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Reflections on Lady Chatterley’s Lover

Anti-captialism poster, 1911

Anti-capitalism” by IWW – [1]. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

On Friday and Saturday night I watched Lady Chatterley’s Lover on BBC iPlayer. My predominant thought in response to it was that class poisons everything. (So do racism and misogyny and homophobia, of course, but we sometimes forget about class.)

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.

15 Comments »

  1. As an American from a humble economic background who lived in the U.K. and traveled to and through there several times, I have stories on this that amaze people here in the U.S. when I tell them…

    I only have time for one now, though. On one of my trips through Heathrow on the way to Ireland, I found myself running to catch the tube that connects terminal 4 arrivals to terminal 1 departures. While I’d only have to wait five minutes for the next one, no one likes to wait if they don’t have to, so I jumped aboard that tube, and found I was in the First Class section, as it was the end closest to the part of the terminal where I was. There was no one else in that part of the train, however, and so I sat down. A moment later, an air hostess (who was not in the air!) came and asked me for my first-class ticket, “sir,” and I said I didn’t have one, and she said “Right this way, please” (with no “sir”), and she escorted me to the “coach” section of the train. The train did not cost money, and did not require tickets of any sort (she wanted to see my plane ticket); it was a five-ish minute ride. And yet, even if no one else was in that section and she had no one to “serve” during that time, she could not allow someone who “didn’t deserve to be there” to be in that part of the train.

    Considering I once rode from Nyon to Geneva airport (about 35 minutes) in the first-class section without knowing it, and no one even looked at my ticket, this surprised me in the extreme that in a situation where no ticket was required (or even obtainable, given that train only goes between the two terminals!) and the ride was 1/7 the length of the one I was on in Switzerland, that it would be that much trouble, especially since there were only about three more minutes left in the trip by the time she escorted me away.

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  2. Class is such a tricky subject as it’s is understood in a wide variety of ways in different countries, cultures, regions and so on. It’s always been my impression, as a visitor, that in the United States – excluding certain ‘old world’ enclaves on the eastern seaboard – class is primarily about income. In England, in contrast, education, cultural reference points, and genealogy have always been much greater factors. There’s a famous Tony Harrison poem where he, a hard-grafting scholarship student, speaks of how his hard-won prize of education affected his relationship to his ‘working class’ father:

    ‘Back in our silences and sullen looks,
    for all the Scotch we drink, what’s still between’s
    not the thirty or so years, but books, books, books.’

    And the feminist science fiction writer Gwyneth Jones has also written about growing up in the atmosphere of an English middle class ideal which has nothing to do with income:

    ” I absorbed, without question, the ethos of the ideal English middle class family which pervades that fiction. A family that inhabits a misty historical period in the last decades of Empire: modestly well-bred, devoid of material aspirations, delighting in hardship, gentle but wary in their dealings with lesser mortals; full of casual erudition about famous explorers, sailing, falconry, mountain climbing. . . I’ve encountered British writers of my generation, from the Indian subcontinent, who describe a curiously similar problem […] People who grew up to discover that their psychic identity is built on a totally spurious sense of belonging, a whole history of false memories. ” (http://www.gwynethjones.uk/EARLY.htm)

    —–

    Likewise the forest too means something different in different locales and cultures. In the U.K. our ‘forests’ (mainly woodlands now) have been managed since ancient times and the diversity of the iconic British woodland comes from the interaction between humans and ecosystem. In that sense I think it represents less of a path to ‘freedom from’ and more a symbol of harmonius relation between humankind and nature. What that could look like with our modern population size is unclear though. Much as I love to be alone in the woods I can’t begrudge fellow communers, dog walkers, teenagers drinking around an illicit camp fire … The challenge here is about protecting the woodlands we have left, creating new ones, and finding balanced ways of allowing the enjoyment of all not reduce the enjoyment of each.

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  3. Yes, I can only really speak about my feelings about class in the UK as I don’t understand how it works elsewhere.

    Regarding the forest – it is a multi-valent and complex symbol, and I have written an entire book on forests and trees – but it has been used as a symbol of freedom in gay literature and medieval stories of Robin Hood.

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    • Hi Yvonne, yes not arguing those points 🙂 I suppose on forests what I was thinking about was that forests in some parts of the world are still large enough that they don’t only symbolise freedom but also offer it as a real ‘space’, which I think is less true here in England. And of course one of the interesting questions in the current ecological is the relationship between symbol and that from which the symbol is derived. For example, there are many animals humans use to symbolise things while we behave in ways which make the animals themselves go extinct.

      Thanks for a thought provoking article. AN

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  4. Lady Chatterley’s lover was my first introduction to a wholly different worldview (concerning sex, man and woman’s place in nature, the implications of industrialism for human relationships). The class difference was problematic to understand though during my teenage years. There used to be a great difference in class in my country, but the relics of this division had become almost non-existent before I was born. In the Netherlands, the reverse is happening: differences are becoming greater every day. Old money usually had manners, but the winners of the rat race are not always as gracious as their predecessors.

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    • I eventually settled upon this as a means of dispelling the assumed entitlement of the privileged:”class” – a quality of character that manifests in preservation of another’s dignity. The rat race does tend to the opposite effect.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. In America, I interact equally with members of the upper economic class and with the poor at the food bank where I volunteer. What you have in Britain sounds terrible to me. Being restricted by “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” sounds positively stifling. I wonder if the British upper crust feels their lack of freedom?

    I suspect there will always be social and economic stratification, as there has been ever since we domesticated animals, but it shouldn’t be taken to the extreme that you see in Britain.

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    • Our own social stratification is fairly extreme here in the United States and it is only getting more severe with time. We tend to favor geographic stratification here in the States. People move so that they live economically, socially, educationally, homogeneous areas. There are mixed areas, but they don’t seem numerous. For example, virtually all of my neighbors have advanced degrees, are Democrats, etc. This is extremely odd considering that only 7% of the general population is that educated and virtually no one in my state is a Democrat.

      I suspect that our own social stratification is largely invisible to us because it is, “Just the way things are.”

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      • I quite agree Woods Wizard. I don’t like the class system at all

        Of course, people can choose toignore the class markers that I mentioned, or to flout the conventions – but a lot of the time, we react to them without thinking.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Woods, I have to say that as a Canadian, I continually find the cognitive dissonance of the US astounding. From an outsider’s perspective, you all seem to have bought the “American Dream” hook, line and sinker. To me, you guys look just as stifled as the UK. What does a Bronx accent indicate about social class in the US? Or an Appalachian one? Now compare that to a New England accent. How about Jeff Foxworthy’s observations about life as a redneck? Compared to the lifestyle expectations of Beverly Hills? How about the changes in expected behaviour and activities of “social climbers?” How is it that Paris Hilton gets paid literally hundreds of thousands of dollars just to show up at a nightclub, because the nightclub owner knows that this will assure that the club will be considered the next “place-to-be”? How about the racial class divide? We are equally affected by this sort of social stratification but it seems all Americans believe they’re just temporarily embarrassed millionaires, so they don’t mind it because they’re sure that if they work hard enough, soon they’ll be drinking champagne and smoking Cuban cigars regularly while they get initiated into the Mile High Club on their way to their Palm Beach luxury vacations. It *is* taken to the same extreme. Unfortunately we Canadians seem to be buying into the same load of dung and are following suit as the gap between our actual “middle class” and our perceived “middle class” continues to broaden, so I won’t say we’re immune to it; but you really shouldn’t continue to labour under the illusion that we have it any better than the UK.

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  6. If one is worried about how they will be judged, then they remain slaves to those that judge them. However when one no longer cares what others think the they can be free. There are advantages to being the outsider, rather than belonging, as one does not fear not fitting in, because one is not interested in fitting in. Being yourself removes at least the internal stress of trying to be something that you are not with the fear constantly of being found out, and that is a great benefit.

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    • Christopher, the problem with your statement is that it overlooks how judgement often goes hand in hand with exclusion. In some cases that exclusion takes away basic fundamentals of human life and fulfilment. Therefore in the real world not caring how one is judged is often not even a choice. People are judged and suffer for it regardless of what they feel about it. So the reality is that the ability to choose not to care is based on having privilege of some sort even if that is as basic as having the ability to go into the hills, plant some crops and dig a well. The concept of ‘self-reliance’ is one of the threads in the great lie or spell that Rhyd wrote about recently.

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      • Accipiter Nisus , I am a peculiar person. I would imagine that there are only a few that would be comfortable around me for long regardless of their class, race of economic and educational level. The same is true in reverse in prefer only limited contact with people anyone, about a hour at the most. I have always been the outsider and I will always be the outsider. The differences is that I see a great advantage to being the outsider and have no desire to fit in any group. That people can and do judge me is of no concern as I do not seek or need approval. Staying somewhat disconnected with the community, I am below the radar of most of the people in the society so that gives me considerable freedom to be just myself. Being excluded means little, as I exclude myself from most of society, and only deal with a very limited number of people. By grade school we learn that life is unfair. I am amazed that we still think that fairness is possible. Fairness is often the hope that life will go the way we want it to and that is incredibly rare under the best of conditions. Show me any system that has remained fair and even balanced for very long. I can control how I treat others, but I have little control over others. So I don’t bother to try to change others.

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