D. H. Lawrence argues for a philosophical naturalism that trumps Christendom and relies on the romantic ideology that personal redemption and salvation is to be found through sex.
The novel mourns the loss of innocence caused by WW1 and laments the expansion of collieries in the British countryside. Lawrence captures the transformation of the landscape from ancient forests, to blackened mining towns where local villagers are degraded and debased by the industrial revolution’s hunger for coal. Aristocrats are also being transformed from custodians into destructive capitalists.
In stark comparison the two protagonists are innocents. Introverted and separate from contemporary values they are uniquely connected to nature where their shared sexuality is the purest expression of all that is good and free in a corrupted world. They are unorthodox custodians of a type of sacred relationship.
Lawrence’s narrative is completely persuasive in delivering his philosophy. Although we know almost nothing of the game keeper, his intellect and sensitivity hidden until the last page, the reader is sure to align with the lovers against a stiff traditionalist world and Lady Chatterly’s disabled and impotent husband. The ideology is seductive and irrepressibly romantic in an agnostic and individualised culture like ours. At the time of writing, D.H. Lawrence’s ideas were so revolutionary, and text so explicit the book was banned.
Lawrence has created a story, where the two protagonists are able to follow their own feelings and search for individual liberty without incurring excessive damage to others. His convenient narrative convinces of the rightness of their illicit love and the necessity of infidelity by playing to extremes. The problem with Lawrence’s narrative is its superficiality. By creating a fictionalised and convenient account of life it manages to circumvent the hard reality that sin has consequences that weigh not just the lovers themselves, but also onto subsequent generations.
Lady Chatterly’s Lover can be laid alongside the true life story of Lawrence’s seduction of Baroness Frieda von Richthofen. Their passionate connection convinced Frieda to leave her English husband and their three young children. The damage experienced by Earnest Weekly, Charles, Elsa and Joy, as explored in a novelised account, Frieda by Annabel Abbs, is catastrophic, damaging the lives and well-being of the entire family. The personal cost to Frieda, namely the loss of relationship with her children was compounded by violent abuse she experienced from Lawrence. Frieda is Lawrence’s inspiration behind the character of Connie, Lady Chatterly, and the novel a kind of philosophical exegesis on their relationship.
In the ninety six years since lady Chatterly’s lover was written, Lawrence’s ethical framework has become a cultural norm in the West, marking Lawrence as a pioneer of individualism. What the real life story of Freida shows is it is often the women and always the children who bear the lion’s share of the cost for individual freedom. Although written when he turned 40, Lawrence is arguing for a youthful version of reality, a head-strong individualism and unsustainable romantic ideal. These are philosophies that do not weather with time and are disproved by another twenty years of life experience. In order to sell his philosophy Lady Chatterly’s Lover can only convince within the confines of its artificial and constrained narrative. We are spared the suffering of Lord Chatterly, and the long term prospects of Connie and Mellor’s contentment or the effects on their child raised severed from extended family and community.
A far more mature reflection on the reality of sin and the true cost of infidelity is explored in Brideshead Revisited. Evelyn Waugh was also forty when he wrote Brideshead Revisited a book that mournfully explores all the optimism of youth in love, sex and friendship, but looks back with the sad wisdom of maturity. On reflection, Charles Ryder admits to the failures in his life which have been played out alongside two generations of the Flyte family; torn apart and damaged by their father’s infidelity. Ryder, broken by experience and loss, in a destroyed landscape of a battered old family estate at the end of WW2 finally surrenders to Christ, the a light by which the whole story is then suddenly illuminated.