the life of the mind, and Constance sits and listens, her heart cold within her because of the deadly negativity of it all.

She asks Tommy Dukes why men and women don't like each other very much these days. Brigadier Tommy Dukes is here to illustrate Lawrence's perennial thesis, that Englishmen lack virility, lack balls, are generally weak and unmanly. Though there is nothing unmasculine about Tommy Dukes. He is quite happy, thank you, going his own way, without sex.

Constance asks, wistfully enough, if he would not want to make love with her, but no, Tommy Dukes says he likes her but he would not want to make love. Whereas Mellors says that he could die for a bit of good cunt. Constance is present throughout this novel as a real woman, with a proper arse on her, and a woman's legs, not one of these modern girls with "Small boy buttocks like two collar-studs" and without any real femininity.

How I did respond to this, as a young woman, to Mellors who loved Constance Chatterley for being womanly.

During the 1960s feminist revolution I was surprised and amused to hear some very vocal feminists say that they had read Lady Chatterley as I had, a generation or two before. One has to accept the fact that most women still yearn for the real, the perfect, the whole lover, their lost twin halves (Plato - but Lawrence had no time for him), for Mr Right, and recent events have confirmed it. That witty book, Bridget Jones's Diary, unleashed dozens of novels by young women, all looking for Mr Right, and for a man who, like Mellors, "had the courage of his tenderness", though tenderness certainly was not on the agendas of the 1960s revolution. And none of these feminists, children of peace, noticed the deep anger against war and the results of war that I think is the emotional foundation of the novel. They could barely remember the second world war, their parents' show, and the first world war was still not being remembered as it is now, was still the Great Unmentionable, or a line or two in the history books.

In 1960 there was a court case about this novel, a noisy affair, a landmark in the story of English literature, since there was an attempt to have the unexpurgated version banned. Many literary notables stood up for it, and for the freedom of speech. An aspect of that trial has taken a long time to be seen.

Among the famous love scenes there is one that was not noticed by judge or jury, by the prosecution or defence - not by anybody. In it Lawrence lauds the anal fuck as the apex of sexual experience, but it is written in such a way as not to be explicit. Well, it is known that a lot of people enjoy anal sex. In these days he would not have to write so obscurely. Apparently he is leaving behind tender-hearted fucking, and the vaginal orgasm, not to mention the poor old clitoris, for what is described is really an anal rape. Constance enjoys it and reaches her fulfilment as a woman - we have Lawrence's word for it. But it is so funny that no one in that court saw what Lawrence was actually saying in this novel, defended as being really so moral and so wholesome.

What has to strike us now is the angry polemics of the piece. And now, in this passage, we do reach the ridiculous, because of his blindness as to how its insistence must strike us, once we notice it. We do know that Lawrence's sexual problems were resolved in anal sex, and these days probably few people would say more than, "Really? Now that's interesting, seeing how he did go on about cunt." Here is this fierce moralistic writing, with all of Lawrence's power behind it. And what has tender-hearted sex got to do with anal rape? Why not say, simply, that Mellors and his Constance did enjoy a bit of buggery? But no, this novel is a manifesto, or perhaps several, because of the number of different selves who lived inside Lawrence's skin, and it was fused by the force of this dying, driven man's need to tell the world that he could save it.

I once owned a farm cottage on the edge of Dartmoor and I often drove up and down from London, giving lifts, as in those days we thought nothing of it. Once, coming up from Devon, I stopped near Salisbury Plain, where they train soldiers, to give a lift to a very young soldier who I at once saw was in an unusual state of mind. He was flushed, smiling, could not stop talking, sometimes exploding in a young laugh, surprising himself and me. He was in love. Scarcely conscious of me, the middle-aged woman driving him up to London and his true love, he had to talk, had to tell someone ... he wished he could tell me how he felt, he didn't have the words, but did I know this book here? And he brought out a copy of Lady Chatterley's Lover. A friend had given it to him, saying it was all about love, and yes, he was right, this friend, he had never read anything like it, well, he wasn't really a reader, actually this was the only book he had ever read. But he had read it several times, and kept finding new things in it. Had I read it? he wanted to know, and if not I must look out for a copy. Then I would understand what he was feeling now ... and there he sat, all the way to London, Lady Chatterley's Lover in his hand, smiling, laughing, given over to joy.

Surely this youth, who was soon going to be married, was Lawrence's ideal reader for whom he wrote his testament novel three times.

This happened a long time ago, the ecstatic young soldier would be in his sixties now, Lawrence has been dead for over 70 years, and Lady Chatterley's Lover is still at large in the world, still potent and persuasive, and in the hands of young women in countries where they know they may be killed for love.

· This is an edited extract from Doris Lessing's introduction to the new Penguin Classic edition of Lady Chatterley's Lover

Doris Lessing

The GuardianTramp

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