I have never been more exhausted. The pandemic has aged me ten years in seven months.
At least that’s how it seems.
I do not dwell on my looks. I am talking about vitality in everyday life. No wonder. The country is falling apart.
“Could you make me a cup of tea?” I wheedle my husband. I used to make my own tea. Now I collapse on the divan with a pile of books, practically a small library. Tonight my choices are an Arnold Bennett, Jean Stafford’s The Catherine Wheel (one of my favorites), a novella by Anita Desai, and The Virago Book of Ghost Stories. My husband charmingly brings me a cup of what we call “purple tea.” The tea comes in a purple package.
Tea and reading help. I have been reading, of all things, Lady Chatterley’s Lover. I never thought this was one of Lawrence’s better novels, but after The Plumed Serpent and Kangaroo, it is a masterpiece.
This is not Lawrence’s best novel but it is his most famous, banned for obscenity from 1928 until 1960. People read it nowadays as a curiosity rather than as literature. Although there is little in Lady Chatterley that a modern reader, or particularly a cable TV watcher would find pornographic, there are several sex scenes, and some are more explicit than I’d remembered. Lawrence wrote three completely different versions of the book, and I wonder if I read an earlier version before. I am inclined to think I did. I remembered his referring to genitals in terms of ‘”John Thomas” and “Lady Jane,” but did not recall his use of more explicit language.
Lawrence begins this controversial novel:
Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically. The cataclysm has happened, we are among the ruins, we start to build up new habitats, to have new little hopes. It is rather hard work: there is now no smooth road into the future
The situation is tragic: Lawrence writes elegantly of the heroine Connie’s marriage to Clifford Chatterley, who returns from the war a paraplegic; their non-sexual marriage; and her desire for a child.
The plot is simple, but the prose is sharp and unflinching, and the characters are vibrantly alive. After the war, Connie and Clifford live at Wragford Hall. Clifford becomes a writer of what Connie’s father calls “dead books.” Connie is responsible for the care of Clifford, and becomes run-down. Her sister Hilda tells Clifford he must hire a nurse to relieve Connie.
Until the nurse is hired, we were not aware of all the physical tasks Connie has done for Clifford. Finally, she is free to do what she likes, and spends hours walking in the woods, appreciating nature. She and Mellors, the taciturn gamekeeper, embark on an affair, only it is more than that. Their intense relationship leads to an unusual sexual, intellectual, and spiritual rapport.
Like Rupert in Women in Love, Mellors lectures on the dead mechanical society, and the subjection of men to industrial culture. He also talks about sex: he tells Connie she is the only woman he knows capable of a “real” orgasm, rather than clitoral (though he does not use that word). She ignores this, focusing on their love, while Mellors darkly predicts that the human race will destroy itself after depleting the planet’s resources. (Is he right?) Connie keeps him balanced, thinking that much of what he says is unimportant to the future of their own relationship.
Lawrence loves his characters to discuss ideology and philosophy. Some of it is fascinating, some a bit tiring if you know his other books. But the first half of Lady Chatterley’s Lover is brilliant. Perhaps all that rewriting tired him out.