Come off it

My previous comments on Lady Chatterley achieved some kind of record by making little or no reference to sex. It was the latter, supposedly that outraged polite society and prevented its publication in full for thirty years. I have some doubts on that score but more on those later.

Lawrence’s offence consisted, first of sprinkling his text with four-letter words. Piss, shit, arse, fuck, cunt: they are all there. Well, not quite all. We read of Mellors’ penis in various stages of engorgement and flaccidity, while the Greek phallos is invoked to dress Connie’s infatuation in a tunic rather than a shawl. But its vernacular designations are shied away from, as if Lawrence could not bring himself to be less than reverential. Instead it capers as John Thomas to Connie’s Lady Jane, pet names that imbue the two organs with their owners’ difference in class.

But rude words are only incidental to the book’s purpose, whose main theme is the gelding of modern Man. Due to money-lust, morality or the enslavement of the working class all sections of society had lost sight of their animal nature. The species had become either effete or crippled by work. In other men this vision incited a desire for revolution and Soviet Russia was entering its most fashionable phase among English intellectuals. But Lawrence saw Bolshevism as guilty of the same enslavement to materialism and the machine: indeed he coined it as a term for the industrial age in all its forms. And rather than feeling sympathy for the miners, from whom he himself had sprung, his alter ego Mellors embraces them in a kind of universal disgust.

Instead, using current parlance, the author’s panacea for these all-pervading ills might be thought of as ecological: faith in nature, the rejection of mass-production, acceptance of a simpler life. It is in this regard that a kind of rehabilitation might be accomplished. D. H. Lawrence, Friend of the Earth. The trouble is it remains difficult to see beyond the original cause of the book’s notoriety, not least because there remains a whiff of the crackpot about his ideas. In particular he places the entire weight of modern man’s salvation on the orgasm, a burden it might find difficult to bear. More specifically, all the ills he complains of would be solved if men and women succeeded in ‘coming off’ together. The best one can say about this as a means of achieving a better world is that it beats reading Das Kapital.

To substantiate this proposition the book delves into the lovers’ sexual history. Mellors finds his early conquests too grudging in their surrender and marries the more willing Bertha Coutts (a name with odd connotations for a working class woman). But the relationship turns sour and she reverts to withholding her climax or ‘crisis’ (another word worth psychoanalysing) which deprives her husband of the mutual crescendo he craves. In the event she leaves him to live with another man, adding the stigma of cuckold to his wounded pride. Not surprisingly, perhaps the story opens with him resentful of women and hopeful of having done with ‘all that’.

As for Connie her initiation is with a young German before the First World War with whom she practises a Bertha-like continence, waiting for him to finish before getting started herself. The description of this technique, in which the exhausted man is made to persevere while she moves against him, is coldly anatomical, sex as a striving for personal pleasure with no deeper connection. Lawrence’s fixation with timing suggests something pathological in his own experience. Did he suffer from premature ejaculation, and is the entire book a displacement activity that shifts the blame onto women and makes of the confluence he found difficult to attain a kind of grail? How typical of a man to generalise from his own inadequacy and turn a private dissatisfaction into a system of thought.
Poor Connie. Marriage to Clifford Chatterley leads to more disappointment in bed, the physical act regarded by him as a distasteful anachronism, something civilised people are evolving away from. The impotence inflicted on him by injury in the war is almost a blessing, apart from the inconvenience of begetting an heir which he is quite prepared for his wife to manage separately as long as it is handled with discretion. Clifford’s seeking of literary renown is thus identified with lack of manliness – one in the eye for the cultural establishment which Lawrence himself never found favour with – just as his subsequent enthusiasm for industry represents a different kind of barrenness, a mechanical obsession devoid of human warmth. Connie seeks consolation in the arms of the aspiring writer Michaelis, but the old business of incompatible needs intrudes once again. This is sex as basketball, one end under attack and then the other.

That Lady Chatterley has form when it comes to men is one of the surprises that rewards finally reading the book rather than relying on the pass notes of common knowledge. And it serves a dual purpose, making her adultery with Mellors seem less far-fetched and ensuring that both of them come to the event with a history of disenchantment. The description of what passes between them is graphic even by modern standards – but then the image has superseded the word just has pornography has trumped the erotic. Even here, however Lawrence’s gift for telling the truth prevents their satisfaction from seeming immediate or complete. A sense is conveyed of two bodies getting to know each other and it takes a few goes before the ultimate aim of ‘coming off’ together is achieved. Except that this turns out not to be the ultimate aim. There is a further stage of abandonment, on the eve of Connie’s departure for Venice, the true nature of which is left uncharacteristically vague. A clue is provided by Mrs Mellors who, on being frustrated in her attempts at reconciliation with the gamekeeper, blabs about his preferences in bed, one of which involved intercourse ‘in the Italian manner’.

A book could be written on the slandering of nationalities by association with practices of which people disapprove: French letters, Hunnish practices, the English disease. In this case the reference is to anal sex, a final frontier in female willingness to oblige; and here we approach the question at the heart of Lawrence’s philosophy. It can be argued that unfettered sexuality of the kind he advocates is always a male agenda. A recent novel, The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis proposes that the mores of the 1960s, themselves owing much to Lady Chatterley’s exoneration, were in effect a device for getting girls into bed. And the same suspicion attends the outlook suffusing Lawrence’s work. Does the unleashing of Connie’s libido represent an awakening of the spirit as well as the body; or is it a different means to the same old end of subordination to a man’s control and desires? The evidence is divided. Her girlish thrill at his complimenting her arse smacks of the most demeaning stereotypes. And Sir Malcolm gloats over the proof of his daughter’s passionate nature (‘I knew she’d be good going…’), male solidarity outweighing the taboo of class. On the other hand she is not above taking the lead when it comes to casting off inhibition, running naked through the woods and inciting him to follow; while her title and position temper the physical imbalance, lust doffing its cap when naked otherwise. In other words the book is capable of a deep reading along feminist lines, but as written and intended by Lawrence involves a subtler interplay of initiative and imitation, of dominance and disadvantage.

In part, perhaps Lawrence has fallen victim to the debasement of his message, not least for commercial gain. The perversion of boys’ attitude to girls through over-exposure to pornography now pulses on the radar of social policy. But this is far from the vision that Mellors and his creator had of untrammelled coupling. ‘Tenderness’ is what the gamekeeper craves for in the act; ‘warm-heartedness’ in everything, including sex. Whether the total elision of need is possible, let alone to be recommended remains uncertain. In this respect Connie seems the more down to earth, hating him one moment, devouring him the next. But the contrast with alternative modes of sexual conduct leaves little doubt where our sympathies should lie, be it the brutish rutting of the lower orders or the tepid spasms of the ruling elite. Indeed, one of the most shocking images in the novel involves Sir Clifford Chatterley and his housekeeper Mrs Bolton. The latter hates him on account of her husband’s death in the mine but relishes the intimacy his dependence allows, bathing him all over like a child and even kissing him ‘anywhere’, a dumb show of lovemaking without sex, a satire on the impotence of a discredited class. Returning to the point alluded to at the start, I suspect it was this rather than offence at the obscenity which scandalised the government. Her ladyship shagging a servant might be allowed – after all the men had been doing it for centuries. But ridiculing the social order: that was treason.