Re-reading Lady Chatterly’s Lover

by Nola Garrett

And dimly she realized one of the great laws of the human soul: that when the emotional soul receives a wounding shock, which does not kill the body, the soul seems to recover as the body recovers. But this is only appearance. It is really only the mechanism of the re-assumed habit. Slowly, slowly the wound to the soul begins to make itself felt, like a bruise, which only slowly deepens its terrible ache, till it fills all the psyche. And when we think we have recovered and forgotten, it is then that the terrible afer-effects have to be encountered at their worst.

                                    Lady Chatterly’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence


I surprised myself recently, after a phone conversation with my long time English major friend, Mary Lou, concerning our mutual love of poetry and literary fiction, when I decided to tackle this door-stop sized, formerly banned novel again. This time, 58 years later, I read it on my Kindle. Last time, I skimmed it for the sex scenes, hoping to understand how on earth one manages to get tab A inserted into slot B. And, if there was a plot beyond the details of seduction, I couldn’t figure that out either. Didn’t even try.

I was shocked to realize how contemporary Lawrence’s post World War I novel is with the experiences of our returning wounded soldiers from the United States’ recent wars. Multi-limb amputations. Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. Long term, medical and therapeutic, home care for the bodies and the souls of both spouses. And, a plot driven by what may happen when the roles of lovers deteriorate into patient and care-giver.

No wonder, I couldn’t understand Lady Chatterly’s Lover that summer of 1956 when I stayed in Painsville, Ohio at my Uncle Jerry’s house and worked as a waitress in his restaurant to earn money for college. I slept on a sleeper sofa in the 8′ by 10′ library that served as a guest room in my uncle’s high-modern architect-designed and furnished house on Euclid Avenue, two blocks west of Jerry & Bert’s 225 seat restaurant. Uncle Jerry, his wife, Alberta, and their daughter, Colleen, four years older than I, ate all their meals at the restaurant, worked at the restaurant all day, and after the dinner rush, came home to change clothes, then adjourned until well past mid-night to the racetrack to bet on the horses. Week days, I worked the 5 to 11 dinner shift. Saturday mornings, I cleaned their house, and then I took the New York Central train back to Erie and home to Mill Village. I returned every Monday afternoon by bus.

Essentially, six days per week that summer, except at work, I lived entirely alone. The only food in that grand house’s refrigerator was a bottle of catsup. The only other food in that house that was not a home was a half filled salt shaker. I signed up for a Painsville Public Library card, and though I was supposed to eat all my meals at the restaurant, I soon bought cereal, milk, bread, butter, and fruit for my breakfast rather than traipse down the street and interrupt my reading. Late afternoons, I ate an early supper with Frances, Jerry & Bert’s 2nd shift head waitress who eventually confided that she and Uncle Jerry were in the midst of a decades long affair. I listened. I read. I learned a lot that summer and also the next summer I worked at Jerry and Bert’s, but nothing, I’m sorry to admit, that helped me to understand Lady Chatterly’s Lover.

Even at age sixteen, I was uncomfortable about the morality of the sex scenes’ adultery. I still am. While the game keeper, Mellors’, lovemaking was titillating, I remain troubled by what I now recognize as his PLAYBOY faux philosophy that all men (and women, perhaps) have a sacrosanct right to good mutual sex. I’m even more uneasy about Mellors’ lack of interest in his daughter by his first wife, his unborn child, and Connie’s pregnancy. I suppose one could make an argument that Mellors, too, was injured morally by his war experience, but Lawrence seems more focused on Mellors’ easy movement though the convolutions of that era’s English class system.

Sometimes while I was rereading Lawrence’s writing, I was nearly drunk on his writing style, his ear for a sentence’s rhythm, his lush, old fashioned word choice—crisis for orgasm or coming—his ability to shift multiple interior narrators with an omnipotent narrator. I’ve always loved Lawrence’s poetry far more than his prose, mostly because he is so skilled at choosing the poetic moment in unlikely places, say from a child’s point of view beneath a grand piano or from a man’s careful encounter with a snake that suddenly leads him to confront himself in the midst of beautifully controlled line breaks. Rereading Lady Chatterly’s Lover drove me back to my bookshelves to Lawrence’s Collected Poems where I rediscovered more poems about people and humanity as a whole than seemed necessary. I preferred his tortoise poems.

I suppose what prompted me to reread Lady Chatterly’s Lover at this point in my life is that in some ways I am now living here in my condo alone, except for the building’s other condo owners and the condo’s employees. I’m still eating breakfast at home, so I don’t have to interrupt my reading.  The difference is that now I understand the mechanics of sex and how to read a literary novel. This time, I wasn’t far into this novel when I surmised I might be living here alone in this condo for some of the same reasons Clifford and Constance Chatterly’s marriage failed, not because I was ever unfaithful, but because I, too, had been unable to successfully bridge the gap between lover and care giver.  I found myself fascinated by the slow, mutual disintegration of Clifford and Connie’s intimacy, even as they both willingly focused on the physical care of all aspects of Clifford’s paralyzed body. In an odd way Clifford was at once too intimate with his wife and not intimate enough, because he refused to speak with her about his emotions concerning his paralysis. I recognized what Lawrence’s narrator was saying about Connie’s care, “He was a hurt thing, and as such Connie stuck to him passionately.” It was that word, “thing,” that made me wince in self recognition. And, it was Clifford’s saying to Connie, “I’m not an invalid!” his eventual angry denial of his paralyzed legs even as he sat in his wheelchair that confirms Connie’s observation in Chapter 5 “that the terrible aftereffects have to be encountered at their worst.” How does one bridge that awful truth? Especially, when health and/or safety are at risk? Some couples manage, but I still don’t know how. I wish I knew.


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