The author of the infamous Lady Chatterley’s Lover is not regularly mentioned outside academic circles for anything else. The groundbreaking trial and endless film adaptations have kept in within a shared frame of cultural reference, whereas his numerous other works have garnered less attention. The question then emerges as to whether this interring of Lawrence’s work is deserved, or if there remains a rich seam of prose being neglected when it should populate bedside tables and syllabuses.
In the interests of full disclosure, I must be honest about having experienced more intense moments of annoyance with Lawrence than almost any other writer beyond the pulpy butchers of sensationalist crack-lit. The only way of truly illustrating the frustration the reader suffers from the inconsistency of tone, contradictory dialogue and bizarre use of exclamation is to include an extract from his short story, The Wintry Peacock; the premise being a love letter from an Elise of Belgium to farmer Alfred, which is then intercepted by his wife back at home, who makes the narrator translate it for her. The two men meet at the end, and discuss the peacock who roams the countryside and suspicion:
“’Why?’ he said. ‘Why didn’t you wring that b—- peacock’s neck-that b—- Joey?
”Why?’ I said. ‘What for?”
I hate the brute,’ he said. ‘I had a shot at him–‘
I laughed. He stood and mused.
‘Poor little Elise,’ he murmured.
‘Was she small–petite?’ I asked. He jerked up his head.
‘No,’ he said. ‘Rather tall.’
‘Taller than your wife, I suppose.’
Again he looked into my eyes. And then once more he went into a loud burst of laughter that made the still, snow-deserted valley clap again.
‘God, it’s a knockout!’ he said, thoroughly amused. Then he stood at ease, one foot out, his hands in his breeches pockets, in front of him, his head thrown back, a handsome figure of a man.
‘But I’ll do that blasted Joey in–‘ he mused.
I ran down the hill, shouting with laughter.”
Ha ha! Infidelity! Killing things! Hurrah for being so attractive and vital! At moments like this you may quail and think, this author is deservedly unpopular and long may he remain so. It is almost enough to make you throw the book across the room. However, Sons and Lovers did more than redeem Lawrence’s name on first (and second) reading. While he became so tired of the work that he allowed Edward Garnett to cut about a hundred pages from the text, what remains contains passages of moving natural description, such as Gertrude Morel making her way through the Nottinghamshire countryside:
“She went over the sheep bridge and across a corner of the meadow to the cricket ground. The meadows seemed one space of ripe, evening light, with the distant mill-race. She sat on a seat under the alders in the cricket-ground, and fronted the evening before her, level and solid, spread the big green cricket-field, like the bed of a sea of light. Children played in the blush shadow of the pavilion. Many rooks, high up, came cawing home across the softly-woven sky. They stooped in a long curve down into the golden glow, concentrating, cawing, wheeling, like black flakes on a slow vortex, over a tree-clump that made a dark boss among the pasture.”
Her neat, indomitable figure confronting a tapestry sky in the gloaming, framed by the treeline and cricket field, creates an enduringly positive image to sustain the reader through the grittier sections depicting the collier lifestyle. Lawrence was unparalleled when it came to depicting rural life, and of course, sex. Mrs Morel’s son Paul and his lover Clara cling to each other in this passage: “It was as if he, and the stars, and the dark herbage, and Clara were licked up in an immense tongue of flame, which tore onwards and upwards. Everything rushed along in living beside him; everything was still, perfect in itself, along with him. This wonderful stillness in each thing in itself, while it was being borne along in a very ecstasy of living, seemed the highest point of bliss.
And Clara knew this held him to her, so she trusted altogether to the passion. It, however, failed her very often. They did not often reach again the height of that once when the peewits had called. Gradually, some mechanical effort spoilt their loving, or, when they had splendid moments, they had them separately, and not so satisfactorily. So often he seemed merely to be running on alone; often they realised it had been a failure, not what they had wanted. He left her, knowing THAT evening had only made a little split between them. Their loving grew more mechanical, without the marvellous glamour.” For a shared experience to go from the sublime to the slightly disappointing in her case in such a wonderfully understated way in surely a testament to Lawrence’s skill. The topic was contentious enough at the time, and to depict the woman’s feeling of isolation (despite her admirable faith in Paul’s ability) as he experiences pleasure alone, only for the encounter to be described as mechanical is almost startlingly honest, and human. Of course, he then goes on to despise her as the gleam is lost for him despite the blame being equally shared, arguably. Either way, to be writing in this truthful a vein in 1913 was astonishing, and hardly obscene by contemporary example. At the time of writing I have not quite finished Women in Love, but it is already clear that the author continued to create thoughtful, passionate female protagonists (who are wonderfully dressed in emerald green stockings and drooping hats) who will continually take risks and waste no time in sparing each other’s feelings when it comes to the vicissitudes of the opposite sex. I hope a few of you will read it too. Peacocks aside, he is worth pursuing and not just for the purple prose.