Lady Chatterley’s Sneakers

David Trotter

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 LonelinessLady 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.

It’s her understanding of the things she takes with her when she leaves for the forest which bids fair to protect her not only against emblematically celluloid Sir Clifford, but also against emblematically supple and rooted Mellors: a pair of rubber-soled tennis shoes, a lightweight mackintosh, a bottle of perfume by Coty. There is of course a narrative reason for her to avail herself at such a time of these particular accessories: truants need shoes that don’t squeak; an overcoat keeps off the chill night air; perfume can mask as well as entice. But the accessories acquire a further salience because the journeys undertaken involve a complex negotiation between the self-consciously contemporary and the self-consciously archaic. The condition of that salience is rhetorical rather than narrative. On each occasion, a Bowling-esque rant against the modern world’s artificiality provides a context for the description of these products of modern artifice. The emphasis thus laid lightly on them creates the possibility of a story different not only from what has gone before, but also, we begin to suspect, from what is to come. It gives shape to an attitude unlikely to flourish either in the big house or in the gamekeeper’s cottage.

It seems to me that Lawrence, whose temperament and prose style might be thought to tend perpetually to the condition of molten lava, was in fact, when the mood took him, an advocate of cool. In Cool Rules: Anatomy of an Attitude, Dick Pountain and David Robins define cool as a ‘new secular virtue’ – the official language of a private or subcultural rebelliousness retuned from generation to generation, as well as of worldwide commodity fetishism. According to Alan Liu, in The Laws of Cool, it’s a ‘way or manner of living’ in a world structured by technological and other systems. Cool exploits the element of ‘give’ or ‘slack’ in any such system. It is information designed to resist information: ‘information fed back into its own signal to create a standing interference pattern, a paradox pattern’. Cool doesn’t want to have to choose between the competing demands of technique and technology, free will and necessity. It’s a serious business. According to Pountain and Robins, cool provides the ‘psychological structure’ by means of which the ‘longest-standing contradiction in Western societies’ – between the need to work and the desire for play – may yet be resolved.

These, evidently, are definitions for the 21st century. But Lawrence’s novel may be thought in some ways to prefigure them. Various genealogies of cool have been proposed, ever more speculative in tendency as they reach back into the 19th century and beyond. It’s not altogether impossible that one or other of them may have crossed his path. In The Virgin and the Gypsy, in some respects a dry run for Lady Chatterley’s Lover, virgin and gypsy demonstrate their mutual affinity by displays of coolness. His has to do with the way he moves (he’s a proto-rapper), hers with the ‘nonchalance’ she exhibits from the moment of her first encounter with him. ‘Nonchalance’ was the contemporary translation of sprezzatura, the doctrine of the well-rehearsed concealment of effort first put forward by Baldassare Castiglione in his Book of the Courtier. She has, we later learn, ‘that peculiar calm, virgin contempt of the free-born for the base-born’. This class-based understanding of nonchalance was, however, already out of date. In revising Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Lawrence removed from it the last traces of the propaganda for a new aristocracy which had driven his writing in the years after the end of the First World War. Connie’s rebellion will be private, apolitical, consumerist. Mellors, like the gypsy, moves well. But, as an ex-blacksmith and horse whisperer turned game warden, he’s an anachronistic figure: an exponent and advocate of artisanal technique as an alternative to technology. It’s Connie who, for better or worse, speaks most directly to the 21st century.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover is generally regarded as a primitivist text, the ancient woods in which Connie and Mellors achieve consummation representing a world not merely pre-industrial, but primeval. Lawrence’s primitivism, we are told, was a primitivism of the most conventional kind, forever finding alternatives to techno-industrial modernity, whether in ancient England or a contemporary elsewhere. But that’s not the whole story, or indeed the most interesting part of it. In Chapter 13 comes the passage I have already mentioned, in which Connie, having dined with her husband and roundly condemned him in her own mind as a dead fish of a gentleman with a celluloid soul, puts on ‘rubber tennis-shoes, and then a light coat’, and slips out of the house to spend the night, for the first time, in Mellors’s cottage. Such ‘unimportant’ descriptive passages constitute the slack in narrative’s system. Lawrence establishes by means of their matter-of-factness a view of the modern world not determined by any ‘vast grudge’ against it. The tennis shoes (as such, enough to guarantee a silent exit) only became rubber tennis shoes in the novel’s second version. I’ve often wondered why.

There’s a long answer to that question. Rubber began as a natural plastic, familiar to the indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin, but proved of little use industrially until, in the late 1830s, someone (in fact, two people separately) worked out how to combine it with sulphur at a high temperature: a process known as vulcanisation. Rubber was, and is, semi-synthetic: a product of both nature and culture, of the plantation and the chemical laboratory; or, where the British Empire was concerned, of colony and metropolis. By the 1920s, a large proportion of the worldwide supply of rubber derived from Malaya and Ceylon. In 1907, a Rubber Growers’ Association (RGA) was founded in London to protect and develop the interests of British firms operating in South-East Asia. In 1921, the RGA established a publicity department to develop ‘press propaganda advocating the use of rubber for all conceivable purposes’.

The most significant initiative undertaken by the RGA publicity department in the 1920s concerned the exploitation, primarily for the leisure market, of the ‘crudeness’ of crude rubber. After collection, the coagulum from the rubber trees was prepared for export either as crêpe or as ribbed smoked sheet. The distinctive feature of crêpe was that it didn’t need to be vulcanised before use. The material out of which a commodity was to be made could be prepared on the plantation itself, by ‘native’ artisanal labour, rather than by a chemical process in a factory in Europe or the United States. The proportion of raw material to added mineral matter in any commodity made from this material was very high indeed.

The supreme opportunity for the marketing of crêpe rubber came with the increasing popularity of that ultimate modern fashion accessory, the sports shoe. The RGA campaigns characterised sports shoes and boots with crêpe rubber soles as a way to rekindle hitherto dormant energies and aptitudes. ‘The cushion of “live” rubber lessens fatigue and makes walking a pleasure,’ the advertisements claimed, ‘adding hours to endurance and a spring to every step.’ For nothing had been done, chemically or otherwise, to ‘impair the natural live quality and nerve of the virgin product’. By putting the emphasis on unvulcanised rubber, the ‘virgin’ product of colonial abundance, the RGA cleverly sold reinvigoration to the (literally) well-heeled metropolitan middle and upper classes: a bit of wildness on golf course and tennis court. Today, the marketing of Nike’s Air Jordan basketball shoes, made plausible by association with their talisman’s legendary ‘hang time’, strikes the same note. ‘High-end forefoot foam and a Zoom Air heel deliver lightweight, responsive cushioning for insanely quick cuts, jukes, spins and stops.’

The RGA’s crêpe rubber campaign amounted to techno-primitivism in action, by working on, and provoking a strong awareness of, the compound quality of synthetic and semi-synthetic substance. That awareness could itself be considered ‘primitive’, despite its focus on plastics, in so far as it drew primarily on the evidence of senses which Victorian psychophysiology had classified as primitive: touch, taste and smell. Techno-primitivism, exploiting slack in the system of consumption of luxury goods, makes cool possible. In Lawrence’s fiction, it became a way to think about how cool works.

Connie Chatterley puts on her semi-synthetic rubber tennis shoes in order to make the transition from the civilised space of the hall to the primitive space of the woods. In Chapter 15, she and Mellors meet at the hut in the woods in which they first made love and she dances naked in the rain clad only in her Air Jordans. The dance, as modern in style as the shoes she wears to perform it, is a response to another of his rants against the ‘industrial epoch’ and its reduction of men and women to ‘labour-insects’. Techno-primitivism is cool, however, because ancient practices echo to its modern beat. In April 1927, after completing his first revision of the novel, Lawrence undertook an extensive tour of Tuscany, in order to examine the famous painted tombs and other vestiges of the ancient Etruscan civilisation in which he had for a long time taken an interest. By the end of June, he had written pretty much all he was ever to write of his posthumously published Sketches of Etruscan Places. The ease, naturalness, and ‘abundance of life’ revealed to him by the tomb paintings became the latest in a series of antidotes to modern commerce and empire. So, another gang of happy, conquered sensualists. Except that what he most liked about this lot was their sprezzatura, their apparent ‘carelessness’. In a poem written in 1920, he had imagined the men of ‘old Etruria’, naked except for ‘fanciful long shoes’, transacting ‘forgotten business’ with ‘some of Africa’s imperturbable sang-froid’. In 1927, it was the friezes representing dance that most delighted him: men wearing only sandals and a kind of scarf, a woman who ‘throws back her head and curves out her long strong fingers, wild and yet contained within herself’, all equally caught up in the ‘archaic earnestness of insouciance’. Connie, naked except for her no less fanciful shoes, dances herself ‘ruddy’: the flesh tone Lawrence most readily attributed to his old Etrurian men. Techno-primitivism has brought her to her senses. It recovers the starkness of the contrast between the organic and the inorganic involved in being most modern.

As striking as the tennis shoes, in this respect, is the ‘little bottle of Coty’s Wood-violet perfume, half-empty’, which Connie leaves among Mellors’s things after her second night at the cottage, where it is subsequently discovered by his malevolent wife. ‘She wanted him to remember her in the perfume.’ Spraying perfume on your lover’s shirts doesn’t seem like the coolest thing you could possibly do. Connie herself subsequently dismisses the gesture as childish. The devil, however, is in the detail, as it always is in this novel. The manufacturer’s name was an addition in the final draft. Coty did not in fact create a perfume called Wood-violet. As Lawrence was revising, in January 1928, they launched L’Aimant (or The Magnet). L’Aimant was a wholly synthetic perfume. But wood-violets feature earlier in the novel: as with the tennis shoes, Lawrence has chosen for Connie a combination of old and new: the natural in the synthetic, not before or beyond it. Connie’s strong awareness of synthetic and semi-synthetic substance – an awareness coolly established by description alone – saves her both from Sir Clifford and from Mellors: from too much civilising, and too little.

It’s striking that Lawrence attributed a productive techno-primitivism to women far more readily than he did to men. Nobody tries harder, or to less effect, than hapless Sir Clifford Chatterley, after the arrival of a specialist nurse and companion, Mrs Bolton, has provoked in him a resurgence of energy. ‘Somehow, he got his pecker up.’ The ruthless application of his researches into the ‘technicalities of modern coal-mining’ restores him to a sense of himself as ‘lord and master’. His interest in the radio, mentioned in passing in the second version of the novel, takes centre stage in the third. He no longer wants company at Wragby, we learn at the beginning of Chapter 10, or the sort of wide-ranging intellectual debate he had once encouraged. ‘He preferred the radio, which he had installed at some expense, with a good deal of success at last. He could sometimes get Madrid, or Frankfurt, even there in the uneasy Midlands.’ Radio is the novel’s emblem of technological system, of that to which there is no conceivable outside. When Connie wonders whether one could ‘go right away, to the far ends of the earth’, Lawrence comments tartly that one could not. ‘While the wireless is active, there are no far ends of the earth. Kings of Dahomey and Lamas of Tibet listen in to London and New York.’

Clifford, however, mastering radio, is mastered by it. The radio loudspeaker ‘bellowing forth’ hour after hour has reduced him to a trance-like imbecility which infects all his relationships. This ‘astute and powerful practical man’ now worships his wife ‘with a queer craven idolatry, like a savage’. He will later prove equally craven in his idolatry of his wife’s replacement, Mrs Bolton. Clifford’s is a bad techno-primitivism: one as vividly conscious of the archaic as it is of the contemporary, but unable to establish a productive connection between them. That Connie is at the point of establishing just such a connection becomes clear later in the chapter, when, on the evening of the day after she first had sex with Mellors, she once again seeks him out at the hut, ‘to see if it were really real’. Clifford has chosen to listen in to a lecture about ancient street cries delivered in an ‘idiotically velveteen-genteel sort’ of modern radio voice. This parodic techno-primitivism provides the rhetorical context for a reassertion of cool. ‘She pulled on her old violet-coloured mackintosh, and slipped out of the house at the side door.’

Lawrence found it hard to imagine men as cool. Men were absolute, women relative (as cool is). To put it more charitably, Lawrence believed that men had become caught up in masquerades of earnestness, to adapt his own term for the performative dimension he discerned in many kinds of ‘most modern’ behaviour. The Etruscan tombs taught him that the only thing you should be in earnest about is insouciance. Connie, slipping out of the house, slips insouciantly out of the masquerade. ‘She got very warm as she hurried across the park. She had to open her light waterproof.’ In the novel’s previous version, the mackintosh had been blue. Now, like Connie’s perfume, it is associated with an ancient woodland flower. But Lawrence added a further detail during revision. Connie’s mackintosh is a light waterproof garment.

Mackintoshes were made of rubber. In 1823, Charles Macintosh discovered that naphtha drawn from coal-tar stabilised raw latex into a liquid which when spread between two layers of fabric made for an excellent waterproof material. Macintosh gave his name to a whole range of rubberised silk or cotton garments – or almost gave his name, since mackintosh with a ‘k’, the variant spelling, is now standard. There was a problem, however. Rubberised cotton stank. So severe had this problem become by the end of the 19th century that mackintosh-wearers were often denied entry to omnibuses. The garment remained highly fashionable throughout the 1920s and 1930s. But it had to be admitted that in this case modern chemicals, far from eliminating aboriginal odours, had in fact done a great deal to enhance them. George Bowling, in Coming Up for Air, returning to his wife and family in the knowledge that for him there will be no escape from suburbia, returns to the bad techno-primitive. ‘I fumbled with the key, got the door open, and the familiar smell of old mackintoshes hit me.’

‘Women are learning that the thick rubber waterproof coat is uncomfortable for its lack of ventilation,’ a 1920 guide to hygiene pointed out, ‘and they are discarding it for a lightweight and rainproof cloth.’ Connie has chosen a lightweight garment. It’s a garment in which she will sweat a little, on her way out of the big house into the forest, but, we’re allowed to assume, not too much. Rubber’s constitution as a semi-synthetic substance has once again enabled Lawrence to capture with a sang-froid all his own the robustness of a properly self-aware techno-primitivism. Connie’s taste in rainwear, her inhabitation of a garment, has enabled her to exploit an element of give or slack in the relation between technique and technology, free will and necessity, as she leaves the big house for the hut in the forest. Connie is cool.