Why World War I cultivated an obsession with insects

Allied forces wearing gas masks at Ypres, 1917.
Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

In this guest blog, originally published in The Conversation, Rachel Murray of University of Bristol explains how a craze for popular entomology developed around World War I with films and popular insect books a source of fascination for modernist writers and thinkers, including Virginia Woolf, DH Lawrence, Ezra Pound, Katherine Mansfield, and Marianne Moore.

“The soldier is no longer a noble figure,” observed the war poet Siegfried Sassoon while serving on the Western Front. “He is merely a writhing insect among this ghastly folly of destruction.” 

It is little surprise that Sassoon turned to insects to express the plight of the World War I soldier. Many did. Bugs – both real and metaphorical – came to shape the way people thought and wrote about the experience of war, and this prompted a surge of popular interest in insects more generally.

This was the first fully industrialised, long-range conflict, in which the enemy was reduced to minute specks. On the front line, soldiers wore bug-like gas masks and camouflage uniforms for the first time, were strapped into new prototypes of military body armour, and crawled through the mud in tanks. The optics of war even caused the modernist writer Wyndham Lewis, who served as an artillery officer, to remark: “These battles are more like ant fights than anything we have done in this way up to now.”

The striking resemblance between humans and insects also stemmed from their close proximity on the battlefield. Lice, mosquitoes and flies thrived in the trenches, quickly becoming one of the main sources of illness and death among soldiers. Faced with the rapid spread of typhus, malaria, and trench fever (spread by lice), the War Office teamed up with entomologists to tackle this enemy within.

This led to a campaign of insect extermination, in which troops were regularly disinfected with chemicals designed to halt the spread of lice. Yet while this was going on, soldiers were also being subjected to poisonous gases from the enemy, some of which had previously been used as insecticides. One Dutch newspaper was quick to notice the parallel treatment of soldiers and insects.

De Groene Amsterdammer, May 9, 1915.
__De Groene Amsterdammer Archive__

In this satirical illustration from May 1915, the female embodiment of Germany, “Germania”, sprinkles insect powder over a tiny group of soldiers. At first glance, she appears to be delousing them, but she is in fact exterminating them with chlorine.

Yet if the conditions of war reduced human beings to bugs, then it was to these life forms that people turned in search of ways of understanding their predicament.

Bug mania

Jean-Henri Casimir Fabre.
_Wikimedia Commons_

Perhaps because people felt closer to insects than ever, in the period around World War I a craze for popular entomology developed.

Studies of insect life were in high demand, with more books devoted solely to bugs than ever before. Of particular interest to the British public was the work of French entomologist Jean-Henri Casimir Fabre, whose groundbreaking and often gruesome studies of the behaviour of wasps, beetles, mantises, and flies sold widely in the years surrounding the war. Fabre was a pioneering figure in the life sciences who demonstrated that more could be learnt about insects as living entities observed in their natural habitats than as dead specimens pinned in display cases.

The development of new film technologies also meant that the sophisticated behaviour of insects could be made visible to the human eye. In November 1908, nature documentary maker F. Percy Smith’s The Acrobatic Fly caused a stir when it was screened at a London cinema. Advertised on the front page of The Daily Mirror, the short film consisted of remarkable footage of a fly juggling various miniature items with its front legs.

After the war, the public appetite for bugs on screen continued to grow. From 1922, a series of nature shorts called Secrets of Nature was screened in British cinemas. Many of the films focused on the hidden lives of ants, wasps and beetles.

Modernist insects

This popular bug interest was also seen in the more canonical cultural output of the period. The films and popular insect books mentioned above were a source of fascination for modernist writers and thinkers, including Virginia Woolf, DH Lawrence, Ezra Pound, Katherine Mansfield, and Marianne Moore, who listed Fabre’s ten-volume collection, Souvenirs entomologiques (Entomological memories), in a list of “great literary works”. The poet William Carlos Williams even remarked: “Henri Fabre has been one of my Gods.”

Some writers were inspired by the remarkable ability of insects to thrive in inhospitable environments. Set during the war, DH Lawrence’s novella The Ladybird draws on Fabre’s account of the “sacred beetle” (also known as the dung beetle), which sculpts the waste products of larger animals into a home for its offspring. The text highlights the ingenuity of the dung beetle, emphasising its ability to transform death and decay into a source of new life.

Scanning electron microscope image of an ant.
Wikimedia commons

Others were drawn to Fabre’s account of the unique ways that insects perceive their surroundings. One of Wyndham Lewis’s characters remarks enviously that “the insect sees a different world to us, and possesses other means of apprehending it”, while in Virginia Woolf’s novel To The Lighthouse, artist Lily Briscoe longs to experience the compound vision of ants: “One wanted fifty pairs of eyes to see with.”

The turn to popular entomology in the years surrounding the war was no coincidence. While insects may have come to represent the degraded nature of human existence, studies of bug life helped writers and artists, as well as the public at large, to look beyond the wartime atmosphere of destruction, and to develop new ways of seeing themselves and the world around them.The Conversation

Rachel Murray, PhD Candidate, University of Bristol. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

dhl-trunk energyIn the DH Lawrence Memory Theatre we want to address various aspects of Lawrence’s life through artefacts to try to understand this complex writer. How do we capture the modernists’ fascination with entomology? What insects should be crawling through our draws? In 2019 we begin building our Memory Theatre and retracing Lawrence’s savage pilgrimage both physically and digitally. If you have an idea for an artefact, get involved and submit ideas here

 

How huge gamble by Lady Chatterley lawyers changed obscenity law forever

Step this way … PA/PA Archive

In this guest blog, originally published in The Conversation, Sue Rabbitt Roff of University of Dundee, explains how “a watershed in British obscenity law had been achieved without any discussion about the illegal sex acts central to the novel”. Skip to page 258 of Lady Chatterley’s Lover to see if you would have made the same gamble as barrister Jeremy Hutchinson…

Jeremy Hutchinson, who has died at 102, was one of England’s finest criminal barristers. He was counsel of choice for some of the most high-profile cases of his era. He defended the likes of Christine Keeler and Great Train robber Charles Wilson and also obscenity cases against novels like Fanny Hill and Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

Later known as Lord Hutchinson of Lullington, his role defending Penguin Books after it published the unexpurgated version of the DH Lawrence classic is particularly memorable. It remains the landmark case in British obscenity law.

But look at the details and something extraordinary emerges: Penguin’s decision to publish 200,000 copies on the advice of Hutchinson and joint lead counsel Gerald Gardiner was a massive gamble. It set up a case that were it not for the incompetence of the prosecution could easily have gone the other way.

Obscenity and England

Lady Chatterley’s Lover had only ever been legally published in abridged versions in the UK, starting in 1932. Though by 1960 the unexpurgated edition was sold in Europe and America and could be obtained under the counter in London if you knew where to go, Penguin co-founder Allen Lane wanted to publish a cheap paperback of the full thing.

The idea was to put it out at 3s 6d, the same price as ten cigarettes, to make it affordable for the “young and the hoi-polloi”. The excuse was the 30th anniversary of Lawrence’s death from tuberculosis at the age of 45.

When Penguin consulted Hutchinson and Gardiner, the lawyers retreated to reflect. A trial under the new Obscene Publications Act seemed inevitable. The act’s first paragraph stated that material will be deemed obscene if it contains elements that tend as a whole “to deprave and corrupt persons who are likely … to read, see or hear” it.

Jeremy Hutchinson. PA/PA Archive

The act included a new defence in cases where the offending segments were “for the public good on the ground that [they are] in the interests of science, literature, art or learning”. In consultation with several literary experts, Hutchinson and Gardiner felt most of the racy scenes and bad language – including (30) “fucks” and (14) “cunts” – could fall under this defence. Lawrence, after all, was one of the most highly regarded writers of his era.

Hutchinson was concerned about page 258, however, where anal sex crops up – albeit obliquely. It has Oliver Mellors, the lover in the book’s title, trying to divorce his wife Bertha Coutts and being accused by her “of all unspeakable things”. Clifford Chatterley writes a letter to his own wife saying that Coutts has aired details about her marriage to Mellors which are “usually buried down in the deepest grave of matrimonial silence”.

But, he comments:

Humanity has always had a strange avidity for unusual sexual postures, and if a man likes to use his wife, as Benvenuto Cellini says, ‘in the Italian way’, well that is a matter of taste.

Lady Chatterley has pause for thought:

Connie remembered the last night she had spent with [Mellors], and shivered. He had known all that sensuality, even with a Bertha Coutts! It was really rather disgusting. It would be well to be rid of him, clear of him altogether.

Her friend Duncan Forbes then makes light of it:

If he’s made love to his wife all ends on, hasn’t he a right to? She ought to be proud of it.

While homosexual anal sex between consenting men was legalised 50 years ago in the UK, the heterosexual equivalent became legal only at the millennium in England and Wales and was highly illegal in 1960. (The 2001 film Bridget Jones’ Diary celebrated legalisation with a pretty explicit scene between Renée Zellweger and Hugh Grant.)

Illegal acts could still potentially use the public good defence, but Hutchinson feared it made the case much harder to win. Gardiner and the experts at the meeting dismissed his fears. In these more innocent times, they were betting that the prosecution wouldn’t grasp the point and omit it from their case. Hutchinson agreed to go ahead and advised Penguin accordingly.

Allen Lane and the edition. PA/PA Archive

Your witness

The defence called 35 professors of literature, authors, journalists, editors, critics, publishers and child education experts, and four Anglican churchmen. Each declared the book had sufficient literary merit to deserve publication for the public good. (Those less convinced of Lawrence’s genius begged off – Enid Blyton declared she had never read the book and “my husband said no at once”.)

Lead prosecutor Mervyn Griffith-Jones cross-examined only 14 of the 35. He lost most of those rounds, and sometimes his temper in the process. It was only in his closing speech he said to the jury:

Would you look at page 258. It is a passage which I have not – and I do not think anybody has – referred to during the course of cross-examination, or indeed at any time during this trial. It … describes what is called the ‘night of sensual passion’.

He read out the whole passage remarking: “Not very easy, sometimes, not very easy, you know, to know what in fact he is driving at in that passage.”

It’s not clear how many jurors understood the passage; some were said to be visibly shocked. Certainly Griffith-Jones had missed the significance entirely, having referenced it only to underline the book’s general depravity. Mr Justice Byrne summed up with no reference to anal sex either. The issues were, he said, promiscuity and adultery described in words that were “normally obscene”.

The jury returned in three hours and found Penguin not guilty. Neither the clergy nor any of the other experts had been examined on anal sex and it is not clear whether they realised they were implicitly defending it or not. A watershed in British obscenity law had been achieved without any discussion about the illegal sex acts central to the novel.

In the wake of this case, publishing in Britain became considerably more liberal. Had Hutchinson not agreed to advise Penguin to take that extraordinary gamble, things could have panned out very differently.

Sue Rabbitt Roff, Part time tutor in Medical Education, University of Dundee.This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 

Writing obscenity: from Lady Chatterley to the Earl of Rochester

Jacob Huysmans
 

In this blog, originally published in The Conversation, Claudine van Hensbergen, of Northumbria University, Newcastle argues that “the purpose of literature is to make us feel, and to give us new ways of experiencing and thinking about the world around us.” When D.H. Lawrence spoke openly about sexual relations he was labelled obscene. Similarly, argues van Hensbergen, the Earl of Rochester has been unfairly perceived as pornographic due to his use of language…

The judge’s copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover used in the landmark 1960 obscenity trial of DH Lawrence’s famous novel is to be sold at auction in October. The paperback copy will be sold with a fabric bag, hand-stitched by the judge’s wife Lady Dorothy Byrne so that her husband could carry the book into court each day while keeping it hidden from reporters. The lot includes the notes on significant passages that Lady Byrne had helpfully marked up on the book for her husband, and a four-page list of references she had compiled on the headed stationery of the Central Criminal Court.

After six days of evidence and only three hours of deliberations, the jury found in the favour of Penguin Books, its verdict allowing the publisher to print copies of the novel for the first time. The trial was seen as a victory for liberal ideas over the old establishment. In literary terms, it signalled the opportunity for authors to write with a new type of language and freedom.

First edition of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, 1060.
Twospoonfuls via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-NC

But was Lawrence really the first writer to use obscenity in literature? And were liberal readers of the 1960s the first to appreciate the literary potential of obscene words and sex scenes? In short, the answer is no. The literary world which Lawrence and his fellow modernist writers inherited was that of the Victorian establishment. An establishment that had silenced earlier writers who, like Lawrence, used obscenity for literary ends.

One of the most important writers to be wiped from the publishing record during the 19th century was the poet John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester. Even today, we continue to find the obscene language and images found in Rochester’s poetry shocking. Take, for example, his A Satyr on Charles II a critique of the monarch as a man governed by his penis:

 

 

‘Tis sure the sauciest prick that e’er did swive,

The proudest, peremptoriest prick alive.

Though safety, law, religion, life lay on ’t,

‘Twould break through all to make its way to cunt.

Restless he rolls about from whore to whore,

A merry monarch, scandalous and poor.

Following his death in 1680 publishers scrambled to produce editions of Rochester’s poems – correctly perceiving the public appetite for his verse. An initial run of pirate editions of Rochester’s poetry was quickly supplanted with an authoritative collection, produced in 1691 by the leading literary publisher of the day, Jacob Tonson. Tonson is credited with popularising John Milton’s (up to that point, fairly unsuccessful) poem Paradise Lost and also producing the first footnoted editions of William Shakespeare’s collected plays.

So why did a respectable publisher such as Tonson take the gamble of printing Rochester’s verse? The answer lies in the recognition of Rochester’s poetry as literature rather than obscenity. Just as with Lady Chatterley’s Lover, we need to read past the obscene language and images of the work to understand what Rochester is really saying.

The animal in human skin

Rochester is a poet of the human condition. He strips man down to his barest drives and desires to see the animal lurking underneath. In this way, he was much like the contemporary philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who famously pronounced that life was “nasty, brutish and short” and that underneath it all man was a beast like any other.

For Rochester, the sexual realm is just another place where we see (and feel) this stark reality. Rochester strips away all sense of love and romance from his depicted sexual encounters. And there are many of them. His images are those of the mechanics of sex, its failures, disappointments and disease. Take his notorious poem, The Imperfect Enjoyment, a work that opens with a scene indicating the sexual promise to come:

Naked she lay, clasped in my longing arms,

I filled with love, and she all over charms …

Quickly, this promise is destroyed. The poem’s speaker prematurely ejaculates:

But whilst her busy hand would guide that part

Which should convey my soul up to her heart,

In liquid raptures I dissolve all o’er,

Melt into sperm, and spend at every pore.
A touch from any part of her had done ’t:
Her hand, her foot, her very look’s a cunt.

The speaker’s lover encourages him to try again, but to no success:

Trembling, confused, despairing, limber, dry,

A wishing, weak, unmoving lump I lie.

The obscene language Rochester employs in The Imperfect Enjoyment – and the sexual act on which it focuses – led generations of readers to view the work as pornographic. But this is to misread the poem. The clue is in the title: the poem portrays the ultimate failure of desire. The emptiness of human experience. And its cold, clinical and obscene language (sperm, spend, pore, cunt) is contrasted throughout the poem with phrases that point to the scene’s absent romance (the sexual act “should convey my soul up to her heart”, but it doesn’t).

The beast within

Rochester is often seen as a dangerous or obscene writer in the way he glamorised the licentious world of the Restoration court. But when we read his poetry more closely, we find little glamour in the language expressed. His verse exposes human feeling and behaviour, showing the superficiality of our social world with all its polite manners and codes of behaviour. And the use of obscene language is key to that project. As Rochester succinctly phrased it in his correspondence, “Expressions must descend to the Nature of Things express’d”.

The Victorians couldn’t cope with Rochester’s poetry, and there were no editions of his work published in the 19th century. It wasn’t until 1963, in the wake of the Chatterley trial, that American scholar David M. Vieth began work on a modern uncensored edition. Vieth gave us back the real Rochester and made it possible for readers to access his poems once again.

Obscenity might not make for comfortable reading, but that’s often its point. The purpose of literature is to make us feel, and to give us new ways of experiencing and thinking about the world around us. For Lawrence this involved using a new language that cut across class and gender in celebrating the sexual act – for Rochester it involved looking into the mirror and confronting the beast within.The Conversation

Claudine van Hensbergen, Senior Lecturer in 18th Century English Literature, Northumbria University, Newcastle.  This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

dhl-trunk garter

In the DH Lawrence Memory Theatre we want to address various aspects of Lawrence’s life through artefacts to try to understand this complex writer. How do we represent his struggles against obscenity laws and censorship and the right to freely express ideas? In 2019 we begin building our Memory Theatre and retracing Lawrence’s savage pilgrimage both physically and digitally. If you have an idea for an artefact, get involved and submit ideas here

 

Why are Australian authors obsessed with killing off kangaroos?

George Stubbs, ‘The Kongouro from New Holland’ (1772), oil painting, detail of head. Ashley Van Haeften/Wikimedia Commons,
 

Lawrence’s 1923 novel Kangaroo refers to the nickname of Benjamin Cooley, leader of a fascist paramilitary organisation, the “Diggers Club”. It is an unsettling novel and has led  to argue that the “twitching ears of kangaroos are, perhaps, reminders of that uneasiness the settlers felt”. In this blog, kindly republished from The Conversation, Mazza explores the often negative representation of this animal in fiction. 

Kangaroos are the most visible of Australia’s unique animals, but despite their charm and national icon status, Australian writers perpetually kill them off.

A kangaroo appears struggling in a rabbit trap, doomed and dying in Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things, while Tim Winton has one killed on the road, dissected and fed to dogs in Breath. These are just two of many Australian authors who have represented the kangaroo as a victim.

Kangaroos were a creature of wonder for early European explorers such as Dampier and Banks, but it didn’t take long for their public image to descend to that of a pest. Early settlers considered them competition, nibbling all the best pasture quicker than their sheep and cows, and they soon took up arms against the bounding menace.

The wild kangaroo population of Australia is still commercially slaughtered for dog food. In New South Wales, landholders and volunteers can be simply licensed to kill them for reasons of damage control, and some parts of Western Australia have an open permit system for non-commercial shooting. On any given day, there are usually several being mashed into the blue metal of highways, surrounded by crows and in various states of decomposition.

The expendable nature of the kangaroo may be a widely held view in Australia, but it’s a bitter irony that the creature which defines us to the rest of the world is perpetually under siege, in life and in literature.

Fiction’s dead roos

In Stephen Daisley’s 2016 novel Coming Rain, the author kills off a kangaroo with “a great thump” against the side of a truck, giving a gruesome description of the sweetening of the tail for stew.

The live joey almost has its head smashed against a tree but, owing to its “cuteness” it becomes a pet, wearing a straw hat. The stereotype of the cute joey is alive and well in children’s fiction too, but in adult fiction the kangaroo is dead.

In Tim Winton’s Breath, narrator Pikelet comes across surf guru, Sando, who has hit a kangaroo with his Kombi ute. Sando finishes it off with the jack handle from the car, pounded a couple of times into its head. His response to this act is very matter-of-fact: “This is what happens. And it isn’t lovely.”

Sando drags the “roadkill” into the tray of his ute and takes it home to butcher it. He is prepared for this, with a meat hook hanging from a tree, and he skins and guts the kangaroo. Pikelet observes this with some emotional discomfort, “shrinking from him a little” but accepts the flourbag of meat to take home to his parents who “wouldn’t eat roo meat in a million years”. He “hoiks” the meat into the bushes on the ride home.

Charlotte Wood considers the horror of roadkill in The Children, where Australian animals are killed by passing traffic and compared to contaminated “cushions”. Wood also kills a kangaroo (and a lot of rabbits) in The Natural Way of Things. Central character Yolanda snares a “large grey kangaroo” in a rabbit trap and finds it still alive:

Vainly, the kangaroo shifts and scuffles again. Then it lowers its head and lengthens its mighty neck, black eyes fixed on them, and lets out three long, hoarse snarls. Its snout fattens, nostrils flared.

Fearful of the sharp claws on its “delicate forefeet” they sit beside it, wondering how to set it free and instead bring it water and leave it to die slowly.

The image of the kangaroo is linked to death through earlier works from Australian authors too. The iconic 1940 poem, Native-Born by Eve Langley presents a detailed account of a dead kangaroo, while Randolph Stow’s 1958 novel To the Islands features kangaroos and wallabies being shot and eaten.

Australian fiction is, so often, deeply entangled with nature. Anxiety around the bush, as described in D.H. Lawrence’s novel Kangaroo back in the 1920s, is a feature of settler Australian fiction, tied together with violence, trauma and a sense of the uncanny.

Docile and violent all at once, the watchful gaze and twitching ears of kangaroos are, perhaps, reminders of that uneasiness the settlers felt.

The fact that Australian literature seems intent on killing off this national icon is deeply disturbing – but it is also deeply ingrained.

In contrast with kangaroos, thylacines are well and truly alive in Australian literature despite being extinct since 1936. They appear in over 250 works listed in the AustLit database of Australian literature, including 18 novels since 1988.

Among these are Julia Leigh’s The Hunter, Sonya Hartnett’s Stripes of the Sidestep Wolf and Louis Nowra’s Into That Forest, as well as children’s fiction, drama, film, short fiction and poetry. These thylacines often meet with violent ends, but their aliveness in fiction is astounding compared to the kangaroo.

Contemporary Australia is sentimental about the thylacine as a strange creature lost because of “ignorance”. They are now a thing of wonder, destroyed by misguided colonial settlers who are long gone. But if they weren’t extinct, would we treat them any better? Would we protect them? Often that is the point writers are trying to make by invoking the extinct “tiger” in the first place.

Our relationship with kangaroos (and thylacines), both in fiction and in reality, is symptomatic of what Stow called our “bitter heritage”. So perhaps it is unsurprising, given the violence of colonisation, that it has had (and is still having) an impact on the way writers represent the Australian landscape and all who inhabit it.

This article is based on research published in a forthcoming article for Antipodes.The Conversation

Donna Mazza, Senior Lecturer in Creative Arts, Edith Cowan University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

dhl-trunkIn the DH Lawrence Memory Theatre we want to address various aspects of Lawrence’s life through artefacts. How do we go about representing his novel Kangaroo given the challenging subject matter? In 2019 we will be building our Memory Theatre and retracing Lawrence’s savage pilgrimage both physically and digitally. If you have an idea for an artefact submit ideas here.

 

Rough sex gives way to romance in the 2015 adaptation of Lady Chatterley

Just another pair of traditional romantics.  BBC Pictures/Hartswood Films

The following article was published on 7 September 2015 in The Conversation. Here Andrew Harrison of University of Nottingham asks viewers to be cautious of Jed Mercurio’s adaptation of Lawrence’s iconic novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover as it “reinforces precisely the traditional values that Lawrence was trying to unpick”.The Conversation

The latest adaptation of D H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover has predictably prompted significant media interest. Strong and contradictory reactions appeared in the newspapers weeks before it aired (on September 6). The Sun called the BBC film “so steamy it borders on porn”, while the Telegraph noted that the sex scenes are “soft-focus” and expressed surprise at the omission of the novel’s infamous four-letter words.

Its writer and director, Jed Mercurio, must have anticipated such responses. In producing another adaptation of this iconic novel he knew that he stood either to outrage viewers by the inclusion of sex scenes and four-letter words, or to disappoint them by their omission. The Guardian cited his own reaction to the issues at stake:

It did not feel that today we would be breaking new ground if we were to use those [four-letter] words. If you want to use certain words you have to justify them, and it did not seem relevant … The idea was to tell this as a love story, a love triangle – to concentrate on the emotions of the characters.

On one level, Mercurio’s assertion of his right to focus on those aspects of the novel which seem to him most “relevant” is wholly justifiable. Lawrence wrote three versions of the novel between 1926 and 1928, and viewers are arguably more likely to be familiar with previous adaptations by Just Jaeckin (1981), Ken Russell (1993) and Pascale Ferran (2006) than the written source. Perhaps an adaptation should be judged on its originality.

But this adaptation not only departs from the original text, but also reinforces precisely the traditional values that Lawrence was trying to unpick.

Constance Chatterley (HOLLIDAY GRAINGER), Clifford Chatterley (JAMES NORTON)
BBC Pictures/Hartswood Films

Soft edges

As ever, it comes down to sex. In the novel, Lawrence’s unflinching depiction of the life of the body – and the fragility and tenderness of sex – is presented as a counterblast to the damaging abstractions of industrialism and modernity. But Mercurio’s film resolutely sidesteps this in order to tell the straightforward story of Constance Chatterley’s choice between her crippled aristocratic husband (Sir Clifford) and his virile gamekeeper (Oliver Mellors). To make that choice a tad more interesting, Sir Clifford is depicted in a much more sympathetic light than in the novel and Oliver Mellors is made far less complex and compelling.

Lawrence’s novel examines in great detail the difficulties Connie faces in reaching out to Mellors, an educated man in his late 30s disgruntled by his past sexual experiences, who has moved among the officer classes during the War but deliberately chooses to speak the Derbyshire dialect and take up an isolated working-class life. Mercurio passes over Mellors’ estrangement from his wife in a flash and class is dealt with in very 21st century terms: as something rather irksome which can be overcome if only you set your mind to it.

In the novel, Mellors is initially reluctant to involve himself in an affair with Connie, and he uses his dialect to distance himself from her: he has been hurt in the past, and he is sensitive to being patronised or used by his employer’s wife. In this film, any doubts the very young gamekeeper has are quickly overcome and his righteous anger at the ruling classes does not unduly affect his relationship with Connie.

Oliver Mellors (RICHARD MADDEN)
BBC Pictures/Hartswood Films

Into the sunset

But perhaps the most striking thing about the adaptation is the way it champions romantic love. Lawrence was constantly trying to redefine the terms of marriage and relationship. In Lady Chatterley’s Lover he shows two damaged individuals finding a connection in spite of themselves – through their physical tenderness for each other. Mellors dislikes mouth kisses and Connie comes to share his hatred of masturbation. They bond through their conflictual and shifting desire for each other and through their dogged opposition to the world as it is. There is no happy ending – only some blessed hope that they will be able to make a life together despite all the practical barriers they must overcome.

D H Lawrence.

In contrast, Mercurio’s film gives its audience exactly what it wants on a Sunday evening: romance, straight and simple. His Mellors is quite happy to kiss Connie on the mouth, and is not averse to giving her oral sex too. Flames dance around the screen when they first have intercourse. If Lawrence’s stated intention in writing the novel was to enable “men and women to … think sex, fully, completely, honestly, and cleanly”, Mercurio seems content to provide romantic escapism.

By taking all the rough edges off the sex scenes and omitting the four-letter words, Mercurio has effectively removed those features of the novel which have made it so challenging, memorable and influential since its publication in 1928. Lawrence’s novel was addressed squarely and combatively to the England of his day. Mercurio’s film unashamedly passes over the battles it fought, finding them no longer relevant.

This is fair enough, I suppose: the film is quite effective and inoffensive as a conventional romantic costume drama. But as Mellors and Connie drive off together at the end of this adaptation, with Sir Clifford’s blessing for their new-found love still ringing in their ears, it is hard to erase from one’s mind Lawrence’s constant warnings against the bland prescriptions of a neutered and castrated modern consciousness.The Conversation

Andrew Harrison, Assistant Professor in English Literature, University of Nottingham

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

dhl-trunk garter

In the DH Lawrence Memory Theatre we want to address various aspects of Lawrence’s life through artefacts to try to understand this complex writer. How do we represent the relationship between Mellors and Lady Chatterley? In 2019 we begin building our Memory Theatre and retracing Lawrence’s savage pilgrimage both physically and digitally. If you have an idea for an artefact, get involved and submit ideas here