Lady Chatterley's Lover

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Lady Chatterley's Lover

In 1926 the novelist D. H. (David Herbert) Lawrence began writing a novel about Sir Clifford and Lady Chatterley, a young couple living on a British Midlands estate supported by a coal mine. Sir Clifford was injured in World War I and paralyzed from the waist down. A writer and intellectual, he entertains groups of male friends at the estate, often leaving his wife, Lady Constance, a young and healthy woman, bored and unoccupied.


After an affair with an upstart Irish playwright Constance begins to take walks through the estate's woodlands, where she meets Mellors, the gamekeeper, a former soldier and the son of a local coal miner. The novel describes in poetic detail the sexual relations between Lady Chatterley and Mellors, which in the end result in Lady Chatterley's pregnancy. The novel ends with the breakup of Lady Chatterley's marriage to Sir Clifford and her anticipation of a life with Mellors. As an expression of Lawrence's interest in the harmony between men and women as well as the naturalness of sexual rhythms Lady Chatterley's Lover fits with other Lawrence novels, such as the less explicit Women in Love (1921).


Lawrence completed the novel in 1928 after writing three versions. The explicitness of his descriptions of sexual relations between Mellors and Lady Chatterley, including elaborate descriptions of erections, female orgasm, and anal sex, were well beyond the degree of explicitness tolerated at that time. The novel also used vivid four-letter words that were not considered part of legitimate artistic endeavor.

Knowing that he would have difficulty with censors as well as public opinion, Lawrence had the book printed privately in Florence and distributed through friends. Because the book was published privately, there was no copyright, and the novel quickly became the object of piracy. Several of the pirates wanted him to authorize their versions, but Lawrence refused, instead republishing the novel in Paris in 1929 with a run of three thousand copies that sold out quickly. In this version Lawrence included a brief prefatory essay defending the novel. However, his explanation carried little weight with a public that rapidly denounced the book and declared that the author was obsessed with sex. Lawrence, who was in failing health, wearied of the public's reaction and never was able to publish the book with a copyright before his death in 1930.

After Lawrence's death publishers released reworked and expurgated versions of the novel, including one endorsed by his widow. In the United States a bookseller who sold a copy of the unexpurgated novel was convicted of selling obscene material. Expurgated versions removed all language that might be objectionable and all explicit sex scenes, calling the version "abridged." The abridged versions, however, rarely noted where the omissions had been made and had a certain inconsistency caused by the deletions.

The novel, however, was popular even as it remained the object of scorn. In 1944 Dial Press published one of Lawrence's earlier versions of the novel, The First Lady Chatterley, which lacked both the vocabulary and the finely drawn relationship between Lady Chatterley and Mellors of the final text. Although Dial Press was raided and copies of the novel were seized, the court did not declare the novel obscene.

They were pressuring to publish an unexpurgated original of Lawrence's third version. In 1959 Grove Press undertook the publication of the original Lady Chatterley's Lover and faced not only an obscenity trial in the U.S. district court but public castigation by everyone from the postmaster general to President Dwight Eisenhower. The postmaster was charged with making sure the U.S. mail was not used to distribute obscene materials, and so when Grove Press mailed the first copies of Lady Chatterley, the postmaster refused to let Grove mail the book, calling it "an obscene and filthy work." Grove challenged the ban in the U.S. district court, where luminaries such as Aldous Huxley and even the judge in the case in his written opinion, Judge Bryan, as well as literary critics and others argued for the novel's artistic merit.

The judge found that the novel's artistic quality outweighed any obscene passages and that it could be mailed. The government appealed, but in the end Grove Press won. Although conservatives felt that public morality was endangered by what they saw as the left-wing intellectualism of the court's decision, the easing of censorship contributed to a more tolerant environment in the United States. Quickly following the novel was a film version of Lady Chatterley, made in France. The film was banned by the state of New York, and the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the state's judgment of obscenity.

In England the novel had a similar fate. Its publication by Penguin was challenged under the Obscene Publications Act, which permitted the publication of morally obscene material if it could be shown to have literary merit. As in the United States, the trial evoked support from writers, including E. M. Forster, who was called as a witness. The court found that the novel's merit outweighed its obscene passages, which were an intrinsic part of its art.

Other countries also banned Lady Chatterley's Lover, including China, Japan, and Australia. Countries such as Denmark and Portugal allowed the publication of abridged versions.


Lawrence, D. H. 1959. Lady Chatterley's Lover. New York: Pocket Books.

Lawrence, D. H. 1999. The First and Second Lady Chatterley Novels, eds. Dieter Mehl and Christa Jansohn. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.

Rembar, Charles. 1986. The End of Obscenity: The Trials of Lady Chatterley, Tropic of Cancer and Fanny Hill. New York: Harper & Row.

Rolph, C. H., ed. 1990. The Trial of Lady Chatterley: Regina v. Penguin Books: The Transcript of the Trial. London and New York: Penguin.

Squires, Michael. 1983. The Creation of Lady Chatterley's Lover. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

                                                 Judith Roof