Act, reflect and keep going: What we can learn from Constance Chatterley

For Dan x

It’s been a while since I’ve been able to browse Netflix and on a whim, spotting the face of Holliday Grainger, familiar from Strike, I decided to try Jed Mercurio’s 2015 adaptation of Lady Chatterley’s Lover.   I read Lawrence’s novel years ago, hot on the heels of studying The Go-Between, keen to see what Lawrence did to deserve the infamous obscenity ban.  Lawrence’s novel significantly precedes Hartley’s, though it was published afterward.   As the novelist Ali Smith ponders, perhaps ‘(The Go-Between’s) appearance ... and its boldness then with the more surface issues of class and sexuality are partly responsible for Lady Chatterley’s Lover finally seeing unexpurgated publication...’.  However, Mercurio made clear his focus before the screening, noting that his focus was the ‘love triangle’ as ‘swearing and sex scenes don’t excite (him)’.  His adaptation studies in quiet depth  Lawrence’s great fascination with social class and nature, as well as the intense inner conflict of Constance Chatterley. 


Amongst my thoughts, in the hours that follow watching the film, I am reminded of the value of returning to art, to literature, as we grow older.  As a student, my interest lay in the shock value, in understanding what society wanted to conceal, what it perceived to be corrupting.  Yet, I question now, whether the purpose of the ban went beyond the mere sexual.  For Lawrence upturns more than bodies, he strips back class, social position.  As a successful writer he moved in privileged literary circles, yet he never forgot his working class, rural roots.  In this day and age, where evidence shows that children who come from lower social economic classes are at a disadvantage  when starting school; and furthermore that the education system wides that gap, we must continue, ever louder, to question why.  Similarly, we must pursue educational equality for those who are not neurologically mainstream.  We can generate meaningful and meaningless data and plan purposeful and pointless interventions but this doesn’t challenge the attitudinal chains and bounds of perception that persist in 21st century Britain.

Constance Chatterley will not be kept in her place: not by marital bonds nor social disapproval.  In yoking Constance and Oliver Mellors together, Lawrence is able to acknowledge and explore our  human connection with nature and sexual desire, which in turn serves to catalyse a deeply personal study of society and social class.  The contemporary corollary we now have are the studies which demonstrate the intrinsic importance of green space upon our mental and physical wellbeing; the green space itself being of increased value as it decreases, victim of careless consumption, the housing crisis, shopping centres and fuel for industry.   On the other hand, sexual desire is well documented and widely accessible, no longer fleeting, illicit images on cards or magazines, these images are on screen, limitless, irresistible to curiously tasteless connoisseurs who in turn are no longer aroused by real bodies.  It feels as if we’ve ill-used the gains we made and instead formed a myriad of new bad habits.  We live in a world of ambiguity, where it becomes increasingly difficult to discern right from wrong, where the most powerful manipulate the least powerful, harnessing the mass of their electoral might.  In the microcosm of the novel, Clifford’s power – his wealth,  his class, his gender, ultimately don’t save his marriage.

I found Mercurio’s re-imagining of Clifford and Constance Chatterley a particularly engaging relationship to watch for both are morally ambiguous: you cannot say either is the victim or the wrong-doer.  A sophisticated, well drawn character can and will shift from being likeable, deserving of sympathy, to one who is unkind, cruel, drawing our condemnation.  That recognition and juxtaposition of good and bad within all of us is what contributed to the critical success of The Wire, which pored over the economic and social deprivation of inner city Baltimore with a fine-toothed comb.  However, Oliver Mellors, WW1 cannon fodder and gruff gamekeeper, is less ambiguous: he follows the agreed social codes, aware of the dangers of speculation.  He is intelligent and understands his position – which isn’t to say he accepts it.  Clifford, in contrast believes in social propriety, imposes these codes of conduct with self righteous privilege, not questioning their social parity.  Clearly, the rules serve to maintain the life style of Clifford and the wider upper class at large, (the most ridiculous example is the laboured passing of a letter, from Oliver, via a butler’s silver tray, to be offered to Clifford) as such Constance benefits from these rules and yet she deliberately rejects them, as deliberately as one might choose to undress, she rebels with her body, her sexuality and lastly steps out of her marriage. 

In a pivotal moment, we see Clifford’s motorised wheelchair get stuck in thick mud and Oliver is called upon to help.  In this moment, the dynamics of economic power, social privelege and sexual desire intersect and each individual is sharply aware of their part in the triangle.  Constance is told by Clifford she cannot help in ‘her condition’, perpetuating yet another ill-founded belief that pregnant women are fragile, delicate creatures and ought not to exert themselves at all.  Constance obeys him in this matter, though perhaps more wary of Oliver’s emotional intensity than her husband’s propriety.  Thus, she stands by awkward, anxious, painfully aware that the man she loves is hurting himself to help the man she is married to.  I felt it was a nice touch that Mercurio had Constance run off, anxious for Oliver’s health, elevating an already rebellious act to one which also demonstrates a physically robust side to her determination.

In a key moment later on in the drama, Constance confronts Ivy Bolton, Clifford’s servant.  Mercurio coaxes from Lawrence’s threadbare characterisation of Mrs Bolton a slender but sinuous part which runs from the coalmining incident at the start, through Clifford’s tortuous transition back into civilian life, up until the tense final moments.  Ivy believes that Constance has taken sexual advantage of Oliver - her reaction implies that she is much less bothered by the sexual scandal than she is by the power imbalance she perceives between the upper and working classes – not only do the likes of the Chatterleys control and dictate the working lives of her and those like her, but now she perceives Constance has the audacity to take the most basic thing and claim it as her own.  The energy of her anger and humiliation is swiftly extinguished by Constance’s heartbroken tears, replaced by the burn of regret and genuine empathy for a woman she now sees is as trapped as herself.  In a servant’s corridor, Mercurio presents these women as the equals they are – and above all, he gifts them the chance to feel it and believe it themselves.

In writing this, I’ve read numerous reviews and most feel profoundly superficial, focusing on the loyalty of Mercurio to the original, providing a summary of how much you actually see, nod, nod, wink, wink.  The better reviews spoke of overarching themes, did at least namedrop social class.  Curiously, all were written by men.  Perhaps I could spend time mulling over that fact, except I’d prefer to return to Constance and her character and make up for the media preoccupation over how much flesh Grainger would reveal.  For she, Constance, is a sophisticated female character who is both constant to herself and inconstant to her husband;  both constant in her love for Oliver, yet inconstant in maintaining the commitments demanded of her as a woman by society.  In Lawrence’s novel, she goes to live with her sister whilst Oliver seeks to finalise his divorce.  Mercurio’s adaptation sees Constance dip to her knees, in supplication, appealing to Clifford’s better, kinder, nature to grant her a divorce.  Clifford is given a redemptive moment – despite the humiliation imposed upon him by societal standards he is able to discern that refusing to grant a divorce brings him no advantage, he has nothing to gain from denying her this. 

In the closing scenes, Constance is pictured, being driven away by Oliver, she carrying his baby, either madly, bravely, or both, departing from the conventions that have provided for her and protected her.  She seeks a new identity for herself, new definitions of love and security, one can only hope that she and Oliver are able to find the means to happily support themselves and raise their child.  Of course, Mercurio has the creative right to leave the viewer on the cusp of that hopeful journey, the practical implications which crowd my mind say as much about me as my joy in watching a woman liberate herself from unhappiness. 

With the internet illuminated by recent WAAW posts, it may seem like an overly late jump on the bandwagon to consider autistic women at this stage in my blog, yet... the journey one takes as an autistic woman in this current period in time, shares similarities with Constance’s struggles, difficulties, joy and hope.  For Lawrence truly wrote about perceptions and expectations – which is at the crux of what autistic individuals struggle with*.  Mercurio’s Constance demonstrates an ability to self determine, to connect with her own innermost feelings and needs.  As autistic women, it is truly important that we allow ourselves to determine what our needs are, to acknowledge our own feelings.  For many of us, this is so diffiicult to do, as society is stacked against us.  We define as women, we are autistic, many of us are mothers, we may have either co-morbid mental health conditions or ones brought on by a lack of diagnosis or support.  We face increased challenges due to the multifaceted nature of our neurological condition – caught within a complex tangle of intersecting socially generated expectations, perceptions and stereotypes. 

What can we do? Well, I think Constance shows us that society likes nothing less than a happy woman because a happy woman is a powerful human.  A happy, confident, autistic woman?  Well, she is one who can identify her own feelings, is perfectly capable of empathy and is extremely sensitive.  She is likely to be guarded or conversely unexpectedly brusque.  But then, she experiences life at its extremes for she teeters between being gifted and overwhelmed by a flow of details, information, and sensations, that stream in;  vacillating between intensities that range from the exquisite purity of child-like joy to a discordant cacophony – and can find herself unexpectedly accelerated from extreme to the other. 

Like Constance, a happy, confident, powerful autistic woman is able to make change.  She may not require a gamekeeper for this purpose (though who I am to judge!?) but she would certainly be able to trust and follow her gut instinct.  Like Constance, she would permit herself to feel, to take actions which please her, actions which speak louder than words.  As I believe a man once said, and I paraphrase:  if you believe you are right and your actions are for the best, it’s better to act first and apologise later.  I’d go one step further and simplify this process: I’d urge autistic women in this complex world, to act, internally reflect on whether it was for the best, then keep going.   It is so important that we don’t overwhelm ourselves with anxiety connected to social propriety: it literally depressing and suppressing us.  I have read so much online, so many heartrending struggles centred around social interaction, friendships, relationships, families, and it seems to me that we’re being kept in our place by perceptions.  Furthermore, seeing many of us still like to exert our power and privilege over fellow humans we perceive as weaker than ourselves it is imperative that you do what you must and be ballsy about.  After all, if you’re going to do a Constance – allow your true feelings, act on them and then be exposed for it – do so with the happy confidence that it was right for you.

*It would be pertinent to acknowledge Lawrence’s limitations – his views on certain sexual acts are outdated and smack of sexual inequality – but Lawrence cannot be expected to be faultless in all domains (besides, Mercurio makes amends by having Oliver enthusiastically perform said act, in the rain).

Zoe Vail Smith hails from London. She blogs on all things autistic and artistic for Mainspring Arts.