leavis

The following long essay is a transcript of a talk given by Bob Hayward at the D.H Lawrence Society on 9 March 2016. It was also presented at the 2016 Lawrence/Leavis Conference.

There are many, many ways of seeing the trial of ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’. Certainly one is: that it was Lawrence’s posthumous revenge on a Ruling Class that slandered and persecuted him for most of his writing life. He called the book ‘a bit of a revolution in itself, a bit of a bomb’ but he could never have imagined the radical impact of its delayed action thirty years after his death. It probably marked the beginning of a real revolutionary change in Britain. “I feel as if a window has been opened and fresh air has blown right through England “ was his step-daughter’s reaction.

By no means optimistic, Leavis acknowledged that a change in society had been registered by the trial but, as he chose to see it, in the defence of a bad novel. The Establishment, in the other hand, knew that it had ridiculously exposed itself by going after the book of a widely accepted great writer in order to continue its crusade against the pornography under the new Obscene Publications Act. Leavis saw the change in terms of emancipated sexual mores rather than the political implications. He would have us believe that the Prosecution was ‘defeated by its realization that it was confronted by a new and confident orthodoxy of enlightenment — that the world had changed since the virginal pure policemen came and hid their faces for very shame’. He was forgetting that Conversions on the road to Damascus have no standing in English courts. The Prosecution failed because it was confronted by the new Obscene Publication Act which was designed to protect literature from philistine censorship. The Prosecution failed because its senior counsel, Mervyn Griffith-Jones, apart from being wedded to a class-ridden mind-set anticipated in the pages of the offending novel, had insufficient literary sophistication even to read Lawrence, let alone assess the novel as a whole, as was now required to do under the new act. The Prosecution could not find one witness to argue for suppression, whereas the Defence had the luxury of vetting plenty for its cause. The so-called Orthodoxy of Enlightenment was more a figment of Leavis’s ironic scorn than a reality and the idea that Mervyn Griffith-Jones had the faculties to recognize any kind of enlightenment rather than just the exasperating line of highly coached witnesses for the Defence, still less to allow it to affect his adversarial duties is just whimsical thinking. Even in his closing speech to the jury he was still all-guns-blazing, reading out four-letter-word passages and lyrical sexual descriptions (which he could see only as pornography), including seven of the eight paragraphs of the ‘night of sensual passion’ which extols an act of intimate complicity punishable at the time of the trial by up to life-imprisonment for both lovers, thus making it the perfect crime. Perhaps some members of the jury had got away with it because not all of them were visibly shocked by the last-ditch innuendoes being lobbed by Griffith-Jones, who either would not, or more probably, could not, be explicit about the passage. Had he done so, would the Judge have directed the jury to find for the Prosecution? Now there is a conundrum to set against the ascendency of the Orthodoxy of Enlightenment!

Leavis’s judgements of the novel, as expressed in his Rolph-review, would have seriously embarrassed the defence because he denied the artistic integrity of the book as a whole work, implied an inadvertent pornographic element and suggested that the four-letter-words and sexual descriptions got past Lawrence only because he was not himself. It is doubtful whether the Defence, for all its testifying talent, would have easily rebutted these criticisms from Lawrence’s greatest advocate, argued, as they seem to be, with all his convinced authority and knowledge. These criticisms were calculated, after the trial, to discredit the expert witnesses. They did immeasurable damage to the book’s reputation, and, as far as I know, remain unchallenged, not least because the style of the review spins the reader around in confusing circles of thought.

Let us consider Leavis’s claims. First, Lawrence was in ‘an abnormal state’ when he wrote this novel. Second, there is ‘a disrupted integration in the artist’, ‘something gone radically wrong’. Third, there is ‘a passionate drive of willed purpose’ rather than directed creativity. So we have: abnormal state, disrupted integrity, willed purpose. In other words, we have some pathological condition plus some cloyingly defined split integrity but does the split integrity explain the willed purpose or is it to be inferred from it? Is the abnormal state to be inferred from the willed purpose? Why does the greatest literary critic not simply rely on literary criticism? Why the need to postulate disorders beyond his expertise or certainty – for he never met Lawrence?

Does Leavis give any proof for these extra-literary critical diagnoses? He offers in effect: ‘At this moment in his life…..he was ill – in fact, for all his incredible vitality, slowly dying – and inflamed with rage an disgust at the thought of the virginal pure policemen’. This would appear to be suggesting a cause for the ‘abnormal state’ or split integrity to both if they can be distinguished. ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’, however, was written three times over fourteen months (Frieda said two years but she was never entirely reliable) and was finished in January 1928. Lawrence would have to have been certifiably abnormal if ha had raged for fourteen months at ‘virginal pure policemen’, especially without any grounds, because those authorized prudes never seized his paintings until July 1929, eighteen months after he had finished the novel. What was Leavis thinking?

Lawrence’s protracted dying seems to have affected other people’s judgements more than his own (and still does: see Melvyn Bragg’s introduction to the Cambridge edition of ‘The Plumed Serpent’ for sheer sentimentality in place of facts). Slowly dying is not inconsistent with being an artist, as Leavis himself affirmed in his last book in 1976 in which he wrote: ‘But Lawrence couldn’t but go on manifesting the Laurentian genius till the day of his death in 1930’. This would make his aberrational fourteen months on ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ even more mysterious and raises the possibility that the inconsistency is Leavis’s rather than Lawrence’s. Of course Lawrence had tuberculosis, probably from childhood, but his immune system tended to keep on top of it. It showed itself in his illness in 1911 when he was told to give up teaching. It was diagnosed again in 1916 when he was classified as unfit for military service. Early in 1925 he nearly died in Mexico from typhoid and malaria (he thought he would die) and then, in the American military hospital in Mexico City, he was bluntly told in front of Frieda that indeed he had tuberculosis. This was a shock to her – and to him but only because he never wanted it to be brought out into the open. A doctor later took Frieda aside and advised her to get him back to New Mexico because he had tuberculosis ‘in the third degree’ and no more than one or two years to live. Frieda is the only source for this story, much repeated in biographies. The trouble with it is that there is no such thing as tuberculosis ‘in the third degree’ and Lawrence lived for more than five years. He managed his tuberculosis as well as anybody could: he knew there was no cure, so he put it to the back of his mind and got on with living and writing, even after haemorrhages more often reminded him that he was carrying the disease that was shortening his life.

Leavis considered Lawrence to be a creative writer of the greatest kind. During the last five years of his life, his technique as a writer was at its most accomplished. Just before ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ he had written ‘The Virgin and the Gipsy’ and between the second and final version of Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ he wrote ‘The Escaped Cock’ in which, drawing on his own sense of resurrection after his near death experience in Mexico, he imagines Christ slipping half dead out of the tomb and slowly coming back to life to find ‘the phenomenal world’, as Lawrence calls it, much more marvellous than ideas of heaven to salvation. This mundane resurrection of the son of man is just about the most perfect vehicle for turning the Laurentian credo into his felicitous art. Writing this story after visiting the Etruscan tombs, whose wall-paintings, he realized, could envisage no after-life better than this one, persuaded him to modify his style for the final version of ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ by eliminating all religious vocabulary: no sacreds or holys or godlikes or divines. The discipline of keeping, more or less, to only this-world language and perception gives the writing its revelations of the profane enchantment of experience. Others might describe it differently or better. One critic wrote: ‘But so beautifully poised and sure is the art that there is a danger of mistaking the nature of its success. The success, I have implied, is conditioned by a narrowing down: criticism must take the form of the question: How comprehensive or generally valid is this solution?’ This was Leavis before he came into his wisdom on Lawrence but he would not, I think, have had too much insight into the paganised inspiration of the style.

I want to say something of the novel itself before turning to Leavis’s literary criticisms of it. In her introduction to ‘The First Lady Chatterley’, which survived its prosecution in America in 1944, Frieda reveals that Lawrence told her that he wanted to write ‘a romantic novel – a picaresque novel’ which she was unable to relate to the gamekeeper-character. Few people bother to notice that it was a revolutionary novel, revolutionary in the political sense. It was a revolutionary time. Between 1917 and 1927 fifteen monarchies fell across Europe, to say nothing of principalities. The class-struggle was to the fore in most societies. Lawrence’s contribution was explicitly non-violent by trying to unify with his art the lives of a high-born woman and a low-born man. The working-class gamekeeper can speak only in the dialect. The class-divisions between him and the lady are confronted with such unsqueamish honesty that at times Lawrence moves towards parody to assuage the obscenities of the historical and social injustice. Communism is prevalent in the book and by the end Parking, no longer gamekeeping, thinks that the problem of Connie’s social superiority being carried over into their marriage might be solves if she supported him in his work as secretary of the local Communist League. This idea excited him but presumably not Lawrence.

The book is finally revolutionary in a multitude of ways. I am emphasising the political because it has been ignored. Obviously if a lady turns her back on an aristocratic life for a relationship with a working man, and the writer endorses the choice, some criticism of the aristocratic lifestyle might be implied, in this case more than implied, and subsequently inferred by receptive or unformed minds. The artistic problem for this revolutionary intent is to make the relationship plausible. Lawrence tried a second version. The gamekeeper again speaks only in the dialect, with which the lady becomes infatuated, though he can string together a more standard English sentence if he makes the effort; this is so rare that she notices when he does it. In the interests of the plausibility, Lawrence elaborates more on their intimacies. This is the original reason for extensively describing the elusive moments of love-making but, as a writer, he must have relished the challenge. There are affirmations of divinity to be found in the man’s body by the lady, going so far as to tell her sister that she sees his penis as a little god. ‘It was as if she had touched god and been restored to life’ is one of the author’s more mystagogic submissions. Does he think that giving the relationship a religious provenance is enough to compensate for the social imbalance between the lovers?

Well, he put the work aside for months and when he wrote the final version, he had, as he said and as I have indicated, ‘dropped the god-symbol from his writing’. He later thought that doing so was probably a mistake (obviously, for male philosophers, desacralizing the penis or phallus was not just a solecism but an epistemological mistake). Although the new gamekeeper has the same working-class origins, Lawrence, no doubt compromising his original romantic ideas as we all do, gives him a cultural dimension and social versatility that his two previous incumbents did not have, thus mitigating the problems of inferiority. The natural world and the lovers’ intimacies are now described under the poetic of his new luminary-pagan style. In court, Helen Gardner maintained that Lawrence succeeded in putting into words experiences that are very difficult to verbalize, rather as mystics try to do. This is more constructive than Leavis could ever be about the sexual descriptions.

Leavis asks: ‘Why does Lawrence make the lover working class?’ Even to ask this question means that he is overlooking the revolutionary purpose, which seems to the elephant in the room for most critics. His answer to the question, which I am not sure anyone ever asked, is that Lawrence does not make the gamekeeper working class. He is ‘irretrievably and securely a gentleman’, according to Leavis. He is educated, owns some books, held a commission in the army and could pass himself off as a gentleman. Leavis ignores the little matter of his having neither the means nor the desire to be a gentleman and forgets that one truly irretrievable gentleman calls him ‘scum’ and ‘a bumptious lout’. There is little point in troubling over Leavis’s specious definition of a gentleman. It seems at best contrarian. No other serious reader has ever characterized Mellors, once a blacksmith, as a gentleman but it enables Leavis to ask his next question: ‘Why does Lawrence make him drop into the dialect – drop so much and on those occasions?’ In fact, Mellors speaks mostly in the dialect and to would be more accurate to say that he drops into the King’s English when he feels it appropriate. He speaks the dialect because he is not ashamed of his origins any more than he is ashamed of his manhood, though he recognizes that society would have him be ashamed of both. The dialect is part of his identity and this gamekeeper has the option of making it complicit with this manhood, whereas for the other two it was integral. In opting for the dialect, there is a spirit of anti-genteel defiance, catching the mood of the times, and there is also an erotic polarization in using it with a lady who accepts it and so endears herself. Mellors uses it, as Lawrence knew it could be used, for expressing all emotions because it comes from the tongues of people who have experienced all emotions. It can also be used to armour his susceptible humanity, when necessary.

Leavis answers the question, which only he has ever asked: ‘Why does Lawrence make the keeper drop into the dialect – and on those occasions?’ with what he says is a simple and, he imagines, generally acceptable answer, namely, ‘as a way of putting over the four-letter words – of trying to make the idea of their being redeemed for non-obscene and undefiant or “normal” use, look less desperate.’ This then is his explanation for the use of the dialect. It is more shallow than the one I give and I think it is obviously and significantly wrong. Leavis is so sure he knows why Lawrence deploys the four-letter words that he talks emphatically of his ‘hygienic purpose’ with them. If Lawrence imagined that a few pages of a novel could cleanse the four-letter words of centuries of taboo (one of the words goes back to the Romans and possibly to the Ancient Greeks), he would have suffered from delusions of authorial grandeur off the scale. So we have the bizarre idea of a man in an ‘abnormal state’ being criticized for a hygienic purpose that no English writer could ever have been insane enough to have.

Leavis claims that ‘Lawrence would have had a resistance to overcome in himself uttering the four-letter words with the ease and freedom with which the gamekeeper and Tommy Dukes use them’. Whether this is true or not is irrelevant. Leavis is not adducing artistic principle here. If writers were forbidden from putting into the mouths of their characters language which they could not easily and freely utter themselves, Shakespeare’s plays would never have been written. Lawrence uses the words in art-speech (which I think is the third realm) and even Leavis endorses his maxim: ‘Art-speech is the only speech’.
Four-letter words do not need redemption. They have a complete felicity without it. If versatility is any guide to frequency of use, they are among the most frequently used words in the language. They would appear to be our friends; they are certainly on the tips of most tongues. There are some general rules for them: the more public a situation, the less appropriate they are likely to be. The more private the situation, the opposite can be the case. Tommy Dukes uses four-letter words sparingly in little house-parties of friends and guests. ‘And naughty words scream like sirens, when uttered in the wrong environs.’ We know this happens. Do they scream like sirens in Sir Clifford’s drawing room? Perhaps, but we might ask whether Lawrence or Leavis would be more accustomed to such gathering of motley types as are presented there. Mellors’s use of the words with Connie could not be more private, that is, in their most intimate moments when there are no barriers. Leavis refers to the gamekeeper’s ‘treatment’ of Connie ‘on those occasions’ and he thinks that, because of some dormant class-resentment and ‘failure of wholeness’ and so on in the creative Lawrence, he does not realize how the gamekeeper (and therefore the author himself) is demeaning the lady. This is my inference form cutting through the Gordian Knot of tortuousness in the fourth from last paragraph. (When any prosecution pressed the idea of depraving and corrupting in obscenity cases in the 1960s and 70s, the jury always threw it out.) It must be said that Connie herself has no sense of being like a high-caste victim of an untouchable and by the end of the novel the reader sees her more fulfilled femininity has turned her into a woman who knows what she wants from life and who can be deflected by neither her disapproving sister, her apoplectic husband nor her demurring father, who is secretly proud of her (‘I hope you had a real man at last’.) because she is now the radiant daughter of his loins that he would want her to be.

Frieda said that Lawrence was scared when he wrote ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’. He saw that his art was becoming more daring as it progressed through the three versions. He knew intuitively that the sexual description and four-letter words were justified and would be original in serious literature. The finished work is so rich in themes that I doubt whether he have could been explicit about them all. They are for readers to appreciate. The text, however, is explicit about one vindication of the four-letter words, and that is as the language of acceptance, more specifically acceptance of the body. This is of course one of the ways in which the words can be used. The body was for him an important concept for which he argued against the centuries of undervaluing it by the great religions, concerned, as they are, with things otherworldly and eternal. Lawrence’s faith was in the accessible wonders of bodily experience and he invoked their moral power to transcend society’s prejudices and of course the taboos of language. This faith is not too far removes from Leavis’s ineffable ‘well-head through which life and creativity bubble up from the unknown’.

Leavis believed that ‘the insistent renderings of sexual experience’ a phrase that would have improved the pleading of the senior prosecuting counsel, also represent a hygienic purpose. He even concedes that they ‘engage the creative art of the creative writer’ but he finds ‘a great deal in them strongly distasteful’. This begs the questions as to how he detects their hygienic purpose. How does he get this idea when the passages have the effect of deepening the intensity between the lovers in order to justify Connie’s leaving aristocracy for a better life? If readers cannot be inward with the descriptions of the acts of love-making, they cannot assess the novel. They are rather like Shakespeare’s nurse who cannot appreciate Juliet’s love for Romeo.

There is another extra-literary critical concept that Leavis fastens on Lawrence. He says (and the Prosecution would have welcomed this): ‘In the way of those frequent and insistent offers to evoke sexual experience in pondered, dwelling immediacy, there was a deep-seated pudeur going back to a finely civilized upbringing in a Victorian, working-class home’, a home that, by the way, contained a hard-drinking father and a jealous, quasi-incestuous mother but there is no need to cavil at Leavis’s evaluation of Lawrence’s home, though we might include the wider working-class community and its institutions, as well as Lawrence’s reading, in the formation of his sensibilities. I wonder when a working-class boy comes into full possession of his pudeur? I doubt if it would be a word bandied about in his home, or any home. Leavis seems to have plucked it from the margins of English usage. It is not to be found in many English dictionaries. It is in the 1981 Supplement of my old fifteen volume Oxford Dictionary in which Leavis’s ‘deep-seated pudeur’ is among the examples, all of which, except his, give it a negative nuance. He is the only one to make a virtue of it, not least by opposing it to his equally idiolectic use of ‘emancipation’ which throughout history has rarely had a pejorative meaning, except perhaps for closed minds offended by it. So with ‘pudeur’, Leavis is ascribing a positive sense to a negatively used word. You can use words however you like but, if you alter their connotation too far, there is a danger of seeming tendentious, or, if you are the greatest critic, confounding common sense.

The dictionary definition of pudeur is: ‘a sense of shame or embarrassment, particularly with regard to matters of a sexual nature’. Apart from the word ‘Victorian’, Leavis offers nothing that in fact points to Lawrence’s pudeur. Lawrence wrote more about sex than any other creative writer. His inspired preoccupation with the subject is inconsistent with a sense of shame or embarrassment about it. In ‘The Rainbow’ Will and Anna renew their marital desire by exploring intimacies in defiance of shame, which becomes part of the thrill. Ursula in ‘Women in Love’ loses her physical shames by sharing in the full range of Birkin’s amatory practices. And ‘The Night of Sensual Passion’ reads like a rhapsody on the anti-pudeur ethic. Pudeur could be regarded as a mildly neurotic frailty and it is pretty near disingenuous semantics to represent it, as Leavis does, as the essential source of Lawrence’s ‘exquisitively sensitive human delicacy’ when it is more likely to be associated with prudish or even sanctimonious tendencies. Pudeur can become a virtue only if it is apprehended and turned into something else, say, heroic acceptance of the body even when your own is emaciated or about to fail you as absolutely as possible.

When Leavis finds the gamekeepers ‘uninhibited talk’ with Connie ‘on those occasions’ ‘insufferable’, when he finds ‘something hateful conveyed in the intention of the dialect itself’, when he finds so much of ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ ‘repellent’, is that because of his ‘still unvanquished pudeur’, in the sense in which everybody except him uses and understands the word, though not many people do use it? I have no way of knowing but I doubt it.

‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ is a complex, ambitious and thoroughly rewarding work of art. It was written, as it were, out of Lawrence’s moral concern for civilization. It is a unique novel. I cannot agree with any of the literary critical judgements that Leavis makes about it in his Rolph-review, not one, not a single one. His extra-literary critical judgements, so far as I can tell, are factitious. I suspect that he has created an orthodoxy of enlightenment about ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ and it will be a long time before the novel is rehabilitated. Leavis returned it to its insalubrious reputation with a vengeance.

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