Penguin is really working hard to separate me from my dollars lately. First, those delightful mini-books, and now gorgeous fabric-covered hardbacks of assorted classics. I stood my ground when I encountered the lovely black-and-white The Picture of Dorian Gray, I reluctantly walked away from the annotated Great Expectations, but when I saw the fiery orange and red of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, I knew they had me. Especially when I flipped through and realized it was the third version of the novel (the version originally published, and the last to feel the might of Lawrence’s pen), fully annotated, with appendices discussing the geography and the dialect, an introductory essay by Doris Lessing, and Lawrence’s own essay on the work “A Propos of ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’”. How could I resist? I am only human after all.
I have read all three versions (yes, I really was not kidding all the times I have crushed out on Lawrence in these pages), but I only own a copy of the second version, John Thomas and Lady Jane, so I could just barely justify buying this new edition, despite having read the book and having a shelf crammed full to overflowing of books to be read. And my brain is patting itself on the back now for that clever rationalization because this edition is so worth reading.
Although I am usually quite put off by introductory essays because of their spoileriffic nature (I tend to read them after I finish the book if I read them at all), I did it first-things-first this time and read Lessing’s introduction before diving into the passionate and transcendent affair between Connie Chatterley and Oliver Mellors. Not only was it not filled with spoilers, it was a surprisingly insightful look at the world of the book and Lawrence’s state of mind. I knew that Lawrence died of tuberculosis not long after Lady Chatterley, but I didn’t realize the effect the disease tends to have on its patients, making them “hypersensitive, excitable. Very irritable, are these sufferers, given to explosions of temper.” Which basically sheds a whole new light on the book. Because dang! It is hypersensitive, excitable and irritable as hell. Not to mention the sheer drama imbuing practically every page.
First of all, we have the many speeches railing against the mechanical nature of the modern world, the lack of true passion in the modern man and woman. As Connie herself notes, “Nothingness! To accept the great nothingness of life seemed to be the one end of living. All the many busy and important little things that make up the grand sum-total of nothingness!” Essentially, the machines and money are stealing our very souls, and it is through a true and human connection, i.e., sex and lots of it, that we can regain them.
But not just any old sex. There is plenty of scorn for the sex people in general are having, the “insert Tab A into Slot B” kind of thing that Lawrence saw all around him. No, people need to come together in their souls in ecstasy. Both Connie and Mellors get to channel Lawrence’s views on sex and love, in dramatic and passionate inner and outer monologues. It would almost be ridiculous if it wasn’t so sincere.
I think this sincere passion is one of the things that I love so much about Lawrence. I love the little ecstasies of his characters. I can’t imagine ever thinking to myself, “Built of money, blossomed of money, and dead with money. The money-deadness! Money, money, money, prostitution, and deadness”, as Connie does when pondering her gondolier in Venice. And yet I love that she does. I love the over-the-top-ness of it.
What’s funny is that a lot of his passionate pleas are arguments that could be made today. If you slapped a coat of twenty-first century on this thing (so take out the bits with motorcars and goggles and scarves, and put in some Priuses), the book is still relevant and timely. People are still arguing that “[i]t is man that poisons the universe” and others insisting (albeit perhaps in the privacy of their minds rather than trumpeting it on the news) that the working class “are not men. They are animals you don’t understand, and never could.” And other observers noting that the richer among us are living on private islands, that they are departing “to pleasanter places, where they [can] spend their money without having to see how it [is] made.”
Obviously, Lawrence spends a lot of his energy here on class and concepts of it, given that Connie is the Lady in question and the titular lover is her husband Sir Clifford’s groundskeeper. Even Connie’s liberal-leaning artsy father and sister are dismayed at the thought of the scandal if it ever gets out that Connie’s sleeping with the help. Connie herself argues on behalf of the working class and against the privilege of her own monied class throughout the novel, and Mellors is the model working-class man: educated, literate, well travelled thanks to his time in the army, and able to speak the “King’s English” (this one gave me a little jolt since it’s always been the Queen’s English for me, but of course, it was a king back then). The passionless modern people like Sir Clifford and his band of intellectuals all speak at various times of keeping the working people in their place, and it’s not too hard to see whose side Lawrence was on.
The notes at the end are very welcome, especially if you are not British and have never really understood just what “my-eye-Betty-Martin” means. Although modern Brits probably have no clue either. The dialect guide is interesting, but not really required since you can generally get what is being said from the context. The thing that made my head explode is the “A Propos”, which immediately follows the text of the novel. Holy smokes! This is when you can really see Lawrence had some brain fever going on.
Reading this thirty-page treatise on his last novel is the literary equivalent of being stuck in a bus shelter with a lunatic ranting about God, the state, marriage and how it’s all going to hell, and pressing his pamphlet printed in crazy-people, ransom-letter font into your hand, and it’s raining really hard outside, so you either have to stay and listen to you’re not even sure what, or go stand in the pouring rain. And the longer you wait, the more attractive the rain option gets. Seriously. It starts off more or less sane, interesting and somewhat reasonable, even if you’re not totally on board with his premise of marriage being the thing that will save England. But then you get to passages like:
And everybody, pretty well, takes it for granted that as soon as we can find a feasible way out of it, marriage will be abolished. The Soviet abolishes marriage: or did. If new “modern” states spring up, they will almost certainly follow suit. They will try to find some social substitute for marriage, and abolish the hated yoke of conjugality. State support of motherhood, state support of children, and independence of women. It is on the programme of every great scheme of reform. And it means, of course, the abolition of marriage.
And this is when you start thinking, wait, what? What the hell is this guy talking about? And it continues to spiral further and further down the rabbit hole of a “blood communion” between man and woman, and the fall of the Church of England because of the destruction of the permanency of marriage.
What I realized is that outside the confines of a fictional narrative structure, Lawrence and his passion, the beautiful and insightful strings of words he puts together, they all run off into crazy homeless guy territory. But I have spent many years loving his thoughts on love, loving his dry wit (like when a woman suggests that if they get rid of “[a]ll the love business”, it could be replaced with a “little morphine in the air”), and so, I even love this deranged rambling essay bookending his most controversial work. But in the way you love your grandpa even though he says racist things sometimes.