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Desert Solitaire
by Edward Abbey

Lady Chatterley’s Lover

Lady Chatterley’s Lover was banned for decades because of its sexual content, but it would be a mischaracterization to say that it’s a novel about sex.  D.H. Lawrence’s original title for the book was Tenderness, and that’s a bit closer to the heart of the matter.  It’s ultimately a story about tenderness, about intimacy, and a bit about what that does and doesn’t have to do with sex.  But it’s also about what it does and doesn’t have to do with class, with social norms, and with what it means to live a “civilized” life.  The lesson that Lawrence is trying to push is that a passionless life is no life at all.  It’s not a critique of the British aristocracy.  True, he does chastise the rich intellectuals in the novel.  But he doesn’t chastise them for being rich intellectuals.  He chastises them for pursuing the life of the mind at the expense of all else: at the expense of physical pleasure, at the expense of social responsibility, at the expense of joy and tenderness.  For all his talk of Bolshevism, Lawrence doesn’t glorify the working class, either.  They, too, are depicted as living a fairly joyless existence.  They live coarse lives, shuffling back and forth to the mines, wasting the rest of their time with drink and fighting.

The heroes of the novel — Lady Chatterley and the gamekeeper — are presented as heroes because they’re able to transcend and even willingly forsake their circumstances to find a bit of tenderness, a bit of passion.  For Lady Chatterley, that means giving up her land, giving up her nobility.  For the gamekeeper, it means giving up his pride, and being willing to be kept by a wealthier woman.  We’re not told whether they live happily ever after.  Maybe they don’t.  It doesn’t really matter to the story or to Lawrence.  What matters is that they take a chance on happiness, rather than wasting away in a mostly-comfortable stasis bestowed upon them by birth and circumstance.

It’s not hard to imagine that the moral lesson contributed just as much to the book being banned as the sexual content.  It doesn’t advocate for infidelity, but it does condone and even encourage particular acts of infidelity.  On that count, much has changed since Lawrence’s day, largely because our notion of marriage has changed since Lawrence’s day.  What the American social conservatives tout as “Traditional Marriage” is of course not very traditional at all.  It’s barely a hundred years old.  If we want to talk about “Traditional Marriage”, what we’re talking about is property exchange: i.e., a business deal between two families, the purpose of which was to protect wealth and consolidate business or political power.  Modern notions of love and faithfulness had very little to do with the matter.  They were bonuses — maybe you got them, maybe you didn’t.  Probably you didn’t have much choice in the matter, and your parents figured it out for you.  And so it’s not particularly shocking to see Lawrence’s male characters sitting around the parlor, discussing under what circumstances it is or isn’t permissible to have extra-marital affairs.  And it isn’t so shocking when Lady Chatterley’s husband gives her explicit permission to get pregnant by another man.  Those parts probably didn’t ruffle many feathers of Lawrence’s contemporaries.  But the notion that it’s a good thing for a Lady to give up her social station, leave her husband, and marry someone from the lower classes for the sake of passion — that was probably pretty upsetting to folks.  They didn’t want their daughters running off with carriage drivers.

Are we over that?  I don’t know.  Most of you reading this are probably middle-class, which is also a thing that barely existed before the industrial revolution.  Most of our families probably like the idea of us marrying doctors or lawyers, and probably don’t crave the idea of us marrying blue-collar laborers.  So I suppose it’s still with us to some degree.  But we’re not giving up a title to do it.  I don’t know any Barons.  I do know a few Doctors, but they stay Doctors, no matter whom they marry.

If you’re a Romney or a Hilton or a Kennedy, I imagine things are different.  But my heart doesn’t weep for you.  Sorry.