I might as well try to clip my own nose into shape with scissors. The book bleeds.
Early attempts to publish and disseminate Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928) were shrouded in secrecy. The first edition was published privately in Florence at just a thousand copies; British censors would ban an unexpurgated version for the next thirty-two years, at which time, a highly publicised criminal trial determined the original text’s legal release into the public domain. As a result, much subsequent scholarship has analysed ideas surrounding literary obscenity through legal and historical categories. This is to some extent justified: first, the legal precedent set by the case was significant because it attempted to clarify the legislative parameters of obscene publications and second, the outcome of the trial was similarly significant because it could be conveniently situated as a precursor to an era of liberal permissiveness – a view predominantly established due to the book’s perceived endorsement of sexual freedoms and disavowal of traditional morality.
Literary scholarship on obscenity should remain mindful, however, of the ways in which LCL – and Lawrence’s work generally – is steeped in forceful politics and a distinct aesthetic style. Scholarship on Lawrence’s aesthetics (of which there is plenty) has tended to avoid a serious engagement with obscenity; scholarship on his class politics, whilst interested in sex, has similarly eschewed obscenity in critical discussion. Lawrence used obscenity, and ideas surrounding obscenity, to produce a political and aesthetic result. (It should be remembered that he could not face expurgating the ‘obscene’ passages, which, if he had managed, would have facilitated a wider initial publication of the novel.)
Lawrence is often positioned within modernism, and, as Potter argues, ‘…modernist writers use obscene images because they want to reveal, and sometimes revel in, the uncomfortable limits of representation’. However, the importance of the relationship between secrecy and obscenity to Lawrence’s aesthetic and political sensibility has not yet been fully explored by critical scholarship on LCL. It seems somehow inadequate to simply claim that Lawrence is an obscene modernist writer – given the peculiarity of LCL as an autonomous text and Lawrence’s wider relationship with modernism. Modernism’s treatment of the obscene does not appear a sufficient explanation for the aesthetics and politics of the novel. Lawrence’s use of secrecy is integral to questioning the way obscenity in the novel defies traditional literary categorisation.
This essay will attempt to locate secrecy in LCL, and examine how secrecy qualifies and alters obscenity in Lawrence’s use of literary techniques. The essay will open by understanding obscenity through previous discussions of modernist politics and aesthetics, then contextualising Lawrence’s literary position within existing conceptions of modernism, and, finally, outlining how, for Lawrence, secrecy is integral to ideas of obscenity. More precisely, this part will establish secrecy in relation to the ‘…ways in which ideologies of class, gender and sexuality inform and modify each other’ to produce a comprehensive notion of obscenity. Following this, the essay will analyse the content, style and form of LCL. This essay aims to reveal how Lawrence, through secrecy in the novel, is able to complicate, reformulate and exceed existing literary categories of obscenity.
The relationship between modernism and obscenity is complicated. Much has already been made of how ‘…the literary history of modernism has been entangled with the legal history of obscenity’. Glass reduces the relationship between modernism and obscenity to a mere marketing strategy, arguing that obscenity trials ‘…functioned as rituals of consecration whereby modernist texts could be affirmed as “classics”’. The author further suggests the existence of a coalition of modernist writers, critics and publishers who, together, normalised obscenity for a popular audience: the subversive, obscene tendencies in modernism were ultimately co-opted for commercial gain and mass public appeal. Lawrence was acutely aware of the ‘literary robbery’ of LCL – he thought the pirated copies were physically obscene objects – but it was Penguin who, over thirty years later, was able to reap financial benefit from the novel’s legal publication.
Potter, meanwhile, establishes modernist obscenity in the context of censorship rather than capital accumulation: awareness of the censor led writers to claim a social space ‘…where aesthetic value was connected not with speculation, but with freedom of speech’. The existence of the censor, it is therefore argued, contributed to the aesthetic and political techniques employed by modernists: many writers distorted and subverted traditional literary themes to antagonise the limits imposed by censorship. However, Dore qualifies this literary freedom by invoking the presence of a ‘resonant silence’ within modernism that ‘reproduces censorship’: sexual matters remained understood in somewhat prohibitive terms and often reflected a masculine conception of desire. Lawrence’s depictions of sex have been criticised extensively in feminist scholarship for reinforcing patriarchal ideas.
From an aesthetic standpoint, Flaubert and Baudelaire – the nineteenth-century protomodernists – are generally considered the first serious modern writers to transform ‘…the unseemly into art’ – their gossamer-veiled sordidness prefacing the deluge of explicitly obscene works which would appear in early twentieth-century literature. Temporarily setting aside the conspicuous spectre of LCL, the examples of obscene modernist texts often referenced in scholarship have included Lawrence’s earlier novels – The Rainbow (1915), and its sequel Women in Love (1920) – and works from the likes of Joyce, Miller, Lewis, Pound and Barnes. Elements of these works embody, what Pease describes, ‘the aesthetic of the obscene’: a determination to represent sexual practices without the primary intention to provoke base arousal or titillation, but to use these practices as a meaningful aesthetic and political technique. In modernism, political engagement could be articulated through ‘…the eloquent suppression of erotic possibility and the profane limit of bourgeois decency’. Obscenity, therefore, can be viewed as not only a consequence of modernist aesthetic and political influences, but as a conscious and deliberate literary style. From this perspective, it appears particularly difficult to detach obscenity from a functioning conception of modernist aesthetics.
Obscene modernism can help to locate Lawrence’s literary aesthetics and politics. Lawrence’s attitude towards modernism, despite areas of agreement, can be placed somewhere between ambivalence and hostility. For example, Lawrence derided ‘mob-meaning’ as ‘…always obscene, because it is second-hand’, and believed that obscenity occurred ‘…when the mind despises and fears the body, and the body hates and resists the mind’. The action of ‘…calling into question the mind’s relation to the body’ can be indeed considered the most obscene of modernist techniques. Despite Lawrence’s continuous probing into the body/mind conundrum, he simultaneously wished to stress the aesthetic difference between pornography and his works. In this light, he would sometimes use language such as ‘obscenity’ to demean work he perceived as having little or no artistic merit; these castigations appeared to reflect a Victorian prudery that much aesthetic and political modernism was rallying against. He detested modern ideas of sex that encouraged ‘…the null effect of masturbation’: a dangerous substitute, he thought, for shared and dynamic sexual relations. As Stoehr acutely observes, for Lawrence, obscenity lay in the idea that ‘[m]asturbation was supplanting healthy sexuality, pornography was usurping the true novel’.
Annan places Lawrence at the end of romanticism and on the cusp of modernism, where ‘[a]uthenticity and sincerity are the greatest of virtues’. LCL was, by Lawrence’s standards, ‘…an honest, healthy book, necessary for us today’: an instructive, polemical text; a morality tale that attempted to bring truth to representations of sex. By other less generous standards, the persistent didacticism in the novel is detrimental to Lawrence’s aesthetic and political motivations. Lawrence, a product of working-class Nottinghamshire, stood apart from other modernists of the era; his work, however, remained centrally concerned with ‘…the construction of the modern subject’. It was in complete seriousness that he sought ‘…to engage the chaos and pathos of the present without a single concession to the knowing smile of the Bloomsbury drawing-room’, and importantly, analyse ‘…the sexual anxieties, class tensions and racial conflicts most contemporaries burlesqued, repressed or suppressed’. Furthermore, unlike modernists (for example, Lewis) who viewed modern technology and industry as an exciting incarnation of primitive energy, Lawrence’s primitive ideals were of ‘…the most conventional kind’: he fretted constantly over industrial modernity’s effect on human character. Here, Lawrence’s work placed high emphasis on ‘…the private world of “individual meaning”’: he deplored Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) for diminishing sex to an arena of public spectacle.
It is necessary, therefore, to contextualise Lawrence: a writer aware of the debates – readily engaged in modernism – surrounding financial gain, censorship and sexual representation, but also detached or antipathetic to the mass population, pornographic vulgarity and modern advances in society. It is within these contradictions that Lawrence’s use of secrecy in LCL was able to gestate and ultimately inform his aesthetic and political sensibilities regarding obscenity; sensibilities, as outlined above, which are necessarily bound up in ideologies of class, gender and sexuality. Lawrence’s allusion to the ‘dirty little secret’ – sex – is articulated throughout LCL in complex, conflicting and inconclusive aesthetic forms.
The gamekeeper Mellors is a secret man who ‘…felt if he could not be alone, and if he could not be left alone, he would die’. Mellors’s history of destructive relationships with women (namely, Bertha Coutts: an unqualified sexist portrayal by Lawrence) and recollections of war trauma – as a lieutenant no less – leads him wishing for permanent withdrawal from the outer world. His dwelling can be found in ‘…a secret little clearing, and a secret little hut made of rustic poles’: what Squires describes as ‘…the physical equivalent of his inner security-sexual desire’. Mellors is jaded, also hurt:
… his damaged health: his deep restlessness: his leaving the army and coming back to England to be a working man again.
Lawrence’s widely-observed use of repetition contributes towards the secrecy of Mellors: each clause constrains the gamekeeper further, hollowing him out, disengaging him from private individual meaning and a consistent class identity. Lawrence is noticeably less heavy-handed with Mellors than with Clifford: the former’s impotencies established not through obvious physical disability, but via a state of psychological isolation. This complex secrecy embodied by Mellors manifests outwardly in his capricious deployment of obscene language.
Mellors oscillates regularly between vernaculars: at once learned and well-spoken, at other times crude and colloquial. This is as much a result of suppression and secrecy as it is a confusion of class status. During sex with Connie, the inhibited responses, ‘[y]ou do as you wish’, antagonises and amplifies Mellors’s return to regional dialect elsewhere: ‘[a]n’ if tha shits an’ if tha pisses, I’m glad. I don’t want a woman as couldna shit nor piss’. Mellors derives particular comfort from switching to a ‘Derby’ vernacular when meeting Connie’s sister, Hilda (‘solid, Scotch middle-class’): the instinctive security it provides Mellors even sounds to Hilda ‘…a little affected’. For Lawrence, every ‘cunt’, ‘fuck’, ‘shit’ and ‘piss’ contains meaning and is used almost pedagogically by Mellors towards Connie; again, for Lawrence, the ‘…nomenclature and ideology are one’ and the ‘…frank Anglo-Saxon terms go hand in hand with honest, liberatory attitudes towards sex’. When Mellors articulates in Standard English he leaves his state of isolation. From this, Lawrence – through ‘…the sensibilities of a female protagonist’ – emphasises the obscenity of correct bourgeois vernacular. In Connie’s narration, Lawrence writes:
Ravished! How ravished one could be without ever being touched. Ravished by dead words become obscene, and dead ideas become obsessions.
The sterility of Clifford and his cadre – the banality of their language and ideas – is obscene to Lawrence. Mellors, by comparison, delivers truthful assertions when unsullied by his concessions to the language of the middle- and upper-classes. Lawrence appropriation of modernist techniques surrounding the use of dialect and obscene language seems quaint and mannered now; his aim, however, was not to use language in a trivial, pornographic, Joycean manner, but in the private realm of individual meaning. In LCL, Mellor’s ostensibly obscene language – inseparable from his secrecy and isolation – serves to emphasise and parody the true obscenity of bourgeois intellectual complacency.
Such complacency is illustrated in the relationship between Connie and Clifford. If secrecy for Mellors is located in the pastoral – the ‘silent, still and secret’ wood – then Connie and Clifford’s snare of secrecy is placed firmly in Wragby Hall. Their relationship is defined in its origins: Connie married Clifford ‘…because she disliked him, in a secret, physical sort of way’; Clifford, in his endeavours to manufacture new sources of energy, fulfils ‘…his life-long secret yearning to get out of himself’. Clifford’s complex feelings towards Connie are most obviously bound up in status and social class, but are also the result of his understanding of established gender roles. Clifford believes that he must have a wife and a lady of the house. His nonexistent sexual requirements are surpassed by his high emotional demands. When Connie does not fulfil this need, Clifford can barely conceal ‘…a secret dread of her’; he instead turns to Mrs Bolton for quasi-maternal affection, who he lets ‘…shave him or sponge all his body as if he were a child’. The three of them together construct a peculiar triad of secrecy: Connie’s affairs have the pretence of being discreet, but generally are not: ‘Connie was very angry that Mrs Bolton knew her secret: for certainly she knew it’. Further, it is inconceivable that Clifford is not aware of some type of affair, but the complacencies of bourgeois tradition ensure the maintenance of a pernicious status quo.
In Wragby Hall, Lawrence presents secrecy as wholly malignant and obscene. The shared complicity of both Connie and Clifford in an unloving, deceitful marriage seems to derive from a sense of prurience and shame. This type of behaviour seems to constitute Kaplan’s ‘obscenity of the perverse’. Connie is stifled and oppressed by the social expectations to be a dutiful wife in an environment of celibacy; thus, initially, she seeks forbidden fulfilment through Michaelis and later through Mellors. As Connie becomes more blasé regarding her deceptions, the secret shame transmits to Clifford. He works himself into ‘…a frenzy’ when Connie remains in the wood during a thunderstorm: not out of love, but out of fear. Clifford later attempts to engage with Connie but ‘…the conversation between them had to be made, almost chemically’. The knowing silence between the pair – the final, superficial efforts to keep feelings hidden – represents a grave obscenity for Lawrence.
In contrast, Lawrence emphasises the private realm of Mellors’s hut as a place to facilitate truthful and meaningful sexual relations. The hut, located within the mineral confines of primitive nature, markedly illustrates Lawrence’s ‘…equation between social corruption and impotence and between natural freedom and sexuality’. Connie and Mellors, in the secret enclosure, are able to hunt out secret places of sexual desire. Firstly, through Connie’s figure: ‘…his finger caressed the delicate, warm, secret skin of her waist and hips’ and ‘…through touch upon her living secret body, almost the ecstasy of beauty’. And later, through Connie’s vagina and anus: ‘…folded in the secret warmth, the secret entrances!’, ‘…his fingertips touched the two secret openings to her body […] with a little soft brush of fire’, and ‘…laid his hand close and firm over her secret places, in a kind of close greeting’. Lawrence’s prose is certainly embarrassing; however, of interest, in the bombardment of overwrought euphemisms, is the implied secrecy on Lawrence’s part. He celebrates the hut as a secret area able to foster the revitalisation of sexual practices, yet cannot face explicit descriptions of revitalised sex for fear of being pornographic. In writing with said inhibitions, Lawrence’s prose not only suffers, but his progressive stance on obscenity weakens and his puritanical tendencies are emphasised.
Lawrence’s reluctance with language may further stem from his confrontations with particular forms of sexuality. Blanchard argues that LCL is a study of ‘…the need to rescue sexuality from secrecy, to bring it into discourse’. Yet Lawrence appears wary of illustrating any tendencies towards homoeroticism: as it stood, his work was regularly branded effeminate by the more muscular strands of modernism (see Eliot, Lewis and Pound, for example). This charge was barely quelled by the ‘hysterical didacticism’ of Lawrence’s tone and register in LCL. What Lawrence seemed keen to stress is that his purge of modern love – see his contempt for masturbation – occurs through a ‘…redeeming vitalism and wholesome heterosexuality’. Lawrence makes plain his masculine credentials through the ‘phallic hunting out’ that Connie had ‘secretly wanted’. If such portrayals of sexuality paint Lawrence as more a traditionalist, it is possible to trace further threads of conservatism in the novel’s structure. In the closing passage, Mellors writes to Connie: ‘John Thomas says good-night to Lady Jane, a little droopingly, but with a hopeful heart’: the novel, despite the apparent radical use of frank language and scenes of rampant promiscuity, reflects an individualist bildungsroman. Lawrence, in his idiosyncratic modernism, conceals elements of obscenity through a conventional composition of the novel.
In conclusion, secrecy can be located in many places throughout LCL. Secrecy facilitates Mellors’s deployment of obscene words: Lawrence sees Mellors’s wrestling with language as a necessary reaction to sterile and complacent bourgeois political ideals. Mellors’s social isolation – his private realm of individual meaning – is distinct from the true obscenity of Clifford and company. Here, without subtlety, Lawrence invokes secrecy to alter perceptions of the obscene:
Therefore, the novel, properly handled, can reveal the most secret places of life: for it is in the passional secret places of life, above all, that the tide of sensitive awareness needs to ebb and flow, cleansing and freshening.
Yet, in Wragby Hall, Lawrence finds secrecy to be an oppressive force: inhibiting and perverting the actions of Connie, Clifford and Mrs Bolton. In contrast to the freedom of language found in Mellors’s private psychological isolation, obscenity exists through the silent preservation of class manners and established gender roles. Lawrence’s confliction with secrecy culminates in his treatment of sexuality: at once both radical and conservative. Though Mellors’s secret hut nurtures an environment able to revitalise sexual practices, truly explicit depictions of sex evade Lawrence. Such language appears to be an obscenity too far, which, as a result, imbues Lawrence’s aesthetic and political sensibilities with a peculiar secrecy.
NB: footnotes omitted due to word count.
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