Sunday, October 7, 2012

Lawrence’s ‘A Propos’ to 'Lady Chatterley’s Lover'.

In defence of decency... 

Jonnie Comet
28 April 1994

  It provides great pleasure to see that, in response to the harsh criticisms he received upon the publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, DH Lawrence provided a rebuttal, usually included in its scholarly editions.  In his essay ‘A Propos’, he addresses several crucial issues about what constitutes morality and immortality in literature and in society.  Through it all, as with the novel, he maintains an unwavering philosophy that there is nothing inherently wrong with simply being honest, provided one is honest about it.
  Lawrence states: ‘I want men and women to be able to think sex, fully, completely, honestly, and cleanly’. This is hardly an indecent notion.  Lady Chatterley’s Lover can be seen as a rebellion to the Victorian prudishness under which England lingered after the close of The Great War.  The world had opened up; even Connie acknowledges that while the wireless worked, there could be no escape from the outside world.  But England, in all her self-preserving pride, endeavoured to resist change.  Like the collier gentry of the Midlands, English culture clung to what it had always known, no matter how dated.  Lawrence’s fervent hope was that minds would open up before they were forced to.
  This book is intended as a sort of fanciful love story, true, but it is also intended to show just how the ‘sensitive’ issues of premarital sex, marriage, impotence, adultery, nudity, and pregnancy could be discussed, when a course of events calls for such discussion.  One will note that in Kate Chopin’s eye-opening The Awakening (1899), in spite of the birthing scene, none of the words ‘pregnancy’, ‘labour pains’, ‘childbirth’, nor even ‘baby’ are ever used.  This type of timidity was positively repulsive to Lawrence, who saw the world and its inadequacies with open eyes and a poised pen.
  He writes of ‘having a proper reverence for sex’, a need for a balance between the mental and physical impulses of human nature.  He condemns the extremes of both ends and seeks the healthier middle ground.  This is only sensible.  The genteel tradition of Victorian England seemed to take an almost perverse pride in its regard for mental and physical chastity.  By the standards of the ‘Roaring Twenties’ its adherents were timid, backward, and ignorant, so out of touch with what they felt that they almost ceased to be human at all.  Lawrence cites an infamous case of ‘Colonel Barker’, a woman who masqueraded as a man so convincingly that she married and lived in ‘conjugal happiness’ with another woman for years without the mate ever being the wiser.  ‘The situation is monstrous’, Lawrence lambastes.  The poor wife was simply a ‘moron’ on matters of sex; she had never thought to ask anything about what she had not experienced, in spite of whatever enquiries her physiology might have wanted to make.  The author also considers Swift’s poem ‘Dressing Room’, in which Swift’s narrator is horrified to find that his lover (the context of the word, with regard to Swift, is ripe subject for debate) performs sanitary bodily functions similar to his own.  Lawrence writes, with sarcasm richly evident, ‘Who doesn’t?  And how much worse if she didn’t?’ His use of the somewhat anal-retentive Swift as an example is appropriate, for Swift’s own depiction of his various incarnations of Utopia are all conspicuously asexual; he, like the wife of ‘Colonel Barker’, may well have been so victimised by inhibition that he was deplorably unable to think sexually at all.
  On the other hand is the one whom Lawrence calls the ‘smart jazzy person’, who treats sex as a cocktail, to be imbibed of often and with gusto.  One is reminded instantly of Eliot’s depiction of the young typist’s evening of meaningless sex with a pimply clerk in ‘The Waste Land’, so drearily presented, conveying all of the emotional desolation Lawrence despised.  Such people have little respect for anything, and accept little responsibility for their actions.  I wonder if Lawrence would have appreciated very much the relative audacity of the ‘free love’ movement of the 1970s.  However he puts a fine point on refusing to suggest that every woman run off with a gamekeeper.  His wish is not that the members of society act impulsively, but that they simply be better aware of their impulses.  This completeness of knowledge, after all, is what Lady Chatterley’s Lover is all about.
  Its author is also keenly aware that some high-brow readers will find the book excessively naïve.  By 1990s standards it does seem that his use of certain terms for body parts and actions (even if they are medically correct) read like a very bad pornographic novel.  In the face of those who would condemn the book as immature, perhaps representing ‘the mentality of a boy of fourteen’, Lawrence is undaunted.  His intelligent reply is that perhaps the fourteen-year-old has a much more wholesome respect for the whole institution of sexual relations than does an apparent adult who displays so little respect for anything at all.
  I was amused by this, and encouraged.  Indeed it seems that with relating the experiences of Connie Chatterley, Lawrence is trying to reach young people above all, as they represent the best chance of improving public awareness about sex for posterity.  He makes a point that the whole prospect of adolescence, for example, is a turmoil of emotional and sensual urges and social and familiar responsibilities.  It is a contradiction of insatiable curiosity and natural urges set against social expectations and healthy prudence.  What might Stevenson and Gauguin have noted? --that in Polynesia, sexual awareness is cultivated and encouraged by the entire society.  Western civilisation has always imagined the Polynesian lifestyle as being one of sensuality and promiscuity, but the reality of it is that these people just have a very practical view of their physiology.  No Polynesian child over four is unaware of sex; no adolescent is dissuaded from exploring it; and in fact parents are more likely worried if their 15-year-old daughter has not been sought for sexual favours– to the point where the whole village will endeavour to set her up with a young man to get her in gear.  This may sound horrendous to a 20th-C Western viewpoint, that is, a viewpoint steeped in the genteel tradition, but to the Polynesians it is merely a perfectly natural part of life.  I am sure Lawrence was well aware that all animals besides man are mated as soon as possible after puberty.
  In my own novel I included the character of a well-educated upper-middle-class 16-year-old girl who is depicted lolling about in lacy underwear and sipping brandy out of her father’s liquor locker of her own volition.  Christine intimidates her so-called peers by so freely discussing what the narration calls, deliberately prudently, ‘adult issues’.  She’s a virgin, but she’s not a naïve one, the kind of girl who has been purposefully taught well in advance of puberty just what the whole scheme of human physiology is about.  Is this so bad?  I am sure Lawrence would rather have had a readership full of wide-eyed adolescents than to merely have his book not deemed too racy by their elders, for if the alternative were to allow a significant proportion of the population to end up like the naïve wife of ‘Colonel Barker’, he says outright: ‘Better to give all girls this book, at the age of seventeen’.
  Does all this constitute a ‘dirty’ mind?  I don’t think so.  In no way would one be able to say that Lawrence had a ‘dirty mind’, or that he was ‘obsessed’ with sex.  He merely practises what he preaches: that it is an eligible topic for adult discussion.  In fact he condemns the ignorance and immaturity of profane culture too.  His overall intention is to keep the mind ‘sufficiently developed in physical and sexual consciousness’Whatever labour of love this book may have been, in its advent, it appealed in the spirit intended to a very narrow audience.  Between the three factions closing in, the ‘stale grey Puritan who is likely to fall into sexual indecency in advanced age, the smart jazzy person of the young world. . .  and the low uncultured person with a dirty mind’, there is scarcely any room for a book of this nature to be accepted on its own terms.  ‘Life’, its author maintains, ‘is only bearable when the mind and the body are in harmony, and there is a natural balance between them, and each has a natural respect for the other’.
  To which I added, in my copy of his book, ‘You, sir, are correct’.  Because I couldn’t agree more.

* * *

p. 2  - I want... cleanly  - Lawrence; Lady Chatterley’s Lover (unexpurgated edition, with addenda), p. 332
 p. 4  - having a proper reverence for sex  - Ibid, p. 333
p. 4  - The situation... of sex  - Ibid
p. 4  - Who doesn’t?  And how much worse if she didn’t?  - p. 334
 p. 5  - smart jazzy person  - Ibid
p. 5  - meaningless sex... The Waste Land  - Eliot; ‘The Waste Land’,. ll. 222-256
p. 6  -  the mentality of a boy of fourteen  - LCL, p. 334
p. 7  - my own novel  - In Love Me Do (ch. 4) I posed the character of Christine Polvere deliberately to illustrate something I have always thought important: the early and earnest education of young people about who they really are and what it all means.  Healthy discourse about things like human sexuality is more positive than shunting the issue aside till later, when it may prove too little, too late.  It is an inclination in which I have vowed not to fail to share with my own two daughters as they grow up –JC
p. 8  - Better to give all girls this book, at the age of seventeen  - LCL, p. 333.  Author’s note: I still completely agree; though for the modern world (early 21st C.) I would amend this to age fourteen --JC
p. 8  -  sufficiently developed in physical and sexual consciousness  - LCL;  p. 334.
p. 9  -  stale grey... dirty mind’ - Ibid
p. 10  -  Life... the other’ - Ibid, p. 334-335

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