“The Leap of Life”: D. H. Lawrence, Lady Chatterley’s Lover

chatterley

Connie went to the wood directly after lunch. It was really a lovely day, the first dandelions making suns, the first daisies so white. The hazel thicket was a lace-work of half-open leaves and the last dusty perpendicular of the catkins. Yellow celandines now were in crowds, flat open, pressed back in urgency, and the yellow glitter of themselves. It was the yellow, the powerful yellow of early summer. And primroses were broad, and full of pale abandon, thick-clustered primroses no longer shy. The lush, dark green of hyacinths was a sea, with buds rising like pale corn, while in the riding the forget-me-knots were fluffing up, and columbines were unfolding their ink-purple ruches, and there were bits of blue bird’s-eggshell under a bush. Everywhere the bud-knots and the leap of life.

Why, what did you think “the leap of life” would refer to in the context of Lady Chatterley’s Lover? And yet if you were imagining that it was somehow a sexual reference, you’re not wrong just because the phrase actually comes from this lush description of nature, because unless I misunderstand the novel profoundly (which is not by any means impossible*), its central preoccupation is our dissociation from nature — the intrusion or domination of the mechanical, “the mechanical greedy, greedy mechanism and mechanized greed,” both literal (industrial) and spiritual — and the resulting failure of tenderness, to both of which sex is (or at any rate can be) the antidote. The world in which Lady Chatterley takes a lover is a broken, alienated, isolating place:

Merrie England! Shakespeare’s England! No, but the England of today, as Connie had realized since she had come to live in it. It was producing a new race of mankind, over-conscious in the money and social and political side, on the spontaneous, intuitive side dead, but dead. Half-corpses, all of them: but with a terrible insistent consciousness in the other half. There was something uncanny and underground about it all. It was an under-world. And quite incalculable. How shall we understand the reactions in half-corpses? When Connie saw the great lorries full of steel-workers from Sheffield, weird, distorted smallish beings like men, off for an excursion to Matlock, her bowels fainted and she thought: Ah God, what has man done to man? What have the leaders of men been doing to their fellow-men? They have reduced them to less than humanness; and now there can be no fellowship any more! It is just a nightmare.

She felt again in a wave of terror the grey, gritty hopelessness of it all. With such creatures for the industrial masses, and the upper classes as she knew them, there was no hope, no hope any more.

 Who wouldn’t seek refuge from this nightmare in a lover’s arms? Except Lady Chatterley’s affair is not really an escape from it — or, at any rate, it provides no escape for the reader (it does appear to be intermittently distracting for the lovers themselves) because every encounter is so saturated with symbolic and thematic significance. The prose is always straining so much towards the metaphysical that the physical act seems almost beside the point, even as we are being urged to see it as the whole point:

 She quivered again at the potent inexorable entry inside her, so strange and terrible. It might come with the thrust of a sword in her softly-opened body, and that would be death. She clung in a sudden anguish of terror. But it came with a slow thrust of peace, the dark thrust of peace and a ponderous, primordial tenderness, such as made the world in the beginning. And her terror subsided in her breast, her breast dared to be gone in peace, she held nothing. She dared to let go everything, all herself, and be gone in the flood.

penguinchatterleyI tried not to find these morbidly florid passages ridiculous, really I did! I understand he’s trying both to convey bodily sensations with some immediacy and to go beyond them to other more abstract issues.  I appreciate, too, as the editor of my edition emphasizes, that despite his “phallocentrism” Lawrence is making “strenuous efforts to describe the female orgasm.” I also recognize — speaking as someone who has now read a fair number of romance novels — that writing  successfully about sex is always challenging because people have such different preferences, in language as in life. (There have been some very good discussions of this problem at Liz’s blog, e.g. here and here.) Lawrence’s language is especially tricky, though, I think, because he wants the sex to be about so much more than sex that it almost completely fails to be sexy. It is sexually explicit, of course. Maybe it is also sometimes erotic: your mileage may vary, as they say. But if sex is going to be the answer to all the ills of civilization, it had better not seem silly.

Or maybe what’s absurd or otherwise disconcerting is precisely making sex the answer to everything. Hard as it was not to laugh at some of the lovers’ antics (flowers woven in their pubic hair? really?), it was even harder not to recoil from the ways the novel essentializes both men and women but especially women, who are made to seem fully alive and human only insofar as they are sexually active and fulfilled. I thought there was something very sad about the scene of Lady Chatterley contemplating her naked body in the mirror and thinking that it looks “as if it had not had enough sun and warmth; it was a little greyish and sapless.” “Disappointed of its real womanhood,” it continues,

it had not succeeded in becoming boyish, and unsubstantial, and transparent; instead it had gone opaque.

Her breasts were rather small, and dropping pear-shaped. But they were unripe, a little bitter, without meaning hanging there. And her belly had lost the fresh, round gleam it had had when she was young, in the days of her German boy, who really loved her physically. Then it was young and expectant, with a real look of its own. Now it was going slack, and a little flat, thinner, but with a slack thinness. Her thighs, too, they used to look so quick and glimpsy in their female roundness, somehow they too were going flat, slack, meaningless.

Her body was going meaningless, going dull and opaque, so much insignificant substance. It made her feel immensely depressed and hopeless. What hope was there? She was old, old at twenty-seven, with no gleam and sparkle in the flesh. Old through neglect and denial, yes, denial.

How poignant (if also, at 27, absurd) — and yet must the answer to this sense of withering away, this descent into meaningless opacity, be (to quote, surprisingly enough, Lady Chatterley’s father), “a good bit of fucking”? Overjoyed that his daughter has been saved from life as a “demi-verge,” Sir Malcolm is delighted with Mellors when they meet: “You set fire to her haystack all right,” he exclaims; “Oh, she’s a nice girl, she’s a nice girl, and I knew she’d be good going, if only some damned man would set her stack on fire! Ha-ha-ha!” He’s drunk, so there’s that, but doesn’t the novel more or less agree with him? For me, something about a woman without a man being like a fish without a bicycle comes to mind: aren’t there other ways she could find some source of energy and meaning in her life? Not that there’s anything wrong with wanting to be sexually active and fulfilled, but sweep away the excess verbiage and how different is Lawrence’s appeal to nature from the Victorian antipathy towards spinsters and “redundant” women? It sounds different — more celebratory — but overall I wasn’t sure whether Lawrence’s vision was liberating or reductive and retrograde. It doesn’t help that Mellors interacts with Connie more as “woman” generically, and as a collection of body parts, than as a particular woman: theirs is hardly a meeting of true minds. And then there’s his bitter hostility towards women who like sex their way rather than his.

Overall, though, what struck me most about the book is its melancholy: I didn’t expect it to be so sad so much of the time. Even when Connie and Mellors are happiest in the moment, there’s sadness: “As it drew out and left her body, the secret, sensitive thing, she gave an unconscious cry of pure loss, and she tried to put it back. It had been so perfect! And she loved it so!” And what moved me the most about it was its appeal to tenderness, which is the quality most threatened by the harshness of modernity:

He thought with infinite tenderness of the woman. Poor forlorn thing, she was nicer than she knew, and oh! so much too nice for the tough lot she was in contact with. Poor thing, she too had some of the vulnerability of the wild hyacinths, she wasn’t all tough rubber-goods and platinum, like the modern girl. And they would do her in! As sure as life, they would do her in, as they do in all naturally tender life. Tender! Somewhere she was tender, tender with a tenderness of the growing hyacinths, something that has gone out of the celluloid women of today. But he would protect her with his heart for a little while. For a little while, before the insentient iron world and the Mammon of mechanized greed did them both in, her as well as him.

“He’s lovely really,” Connie says to her sister about Mellors; “he really understands tenderness.” If sex is the extremity of tenderness, then it is not about desire or passion or even physical feeling at all so much as it is about trying to reach each other and nurture each other. Tenderness brings us back to nature, to the hyacinths, to “the tender green leaves of morning.” It’s tenderness, maybe, that is the real “leap of life.” And since I do love the way Lawrence writes about nature (as, for example, in the quotation I began with), and since for him nature is tenderness is humanity is love is sex, it occurs to me that maybe I don’t find the way he writes (or thinks) about sex as absurd or alienating as I thought.


*I decided to write this post without studying for it: after all, Lawrence’s first readers had to make what sense of the novel they could without the benefit of literary scholarship, and if I once started down the “you can’t write about it until you’ve done your research” road then I might as well throw in the towel on blogging and go back to writing academic articles. That means, of course, that I fully expect and even look forward to being re-educated in the comments.

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13 Responses to “The Leap of Life”: D. H. Lawrence, Lady Chatterley’s Lover

  1. Excellent post. Started writing out a response; couldn’t find my copy; had recourse to Gutenberg and then realized I really need to properly re-read this book – it’s been a very long time. Have a longtime love-hate feeling about D.H. Lawrence – he does rather belabour his points but occasionally he produces pure gold. Shall be interested to read the comments I am sure your post will spark!

    • Rohan says:

      Thank you, Barb. I thought there’d be a bit more discussion than there has been. Maybe not that many people actually care much about Lady Chatterley, for all its infamy!

  2. Bill from PA says:

    Anticipating that most of his prose was like the “morbidly florid” passage you quoted, I have never read Lawrence, so I must say that I was surprised by the quote beginning “Merrie England!” It made me think of Wells’ Morlocks and Stoker’s Dracula, where the metaphor is treated literally; I was also reminded of the last scene of The Ruling Class where Peter O’Toole takes his place in the House of Lords.

    • Rohan says:

      Bill, there were lots of surprises for me (and the rest of my book group) in this novel. In places it reminded me a lot of Hardy, and in fact I wonder if there has been any work done comparing it to Jude the Obscure, also in its day attacked for indecency but also very much dedicated to the possibility of rescuing “true” love and marriage from the artificial strictures of modern morality. Lawrence is a finer stylist than Hardy, I think, though I have very different responses to his very different registers.

  3. christopher terry says:

    I liked post because it is alive, moving throuh to a change of mind or heart
    I wonder whether whether that awful European war, so destructive of ordinary people and their lives,
    was no so corrosive, together with the hypocritical and mrbid sexuality of the upper classes (Man
    with a Maid)that trying to find vitality again and chastity again did not make it necessary to
    find new ways of feeling and thinking? ( I think Lawrence#s firstMellors was secretary of the Comunist Party?). As for the flowers- well, actually, why not? Must sexuality always be envisoned within 4 wal.ls?
    You will know better than I can about women seeing their bodies in a mirror. For some years I was permitted to wotk in a team dealing wth anorexia. I was taught to concede that young women sa themselves as grotesque and ugly, though they were not. Can a sterile physical reationship in a dying society make a women perceive her body as used, soured, deadened?
    Did Connie feel abused?
    Wasn#t Lawrence in many ways a necessary English revolutionary ? – You will know his “Nightmare” chapter in “Kangaroo” ?
    I must stop but it wondeful to read something that stirs the reaer to st asking questions.
    Thank you.

    • Rohan says:

      “Can a sterile physical relationship in a dying society make a women perceive her body as used, soured, deadened?”

      That’s so well put, Christopher – thank you. I think the novel’s answer is definitely yes: she’s not seeing her “real” body but its wasted possibilities or something like that.

      I’m glad you appreciate that the blog post raises questions rather than claiming to answer them definitively. For me, that’s the great appeal of blogging: it lets you travel through ideas about a book without always having to arrive somewhere certain.

  4. litlove says:

    I think of Lady Chatterley’s Lover as a rather touching book – I felt like you that the urge to tenderness was a genuine and poignant compulsion in Lawrence, and a very unusual plea for a man of his era and upbringing. I find the relationship between Connie and Mellors honestly portrayed – they really would not have had anything in common, but Lawrence wanted to show how sexuality could be enough to form a profound bond. For me that certainly takes the book a long way away from pornography and for Britain in the 20s wow! talk about a radical idea in a class-obsessed society. So if the sexuality is portrayed floridly and feels a bit silly sometimes, that doesn’t stop it from being real or, in its historical context, incredibly subversive. Sexuality IS silly and florid sometimes. I rather liked what Zizek had to say about it, which was that the fantasy frame is absolutely essential. If anything happens to upset that fantasy frame then the act collapses into awkwardness and ridicule. I think that’s why it’s so hard to read sex in literature – if it doesn’t appeal to your own particular fantasy frame, it’s going to sound daft. Anyway, I think we basically agree, and I’m just saying the same things you said slightly differently! 🙂

    • Rohan Maitzen says:

      Yes, I think we are more or less on the same page here, especially about how oddly touching the novel is. I think you’d find the discussions about talking / writing about sex at Liz’s blog really interesting: it is a real challenge for both writers and readers of romance, because the ‘wrong’ words can lead to such disengagement.

  5. Dorian Stuber says:

    Very much enjoyed this, Rohan, especially the way you allow your thinking to develop over the course of the piece. Although Lawrence means more to me than almost any other writer, I don’t know Lady Chatterley very well, having only read it once (and then only the third of the three iterations–Lawrence’s penchant for revising by completely re-writing his books from start to finish has always amazed me). I think there are some tremendous things in the book, but it’s not a patch of the great work of the early(ish) period from Sons and Lovers through to Women in Love. Compared to those works, Lady Chatterley is embittered: sad, yes, but also a bit venomous–worth remembering that Lawrence was a very sick man when he wrote it, and the more sick and embittered Lawrence got the more he turned to a careless satire that, to me, is his least interesting mode. It’s also not dialogic like those earlier books. There isn’t the same contestation that we see in, say, Women in Love, the angry, passionate back and forth that Lawrence once described as frictional, suggesting that sex was really just another form of talk. The problem, for me, in Lady Chatterley is that Mellors isn’t interesting enough to make Connie as interesting as she ought to be

    Lawrence _is_ silly and ponderous and humourless at times. (He has many virtues, but wit is not among them.) But that’s the price of taking things seriously, and I think the thing he takes most seriously is what it means to be a living being, and, even more so, how to convey those living beings in the dead medium of language. His depictions of the natural world are so terrific because in them he can face this problem directly.

    Pascale Ferran’s 2006 film of Lady Chatterley (based on the second version) is so fantastic (I like it better than Lawrence’s novel) because it’s really about flowers and trees–and the possibility of a non-subjective (i.e. non-human) POV. Totally worth watching, even though it’s three hours. (And that’s just the American cut–the original for French tv was 40 minutes longer….)

    One last thought (for now): the comparison to Hardy is totally on the money (though I hadn’t thought of Jude in this case, but the comparison makes a lot of sense). The other 19th century novelist Lawrence read most fruitfully is your own George Eliot. When I read The Mill on the Floss earlier this year, I thought:Aha! Now I finally get where The Rainbow is coming from. (Too bad I didn;t know that when I was writing my dissertation….)

    • Rohan Maitzen says:

      I was hoping to hear from you about this, Dorian, because I know you are someone who knows Lawrence much better than I do. I particularly like your remark about the price of his taking things seriously: I have sometimes defended GE on similar grounds, and I think you and I are like-minded about thinking that earnestness is really not something to make fun of, or at least not when it’s dedicated to important things.

      “Mellors isn’t interesting enough to make Connie as interesting as she ought to be”: what a helpful way that is to put the problem. I accept litlove’s comment above that their relationship is mostly about the way physical passion can create a really powerful bond, but there still seemed some kind of vacancy at the heart of it.

      Would you recommend any particular one of the other novels as a next step? Your final comments naturally make me very interested in The Rainbow.

  6. Dorian Stuber says:

    Usually I recommend Sons and Lovers, Women in Love, and then The Rainbow. (Which is odd, of course, since Women in Love is a nominal sequel to The Rainbow.) It’s quite a difficult book, though, as difficult as it is rewarding. But for an expert in Eliot like yourself, The Rainbow could be a great place to start. Sons and Lovers and Women in Love are both brilliant, too, though, so you really can’t go wrong with any of them. I’d be so curious to know what you make of them!

    PS Inspired by your willingness to write your own way into the text without worrying about what you don’t know. A sentiment for us all to read by!

    • Rohan says:

      Thanks: I think I might look out Sons & Lovers next, so as not to get in too much difficulty right away.

      As for writing without worrying about what I don’t know: that’s still one of the hardest things for me to do, because there’s nothing so inhibiting as worrying that you’re about to display obtuse ignorance in public! And yet I think it is the essential liberating step in blogging. It’s not like I’m starting completely from scratch on most topics, but it’s still a crucial leap to trust that I can at least read and think about my reading without someone else’s authority behind me.

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