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Lady Chatterley's Lover | Study Guide

D.H. Lawrence

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Lady Chatterley's Lover | Context


World War I

World War I, originally known as the Great War, lasted from 1914 to 1918. It was fought by most European countries, the United States, Russia, several Middle Eastern countries, and some other regions. It was the worst war the world had ever seen to that time, and its consequences lasted long after the war ended.

Human casualties were high: about 9.4 million people were killed and 15 million were severely injured, many of whom were crippled. The war cost an estimated $208 billion, and every country other than the United States went into debt. A global depression followed within 10 years, with widespread inflation and high unemployment. The political divisions of the world shifted, with a decrease in monarchies and an increase in republics.

Postwar Britain

The war hit Britain especially hard. It had the highest casualties of all nations, and its economy was ruined. Taxes increased, inflation and unemployment soared, and the value of the British pound dropped to about 20 percent of its prewar value.

The war also began the decline of Britain as a world power. Before the war began Britain had experienced decades of prosperity and had a vast empire. After the war many colonies, emboldened by the active role they had played in supporting Britain during the war, began to seek independence. Once a major economic partner, foreign trade declined after the war as former partners were no longer dependent on Britain for goods. The United States was gaining prominence in foreign affairs and would soon surpass Britain as the world leader.

These negative consequences offset any glow from winning the war. The British, along with many Americans and other Europeans, felt a general sense of hopelessness and desperation about the war's devastation. Many people, especially the young, felt a loss of meaning and direction. Some young people rebelled and rejected traditional values. They sought to break from the past and searched for meaning with new values and behaviors. Society changed significantly. Gender roles shifted, and men and women interacted more openly. Women wore shorter dresses and less clothing in general compared to society before the war. Some people pursued more hedonistic activities and spurned settling down in a career or marriage.

Lady Chatterley's Lover as Postwar Literature

Postwar England was characterized by a widespread dissatisfaction. It led D.H. Lawrence to move to the United States in 1922 in the hope of developing a utopian community. That did not pan out, and he returned to England a few years before his death. His fears for his fellow Britons—and people around the world—inspired Lady Chatterley's Lover. Like Connie Chatterley, he believed people were falling apart. He hoped his novel could show people the importance of personal relationships and the healing power of sex as he believed they could save them and provide a meaningful purpose in life.

All characters in Lady Chatterley's Lover are affected by the social, economic, political, or physical effects of World War I. Many find life hopeless or meaningless. The young intellectuals who congregate at Wragby have little substance in their lives and search for something in their intellectual talk they cannot find in personal relationships or other areas. They, like Clifford Chatterley, look to success to fill them with meaning but have huge voids in their lives. For example, Clifford Chatterley has been physically injured in the war, but his physical disability is not his only wound. He is wounded emotionally as well. Even though his own writing gives him a modicum of success, he often looks at Connie with vacant eyes, and his stories lack substance. Connie Chatterley is directly affected by the inability of her husband to give her anything other than his presence, room and board, and the appearance of intimacy. This makes her physically ill and drains her of energy and the will to live. Before rediscovering herself and her physical needs, she plods through each day and feels great dismay that this is all there is to life.

The war has disrupted the division of the social classes and people's traditional places in society. Clifford's sister is devastated by the rift the war has caused in her family homestead, holding it responsible for separating her, Sir Geoffrey, and Clifford, who she believed would live out their lives together. Instead she unwillingly leaves her ancestral home. Clifford hates what the war has done to Wragby's grounds: the loss of timber for the war production, the diminishing value of coal, and the encroachment of the middle classes on its territory. He wants to preserve his tiny slice of the world in a sort of bubble, unaffected by the changes sweeping England. After Connie leaves him for his gamekeeper, he discovers he cannot keep the postwar influences at bay. They touch him no matter how hard he wants to ignore their existence.


Modernism as portrayed in the works of D.H. Lawrence is a movement in which artists, writers, architects, and designers broke from traditional forms and structures and experimented with new styles and techniques to express their ideas. The movement began roughly around the turn of the 20th century and lasted until the mid-1930s. It was strongest in Europe and North America, especially between the two world wars.

Modernists reveled in breaking the rules in an attempt to create something new. They rejected Victorian morality and often held utopian and existential values. One of their unifying characteristics was the search for meaning. They believed art had transformative powers and could heal people from the despair and hopelessness resulting from World War I, the emptiness and alienation accompanying ever-increasing industrialization, and the growing social inequalities and political oppression spreading throughout Europe and Russia.

Modernist writers rejected the realism of the 19th-century literature and emphasized the interior lives of their characters. There was a heightened focus on the human psyche and psychology. Some, such as English writer Virginia Woolf, used a technique called stream of consciousness to reveal an uninterrupted flow of a character's conscious thoughts, feelings, and reactions.

D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover broke from tradition primarily through its substance. Like other Modernist writers, Lawrence was discontented with society and felt it was on a downward spiral because of postwar disillusionment, industrialism, rising consumerism, and Britain's changing role in the world order. Two of the main characters violate sexual norms by committing adultery. Lawrence included explicit references to sexual acts and the human body not found in other socially appropriate literature of the time. While Lawrence wanted to provoke his readers, he did so to shock them out of their comfortable views so they would think about sex as something life enhancing and restorative rather than as shameful and sinful. His primary purpose in writing Lady Chatterley's Lover was not to entertain, nor to appeal to readers' prurient interests. Rather he hoped he could change readers' attitudes about sex and thus change their lives and heal the world.

Coal Country

D.H. Lawrence was born in Eastwood, a coal-mining village in Nottinghamshire. At the time of his birth the agricultural way of life was disappearing in Nottinghamshire, and the area was experiencing the effects of industrialization. Among these were the blighted countryside, increased friction between social classes, and industrial stress and labor unrest. Labor strikes had become a way for the working class to advocate for better working conditions and wages, creating tensions with the ruling class. Coal powered the energy needs of industrialization, and the Yorkshire-Nottinghamshire region was one of the primary coal-producing regions in the country.

The setting of Lady Chatterley's Lover is an area similar to the area in which Lawrence grew up. Wragby is located in the Midlands, a geographic region that includes Nottinghamshire. It, too, is located in coal country. The nearest village is Tevershall, a fictitious village. There is, however, an actual English village named Teversal, which was spelled Tevershall in the 1500s. The real Teversal bears a striking resemblance to Wragby. It was the family seat of landowners who had owned the land for generations and resided in large dwellings on the properties. The landowners typically owned a coal-mining pit. In both the real and fictional villages the majority of the villagers worked in the coal pit or a related business. And like Lawrence's hometown, the village showed signs of blight. It had miles and miles of unsightly homes for the workers. The air was perpetually hazy, filled with pollution from the mines. And the sounds and smells of the colliery or coal mine dominated the countryside.

The coal pits were underground, and for decades workers had advocated for better working conditions and pay. They formed unions, and political parties formed around the workers' issues. The colliery owners came to represent old England, whereas the workers came to represent a modern, more progressive England. One of the ways the coal miners effected change was through labor strikes. During World War I the government took control of the coal mines to prevent such strikes and to ensure an uninterrupted supply of coal for war production. In order to gain cooperation from the coal miners and ward off industrial strife, the government paid coal miners higher wages during the war.

After the war ended England struggled to recover economically. One of the biggest issues dealt with the coal mines. For some time the government continued to subsidize the mines because of the shaky economy, but it also sought to privatize them. This resulted in lower wages and increased unemployment. Residents of coal-mining villages such as those in Nottinghamshire were especially hard hit. They experienced a decline in their standards of living and financial security. Resentment between the social classes increased, and in 1919 more than 2 million British workers went on strike, leading to fear of a civil war. It was not until after World War II that these issues were addressed through eventual nationalization of the coal mines.

These economic, social, and political conflicts are represented in the novel. Clifford Chatterley wants to preserve the traditional economic and political ties between the colliery owners and workers despite the changes in postwar England. He dislikes the encroachment of the growing working class on Wragby and wants to keep it isolated from both the working class and postwar changes. And he seeks to find a way to modernize the mines in order to preserve the old way of life. If he can make them economically viable, he hopes he can keep Wragby and Tevershall the way they have been for generations.

Sex in Print

D.H. Lawrence first published Lady Chatterley's Lover privately in Italy in 1928. The book was immediately banned and copies confiscated by the police and other government officials. It is likely he published the book in Italy as he expected it to be censored. Two earlier books, The Rainbow (1915) and Women in Love (1920), had been banned in the United States and the United Kingdom.

Lady Chatterley's Lover was censored because of its explicit sexual language and content. For example, it uses words such as cunt and phallus that were considered obscene. It includes scenes that describe sexual activity and intercourse in considerable and extended detail. Opponents considered it immoral for its sexual scenes and adultery. Lawrence wrote two essays to defend his novel. In "Pornography and Obscenity" (1929) he argued the novel was not obscene because it treated sex as something sacred and did not degrade sex or the body as pornography did. In addition sex was something all people did, and it was not something shameful or dirty. In "A Propos of Lady Chatterley's Lover" (1930) he elaborated on his views of sex as life affirming and necessary for emotional and social health, with his novel presenting these views to inform rather than to titillate or appeal to unwholesome interests.

A small number of copies of the book circulated throughout the United States, Canada, and Europe, but it was a crime to sell it in most countries. In 1929 a bookseller who sold a copy was convicted of selling obscene literature, fined, and imprisoned. In both the United States and England some publishers tried to get around the obscenity rules by omitting some of the more sexually explicit passages or by using dashes in the taboo words. In the 1940s a U.S. court ruled against Dial Press for publishing an edition with disguised words, and the book remained banned.

It was not until 1959 that the book could legally be published and distributed. A U.S. publisher, Grove Press, published Lady Chatterley's Lover, but a New York postmaster confiscated mailed copies of the book and refused to deliver advertising circulars about the book. At that time the U.S. Post Office had the authority to determine what reading material was obscene, confiscate such material, and prosecute publishers. Grove Press then sued the U.S. Post Office.

The lawsuit looked like a long shot. Two years earlier in Roth v. United States the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled First Amendment rights did not apply to obscenity. However, the lawyers defending Grove Press used the opinion in that case to successfully argue the First Amendment did protect the exchange of ideas that had redeeming social importance. Judge Frederick Van Pelt Bryan of the U.S. District Court for Southern New York ruled the novel had serious literary merit and was not obscene. In his decision he explained that although the novel contained words often considered obscene, their use in the book supported Lawrence's theme and plot and thus had literary value. Grove Press and other publishers could legally publish Lady Chatterley's Lover for the first time in more than 30 years. Within weeks of the ruling the book became a bestseller, achieving number two on the New York Times bestseller list.

One year later the book went on trial in Britain. Objections in Britain included not just its explicit sexual scenes and language and immoral behavior, but its violation of Victorian morality, specifically those involving class. The British case was brought by the government against Penguin Books. The judge in this case also found for Lady Chatterley's Lover, ruling it had redeeming literary and social value.

Within the next few years other countries, such as Canada, held similar trials and lifted their restrictions on Lady Chatterley's Lover. The obscenity trials had important far-reaching consequences and helped reshape laws governing literature, with most countries easing their restrictions and allowing the use of language and content formerly considered obscene if its usage had literary merit.
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