Lawrence and Lawrence

In Lorenzo the Closet Queen, Angela Carter famously outed D.H.Lawrence as gay, mostly because of his expert knowledge of ladies’ clothes. On the basis of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, one is tempted to agree, but more because the descriptions of Mellors’s body, always from Connie’s point-of-view, are just so adoring.

“She saw the image of him, naked white with tanned face and hands, looking down and addressing his erect penis as if it were another being, the odd grin flickering on his face.”

On reflection , though, perhapsthis is less a case of homoeroticism than of narcissism. Mellors’s body is actually Lawrence’s own, slight, wiry, with a bit of lung trouble. I’d certainly be willing to bet that the ginger pubes are Lawrence’s own. The character is rather transparent, a vision of what Lawrence would himself have liked to be. Essentially rural and rooted; in touch with nature more than with words; a man whose virility is proven by begetting a child – and proven too by his having been a soldier (instinctively in touch with his animals and with the men under his command, of course).

The novel’s treatment of soldiers is complicated. On the one hand, part of Mellors’s virile appeal comes from his having been a soldier, though a non-combatant one. (Lawrence had taken up too much of an anti-war position to let his hero fight on the Western Front.) His career as an officer promoted from the ranks gives him a social ambiguity that lends a lot of interest to the novel. The most sympathetic of Clifford Chatterley’s friends is Tommy Dukes, who stayed in the army and became a Brigadier-General with a fair amount of self-knowledge:

“The army leaves me time to think, and saves me from having to face the battle of life,” he said.

On the other hand, Clifford Chatterley was essentially self-regarding and trivial even when a soldier:

Now he had become a first lieutenant in a smart regiment, so that he could mock at everything more becomingly in uniform.

His wound, which paralyses him from the waist down,merely brings out the truth of his essentially asexual nature. Like England, My England, this book reveals Lawrence giving in to a fundamental complicity with the destructiveness of the war – he uses it to bring appropriate punishment to the characters he dislikes. As he makes Connie’s man-of-the-world father describe him:

“A lily-livered hound with never a fuck in him. Never had.”

The novel contains other digs at soldiers. When Sir Clifford breaks down, for instance, Mrs Bolton recognises the symptoms.

She knew what she was up against: male hysteria. She had not nursed soldiers without learning something about that very unpleasant disease.

One odd little passage of the novel is interesting. (It often is the odd little unnecessary bits of books, the ones not really needed for plot and development, that reveal most about the author’s preoccupations.) Lawrence lets Connie compare Mellors with another unorthodox soldier, who had also spent the war in the East rather than on the Western Front:

Connie confided in her father.

’You see, Father, he was Clifford’s game-keeper: but he was an officer in the army in India. Only he is like Colonel C. E. Florence, who preferred to become a private soldier again.’

Sir Malcolm, however, had no sympathy with the unsatisfactory mysticism of the famous C. E. Florence. He saw too much advertisement behind all the humility. It looked just like the sort of conceit the knight most loathed, the conceit of self-abasement.

One suspects that Sir Malcolm is voicing Lawrence’s own opinion here, and it’s one that seems pretty reasonable to me, though some would disagree. But why is it in the novel? Just to remind readers that shedding an officer identity wasn’t completely unheard of? Or because TEL was uncomfortably on the mind of DHL? Before the war, he’d been the only famous two-initial Lawrence; now his reputation had sunk, and a rival had emerged.

Were they ever confused? When DHL was pointed out to tourists in Mexico or wherever as “the famous Lawrence,” did they sometimes assume that this was the uncrowned King of Arabia (as the Strand Magazine liked to call TEL) disguising himself behind a ginger beard and a Nottinghamshire accent? Did dinner invitations ever arrive, suggesting that he came wearing ceremonial Arab robes? Was he ever awkwardly conscious of rumours that he had been taken “in the Italian fashion” by lustful Turks in Deraa?

Back in the sixties, at the time of the great Penguin Chatterley trial, Lawrence’s books were sometimes held held up as exemplars of healthy thinking about sex. Reading Lady C. today, I am overwhelmingly conscious of Lawrence’s anxiety about his masculinity, and his awkwardness, even ten years after the war, about the fact that he had never had the chance to prove himself as a soldier.


One Comment

  1. Posted June 3, 2007 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

    Oh, he was promoted out of the ranks! That’ll teach me to make conjectures about books I haven’t read…

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