Echoes of Lawrence
D.H. Lawrence (1885–1930), whom fellow British author E.M. Forster called the “greatest imaginative novelist of our generation,” is probably best known for Lady Chatterley’s Lover—“Lady Chatterbox,” to James Joyce. Published in 1928, the novel was branded obscene and banned from the U.S. until 1959 and the U.K. till 1960. Lawrence’s fervid explorations into the essential, sexual nature of human beings have reverberated throughout our culture, inspiring equal measures of adoration and condemnation.
The old guard that attempted to obstruct the sexual revolution of the 1960s and ’70s was epitomized by Mervyn Griffith-Jones, the prosecutor of the Lady Chatterley’s Lover obscenity trial in Britain: “Would you approve of your young sons, young daughters—because girls can read as well as boys—reading this book?… Is it a book that you would even wish your wife or your servants to read?” The New Yorker’s Mollie Panter-Downes imagined the Griffith-Jones household full of “blooming mobcapped maidservants, all literate but needing to be sheltered.” The jury wasn’t convinced the book would “deprave and corrupt” the weak, and its release was met by queues of curious Brits, who bought out the initial printing—200,000 copies—on the first day of sale.
English poet Philip Larkin reinforces this trial’s cultural impact in his “Annus Mirabilis”:
Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me)—
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles' first LP.
Soon enough, naked young people were romping onstage singing, “Sodomy, fellatio, cunnilingus” in the musical Hair (1967), and the Rolling Stones were serenading “Lady Jane,” which just happens to be the nickname for Lady Chatterley’s vagina in Lawrence’s novel.
Lady Constance Chatterley is a gentlewoman who takes the gamekeeper of her husband’s estate as a lover. The protagonist of E.M. Forster’s novel Maurice is a gentleman who takes the gamekeeper of his former boyfriend’s estate as a lover. Forster completed Maurice in 1914 (it was not published until 1971) and later noted that his gamekeeper, Alec Scudder, “is senior in date to the prickly gamekeepers of D.H. Lawrence.” Both novels conclude with uncertainty for the class-crossing couples’ future in a society that won’t accept them. But each book also affirms the unstoppable force compelling the outcast pairs’ love—what Lawrence terms “the forked white fire.” Gamekeeper Oliver Mellors promises Connie Chatterley that “we can fuck the little flame brilliant and yellow.”
The 1959 trial that permitted Lady Chatterley’s sale in the U.S. prompted Field & Stream magazine’s tongue-in-cheek review, which found the novel “of considerable interest to outdoor-minded readers, as it contains many passages on pheasant raising, the apprehending of poachers, ways to control vermin.… Unfortunately, one is obliged to wade through many pages of extraneous material in order to discover and savor these…and in this reviewer’s opinion this book cannot take the place of J.R. Miller’s Practical Gamekeeping.”
A friend of D.H. Lawrence in the 1910s and ’20s, E.M. Forster was one of the eminent writers who defended Lady Chatterley’s Lover against charges of obscenity in the 1960 British case Regina v. Penguin Books Ltd. The buttoned-down Forster and the hot-burning Lawrence work similar themes throughout their writing. Both the repressed Cecil Vyse in Forster’s Room With a View (1908) and the arid Clifford Chatterley must confront an unseemly sexuality blooming in their love objects. Forster’s Howards End (1910) and Lawrence’s Women in Love are about strongly bound sisters with differing personalities that steer them down divergent paths.
Both authors also explore homosexuality. Forster began the novel Maurice in 1913 after a male friend’s touch provoked a “sensation [that]…seemed to go straight through the small of my back into my ideas, without involving my thoughts.” Maurice’s first boyfriend, Clive, believes ideal love between men must “remain purely platonic”—a notion Rupert Birkin, Lawrence’s stand-in in Women in Love, might agree with. Rupert sums up his nude wrestling bout with his friend Gerald Crich as a consummation of their love: “We are mentally, spiritually intimate, therefore we should be more or less physically intimate too—it is more whole.”
Throughout his career, D.H. Lawrence explored the gap between people who have been overcivilized and those who stay close to the natural self. In Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Constance has already had considerable sexual experience when she marries Clifford, who, paralyzed and left impotent by a war wound, “had been virgin when he married: and the sex part did not mean much to him.” Lawrence depicts their marriage as a mismatch between Clifford’s life of the mind and Connie’s life of the body. Clifford’s Aunt Eva advises, “The moment you begin to be aware of your body, you are wretched. So, if civilization is any good, it has to help us forget our bodies, and then time passes happily without our knowing it.”
“The Prussian Officer” reveals the fallacy of such forgetting as it recounts the relationship between a haughty, sexually frustrated army captain and his earthy, handsome orderly. The officer “was not going to allow such a thing as the stirring of his innate self…whereas the young soldier seemed to live out his warm, full nature.” When the officer notices the orderly’s “strong young shoulders,” his repressed feelings trigger an instant, irrational hatred he cannot control, one with severe consequences.
D.H. Lawrence loads “The Prussian Officer” with such richly suggestive language that a sexual showdown between the officer and his soldier underling seems inevitable. Surely we’ll see some action from the “amazing riding-muscles of [the captain’s] loins” and his “full, brutal mouth.” The orderly is defined less precisely, with “something altogether warm and young about him.” Unknowingly, he “had penetrated through the officer’s stiffened discipline, and perturbed the man in him.” The inevitable is an act of murder, though Lawrence’s language suggests a sexual act; the killer feels “all the force of all his blood exulting in his thrust…[pleased] to feel the hard twitchings of the prostrate body jerking his own whole frame.”
Carson McCullers’s novella Reflections in a Golden Eye tells a remarkably similar story of military murder. A repressed homosexual midlevel officer (played to the hilt by Marlon Brando on-screen) is tortured by his love for a soldier-servant, one with “a look of warm, animal comfort.” In Reflections, too, the lover is tormented: “The Captain stood mute and suffocated before the young man. In his heart there coursed a wild tirade of curses, words of love, supplications, and abuse. But in the end he turned away, still silent.”
In Sexual Politics (1970), feminist author Kate Millett finds a common thread of male oppression of females linking the writings of Norman Mailer, Henry Miller, D.H. Lawrence and others. She calls Lady Chatterley’s Lover a “celebration of the penis of Oliver Mellors, gamekeeper and social prophet.” Never one to back away from a fight, Mailer responded with The Prisoner of Sex, a book-length defense of the male writers. New York Times critic Brigid Brophy saw in their standoff a contrived battle of the sexes—“Millettancy versus the Mailer Reaction”—that overlooked how ultimately dehumanizing each extreme position was.
Both misogyny and protofeminism exist in Lawrence’s work. He notes in Chatterley that a woman “had to yield” to a man, while also allowing that she could turn the tables so “he was merely her tool.” Before her marriage, Constance Chatterley “took the sex-thrill as sensation, and remained free,” though later in the book Lawrence condemns meaningless sex and its proponents. Readers must decide which Lawrence to take at his word—perhaps the one (in his Fantasia of the Unconscious, 1922) who exhorts husbands and wives to break free and “learn to walk in the sweetness of the possession of your own soul.”
Lady Chatterley’s Lover includes a sodomy scene that represents the ultimate, complete taking of Constance Chatterley by gamekeeper Oliver Mellors. Nobel Prize–winning author Doris Lessing explained bluntly, “Lawrence lauds the anal fuck as the apex of sexual experience.” It is so rapturously written that the actual doings are unclear, and in the Chatterley obscenity trial, its significance was missed.
Norman Mailer isn’t nearly as delicate when Stephen Rojack, the protagonist of his novel An American Dream, sodomizes his maid. Journalist Katie Roiphe wrote, “Mailer takes a hopped-up, quasi-religious view of sex, with flights of D.H. Lawrence–inspired mysticism and a special interest in sodomy.”
Aided by a stick of butter, Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider engage in perhaps the most widely viewed anal sex ever, in Last Tango in Paris (1972). New Yorker critic Pauline Kael praised Brando’s performance and took a few swipes at Mailer in her review. Mailer, assessing the film in The New York Review of Books, countered by disparaging Kael’s sexuality, or lack thereof. Calling her “our own Lady Vinegar” and “the first frigid of the film critics,” he asked, “Whatever could have been shown on screen to make Kael pop open for a film?”
Kate Millett riled the defenders of masculinity with her book Sexual Politics, which takes D.H. Lawrence, Norman Mailer and other male writers to task for what she identifies as their championship of women’s sexual, social and political repression. Mailer fought back with The Prisoner of Sex; that book and subsequent attacks by society’s reigning he-men made Millett famous. In 1991 she was invited to be a panelist on the alcohol-fueled British talk show After Dark for an episode called “Do Men Have to Be Violent?” The odd assortment of guests included Mafia Princess author Antoinette Giancana, British antifeminist Neil Lyndon, serial-murder expert Elliott Leyton and macho actor Oliver Reed, costar of Ken Russell’s film adaptation of Lawrence’s Women in Love, in which his character, Gerald Crich, loses his life in a battle of wills with Gudrun Brangwen (Glenda Jackson).
The After Dark episode gained notoriety for a mischaracterization of Reed’s behavior. An inebriated Reed allegedly pinned Millett; shouted, “Give us a kiss, big tits”; and mauled her. Footage of the episode reveals a slightly less rowdy scene: Reed, indeed drunk, falls into his seat on the sofa next to Millett, grabs her head and kisses her loudly on the cheek.
Journalist Katie Roiphe’s 2009 New York Times Book Review essay “The Naked and the Conflicted” defends a foursome of heterosexual white male writers of the postwar generation—Norman Mailer, John Updike, Philip Roth and Saul Bellow. The piece simultaneously takes down the neutered writing of post–sexual revolution male authors such as Jonathan Franzen and Dave Eggers. It provoked a firestorm of letters for, against and in between. As one respondent put it, “The Greats were men of their times—when Playboy Bunnies became a symbol of sexual liberation, and misogyny was the accepted idiom.”
Roiphe, who quotes a description of Updike as a “penis with a thesaurus,” claims her longing for the explicit sexual passages of that era was triggered by the “more childlike” erotic writing she finds today, in which “innocence is more fashionable than virility, the cuddle preferable to sex.” Our would-be young lions’ swing to unsexy sex has been countered by popular throwback entertainment like TV’s Mad Men and E.L. James’s sadomasochistic novel Fifty Shades of Grey (2011), which Roiphe (in another much-remarked-upon essay) finds more objectionable for such prose stylings as “In spite of my poignant sadness, I laugh,” than for its atavistic sexual relationship.