In a letter written in July 1926, a couple of months before he embarked on the first version of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, D.H. Lawrence gave voice – as he often did – to the hatred he felt for ‘our most modern world’. Tin cans and ‘imitation tea’ feature prominently on his list of things not to like about being ‘most modern’. Tin cans often featured on such lists, either as litter or as culinary short cut, in both cases signifying degeneracy: ‘modern world’ was then and still remains an expression that summons up a familiar tableau of emblems. But imitation tea is a nice touch, because it recovers the starkness of the contrast between the organic and the inorganic which knowing that you’re most modern always involves. Lawrence couldn’t help describing what he meant to hate before he dissolved it in allegory. Like the other iconic banned books of the period between the world wars – Ulysses, The Well of Loneliness – Lady Chatterley’s Lover has long since ceased to be notorious. Unlike them, it has not yet acquired a different kind of fame. But what it does best, better than any other novel of its time, better than most published since, is to describe the modern world as it was, and in some measure still is.
LRB 30 August 2012 | PDF Download