I picked up a secondhand hardcover of Lady Chatterley’s Lover at a bookstore in Anchorage. Strangely enough, this book was hard to find; though I knew I could download a digital version on my Kindle, I waited until I could find a cheap used one I could shelve for aesthetic purposes. I like to keep physical copies of classic novels. Anyway, I began reading on the plane(s) back to New York, and it was awesome. It almost kept me awake on a Red Eye to Seattle. Here are my favorite clips from the first chapter and my thoughts:
OURS is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically. The cataclysm has happened, we are among the ruins, we start to build up new little habitats, to have new little hopes. It is rather hard work: there is now no smooth road into the future: but we go round, or scramble over the obstacles. We’ve got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen. (1)
Bam. First paragraph. DH Lawrence wrote post-WWI but this passage could have been written today. Scrambling over the obstacles is something we have gotten used to as a society; especially if you’re a young person, and this world is all you’ve ever known, scrambling is not only necessary but expected. We know no other way. There is an optimism inherent in this passage, however. There are always “new little hopes” to hold onto, a new world to build. We live our lives stubbornly–we refuse to take it tragically. I love that.
They sang the Wandervogel songs, and they were free. Free! That was the great word. Out in the open world, out in the forests of the morning, with lusty and splendid-throated young fellows, free to do as they liked, and–above all–to say what they liked. It was the talk that mattered supremely: the impassioned interchange of talk. Love was only a minor accompaniment. (3)
Free! This passage describes our protagonist, Constance Chatterley, and her sister Hilda before either of them were married. Born and raised as intellectuals, Constance and Hilda travel to Dresden as adolescents and engage in love affairs with young men. They call themselves free and revel in their independence, enjoying not only sex with men but philosophical conversation with them. It is the talk they enjoy more than the sex, and it is the talk that is given more importance in this passage. The freedom to speak one’s mind as a woman is more important than sexual freedom in this passage. I love that Lawrence defines freedom in terms of conversation and sex, and that he acknowledges not only the sexual restraints placed upon women but the intellectual restraints: that women are criticized for daring to express their thoughts.
Both Hilda and Constance had had their tentative love affairs by the time they were eighteen…Why couldn’t a girl be queenly, and give the gift of herself? (3)
I love the comparison between being “queenly” and “giving oneself” in this passage. It’s clear from the phrasing of the passage that being queenly doesn’t mean giving oneself but rather that a girl may be queenly even though she “gives herself” to men. Ah, the importance of commas. In this passage, having casual sex doesn’t mean a girl diminishes her “majesty,” so to speak. In other words, it doesn’t brand her a slut. This sentiment continues in the next passage:
But a woman could yield to a man without yielding her inner, free self…A woman could take a man without really giving herself away…Rather she could use this sex thing to have power over him. (4)
I love the phrase “this sex thing.” I think it’s hilarious. What this passage really describes is using sex as a weapon to control men, which is obviously wrong in the context of contemporary society. In Lawrence’s society, however, the idea that women can control their own sexuality and even harness that power to control men is kind of awesome to put into a novel. No wonder this thing was banned. However, I am grateful for the lessening of this kind of “gender-wars” attitude, even though I know there are plenty of women still using sex to control men.
She only wanted her girls to be “free,” and to “fulfill themselves.” She herself had never been able to be altogether herself: it had been denied her…She blamed her husband. But as a matter of fact, it was some old impression of authority on her own mind or soul that she could not get rid of. (4)
Constance and Hilda’s mother, in this passage, laments that she was never able to exercise sexual freedom in her youth, and that she wishes it for her daughters. She also blames her husband for tying her down and for making it impossible for her to be “free,” but she also acknowledges that it’s not her husband’s fault. Rather, it’s the fault of society for effectively manipulating her into believing the rules of a patriarchal system, that “impression of authority on her own mind” that she is unable to free herself from.
Then there is the description of Constance’s husband’s sexuality:
He had been virgin when he married: and the sex part did not mean much to him. They were so close, he and she, apart from that. And Connie exulted a little in this intimacy which was beyond sex, and beyond a man’s “satisfaction.” Clifford anyhow was not just keen on his “satisfaction,” as so many men seemed to be.
I love this passage because it highlights how much more Constance enjoys sex compared to her husband, and it also frees men from the macho idea that having sex with women is about sexual satisfaction alone. Clifford is a “manly” war veteran, yet he was a virgin when he married and only enjoys sex as an extension of deeper intimacy with his wife, not for “satisfaction.” This passage allows for men to be emotional creatures as well as sexual and physical ones.
I love the sex and gender norms that are shattered in just the first six or seven pages of this novel. Constance is a much more sexual creature than her husband, but she enjoys intellectual freedom as well and uses sex to manipulate men. Despite these traits, she is able to make a good marriage based on her own merit and she exhibits a huge amount of agency in her life. I think it’s obvious why this novel was banned, and I haven’t even gotten to the juicy parts yet, the ones that were labeled “pornographic.” Stay tuned!
The best kind of opening chapter for me is one in which I become quickly enamored of the main characters, which is kind of difficult to do in while also establishing setting and drawing the reader in with promises of excellent plot. But I quickly fell in love with Constance and Clifford and Hilda and also with Lawrence’s narrative voice, which asserts itself as a character in the story to delightful effect. To me, this was a perfect first chapter. Can anyone think of an amazing first chapter of a novel that establishes setting and character so perfectly that it acts as a blueprint for the rest of the novel? Jane Austen comes to mind for me!