Eliot, Lawrence and ‘Lady Chatterley’


From the forthcoming BBC version of Lady Chatterley’s Lover

Last week’s Times Literary Supplement included a recently rediscovered 1927 essay by T. S. Eliot on modern British novelists. Eliot’s judgement on D. H. Lawrence is devastating:

No line of humour, mirth or flippancy ever invades Mr. Lawrence’s work; no distractions of politics, theology or art [are] allowed to entertain us. In the series of splendid and extremely ill-written novels – each one hurled from the press before we have finished reading the last – nothing relieves the monotony of the “dark passions” which make his Males and Females rend themselves and each other; nothing sustains us except the convincing sincerity of the author. Mr. Lawrence is a demoniac, a natural and unsophisticated demoniac with a gospel. When his characters make love – or perform Mr. Lawrence’s equivalent for love-making – and they do nothing else – they not only lose all the amenities, refinements and graces which many centuries have built up in order to make love-making tolerable; they seem to reascend the metamorphoses of evolution, passing backward beyond ape and fish to some hideous coition of protoplasm. This search for an explanation of the civilized by the primitive, of the advanced by the retrograde, of the surface by the “depths” is a modern phenomenon. (I am assuming that Mr. Lawrence’s studies are correct, and not merely a projection of Mr. Lawrence’s own peculiar form of self-consciousness.) But it remains questionable whether the order of genesis, either psychological or biological, is necessarily, for the civilized man, the order of truth.

Eliot goes on to praise Lawrence’s genius for description:’he can reproduce for you not only the sound, the colour and form, the light and shade, the smell, but all the finer thrills of sensation.’ he also admires the way in which Lawrence can give a ‘living voice’ to a character like the Marquis in Aaron’s Rod, but his final judgement is negative, since shows us moments of intensity, but neglects the rest of life, implying that ‘momentary or partial experience is the standard of reality, that intensity is the only criterion’.
I suppose I like this because it largely corresponds with my own feeling about Lawrence’s novels (mostly weaker than his short stories or his plays). And I read it just after I had discovered that in September the BBC will be serialising yet another version of Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
Why are they doing this?
If they were serialising Sons and Lovers, I’d have said well done. Even better had they offered us a series of dramatisations of the best of Lawrence’s short stories. Best of all if they had decided to broadcast some of the plays, like The Daughter in Law.
Lady Chatterley is not actually a very good novel. But it’s famous, of course, for being rude. And my suspicious mind can’t help wondering whether that is the BBC’s reason for broadcasting it. They see big audiences for cable and subscription shows like Game of Thrones and Orange is the New Black, which have a frankness about sexual matters that would get the BBC, as a public service broadcaster, into trouble.
If they are to get anywhere near this level of raunchiness, the BBC has to plead a cultural excuse. Hence the recent Life in Squares, where very soft porn was justified by a literary context, even though the script did not seem at all interested in the literature that its characters were producing. Hence too a new Lady Chatterley?
Even if Lawrence’s novel was not his best, at least it has the virtue of courage, daring to include the sexual four-letter words that kept it on the banned shelf for thirty years. The BBC version apparently lacks this courage. The BBC Mellors will not use the words with which the original Mellors challenged lady C’s gentility. The script-writer has told the Daily Mail:

D. H. Lawrence used a certain type of language in the book because it was ground-breaking. He was making a point about artistic expression.
That battle has been won. The idea was to tell this as a love story, a love triangle. Swearing or sex scenes don’t excite me because they don’t have emotional content.

To say that Lawrence only used the words to make a debating point, and that they are inessential to the novel, is to damn him as a very poor novelist indeed. He was much better than that, and his use of that language was essential to his conception of the book. Evading this means that the show seems likely to be exactly the sort of thing of which Lawrence most disapproved – a toying with sexuality, without facing fully up to it.
Still, according to the Observer, the new serial promises to say more about the First World War than about sex. I’ve always thought a major fault with the book is the way that the impotence caused by Sir Clifford’s war injury is allowed to stand symbolically for the metaphorical impotence of a class that Lawrence resented. The new version promises to give Sir Clifford a new back story that makes him a more interesting character. Well, we shall see.
And I can’t help thinking that if the BBC wanted to make a serial about a woman of the 1920s dealing with a war-injured husband, and tempted by a more dashing man, they could have looked at a much better novel, Winifred Holtby’s The Land of Green Ginger. But that’s not porny at all, so it probably wouldn’t do for Sunday evenings.

By the way, despite his misgivings, T.S. Eliot was willing to give evidence in favour of the publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover at the 1960 trial. But because he was unwilling (as was F.R.Leavis) to give a complete endorsement of it as a literary masterpiece, the defence counsel preferred not to call him.


  1. janevsw
    Posted August 20, 2015 at 1:48 am | Permalink

    Having lived all my life with disability I’ve never forgiven DHL his treatment of Clifford Chatterley (and occasionally have the wild urge to rewrite the book from his point of view). Intrigued as I am by the BBC promise of a new back-story for him, I’m not sure I can bring myself to watch the dramatisation just for that …

  2. Bill
    Posted August 21, 2015 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    Notwithstanding his reservations about Chatterley, Leavis still regarded Lawrence as “so immensely the greater genius” than Eliot. As he also said “there is much that is admirable” about Chatterley. I agree with you that other Lawrence pieces might be preferable (though hasn’t Sons and Lovers also been overdone?), or indeed the Holtby, but we must recognise that the BBC is still obliged to cater to the hypocrisies of the society in which it works, particularly at a time when there are strong political pressures greedy and anxious to chop it into small pieces.

    • Posted August 21, 2015 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

      I totally agree that the BBC needs defending, but programmes like ‘Life in Squares’ are not the best of the BBC.
      Last year’s ‘Parades End’was first-rate, though. (And I’m addicted to the Bake-Off.)

  3. Bill
    Posted August 22, 2015 at 7:30 am | Permalink

    I suppose the trouble is the TV commissioning editors don’t believe there’s an audience for this sort of “high culture” unless it is (literally) sexed up. Witness the treatment of the Pre-Raphaelites. Do they underestimate the viewers, do you think? (I like Bake-Off but hate Strictly)

  4. Bradstreet
    Posted August 24, 2015 at 7:47 pm | Permalink

    The Beeb is in great need of protection, but I do find that they sometimes respond to Government attacks about the worth of the license fee by dumbing down. They’re going to do Lawrence, but it’s got to be the Lawrence that everyone’s heard of, even if they’ve never read it.

    It’s rather like their attitude to adapting classic detective novels. Back in the 80s they were prepared to try authors who weren’t known to the average member of the public, such as Allingham or Marsh. Right now we’re in the middle of an absolutely dire adaption of Christie’s Tommy & Tuppence thrillers. There are tons of excellent detective/thriller authors who remain undapted, and the popularity of the British Library crime reprints have shown that there is a market for them. However, Christie is brand name that tells the audience what they are going to get, so why bother to step out of their comfort zone?

    • Posted August 24, 2015 at 10:32 pm | Permalink

      The Tommy and Tuppence stories are not masterpieces, and I can’t get too angry about the desire to change them, but the adaptation is indeed feeble. If ‘The Secret Adversary’ has interest it is as a period piece, with the tropes of ‘Bulldog Drummond watered down. Moving it to the 1950s means that the politics are all wrong – and taking N or M out of wartime is even sillier.
      One thing the series has missed the point of, or chosen to ignore, is the fact that Tommy is what his name suggests, an ex-soldier with the virtues and limitations that that suggests. the producers of the series have let David Walliams present a slightly camp and self-indulgent character, who suddenly turns into Action Man. It doesn’t work on any level.

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