Sir Clifford Chatterley

Thinking about fictional ex-soldiers presented more as burdens than as heroes, I’ve been re-reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928). Coming to Lawrence straight from a rummage through the works of Warwick Deeping is a bit disorienting, though the hero of the Leavisites and the darling of the middlebrows had a great deal more in common than you might think – especially when it came to their sexual politics.

Sir Clifford Chatterley is presented with some sympathy at first, as someone suffering “the bruise of the false inhuman war.” but soon Lawrence can’t resist letting his condition – paralysed from the waist down – become a symbol for his class. This is a man disabled in the War and incapable of a sexual relationship with his wife, but Lawrence asks “And yet was not he in part to blame? This lack of warmth,this lack of the simple, warm, physical contact, was he not to blame for that?”

Chatterley becomes a writer, but Lawrence allows him to write nothing but the trivial and showy (The Sitwells were convinced that Lawrence intended Chatterley as a portrait of Osbert; I’m not quite sure why.). It’s only too easy for an author to heap humiliation on a character, and Lawrence does not resist the temptation, infantilising Sir Clifford at the hands of Mrs Bolton. Interestingly, he never gives a clue about the man’s war record. To have been seriously wounded he must presumably have been in action, but Lawrence tells us nothing of this, and won’t grant him the dignity of courage. He must be a representative of the decadent upper class, and nothing else. (As a novelist Lawrence may have been wise to avoid war scenes of which he knew little – in the story England, My England he confuses field guns and machine guns.)

The other negative portrayals of war casualties that I’ve come across show them to some degree possessed by the spirit of war – angry, negative, irrational – and the women who escape them are refusing to let war dominate their lives. Lawrence is different. For him the war is a pretext for disabling a member of the upper classes, in order to provide a physical correlative to an alleged spiritual state. I know there’s along literary tradition, from Shakespeare’s Richard III to Dickens’s Quilp, of using physical deformity as a sign of moral ugliness, but I can’t help feeling that Lawrence is using this too easily, pandering to his own prejudices.

Lawrence, after all, is not the man to avoid kicking a character when he is down, and the character’s (fairly laudable) desire to make money from his writing becomes presented as

“A cold spirit of vanity, that had no warm human contacts, and that was as corrupt as any low-born Jew, in craving for prostitution to the bitch-goddess, Success.”

Yuk.

Lawrence, I suspect, never really got over the War. Married to a cousin of the Red Baron, he had a hard time at the hands of the patriotic, but the problem went deeper. His whole philosophy was based on an ideal of manliness, and the War redefined the male in ways that he couldn’t share. Manliness now was being a soldier, and Lawrence, with his German wife and consumptive chest, was excluded. So his post-war work over-compensates, seeking the hyper-male in Mexican savageries or Australian fascists. The subtlety drains from his writing until we reach Lady C, that strange mixture of courage (since his descriptions of sex really did break new literary ground) and silliness (suggesting that sex is only any good when done in a regional accent.)

His treatment of the ex-soldier Sir Clifford exposes his resentment of those who had had a chance to display courage in ways denied to him, but the representation of Mellors is interesting, too. To be credible in 1928, Lawrence had to make his manly gamekeeper an ex-soldier, but he takes care to make his military service non-standard. Most untypically for a wartime recruit, Mellors serves in India and Egypt only, and his military service seems mostly to have consisted of looking after horses. Like Lawrence, he has never been near the Western Front; that service was reserved for the despised Sir Clifford.

One Comment

  1. Posted May 30, 2007 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

    If you wanted to be really charitable then maybe you could give Lawrence some credit for paying attention to less well known aspects of the war: it wasn’t all about the Western Front, and the men who looked after the horses were just as important as the men who fought. But that would be anachronistic. Your work and Dan Todman’s work both show that the cliches we know and hate today weren’t fully formed or dominant in the 1920s.

    Why a driver/farrier/whatever (I’d probably know better if I’d read the book!) who only ever looked after horses rather than a man who fought in the infantry and was commissioned out of the ranks? Lawrence seems to be saying that the upper classes use the lower classes to look after their horses, and that exploitation and class hierarchy doesn’t even change in a world war. In radical politics the idea that the elite treat their animals better than the common people goes back hundreds of years. And why Egypt and India? Probably to emphasise the war as protecting and expanding the British Empire.


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