Lady Chatterley’s Sneakers
In a letter written in July 1926, a couple of months before he embarked on the first version of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, D.H. Lawrence gave voice – as he often did – to the hatred he felt for ‘our most modern world’. Tin cans and ‘imitation tea’ feature prominently on his list of things not to like about being ‘most modern’. Tin cans often featured on such lists, either as litter or as culinary short cut, in both cases signifying degeneracy: ‘modern world’ was then and still remains an expression that summons up a familiar tableau of emblems. But imitation tea is a nice touch, because it recovers the starkness of the contrast between the organic and the inorganic which knowing that you’re most modern always involves. Lawrence couldn’t help describing what he meant to hate before he dissolved it in allegory. Like the other iconic banned books of the period between the world wars – Ulysses, The Well of Loneliness – Lady Chatterley’s Lover has long since ceased to be notorious. Unlike them, it has not yet acquired a different kind of fame. But what it does best, better than any other novel of its time, better than most published since, is to describe the modern world as it was, and in some measure still is.
In George Orwell’s Coming Up for Air, published in 1939, the dyspeptic hero, George Bowling, finds himself at one point in a fast-food outlet sawing away with his ancient false teeth at the rubbery skin of a frankfurter. Suddenly the skin bursts, filling his mouth with ‘horrible soft stuff’ which tastes a lot like fish. This rancid mouthful unleashes a memorable tirade against the ersatz in all its forms:
It gave me the feeling that I’d bitten into the modern world and discovered what it was really made of. That’s the way we’re going nowadays. Everything slick and streamlined, everything made out of something else. Celluloid, rubber, chromium-steel everywhere, arc-lamps blazing all night, glass roofs over your head, radios all playing the same tune, no vegetation left, everything cemented over, mock-turtles grazing under the neutral fruit-trees. But when you come down to brass tacks and get your teeth into something solid, a sausage for instance, that’s what you get. Rotten fish in a rubber skin. Bombs of filth bursting inside your mouth.
Tin cans are missing from this list, but even without them the allegory alert sounds immediately. By the time the mock turtles have started to graze under the neutral fruit trees, like refugees from a poem by Wallace Stevens, there’s no contrast left between the organic and the inorganic. Even the something else has been made out of something else.
Orwell’s hero is a lot funnier than the most famous gamekeeper in English literature, but his jeremiad descends directly from Oliver Mellors’s explanation of why Constance Chatterley is the woman for him. The great thing about her, he says, is that she isn’t ‘all tough rubber-goods-and-platinum, like the modern girl’. She has a tenderness which has ‘gone out’ of the ‘celluloid women of today’. Before long, Connie will describe Sir Clifford and his set as celluloid nonentities, unappealingly tough and ‘india-rubbery’ in appearance and manner. Connie and Mellors are fully united by hatred before they are fully united in sex. Platinum, india-rubber, celluloid: all have been dissolved in metaphor.
Embarking on the short journey from all-mod cons Wragby Hall to the ancient forest which contains the gamekeeper’s hut and cottage, Connie gets ready to swap celluloid and radio sets for forget-me-nots woven into pubic hair: signs made in anger for signs made in tenderness. Something similar happens to Bowling in Coming Up for Air, when he revisits the market town in which he grew up. The danger in all such exchanges is that the second performance will simply cancel out the first, without either transforming it in the process or cutting loose from it altogether. The result is stalemate. In an essay on John Galsworthy’s Forsyte Saga written while he was completing the second version of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Lawrence argued that ‘the thing a man has a vast grudge against is the man’s determinant’. Something similar seems to be true of Mellors.
Connie is a different matter. In September 1927, shortly before he began the novel’s third and final version, Lawrence finished translating a collection of short fiction by Giovanni Verga which was to appear as ‘Cavalleria Rusticana’ and Other Stories. In his preface, he made the case for a ‘formlessness’ in fiction which would more fully capture what happens in the transition from one deed or mood to another. ‘A great deal of the meaning of life and of art lies in the apparently dull spaces, the pauses, the unimportant passages.’ The dull space Lawrence created in Lady Chatterley’s Lover is found in Connie’s movement between Wragby Hall and the gamekeeper’s hut and cottage. In that space, description flourishes. The most important change of emphasis, as Lawrence revised the novel heavily on two separate occasions, concerns Connie’s emergence in these passages as a particular kind of modern woman.