Lady Chatterley’s Nature
D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover is clearly obsessed with nature. Nature is lovingly described; most of the action takes place in a wood; animals (pheasants, a dog) are among the dramatis personae. The text is replete with naturalistic description. Nature is set over against industrial civilization in the form of collieries, as well as intellectual civilization in the form of works of fiction and pictorial art. Mellors represents nature; Sir Clifford represents predatory capitalism and intellectual refinement. Mellors is a gamekeeper who lives in a wood in a small cottage and hut; Sir Clifford lives in a grand country house with servants. Mellors roams freely through wood and world, while Sir Clifford is confined to a wheelchair (the result of an industrialized war). There is a tremendous amount of discussion of the evils of civilization and the healthy cleansing power of the natural world. The author is clearly on the side of nature.
This is the context in which to view the most salient and notorious aspect of the novel: its sexual explicitness. Why did Lawrence insist on this? It didn’t even exist in the first version he wrote, and it would obviously prevent the book from being published, as well as generating enormous critical disapproval: so why did he choose to go there? Two suggestions may be made. One is that he relished the technical challenge of writing explicitly about sex—how is the writer to do it, in what vocabulary, in how much detail, to what effect? The other is that he believed not writing about sex explicitly in a novel about adultery was simply cowardly, caving in to an irrational taboo (cf. Joyce’s Ulysses). No doubt both these motives were operative and both are fully justified, but I think the reason goes deeper and is more thematic. It is that Lawrence wanted to treat human sexuality as a fact of nature, as a natural biological phenomenon. He wanted to depict it as he might depict the behavior of the pheasants or the dog Flossie—as we might say, scientifically. He was a great describer of nature, and this was an area of the natural world that had yet to be described. In other words, he wanted to stress the continuity between nature as a whole and the part of it constituted by human sexual behavior (including sexual anatomy). So we are treated to a naturalist’s description of lovemaking between Mellors and Lady Chatterley, right down to penis and vagina. The words “fuck” and “cunt” are not shied away from. Thus sex belongs to nature, which is a Good Thing in Lawrence’s worldview. And it has to be said that he does it remarkably well: that is the marvel of the book—how well he brings off this literary feat. Has sex ever been written about so evocatively, and straight out of the gate too? We come to see sex as part of the natural history of humankind alongside eating and drinking. The body emerges as a site of pre-civilizational innocence and splendor—nothing to be ashamed of, nothing to hide or euphemize. The body, for Lawrence, is deep. It knows things. In order to convey this message the author needed to engage in some serious corporeal description. He didn’t want to shock; he wanted to recognize, to reflect. He wanted sexual realism. That is the underlying reason for writing about sex in the way he did—to make the novel realistic, not idealized or cowardly or simply false to the facts. There is nothing titillating or pornographic in the way he depicts sex (it is tame by modern standards, though still powerful); he simply gives you the nuts and bolts, the way things actually are (or were at that time).
Take his use of the word “crisis” to describe orgasm (he also uses that word). Yes, he is going to talk about male and female sexual climax (“coming off”, as the book quaintly says), but the word “crisis” injects a curious ambivalence into the description, producing a kind of literary double take: how is something so good like something generally disagreeable? It also enables the writer to avoid dull and repetitious sexual language that might evoke the wrong kind of response (Lawrence is actually a very moralistic writer). How is it possible to derive the dubious joys of pornography from this odd word? Or consider the famous passage about entwining flowers in Connie’s “maidenhair”: here we see a literal joining of nature and the sexual organs, as if hair and flowers are of the same stuff. Lawrence’s underlying theme is sounded loud and clear: sex and nature are one. And if one is beautiful, so is the other. This is not about playing naughty games with the gamekeeper in classic British “Carry On” style—there is nothing remotely funny about it–but rather an attempt to free sex from its conventional associations and return it to our organic nature. The flowers, the pheasants, the wood, and the lovers—all belong together in the natural scheme of things. And all contrast with the horrors of industrialized working-class life and the dry stiffness of the British aristocracy. It is to be noted that God is never mentioned in the book, and surely that is not an accident: nature worship takes God’s place. The problem Lawrence is unable to solve, though the book shows he was well aware of it, is how to integrate the advantages of industrialized society with the primordial attractions of nature. Money may be bad, as the book continually insists, but do we really want to go back to a world in which money does not exist? And how are comfortable houses to be built and health improved and starvation avoided? It might be nice to run naked in the rain once in a while, as the lovers do, but do you really want to be drenched all winter long? Still, in that primitive little hut in the woods Mellors and Lady Chatterley can revel in the dream of pristine nature: they can call on their sexual nature to join them with the rest of nature, albeit briefly.