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March 27, 2006

Connie, Don't Take Your Love to the Shed - D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover

Posted by Lincoln Allison

Lady Chatterley's Lover
by D. H. Lawrence
first published 1928
Pp. 364. Penguin Classics, 2000

An Orwellian scene, though not in the vulgar sense: four twelve-year-old boys in a school study in the late 1950s. They pore over a book with a green cover; it is printed in Paris and imported by an elder brother. This is Lady Chatterley's Lover where the Lady of the Manor gets knobbed by the gamekeeper and we are interested exclusively in the mucky bits. It isn't that interesting and, over the years any knowledge of the book has faded into a kind of generic gamekeepers-and-ladies image which is part of English culture, compounded of the trial, jokes, ads, sketches and (in my case) snatches of a film starring Joely Richardson, Sean Bean and James Wilby. The vague and composite image is of a manly gamekeeper, in touch with "nature", who (unlike his lordship) owns an erectable penis called John Thomas and this image fades into an image of all gamekeepers, including George Barford of The Archers, just as Lady Constance Chatterley becomes a generalised posh lady.

The actual story is a good deal more complex than these images. Constance is the daughter of Sir Malcolm Reid, a successful artist and a Fabian socialist. Her husband, Sir Clifford Chatterley (Bart.) is an increasingly successful writer who develops into an imaginative manager of his estates which are mines, woods and farms around their home at Wragby Hall. But he has, in the words of a song popular at the time, 'ad 'is bollocks shot away shortly after marrying Connie in 1917. Oliver Mellors, the gamekeeper, is a former scholarship boy who has had a commission in the Indian Army where he "loved" his colonel (nature of love unspecified) and he has a pension at 38. He has married beneath him and is separated from his wife. His rather risible Derbyshire dialect is an affectation which Connie dislikes, though she joins in the game of adopting it at one point.

So this is an everyday story of intellectual folk more than it is of country folk. Guests at the house discuss class, bolshevism, art and the effects of technology, including test tube babies and the possibility that a way may be found for Clifford to impregnate Connie. It is also a sexually liberated atmosphere: Connie has made love in Germany before the war and with an O'Caseyish Irish playwright as well as on her honeymoon. Given her husband's condition, she is surrounded by people who are telling her to get laid, including her father and her sister Hilda. Even her husband is telling her to get laid, but what he has in mind is a discreet holiday affair with a brainy chap which will leave him with an heir. Nobody has in mind the gamekeeper.

And, of course, this is no typically "idyllic" English countryside. It is a great strength of Lawrence's writing that he can evoke the peculiar atmosphere of the North Midlands where mineshafts and straggling industrial villages intersperse with fields and stretches of ancient forest. (It is a landscape which I have tried to describe, an effort which rose out of my experiences on the National Forest Advisory Board.) In this case the place is not just generally suffering from pollution, but there is the more specific and local problem of a seam of coal which has caught fire and cannot be put out: the estate smells of sulphur and the land is showered with black blotches. Time complements place; everyone has a sense that the social order has gone the way of Sir Clifford's bollocks, that nothing important will ever be the same again nor what it was supposed to be, not trade, not mining villages, not stately homes. Everyone fears for the future . . . bolshevism, anarchy, a failed greedy materialism. At 27, Connie feels herself to be trapped and decaying and we feel it with her.

Lawrence is precise and plausible when he describes the political and social attitudes of his characters and the contradictions between them. Connie is embarrassed to go into Tevershall, the village on the estate because the villagers assume an air of "I'm as good as you are", but then fawn on her. Inversely, her socialist sister is appalled by the idea of a liaison with a gamekeeper, so Connie says (p. 241):

But you're such a socialist! You're always on the side of the working classes.
To which Hilda replies:
I may be on their side in a political crisis, but being on their side makes me know how impossible it is to mix one's life with theirs. Not out of snobbery but just because the whole rhythm is different.
Given that politics is discussed so much, it is tempting to try to tease out the author's political position or purpose. As with Orwell, though more cryptically, there are some very contradictory messages. There is nostalgia for the days of real stately homes and (repeatedly) for soldiers who wore sexy red and not cowardly and bureaucratic khaki. Lawrence's hatred of change in the countryside should have taken him along to the inaugural meeting of the Council for the Preservation of Rural England where he could have joined those other distinguished initialled ones, J. B. Priestley, J. M. Keynes and E. M. Forster; the meeting was actually held during the writing of this book. On the other hand, he can do class hatred both against the tedious middle classes or against Sir Clifford's increasingly authoritarian upper-class attitudes: Clifford comes to believe that the lower classes are "animals" in need of "rule".

But there is no belief in either socialism or the working class. Mellors seems to speak for the author when he says, in a letter to Connie (p. 299):

The men are very apathetic. They feel the whole damn thing is doomed, and I believe it is. And they are doomed along with it. Some of the young ones spout about a Soviet, but there's not much conviction in them. There's no sort of conviction about anything except that it's a muddle and a hole. Even under a Soviet you've still got to sell coal: and that's the difficulty. We've got these great industrial populations, and they've got to be fed, so the damn show has to be kept going somehow.
In a similar vein one of Sir Clifford's cronies remarks that the Soviet system is just their own methods as mine owners taken to their logical conclusions.

So: powerful political arguments, but no political position. A strong and constant sense of message which seems to be rather more significant than the idea that the gamekeepers of England should be free to shag the ladies of the manors, but no prescription. It is only in religious terms, I think, that Lawrence has a kind of position. They are not the terms of orthodox religion, but of faux-ancient religion. Lawrence is both Pantheist and Manichaean: he talks of everything as if it has a spirit and a moral worth, even the minerals down the mine, but sees always a sharp distinction between good and evil. The world may look grey (particularly in the North Midlands), but it is really black and white. There is Nature and there is Thing. Greed, machinery, economic mechanisms, modernity, reason, science are all Thing. Feelings, trees, pheasants, storms are all Nature. Above all, John Thomas is Nature. But Sir Clifford is Thing: he has become all mind and no balls. Never mind that he lost his balls in the service of his country, that he has tried his best to make something of himself and to be fair to Connie. This is not conventional morality: Manichi-Pantheism is not concerned with justice or responsibility. No balls bad, two balls . . . .

Not necessarily. Richard Hoggart famously said that this was a puritanical book and it is. Sex is generally portrayed as selfish and demeaning. In Paris, Connie reflects (p. 2540:

But what a weary, worn-out sensuality, worn out for lack of tenderness. Oh, Paris was sad, one of the saddest towns: weary of its now-mechanical sensuality , weary of the tension of money, money, money, weary even of resentment and conceit, just weary to death and still not sufficiently Americanised or Londonised to hide the weriness under a mechanical jig-jig-jig.
And faced with wealthy tourists in Italy her reaction is (p. 256):
Oh, the joy-hogs. Oh, "enjoying yourself"! Another modern form of sickness.
Lawrence may have been part of the process of the evolution of the "permissive society", but he would not have thought much of Sharon and Tracey and what they get up to in Ibiza. You can shag your way to salvation, but only with spirituality and tenderness. Simultaneous orgasm is something of an obsession and I suspect that Lawrence fed this into twentieth century sexual lore as Hemingway fed the idea of the earth moving.

Lawrence's writing, indisputably fine when dealing with the landscape or social nuance, becomes more mystical and potentially embarrassing on other subjects, including sex. When Connie and Mellors first have sex (on p. 116) it isn't "making love", not yet anyway the passage had a physical effect on me. But it wasn't what you think, Reader; it was a lump in the throat at the thought of these two utterly lonely people, eroded and isolated in a damp English fog of barriers and distances, actually making contact. It was like Brokeback Mountain in fact. It is not erotic writing in the way that (say) John Cleland or Mary McCarthy write erotically. The descriptions of sex are eccentric and metaphysical. Consider this scene, where Mellors is (I think) fingering Connie's rectum (p. 233):

"I like it," he said. "I like it! An' if I only lived ten minutes , an' stroked thy arse and got to know it, I should reckon I'd lived one life, sees ter! Industrial system or not! Here's one of my lifetimes."
I submit that the connection between her ladyship's arsehole and the "industrial system" is one that only Lawrence would make. It is a connection which prohibits him from being erotic, because the erotic is trivial, precisely concerned with the "recreational" aspects of sex, which Lawrence cannot accept.

The idea of the novel is explored in this novel. Sir Clifford is, after all, a novelist and his work is compared to that of Mrs Bolton (the chief domestic servant of the household) as a gossip (p. 101):

And here lies the vast importance of the novel, properly handled. It can inform and lead into new places the flow of our sympathetic consciousness, and it can lead our sympathy away in recoil from things gone dead. Therefore the novel, properly handled, can reveal the most secret places of life . . . . But the novel, like gossip, can also excite spurious sympathies and recoils, mechanical and deadening to the psyche . . . .
But I have another problem with novels like this one, which is that they throw around all sorts of ideas and make them sound dramatic and important, without having to clarify them or say what they mean in practice!

I had no idea how the story ended; I don't think we got to the end with our collective adolescent reading. I had vaguely imagined that it all ended in tragedy with bitter disillusionment and/or smoking shotguns. In fact it ends in banality, rationality and happy anti-climax: Connie is pregnant and the two of them are seeking divorces in order to marry each other. Her progress in this direction is not so advanced as his. Given her private income, his pension and her father's support there is no shortage of money for them to live on.

Finally, there is the question of the significance of this novel, its "trial" and the part it played in the development of the "permissive society". This whole business is laced with multiple ironies. The principle which the court accepted that "art" justifies permitting that which would otherwise be prohibited is preposterous and comparable to the idea that "faith" or "belief" could justify anything. In fact it is the precise equivalent, but in the terms of the modern "humanist" religion. On the other hand if it helped a movement towards a world in which you can say what you like and sleep with whom you like, then good for it.

Lincoln Allison has recently retired as Reader in Politics, University of Warwick. His previous Retrospective Reviews can be read here.

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I thought this book was boring with weak and unlikeable characters that appeared to sanction adultery as it's main goal. It had a lot of political jargon thrown in to make the adultery seem more palatable but that daren't change the fact that Lawrence was trying to justify his own adultery thru the books story. The sex wasn't at all erotic but made silly by all the symbols he used to explain it. And the constant talk about it and some of their actions before, after and during the sex act was rather contrived and not at all sexy. Lady Chatterley wasn't at all likeable in the fact that she wanted to dally and had with more than one man but keep her wealth intact and in my opinion thought she was above Mellors who seemed to me not to be very good husband material. He already had a wife and child that he had deserted and thou the child lived with his mother, he seldom saw it and treated it with disdain. And he had more than likely had a homosexual relationship with his superior officer. In reality, I wouldn't have wanted to know any of the characters in the book. How this book ever became a bestseller and well respected is beyond me. It was an obscene portrayal that probably mirrored Lawrences' own life. I honestly can not believe that anyone would find this a good read.......

Posted by: H. B at September 14, 2006 03:00 AM
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