Reading steamy romance books is all the rage today and generally embraced rather than scorned by the literary world and pop culture. Hence, BookTok’s sprawling enthusiasm for finding and sharing the spiciest novels around or popular fanfictions turned franchises like Anna Todd’s After. However, the romance reading world was not always so accepting of erotic novels. In fact, one of the most controversial releases of the 20th century concerned D.H. Lawrence’s story of one life-changing affair: Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
The controversy surrounding this novel – Lawrence’s last – raged on long after his death in a significant censorship battle. Let’s learn a little more about this story’s scandal-inducing history and its newest screen adaptation starring Emma Corrin and Jack O’Connell.
All of D.H. Lawrence’s writing grappled intensely with societal norms, scrutinizing the constructs that unconsciously shape our lives and relationships. Even in his final and most explicit novel, Lawrence was not simply looking to shock readers with strong sexual content, but elucidate the rigid and unforgiving class structures of 20th century Britain. The premise for his sociocultural critique took shape in telling the story of an upper-class woman (Lady Chatterley) who falls in love with a groundskeeper on her husband’s estate. Perhaps the most shocking component of his 1928 work to a very conservative and patriarchal culture was the fact that the novel put particular emphasis on female agency and pleasure.
A Scandal-Inducing Novel
Lawrence first privately published the novel in Italy, where he was living at the time. Then, he published it in France a year later. News quickly spread of this illicit new release, sparking outrage throughout Europe as well as the United States. The scandalous story of Lady Chatterley’s affair, despite outcry, held public intrigue, which led to a censored version hitting the shelves for purchase in the 30s.
Decades later, in 1959, an uncensored version of the novel was released by Grove Press for the first time in the US. This decision made for a frenzy of backlash, given America’s strict obscenity laws. Copies were even seized by the Post Office as the publisher tried to ship them out to stores. Because of this resistance, Grove Press pushed back with a lawsuit– a landmark censorship case that would make its way to the Supreme Court. The publisher came out successful, as the Court deemed the material was not obscene and could be mailed without interference.
Grover Press v. Christenberry marked a turning of the tide for US censorship laws and paved the way for a new era of artistic expression running parallel to the sexual revolution of the 1960s.
Art and Sensuality
If you’ve already seen any of the screen adaptations of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, you’re probably wondering whether the spicy scenes are true to the novel or done up for modern television. Though audiences may assume the latter, the exchanges that we see are, in fact, comparable to the written material of Lawrence’s erotic novel. Don’t believe it to be true? Luckily there are no more censorship laws at play, so you can get your hands on a copy, assured that your Amazon package won’t be intercepted on grounds of obscenity.
Given the passion and sensuality of Lawrence’s novel, the public has also sustained interest into whether there was a real-life inspiration behind his female protagonist. Assumedly, Lady Chatterley was modeled after his own wife, Frieda, who ran off from her well-off husband to elope with Lawrence in Germany. Another theory draws parallels to aristocrat Lady Ottoline Morrel who “had an affair with a stonemason who worked in her garden.”
Whoever the muse behind Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley, the love he cemented between the pages of his evocative classic is all-consuming in nature. Furthermore, Lady Chatterley’s Lover continues to transfix audiences on screen by making sexual attraction and chemistry an art form. Netflix’s recent invocation of the novel truly lives up to D.H. Lawrence’s original working title: “Tenderness.” It’s a much more delicate and nuanced take on erotic romance that interweaves heavy realities– the weight of loneliness, the toll of war– into an arc of liberation.
Speaking of liberation, it’s always a breath of fresh air to see a headstrong female romance protagonist in her element. I grew up idolizing Elizabeth Bennett, so I’m always forever seeking out empowering female leads. Along these lines, Emma Corrin’s portrayal of Lady Chatterley truly does shine. Her take on the character is an immersive emotional journey that is absolutely captivating to watch.
Though the erotic undertones of Lawrence’s novel are much less scandalous to contemporary eyes, Lady Chatterley’s Lover remains a uniquely raw take on love and desire that lends itself pertinent to modernity. The film’s director, Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre, recognized the import of bringing Lawrence’s novel to screen in 2022, elaborating:
“I read a biography of D.H. Lawrence, and he said Lady Chatterley’s Lover was a celebration of sexuality, a revitalization of human beings’ nature…”
“His statement is still so vivid. We are going through times today with Roe vs. Wade, the revolution in Iran, where the body of the woman is the subject of political tensions. That, for me, was what I really wanted to express with this version. Obviously, there are other important themes like class and social pressure, but I felt the idea of a woman being free sexually, being free in her body, and the importance of touch and sensuality, was necessary for a modern audience.”Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre for W Magazine
On that note, Netflix’s take on Lady Chatterley’s Lover is an enveloping, aesthetic portrayal of humanity that continually lends inspiration over the decades, reaffirming women’s freedom and empowerment as sexual beings. As a classic, its longevity is both overwhelmingly impressive and joyous to revisit.
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