Wednesday, September 30, 2015

D.H. Lawrence looks for love in the broken world of Lady Chatterley's Lover


photo credit: Mighty Reader

What it's not is a book about sex, not really. There is sex, there is explicit writing about sex and sexual anatomy, but not a great deal of it because Lady Chatterley's Lover is not a book about sex; it's a book about people, a book about striving toward love and truth and beauty and meaning in a world that seems to contain none of those things, a world in which love and truth and beauty and meaning have been trampled into mud and had factories built over them. Lady Chatterley's Lover is a book that searches for life among the ruins of culture. Where it finds life is in a strange and idiosyncratic sensuality that Lawrence attempts to describe, which is where the sex comes into the novel. A strange and idiosyncratic sex.

A lot of the writing about sex is awkward, it's true. Lawrence had no model, and so he was making it up as he went along, writing explicitly and seriously about sex and genitalia and trying not to embarrass himself. Some of it is painful but much of it seems honest and compassionate, as Lawrence has great compassion for humanity even while he runs amok scourging humanity for it's vanity and selfishness. Lawrence writes about sex the same way he writes about motor cars, the same fascinated way he writes about flowers or the moon, taking it all earnestly and layering it with emotion. The second act, the long midsection of the novel that tells the story of Lady Chatterley's affair with her husband's gamekeeper Mellors, has an internal structure of increasingly intensified writing about sex (interpolated with a great deal of social commentary), of gradual coarsening of language, of Lawrence's battle to strip shame away from sex and sensuality. He's not successful in the battle, but he fights it bravely. For the characters, at least, the battle is won, and that's good enough. Idiosyncratic phallocentric sexuality carries the day and Connie--Lady Chatterley--is delivered into freedom. After that, the novel sort of unravels and becomes far less interesting.

The third act of the novel is, regrettably, pretty conventional stuff. It ties up plot threads and solves the logistical problems of the action and contains a good number of commonplace and talky scenes, sometimes swerving drunkenly into Jane Austen denouement territory. The groundskeeper, the man with whom Lady Chatterley has her affair, turns out to be less of an outsider than a misunderstood solid chap who is really a straight shooter with management potential. Even Lawrence could not bring his socialite heroine to lower herself to the level of the working class, a powerful irony the author was no doubt unaware of:
"...his name is Oliver Mellors."

"And how would you like to be Mrs Oliver Mellors, instead of Lady Chatterley?"

"I'd love it."

There was nothing to be done with Connie. And anyhow, if the man had been a lieutenant in the army in India for four or five years, he must be more or less presentable. Apparently he had character. Hilda began to relent a little.

"But you'll be through with him in awhile," she said, "and then you'll be ashamed of having been connected with him. One CAN'T mix up with the working people."

"But you are such a socialist! you're always on the side of the working classes."

"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."

Hilda had lived among the real political intellectuals, so she was disastrously unanswerable.
Lawrence, too, is on their side in a political crisis, but he has no wish to be a collier like his father, or to accept that a collier has the same ultimate worth as an artist. That's an argument for another day, though. In Lady Chatterley, Lawrence is singing the praises of common humanity:
The nondescript evening in the hotel dragged out, and at last they had a nondescript dinner. Then Connie slipped a few things into a little silk bag, and combed her hair once more.

"After all, Hilda," she said, "love can be wonderful: when you feel you LIVE, and are in the very middle of creation." It was almost like bragging on her part.

"I suppose every mosquito feels the same," said Hilda.

"Do you think it does? How nice for it!"
In praise of mosquitoes, then. Maybe tomorrow I'll get around to talking about the mosquitoes, the machines, the mine-owning dukes and the bolshevists.


photo: Mighty Reader

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