DECEMBER 2011 | A very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year
Books Monthly Volume 14 No. 3 | December 2011 | This is booksmonthly.co.uk - I hope you enjoy your visit | Home Page
DH Lawrence: The sniggering legacy of ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ and ‘Women in Love’ by Jerry Dowlen
DH Lawrence (1885 – 1930) is a heavyweight of twentieth-century English literature. You’ll find him featured always in the very top rank of critical analysis of the English novel. Malcolm Bradbury, for example, devoted eleven whole pages and more than twenty cross-references to Lawrence in his 1993 publication ‘The Modern British Novel’ (Penguin, 462 pages).
However, if it were decided today that history books on English literature need to be thinned out to make room for recent new authors and to get rid of old authors whom no-one reads or cares about any more, I wonder if poor old Lawrence would make the cut?
The writer and critic Jocelyn Brooke wrote this, in 1955.
“Though most of my contemporaries continue to pay lip-service to Lawrence they will confess, if one gets them into a corner, that they are quite unable to plough though his novels. Why? The answer is, alas, that Lawrence’s novels are, for the most part, badly constructed, and, above all, badly written.”
Well, that’s very handy – it has saved me the job of putting into words my own general opinion of the novels. But it is interesting to note that Brooke was questioning Lawrence’s readability and relevance as far back as 1955, when Lawrence had been dead for only a quarter of a century.
To cite a more recent example of Lawrence-bashing, I call upon Rachel Cooke and her article in the New Statesman in March 2011:
“Even at the peak of my blue-stocking phase, when I used to bash through fat novels as if they were meringues, I loathed D H Lawrence. The tedious obsession with sex. The terrible, euphemistic prose. The chippiness. The plodding symbolism. The way his characters, in the absence of anything approaching a plot, talk endlessly of completion and (yuck) emptying themselves. The creepy way he projects his own desires on to his women. I'm not alone. Save for the hullabaloo surrounding the Chatterley trial, Lawrence has been mostly unfashionable since his first novel was published in 1911.”
Rachel Cooke was reviewing BBC4 television’s new adaptation of two Lawrence novels ‘The Rainbow’ and ‘Women in Love’ by scriptwriter William Ivory. She concluded not by burying the production but expressing some qualified praise. I can join her in that sentiment. For, independently of her, I have come to see that Lawrence is one of those authors whose novels are best enjoyed, surely, through the medium of film adaptations for cinema or television? Away with the turgid prose of Lawrence’s written page! Much better the dreamlike, imagistic, intense and bold Ken Russell cinema adaptation of ‘Women in Love’ in 1969 or the concise but passionate rendition of ‘The Virgin and the Gypsy’ directed by Christopher Miles in 1970, starring the brooding Franco Nero and the fey Joanna Shimkus.
Was it brave or foolhardy of the BBC to commission a new screening of ‘Women in Love’ in 2011, when surely Ken Russell had already directed the powerfully definitive version in 1969? The American critic Thomas Atkins noted in 1976 that Russell’s “complex, combustible mixture of sacred and profane elements, high and low art, makes his films popular with audiences.”
I watched and enjoyed the BBC4 version. Part One (of two) was largely fresh material from ‘The Rainbow’ and not so much overshadowed by persistent intrusion into my memory of how Ken Russell had treated the same scenes. Any parents who have grappled with the generation gap and a headstrong daughter will have been moved, I’m sure, by the poignant portrayal of this theme in Part One of Ken Ivory’s take on DH Lawrence. I can overall agree with the critic Andrew Billen who hailed Ken Ivory’s production as “intelligent, educative … and true to the book’s spirit.” Dwelling on the “educative” I will say that the underlying social history of the period was most effectively portrayed.
‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’
Whenever DH Lawrence is mentioned, for readers of my age the ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ obscenity trial in 1960 is surely the elephant in the room?
The critic Eric Gillett is forthright:
Lawrence earned notoriety for ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’, a bad novel, made unusual by the use of impolite epithets and terms which contribute nothing to the story and only expose the weakness of its author’s method. This indifferent novel would never have sold several millions of copies had not The Crown brought proceedings against Penguin for publishing an unexpurgated version, in paperback form.
The poet Philip Larkin said this in the opening verse of his poem ‘Annus Mirabilis’:
Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) -
Between the end of the ‘Chatterley’ ban
And the Beatles' first LP.
It was Ken Russell who directed the most recent adaptation of ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ to be shown on British television. Worthily though Sean Bean and Joely Richardson may have portrayed Mellors and Lady Chatterley in that 1993 television adaptation, for me a sighting of ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ as book or film inevitably makes me feel – prompted I’m sure by Larkin’s easily-recalled poem – that I can’t take it seriously. It doesn’t help that a 1983 cinema version starred the actress Sylvie Kristel – ‘Emmanuelle’. “Oh, yes! Oh, yes!” That seems to be the level to which Lawrence’s infamous 1928 novel has sunk with me, after my witnessing of the media circus that surrounded the obscenity trial in 1960; followed of course by “fame for fifteen minutes” for the one boy in my class of thirteen year-olds at school that year who managed to smuggle in a copy of the book for our eager scrutiny.
Lawrence and homosexuality
The male nude wrestling scene caused a huge clamour when ‘Women in Love’ was released in 1969. The full male nudity (Alan Bates and Oliver Reed) meant that Ken Russell had broken mainstream British cinema convention. Today, it is still the first thing that most people will remember or will talk about, if the film is mentioned.
Was Lawrence a closet homosexual? The wrestling scene in Ken Russell’s film inevitably reawakened a debate that had been going on for years. Jocelyn Brooke had declared in 1955:
“That embarrassing scene in the book ‘Women in Love’ in which Birkin and Critch wrestle naked on the drawing-room floor – one knows, only too well, what Lawrence was getting at, but one suspects that he didn’t, altogether, know himself; or, worse still, that he didn’t have the courage to admit it.”
The critic Jack Fisher noted in 1976 :
“The most famous scene in both the book and the film is the nude wrestling match between Birkin and Critch. It is clearly a scene involving sex, if not actually an overt sex scene. Russell creates a mood of healthy sexual virility which intensifies the natural relationship between the two men. The attitude is positive: a faithful rendering of masculine athletic brutality, and a tender undercurrent of a healthy relationship.”
In his first novel ‘The White Peacock’ (1911) Lawrence had included a near-similar incident of “physical contact” between two young men. Lawrence’s biographers Harry Moore and Warren Roberts consider that “the episode seems more athletic than erotic.”
DH Lawrence: his legacy?
DH Lawrence, then: an author who courted much controversy during his life. To his literary “crimes” (perceived breaches of good taste) we can add public disapproval that he mixed with the Bloomsbury set (decadent) and that he ran away with and married a German divorcee (unpatriotic).
Posthumously, have the Lady Chatterley trial and the controversial sex scenes in Ken Russell’s ‘Women in Love’ given DH Lawrence the unfortunate legacy that the mere mention of his name induces instant sniggering about fornicating gamekeepers, four-letter word sex, and male nude wrestling?
In my imaginary balloon debate, in which the least essential twentieth-century novelists must be sacrificed so that we can save the really good ones, is DH Lawrence an author that we must chuck out?
Writing in 1961, the critic Eric Gillett seems to have anticipated this very question:
“Later generations may well find it hard to understand the immense veneration and equally strong antagonism which Lawrence aroused in his lifetime.”
Despite the trenchant remarks that I have cited earlier, Jocelyn Brooke was more optimistic:
“For all his bad writing and wrong-headedness, Lawrence was a genius and a great man, and he has become a part of our consciousness; an influence which, like that of Freud, may be for good or ill, but which is – and will remain – permanent and inescapable.”
1. Jennie Linden, Alan Bates (‘Women in Love’, 1969)
2. Oliver Reed, Glenda Jackson (‘Women in Love’, 1969)
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