Saturday, September 29, 2012

Lady Chatterley's Lover, D.H. Lawrence (1928)

Gearing up for Banned Books Week, I thought I'd better get to this overdue post on a now-favorite banned book of mine, Lady Chatterley's Lover.

My sorority alumnae book club selected this title--okay, drew it out of a hat (who would have honestly picked this) because I suggested it for the mix--as an alternative to 50 Shades of Grey. It was one of the best book clubs we've had! The conversations were honest and more uninhibited than I would have expected for a group of four women all at very different stages of their lives. 

I wish I had written this post sooner (we met back in May) because we did a great job of discussing the similarities and differences between Lady Chatterley and a lot of other books. Two of us who did read 50 Shades talked at length (ad nauseam, really) about how damned similar we found the title's namesake, Lady Constance Chatterley and the other horrible character, Anastasia. Sadly, I don't remember the legitimate conversations we had other than that. 

There was a lot of talk about social and class commentary, and the differing and frequently changing view points of each character. The book had many characters at various class points--the Lord and Lady, the nurse, the townspeople, the gamekeeper--which created a complex presentation of persons, complicated even further by their altering beliefs. For instance, Connie goes on a tirade about the miners, but then can be very sympathetic and supportive of the little people who work on her estate. Many characters in the book show the same inconsistencies, regardless of their place in the world. I marked page 171, where a deep display of lower-class hatred appeared. The miners are less human and more "creature,"being referred to as "men not men, but animals of coal and iron and clay," the "fauna of the elements" and "weird inhuman beauty of minerals."

Mostly, we talked about how interesting the whole concept of the book is: a novel about sex, 

published in the 1920s, with a very progressive view of marriage, relationships, extramarital and premarital sex, that covers a woman's thoughts and reactions to sex, but is written by a man. As a woman, I find it pretty hard to believe that a man can understand what an orgasm is like for me, but whatever. That's really not the point of the book.

Early in the novel we read about the pressure in Connie's family to have sex, her early sexcapades, and her father's constant concern that she should be getting laid by someone else now that he husband is an invalid. Intimate conversations of that nature are shocking even now, because a push for premarital sex and extramarital relationships is not exactly a publicly accepted commendation. Especially between a daughter and father. 

But sex is set a side for a bit as we encounter the men in the Chatterley world, and they do have abrupt thoughts on people and relationships. 
"We bust apart, say spiteful things about one another, like all the other damned intellectuals in the world. Damned everybodies, as far as that goes, for they all do it. Else we bust apart, and cover up the spiteful things we feel against one another by saying false sugaries." p. 36 
The character is discussing the falseness, the acting, behind so many relationships. "Love’s another of those half-witted performances today," says another member of their circle. It's all playing a part--an interesting commentary on all people in the book, many who seem to use one outward personage to hide an inner difference in feeling, an act they are hiding, etc. 

The discussion of love and women, which happens between a group of men in the presence of a woman, was also an interesting thing. They have varied opinions on the matter--mostly involving the want to sleep with someone or the want to be intellectually stimulated by them, and whether or not one is more important. "A woman wants you to like her and talk to her, and at the same time love her and desire her; and it seems to me the two things are mutually exclusive," says one (p. 57). Perhaps my favorite thought, though, is this:
"Oh, intellectually I believe in having a good heart, a chirpy penis, a lively intelligence, and the courage to say ‘shit!’ in front of a lady." p. 40 
But then there's the conversation that happens between man and wife, the most sacred of relationships and the most traditionally conservative. This is where I was really shocked, and not surprised that the book had been banned (admittedly, I hadn't gotten to the sex parts yet). Yet, still, it's very progressive, even for us today. 
"It’s the life-long companionship that matters. It’s the living together from day to day, not the sleeping together once or twice. You and I are married, no matter what happens to us. We have the habit of each other. And habit, to my thinking, is more vital than an occasional excitement. The long, slow, enduring thing… that’s what we life by…not the occasional spasm of any sort." p. 44-45 
First of all, let's recognize that sex really is an "occasional spasm." Fabulously done, Lawrence. Secondly, this conversation is about Clifford telling his wife to sleep with other people. Not only would it be good for her, but then they could have an heir. This is not your average conversation, nor your average view on marriage. The "slow, enduring thing" tends to get a bad rep. So does the sex. But saying, "Naw, girl, it's cool. I just want to know you're in my house at night," is so forward-thinking and unexpected.  

And then there was the exploration of naked bodies, and the language used. The penis, John Thomas, and the cunt, Lady Jane. I didn't take a specific notes on this, but I wouldn't want to rob you of the joy of reading all about bush and boners yourself. 

What we didn't talk about were things that I tend to flag in a lot of older literature: nature as a metaphor, symbol, direct representation of sex. I've been writing about this since undergrad, I think for Victorian and early 20th century literature, it's heavily prevalent. I didn't exactly try to find the importance behind it in this novel, but I did keep track of a few passages. 
"Clifford loved the wood; he loved the old oak tress. He felt they were his own through generations. He wanted to protect them. He wanted this place inviolate, ship off from the world." […] "And suddenly, on the left, came a clearing where there was nothing but a ravel of dead bracken, a thin and spindly sapling leaning here and there, big sawn stumps, showing their tops and their grasping roots, lifeless." p 42.
This description of the area, particularly the clearing, is also a description of Clifford. After having his manhood taken from him in the war, he not only wants protection, but he is also a dead clearing. He is barren. He cannot reproduce and the roots of his family tree and lineage are grasping, too. 
"Constance sat down with her back to a young pine tree, that swatted against her with curious life, elastic, and powerful, rising up. The erect, alive thing, with its top in the sun! And she watched the daffodils turn golden, in a burst of sun that was warm on her hands and lap." p 89-90. 
The tree as a metaphor for a penis, erection, an orgasm.
"She was gone in her own soft rapture, like a forest soughing with the dim, glad moan of spring, moving into bud.  […] She was like a forest, like the dark interlacing the oak-wood, humming inaudibly with myriad unfolding buds. Meanwhile the birds of desire were asleep in the vast interlaced intricacy of her body." p.147 
"Connie went to the wood directly after lunch. It was really a lovely day, the first dandelions making suns, the first daisies so white. The hazel thicket was a lace-work, of half-open leaves, and the last dusty perpendicular of the catkins. Yellow celandines now were in crowds, flat open, pressed back in urgency, and the yellow glitter of themselves. It was the yellow, the powerful yellow of early summer. And primroses were broad, and full of pale abandon, thick-clustered primroses no longer shy. The lush, dark green of hyacinths was a sea, with buds rising like pale corn, while in the riding the forget-me-nots were fluffing up, and columbines were unfolding their ink-purple ruches, and there were bits of blue bird's eggshell under a bush. Everywhere the bud-knots and the leap of life!" p.77 
These, more complicated passages, are still fairly easy to ascertain as metaphors for Connie's awaking and budding sexuality and awareness of her body.

And finally, with no great place to put them, some wonderfully written odds and ends.
"No, my cherub, nine times out of ten, no! Love’s another of those half-witted performances today. Fellows with swaying waists fucking little jazz girls with small boy buttocks, like two collar studs!" p. 39 
"All the great words, it seemed to Connie, were cancelled for her generation: love, joy, happiness, home, mother, father, husband, all these great, dynamic words were half dead now, and dying from day to day. Home was a place you lived in, love was a thing you didn’t fool yourself about, joy was a word you applied to a good Charleston, happiness was a term of hypocrisy used to bluff other people, a father was an individual who enjoyed his own existence, a husband was a man you lived with and kept going in spirits. As for sex, the last of the great words, it was just a cocktail term for an excitement that bucked you up for a while, then left you more raggy than ever. Frayed! It was as if the very material you were made of was cheap stuff, and was fraying out to nothing." p. 63
"A woman has to live her life, or live to repent  not having lived it." p. 76
"It’s terrible, once you’ve got a man in your blood!"p. 176 
"…back comes Bertha, with airs and graces and smart clothes and a sort of bloom on her: a sort of sensual bloom that you’d see sometimes on a woman, or on a trolly." p. 216 
"It was pleasant in a way. It was almost enjoyment. But anyhow, with all the cocktails, all the lying in warmish water and sunbathing on hot sand in hot sun, jazzing with your stomach up against some fellow in the warm nights, cooling off with ices, it was a complete narcotic. And that was what they all wanted, a drug: the slow water, a drug; the sun, a drug; jazz, a drug; cigarettes, cocktails, ices, vermouth. To be drugged! Enjoyment! Enjoyment!" p. 281

No comments:

Post a Comment