Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Lady Chatterley's Lover by DH Lawrence

Then, one day, a lovely sunny day with great tufts of primroses under the hazels, and many violets dotting the paths, she came in the afternoon to the coops and there was one tiny, tiny perky chicken tinily prancing round in front of a coop, and the mother hen clucking in terror. The slim little chick was greyish-brown with dark markings, and it was the most alive little spark of a creature in seven kingdoms at that moment. Connie crouched to watch in a sort of ecstasy. Life, life! Pure, sparky, fearless new life! New life! So tiny and so utterly without fear! Even when it scampered a little scramblingly into the coop again, and disappeared under the hen's feathers in answer to the mother hen's wild alarm-cries, it was not really frightened; it took it as a game, the game of living. For in a moment a tiny sharp head was poking through the gold-brown feathers of the hen, and eyeing the Cosmos.

Connie was fascinated. And at the same time never had she felt so acutely the agony of her own female forlornness. It was becoming unbearable.

Lady Chatterley's Lover
is a kind of anti-Madame Bovary. The latter book is about a woman trapped in a loveless marriage who takes refuge in adultery, patterning it after the romances she adores, but the adultery itself becomes a kind of cage and she is ultimately done in by her own profligacy and petulance. Emma Bovary shuns the reality of things for convenient fantasies of sex, but Constance, the titular Lady Chatterley, achieves the opposite result through similar methods: Instead of pulling the veil further down over her eyes, her affair with her husband's servant frees her from the drudgery of her existence and imbues her, like the chick she spies in the passage above, with "sparky, fearless new life."

The book was roundly derided as pornographic. No wonder, it is basically an extended paean to sex. Consider Lady Chatterley's husband, Clifford, literally deadened from the waist down by a war injury. He and his friends extol the virtues of a "life of the mind," divorced from the "sex thing," which is banished to a lower sphere of human activity. Clifford remarks to Constance that he wouldn't mind if she had a child by another man (they would just lie and tell everyone that Clifford's boy bits work every now and then), but the man she chooses is not the kind she can go back and present proudly to her husband. He is Oliver Mellors, the estate gamekeeper, of a radically different class.

Lady Chatterley's Lover is one of those strange books in which people make plans that are not torn horrifically asunder; Constance plans to be impregnated by Mellors and he obliges. His ability to engender life in her is two-fold: He gives her a child, but also their passionate love affair brings her an unbridled joy.

This may be, without exaggeration, the most well-written book I have ever read. Lawrence is a master of style--eminently readable, vivid, graceful. I dog-eared maybe a dozen sections to show this, but could have marked a dozen dozen. Here is one:

The hard air was still sulphurous, but they were both used to it. Round the near horizon went the haze, opalescent with frost and smoke, and on the top lay the small blue sky; so that it was like being inside an enclosure, always inside. Life always a dream or a frenzy, inside an enclosure.

How much more wonderful is Lawrence's "small blue sky" that lays on top than Malamud's "
cerulean ocean-sky"? One of Lawrence's most successful techniques is to repeat certain words five or six times in the course of a paragraph, moving them around syntactically, like a form of jazz:

There had been no welcome home for the young squire, no festivities, no deputation, not even a single flower. Only a dank ride in a motor-car up a dark, damp drive, burrowing through gloomy trees, out to the slope of the park where grey damp sheep were feeding, to the knoll where the house spread its dark brown facade, and the housekeeper and her husband were hovering, like unsure tenants on the face of the earth, ready to stammer a welcome.

How simple these words are, and their repetition ought to be irksome, but somehow the rearrangement of them gives them new life, enables their expressiveness. The drive is dark and damp, the sheep are damp, the house is dark--instantly we know what is preoccupying the mind of Clifford, the "young squire," reflecting on his homecoming with some chagrin.

Even the sex writing is terrific:

Then as he began to move, in the sudden helpless orgasm, there awoke in her new strange thrills rippling inside her. Rippling, rippling, rippling, like a flapping overlapping of soft flames, soft as feathers, running to points of brilliance, exquisite, exquisite and melting all her molten inside. It was like bells rippling up and up to a culmination. She lay unconscious of the wild little cries she uttered at the last.

But then again, it's just that sort of thing that made Lady Chatterley's Lover impossible to publish in the United States until the 1960's. This didn't take Lawrence by surprise. It was his last novel, and he had been castigated for this sort of thing before. Naturally, it reads as sort of a response to his critics, who would do as Clifford and his friends would, and separate the world of sex from the "life of the mind." They talk, and talk of sex, and even talk of sex as a kind of talk, but this is a kind of subordination that seeks to describe the body on the mind's terms. When Constance is with Mellors, the sex is not like talking; what she receives from it is not knowledge but life, health, well-being.

It is this also, I think, that makes Lady Chatterley's Lover not as satisfying to read today. The sexual revolution has come and passed, and the idea that the life of the body and the life of the mind must coexist is, while not roundly accepted, a not very fresh idea. Sex as empowerment is old hat. Most of the critics that would suppress the book are gone, and unable to push against them, Lady Chatterley's Lover seems to me to lack bite.

But it was wonderful to read all the same. It is unthinkable that anyone ever considered it pornographic; any porno shot from Lady Chatterley's Lover would have to have absurdly high production levels to capture the clarity and nuance of Lawrence's descriptive prose.

I admit that there is something pornographic in the ethos of it--the extolment of the sexual act as worthy and fulfilling on its own. But to call it pornography, point blank? Laughable--after all, pornography generally serves one person alone, it only values the approximation of the sexual act, which requires two people. Lady Chatterley's Lover's message is far different: Go have sex! Speaking on its terms, the book seems to dismiss the idea that anyone might derive a purely sexual pleasure from it.

As a last thought, I leave you to consider how true pornography encourages the kind of character that Constance sees in Clifford:

He was remotely interested; but like a man looking down a microscope, or up a telescope. He was not in touch. He was not in actual touch with anybody, save, traditionally, with Wragby, and through the close bond of family defense, with [his sister] Emma. Beyond this nothing really touched him. Connie felt that she herself didn't really, not really touch him; perhaps there as nothing to get at ultimately; just a negation of human contact.


Amanda said...

It's funny that you put this opposite of Madame Bovary - I personally think they are far more similar than disimilar, but it's been a long time since I read LCL. I actually couldn't stand this book OR Bovary, though Bovary was interesting to study after I was through with it at least.

Christopher said...

I think the similarities are probably purposeful; Lawrence is drawing from the tradition that MB represents. But you have to admit that Constance has a much better time of it than poor Emma Bovary.

Brent Waggoner said...

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