Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Lady Chatterley's Lover

Lady Chatterley's Lover, by D.H. Lawrence
1928, 375 pp.

As Anthony Burgess once wrote, the real benefit of the repeal of the ban on Lady Chatterley's Lover is not so much a victory for free speech and free expression as a freedom from the obligation to defend what is not actually a very good book. Originally self-published in 1928, released in several different editions, and forbidden under obscenity legislation for decades, Lady Chatterley's Lover will forever be the one book which is automatically associated with the name of D.H. Lawrence. The trials, the bans, the lawsuits, and the protests have shrouded the book in more notoriety than it (and perhaps its author) really warrants. I imagine it has been disappointing lurid readers for generations.

The story concerns one Lady Constance Chatterley, who marries the alliterative Sir Clifford Chatterley, a bright, sensitive young writer who is promptly paralyzed in the First World War. They live together on his estate in the depressing industrial Midlands, where Connie quickly grows bored and stultified and after a few false starts finally begins an affair with Mellors, the groundskeeper. It all begins promisingly enough, with a few immediate bits of quite good prose: "intimate as two people who stand together on a sinking ship," and "the village trailed in utter hopeless ugliness for a long and gruesome mile," for instance. Lawrence swiftly establishes himself as skilled in the construction of a lovely phrase, but unfortunately seems to find them so lovely that he is not ashamed to repeat them in the next sentence, and the sentence after that. I forgave him the first time. I wondered if it was an artistic choice the second, third, and fourth times. By the fifth and sixth, I started to wonder if self-publishing meant there was no copy editor, and if in the hustle of different versions being banned by different governments, perhaps the prose got a bit muddy. By pages 110-111, when he uses "down-slipping" three times in as many sentences, I became officially annoyed. The repetition reaches some sort of lunatic nadir on page 167: "...the world of the mechanical greedy, greedy mechanism and mechanized greed..." How mechanical was it? Was it greedy at all? I think it was really, really super-greedy and mechanical, but it's kind of difficult to tell.

All of my various substantive objections to the book can be personified by the character of the groundskeeper. Much is made (both in the book and in its exegeses) about the controversy entailed in Lady Chatterley conducting an affair with a member of the lower class. I am all in favor of such arrangements in the abstract: the problem is the relative personalities involved in this particular case. Quite a lot of the book is dedicated to the opinions of various characters on the causes and process of Western civilization's decline and fall. Mellors' opinion is a rather distasteful bit of cultural fascism: "It's because th' men aren't men, that th' women have to be," he says. Men in his opinion have become too effeminate, what with their book-learning and disinterest in shooting owls. They have let themselves become subordinate to women, who have grown more strong and assertive than their natural position ought to be, leading to cultural degradation. He waxes euphoric on three occasions about the virile benefits of wearing red trousers, for reasons utterly lost on this reader. He also has the ability to switch between speaking a wild and inhospitable "vernacular" which is meant to sound like a Derbyshire accent, and speaking "proper English." Try though I might to work out the significance of this ability and why he uses one version or the other, I emerge defeated.

Lawrence sets up Sir Clifford as the foil to Mellors' earthy manliness. Sir Clifford is literally impotent, due to machine guns, and this failure is what leads poor, unsatisfied Connie to find Mellors, the ubermensch. Of course, looked at another way, she deserts her crippled husband who has done nothing but be kind to her and provide her with a lavish standard of living, and whose only fault (until he begins to notice that she is obviously cheating on him) is that he likes to read. This does not make Connie a particularly endearing character, nor Lawrence a particularly endearing author for advancing a thesis based on the integrity of these characters.

The infamous sex scenes don't finally start up until about page 150, and even then are less anatomically than emotionally explicit. Connie seems to spend a lot of time feeling like the ocean, with "mysteries of the phallus" in "her woman's heart." The naming of one another's genitalia, which provoked so much ire in trial proceedings, doesn't turn up until page 270, and then only three times. Instead, the obscenity comes in the form of a few sudden (and startlingly out of place) uses of profanity by Mellors, the forbidden four-letter words peering dubiously out of the apostrophed thickets of his incomprehensible vernacular. When on page 264 "the dog sighed with discomfort on the mat," I knew exactly how it felt. Some have argued that Lawrence's mistake was writing about good sex, which is inherently less interesting in a narrative than bad sex. It seems to me he did worse: he wrote about good sex badly. The turgid prose of the sex scenes brings the narrative to a dead halt, and I found them worse than obscene: I found them unconvincing, and embarrassingly so.

The central thesis of Lady Chatterley's Lover seems to be that if men are properly men and women properly women, according to some poorly articulated peasant code of social relations, the basic animal integrity of such a 'natural" relationship provides a sort of redemption which makes up for the degradation of a life spent in industrial wage-slavery, or rather, in the modern world. The trick, apparently, is to wear red pants, name your genitals, and feel like the ocean.

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