8 Facts About ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover,’ D.H. Lawrence’s Most Scandalous Novel
English writer David Herbert Lawrence was far from the first novelist to tackle infidelity. But Lady Chatterley’s Lover—in which a high-society Englishwoman takes up with the gamekeeper after her husband is paralyzed during World War I—didn’t so much push the boundaries of propriety in print as completely break them.
Lawrence’s pearl-clutchingly explicit sex scenes, featuring many a four-letter word, have both scandalized and captivated the world ever since the book’s initial publication in 1928. The story also raised questions about the relationships between sex and love and mind and body that readers still ponder today.
In honor of the new Emma Corrin– and Jack O’Connell–starring film adaptation of the classic romance, which hits Netflix on December 2, here are eight facts about Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
1. D.H. Lawrence battled tuberculosis while writing Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
Lawrence had already gained fame for Sons and Lovers (1913), Women in Love (1920), and a number of other works by the time he wrote Lady Chatterley’s Lover between 1926 and 1928. All three drafts (the last of which is most widely read, though the earlier two would eventually go to press, too) were penned at the Villa Mirenda in the Tuscan town of Scandicci, Italy.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover wasn’t the last thing Lawrence ever wrote; his novella The Escaped Cock, his travel essay collection Etruscan Places, and the bulk of poems from his forthcoming collection Pansies were also composed during this time period. But it was his last major work: He’d been diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1925, and his health gradually deteriorated until his death in early March 1930.
Scholars have pointed out similarities between Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Lawrence’s real life, likening Sir Clifford Chatterley’s paralysis to Lawrence’s poor health and Lady Chatterley’s tryst to Lawrence’s wife Frieda’s affair with their Italian landlord. (For the record, Lawrence wasn’t always faithful to her, either.)
2. One early title was quite euphemistic.
Before Lawrence settled on naming his novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover, he toyed with the titles My Lady’s Keeper and Tenderness [PDF]. But by far the most evocative option he reportedly considered is John Thomas and Lady Jane—after slang terms for male and female genitalia, respectively. When his second draft of the story was printed in English for the first time in the 1970s, publishers titled it John Thomas and Lady Jane.
Although the euphemisms never made it onto the cover of Lawrence’s most famous third draft, Lady Chatterley and her lover use them pretty frequently within its pages. “This is John Thomas marryin’ Lady Jane,” Oliver Mellors says in one of the less risqué instances of the expressions. (They also come up with “Sir Pestle” and “Lady Mortar,” but John and Jane are the couple’s clear favorites.)
3. Lawrence initially self-published Lady Chatterley’s Lover in Florence.
In 1928, Lawrence enlisted a family-owned Florentine print shop to produce 1000 copies of the book, which featured a muted red hardcover emblazoned with a black phoenix rising from its fiery nest—the author’s choice emblem of immortality.
Because the shop employees didn’t speak English, they had a tough time noticing typos, and plenty landed in the final edition. “[T]he proofs were terrible. The printer would do fairly well for a few pages, then he would go drunk, or something,” Lawrence wrote in “A Propos of Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” an essay defending the eroticism in his novel.
But while the printer couldn’t read the book, he had been fully briefed on its potentially backlash-causing content (i.e. sex). According to Lawrence, the “white-moustached little man” shrugged it off with an “O! ma! but we do it every day!”
4. Lady Chatterley’s Lover fell victim to piracy in a big way.
U.S. orders from that initial print run of Lady Chatterley’s Lover got tied up in customs, but hundreds of copies were successfully disseminated across the UK. It didn’t take long for piracy to run rampant. Some bootleggers tried to negotiate with the author himself, and one New York–based bookseller actually mailed Lawrence 10 percent of the profits he earned from hawking pirated versions.
To draw at least some of the money away from the black market, Lawrence had an inexpensive English-language edition published in France in 1929 [PDF]. But the main issue was that UK and U.S. publishers wouldn’t print the book in all its uncensored glory—and Lawrence found it “impossible” to censor. “I might as well try to clip my own nose into shape with scissors,” he wrote. “The book bleeds.”
Frieda Lawrence’s intensity on the topic evidently didn’t match her husband’s. In 1932, two years after his death, she sold the rights for an expurgated edition to London publisher Martin Secker and New York City’s Alfred A. Knopf.
5. The first uncensored edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover wasn’t published in the U.S. until 1959.
It would be another 27 years before American readers could purchase an authorized copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover that hadn’t been stripped of its most titillating bits. In 1959, New York City’s Grove Press published Lawrence’s original work in full, prompting the U.S. Postal Service to start seizing copies from the mail on the grounds that the book flouted obscenity laws. So Grove Press publisher Barney Rosset took city postmaster Robert K. Christenberry to court.
According to a 1957 Supreme Court ruling, the First Amendment didn’t cover obscenity, but it did cover “all ideas having even the slightest redeeming social importance.” Rosset’s lawyer called upon some literary critics to help him make the case that Lady Chatterley’s Lover was indeed redeemed by its social importance—and the judge agreed. The USPS thenceforth had to distribute whatever copies of Lady Chatterley’s Lover passed through its channels, and the book quickly climbed The New York Times best seller list.
6. The book launched a landmark obscenity trial in the UK.
But that case is practically a snooze compared to the total circus that erupted when Lady Chatterley’s Lover went to court in England the following year. In the summer of 1960, Penguin Books had 200,000 copies poised for publication when the Crown charged the company with violating its shiny new Obscene Publications Act of 1959.
The trial, which unfolded over six days that autumn, followed the same loose trajectory as its American counterpart, with Penguin’s defense lawyers trying to prove that the literary merits of the novel outweighed its graphic content in the eyes of the law. To do so, they summoned a star-studded slate of expert witnesses, including A Room With a View author E.M. Forster, Irish-born poet (and Daniel Day-Lewis’s dad) Cecil Day-Lewis, and venerated political journalist and novelist Dame Rebecca West. The sitting Bishop of Woolwich even took the stand to recommend that Christians read the book, as Lawrence had aimed “to portray the sex relationship as something essentially sacred.”
The prosecution’s attempts to wrangle up some literary heavyweights to argue in favor of the ban fell short. T.S. Eliot, for example, wouldn’t (he instead agreed to testify for the defense, though they ultimately didn’t use him); and Rudyard Kipling couldn’t (he’d been dead since 1936). It wasn’t just its lack of celebrity support that spelled failure for the prosecution: Head barrister Mervyn Griffith-Jones proved himself laughably out of touch during proceedings, at one point asking the 12 jurors—three of whom were women—to consider whether it was a book “that you would even wish your wife or your servants to read?”
The rhetorical answer, insofar as the jurors had wives or servants, was yes: They found Penguin Books not guilty, helping usher in a new era of liberalism in British entertainment and law. On a smaller scale, the trial also pretty much guaranteed success for Lady Chatterley’s Lover; those first 200,000 copies sold out in a single day.
7. Lady Chatterley’s Lover has been adapted for the screen no fewer than five times.
That UK trial was dramatized in the 2006 film The Chatterley Affair, starring Rafe Spall and Louise Delamere as two fictional jurors who fall in love. The novel itself has also ended up on screens big and small several times over, including Marc Allégret’s 1955 French film; a 1981 English-language adaptation by French director Just Jaeckin; a 1993 BBC miniseries with Joely Richardson and Sean Bean as Lady Chatterley and her lover; and a 2015 BBC movie starring Holliday Grainger and Richard Madden.
Netflix’s 2022 film, led by The Crown’s Emma Corrin and Unbroken’s Jack O’Connell, is the first of those with a woman behind the camera: French multi-hyphenate Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre, known for her 2019 debut feature film The Mustang.
8. The novel also made a cameo in Mad Men.
Among the many things Mad Men did well was servicing character and plot through symbolic references to books and understated references to current events. In Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the show found both. The novel appears during season 1, episode 3 (“The Marriage of Figaro”), which takes place in spring 1960, just months after Grove Press’s victory. In the scene, Joan (Christina Hendricks) and two other female employees titter over its contents while young, curious Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) stands by.
Joan, who’s just removed the book from an oversized purse that also harbors a spare outfit and a toothbrush—“Ha, ha, a hope chest,” says another woman—remarks that the story is “another testimony to how most people think marriage is a joke.” In the very next scene, Harry (Rich Sommer) regales a table of men with a joke about a man who receives some bad news (his wife’s been in a horrible accident) and then some good news (she’s dead).