Reflections on Lady Chatterley’s Lover
I am glad that the class system in Britain is not as bad now as it was in the 1930s, but we are still a nation of snobs and social climbers who judge people on their accents and their tastes. It’s horrible.
I probably first realised how all-pervasive classism still is when my partner, who is Canadian, expressed bafflement at British awareness of class markers – the way that what you wear, which school you attended, how you speak, the words you use, the entertainment you choose, and even how you carry yourself marks you as being of a particular social class.
A friend of mine who comes from a working class background says that she is frequently aware of class-based privilege, such as the way that many upper-middle-class people have never had a “menial” job.
I like that meme that pops up occasionally on social media: “A person who is nice to you but not nice to the waiter is not not a nice person.”
I am distressed by the widespread expectation that people in service-oriented jobs (kitchen staff, shop staff, and the like) should address customers as “sir”.
For one thing, the corresponding form of address for a woman, “madam” is also a term for a woman who manages sex workers (in fact, most terms of respect for women have been sexualised in this way: e.g. lady [of the night], courtesan, mistress, and so on).
For another thing, why should people in service-oriented jobs address others in this anachronistically servile way? Are we not all citizens?
When I went to Ireland, I noticed that shop staff did not address customers as sir or madam, but were nonetheless perfectly respectful and friendly in their mode of address. They treated their customers with dignity and respect, because they treated themselves with dignity and respect. It was beautiful to see them centred in their own dignity like that.
I also notice the increasing pervasiveness of “aspirational” school uniform in Britain. This is a phenomenon whereby schoolchildren are forced to wear uncomfortable and impractical ties, shirts, and blazers to make them look as if they attend a posh school. People who defend school uniform say that it prevents poorer or unfashionable kinds from being bullied, but in fact poorer kids’ parents cannot afford the expensive uniforms, which must often be bought from a single designated shop.
It is significant that it was D H Lawrence who brought attention to the all-pervasiveness of class among his contemporaries. There are many things that we could criticise Lawrence for, I expect, but he was spot-on on a number of things – the celebration of physical love (both same-sex and opposite-sex) and the body; and his critique of the class system. He was also a nature mystic (as Rebecca Beattie explains in her excellent book, Nature Mystics).
Many writers (Edward Carpenter, E M Forster, and D H Lawrence among them) have suggested a return to Nature as being the antidote to the class system. At the end of E M Forster’s novel, Maurice, Maurice and his lover, Alec Scudder, run away together to the forests, where they are free. Of course, both Lawrence and Forster were influenced by Carpenter, who also had links with Walt Whitman and the Transcendentalists.
The forest, as an antidote to the poisons of civilisation, has been a symbol of freedom since at least the days of Robin Hood, if not earlier. Thoreau “went to the woods to live deliberately and front the essential facts of life”, and his book Walden also presents a trenchant critique of the class system. In the forest, we are thrown back on our essential humanity and animal nature, where we can find ourselves both part of Nature, and part of humanity.