“Ours is essentially a tragic age; and so we refuse to take it tragically.” So begins the greatest post-World War I novel ever written.
With the exception of perhaps Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, by
D. H. Lawrence, is my favorite novel of all time. The final version, published in 1928, is a tale about the collapse of western civilization in microcosm; detailed in the adulterous love affair between the novel’s anti-heroine, Constance Chatterley, the wife of a war-crippled lord, and woodsman agrarian, Mellor. Upon its publication it was deemed pornography and censored. It was also Lawrence’s final novel (his body of work fell victim of government and public reprisal) to be widely available to the public. Within less than two years from its publication, he was dead at 44.
What Lawrence illustrated so tragically and beautifully, was the reality that after the Great War, Europe was devastated in a way few in the West can comprehend now. Today, television series abound in apocalyptic shows, feeding a public hungry for the twisted and surreal. After 1918, the twisted and surreal had become commonplace for women of European nations. They had seen one-fourth of their men slaughtered, and upon the return of those that survived, the scars of mechanized warfare were evident every day.
In England—which technically won the war; though nothing was truly won—the effects were contradictory, but it didn’t matter. The landed stock was decimated. The value system that constructed the British Empire since the days of Elizabeth I was finished. It is no surprise that the 1920s were the first decade of the modern era. There is only so much trauma that people can endure in such a short period. At some point, everything just gives. Particularly in light of the fact that the modern age, for all its devastation, was ironically improving life.
I have a theory: In the past life was a struggle, it was ugly and brutal…so we sought beauty. In the modern age, with an ever-increasing array of comforts, we seek ugliness. Lady Chatterley’s Lover defines this consummately, even with the multitude of contradictions that resulted from its release. Like most great writing, it is awash in irony and paradox. But such is life, and such is history.
In recent decades, Lady Chatterley’s Lover has undergone significant reevaluation. It took until the 50s for the novel to appear in England in its raw form. It was considered a great work of art, which it is, as well as great read. But in the 90s feminist studies challenged this, mainly due to Constance’s finding redemption in sexual fulfillment with a man. This is ironic (again) because the point was that she was liberating herself from an order that destroyed itself though its own devices; the very order that feminists seek to undermine.
It may seem odd to reference a book a decade before its centennial. But I could be dead in a ten years’ time, and I feel compelled to say Lawrence was a genius, one of the most original artists in any age. He recognized the significance of the love between a man a woman, however scandalous. It is the essence of the world. We cannot endure without it. It is forever relevant. Particularly in a time when that relationship has not only fallen under inspection and attack, but some seek to destroy.
“Ours is essentially a tragic age; so we refuse to take it tragically.”