Saturday, October 21, 2006

Two on a Tower and Lady Chatterley's Lover

I'm not quite finished with the essay below, but have decided to blog what I have. I'll post the bibliography later.

Thomas Hardy’s Two on a Tower and D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover Revisited

I didn’t plan to spend two months reading Thomas Hardy and D. H. Lawrence.

It wasn’t as though I hadn’t already read them. As a college senior, I enrolled in a Hardy and Lawrence class because I had read almost everything on the syllabus, a plus to a woman in my situation. I was getting a divorce, hardly sleeping, and trying to accumulate credits towards graduation. I relaxed by flopping down on my bed in my minuscule rented room, drinking tea boiled up in a “hot pot,” and rereading the novels and poems.

Years went by without reading Hardy or Lawrence. On a camping trip when I tried to reread The Return of the Native, I found it unbearably heavy-handed: I had grown accustomed to the simpler prose rhythms of contemporary fiction. I gave away a copy of Tess of the D’Urbervilles to my nieces, optimistic that one of them might read it. I gave away a copy of The Rainbow to a man I didn’t know during a fit of depression.

It was March 2006, time for a charity book sale. This biannual used book sale at the Fairgrounds seems to stretch for miles in one of those enormous agricultural buildings. For dedicated readerss, this sale is the event of the season: out-of-print novels, biographies, and travel books. But, disappointingly, I was unable to find many rare books this spring. The sale had gone mainstream, as though a clique of new volunteers, in a coup that would harm not just picky readers like myself but the whole community, had discarded titles that would appeal to the most sophisticated bibliophiles and collectors. Puzzled buyers, looking crestfallen, lined up with one or two books instead of the usual boxes and carts. As long as I was there, I was determined to find something. I came home with several novels of Hardy and Lawrence which I had first read 30 years ago.

And so it began: my reading of Two on A Tower, a forgotten, beautifully written, but uneven early novel of Hardy, which almost immediately reminded me of Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

It is difficult to believe that reviewers of the nineteenth and early twentieth century accused Thomas Hardy and D. H. Lawrence of writing pornography. Their passionate protagonists are deeply moral, though society brands them as outcasts. Critics condemned Hardy’s and Lawrence’s characters as lewd and repulsive and denounced their challenging of sexual mores, marriage, and divorce. The culture of the post-Freudian twenty-first century is defined by sex and money. When I emerged periodically from the pastoral, poetic, complex worlds of these novels, I was startled to find myself in an urban and suburban America characterized by a 50 percent divorce rate.

Divorce was not an option for Hardy’s Lady Constantine, nor would Lawrence’s Clifford Chatterley grant Lady Chatterley a divorce. Today, you can get a divorce on the internet: many Americans are more scandalized by the Clintons’ decision to remain together than by a vituperative divorce. Hollywood and the media drug the masses with images of pre-marital and extramarital sex (between car ads), which lead many to believe that contemporary society has a healthy attitude towards sexuality.

I had a revelation while reading a popular novel for a book group. I realized in amusement that Sue Monk Kidd’s The Mermaid Chair would have been banned in Hardy’s and Lawrence’s England. In the first fifty pages, the narrator, who has fallen out of love with her spouse, emerges from sex in the shower tattooed with the faucet (perhaps a symbol of sex with a husband she no longer loves). Later, she returns to her village on an exotic island and has an affair with a widower-turned-monk who regrets not having sneaked into the TV room to see a special on the making of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. Although this novel is a beach read, Hardy and Lawrence paved the way for its existence. They paid a high price for struggling to portray realistic relationships between men and women. Throughout his writing life, Hardy was censored by editors and sensitive to accusations of immorality. Legal actions were brought against Lawrence for “indecency.”

They were anything but casual about their art and social criticism. In Thomas Hardy’s “Candour in English Fiction,” published in the New Review in January 1890, he lamented the fact that popular libraries and magazines dictated his characters’ actions. He writes: “Life being a physiological fact, its honest portrayal must be largely concerned with, for one thing, the relations of the sexes, and the substitution for such catastrophes as favour the false colouring best expressed by the regulation finish that ‘they married and were happy ever after,’ of catastrophes based upon sexual relations as it is.” And Lawrence wrote in his essay, “A Propos of ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover,’” “Today the full conscious realisation of sex is even more important than the act itself.” Yet he also scorns “young people [who] scoff at the importance of sex, take it like a cocktail, and flout their elders with it” and adds that “marriage, or something like it, is essential....”

When Hardy’s ninth novel, Two on a Tower, was published in 1882, it disturbed critics nearly as much asLawrence’s notorious last novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, did in 1928. The biographer Carl Weber reported that reviewers described Hardy’s novel as “’hazardous,’ ‘repulsive,’ ‘little short of revolting,’ [and] ‘a studied and gratuitous insult.’” Lawrence’s novel, considered too sexually explicit to be published in England until 1960, was printed privately in Florence in 1928 and sold by mail order. Lawrence was called “a bearded satyr,” “obsessed by sex,” and his book, seized on Oct. 14, 1928 by British Customs Authorities, was said to “reek...with obscenity and lewdness about sex.” Lawrence wrote in August 1928: “Amusing how people disliked Lady C. I’m afraid I’ve lost 9/10 of my few remaining friends.”

The reputation of Two on a Tower has fallen into obscurity in the twenty-first century. But the parallels between Two on a Tower and Lady Chatterley’s Lover must have been obvious in the late 1920s to readers who knew Hardy’s work in the revised Wessex editions of 1912. Lawrence, who received a complete set of Hardy’s novels as a wedding gift in 1914, consciously incorporated many of Hardy’s plots into his novels. Worthen wrote: “He tended to rewrite Hardy’s books so as to make them conform to the ideas he felt that Hardy had grasped but which his own novels could fully demonstrate.” Hardy, who did not read Lawrence’s novels and died the year Lady Chatterley’s Lover was published, categorized Two on a Tower as a “romance and fantasy.” Both plots center on clandestine love affairs between a sensitive lady and an intelligent lower-class man. Hardy’s heroine, Lady Constantine, finds herself pregnant after a technical legality, the date of her husband’s death, renders her secret marriage to an astronomer invalid. Lawrence’s Constance Chatterley has an affair with a gamekeeper.

Hardy wrote in a letter to Edmund Gosse on Dec. 10, 1882 (Purdy and Millgate 110): “I get most extraordinary criticisms of T. on a T. Eminent critics write & tell me in private that it is the most original thing I have done...while other eminent critics (I wonder if they are the same) print the most cutting rebukes you can conceive--show me (to my amazement) that I am quite an immoral person...”

Hardy’s radical criticism of marriage and class in his later novels, Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891) and Jude the Obscure (1895), caused more uproar. Wearied and hurt by attacks on the accuracy of his dialect and constant accusations of immorality, Hardy gave up writing fiction and turned to poetry). He rationalized his decision by observing that the novel was “gradually losing artistic form, with a beginning, middle and end, and becoming a spasmodic inventory of items, which has nothing to do with art.”

Just as William Barnes’ forgotten poetry influenced Hardy’s narratives of rural life, Hardy’s poetry and novels influenced Lawrence). “The only serious writer I heard him speak of with respect was Hardy,” wrote Barbara Barr. Lawrence pays homage to Hardy repeatedly, sometimes in the half-mocking manner of an affectionate but rebellious son towards his father. An aristocratic character admired by the famous Brangwens in The Rainbow bears the name of Mrs. Hardy, doubtless as an ironic tribute to Hardy, a master mason’s son who smashed class barriers to become one of England’s best novelists. Readers will recognize in Tom in The Rainbow a kind of anti-Jude, a man uninterested in education but sensitive to upper-class manners and longing to transcend his class. Much has been written about Lawrence’s allusions to Jude the Obscure, The Return of the Native, and Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Yet Two on a Tower, an obscure novel about class seldom mentioned by Lawrence, most powerfully influenced the schema of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the banned novel that outsold all his other titles.

Lawrence, an avid reader and critic of Hardy, was commissioned to write a short book about Hardy for the series “Writers of the Day” in 1914. Enraged by the senselessness of the outbreak of war, he could not confine himself to a literary study. He wrote in a letter to his agent on September 5, 1914: “What colossal idiocy this war. Out of sheer rage I’ve begun my book on Thomas Hardy. It will be about anything but Thomas Hardy I am afraid--queer stuff--but not bad.” Aware that the publisher would reject his furious book, Lawence did not submit it. This strange, influential essay, a kind of Nietzchean literary manifesto with occasional remarks about Hardy’s novels, was posthumously published in Phoenix .

Lawrence claimed perversely that Hardy’s condemnations of Alec d’Urberville in Tess and Arabella in Jude as coarse seducers were unconvincing and then elaborated his complex views on love and sex . Lawrence uses his analysis of Hardy’s pastoral and social criticism to comment on the destruction of the social order and delineate his own theories of class, gender, sexuality, and work. In the chapter on class, Lawrence briefly mentions Two on a Tower, citing the heroine, Lady Constantine, as one of Hardy’s aristocrats and her lover, Swithin St. Cleeve, as a “bourgeois or average hero.”

Although Lawrence makes few references in “Study of Thomas Hardy” to Two on a Tower , the inter-class romance--reflected in his own marriage to Frieda--clearly interested him. Lady Chatterley’s Lover, though a much more radical exploration of sexuality and class, is filled with subtle references to Hardy’s minor novel.

There are basic plot similarities. Hardy’s Lady Viviette Constantine and Lawrence’s Lady Constance Chatterley both have illicit affair. Lady Constantine, who is isolated and depressed after her husband disappears in Africa, falls in love with Swithin St. Cleeve, who is characterized by Lawrence as an “unsuccessful but not very much injured astronomer.” Similarly, Lady Chatterley, who inhabits a sexual limbo after her writer husband returns in a wheelchair from World War I, has an affair with Oliver Mellors, a gamekeeper on their estate.

Lawrence’s first allusion to Two on a Tower is in the variant forms of his protagonist’s name. And though the heroines’ names share a Latin root, the different forms reflect their antithetical characters. Constantine is derived from constantia, a noun meaning”firm standing,” “steadiness,” or “constancy” (Lewis and Short). Hardy undoubtedly intended to evoke Christian associations with the name Lady Constantine. An agnostic who as a young man considered a career as a clergyman, Hardy often used “his writings [to] dramatize aspects of the pernicious influence of religious doctrines,” according to Robert Schweik (Kramer 55-56). The name is clearly a reference to Constantine I (306-37 A.D.), the emperor who Christianized the Roman empire), a conversion that some historians speculate contributed to the end of the Roman world. Hardy characterizes Viviette Constantine as a devout Christian whose religion hampers her independence of thought and eventually results in sexual martyrdom.

Lawrence’s Lady Constance Chatterley is too tough to sacrifice herself for the sake of propriety or to die like the sexually active women of Victorian literature. Having survived the horror of World War I, she is a stronger character than her predecessor Lady Constantine. World War I has smashed “the old England, the curious blood-connection that held the classes together,” and Lawrence’s men have fallen apart, unable to integrate the life of the mind with the life of the body. Lawrence wishes to create a fictional world which allows his characters to experience an idealized Christian marriage, which he defines as “Man and wife, a king and queen with one or two subjects, and a few square yards of territory of their own: this, really, is marriage” (“A propos 321). But Constance is in many ways the sole survivor, healthier than her veteran husband and lover.

The name Constance is derived from constans, the present active participle of consto, which has a slightly different meaning from Constantine: standing with some person, remaining like one’s self, standing firm, or being intellectually or morally certain, faithful, or unchangeable (Lewis and Short). Lawrence’s Constance attempts to remain faithful o herself under difficult circumstances. Her husband, Clifford Chatterley, a disabled war veteran and writer of “clever, rather spiteful, and yet, in some mysterious way, meaningless” stories (Penguin `16), is named Chatterley because of his empty chatter. He and his intellectual friends criticize Bolshevism, capitalism, Socrates, and theoretically condone free sex, but words take the place of action. Constance remains attached to Clifford but has a discreet sexual affair with an Irish playwright. She “always had a foreboding of the hopelessness of her affair with Mick.....Yet other men seemed to mean nothing to her.” It is not until she has an affair with the gamekeeper that she experiences sexual passion.

On the other hand, Hardy’s Lady Constantine has qualms about infidelity. Near the opening of the novel, Viviette struggles to remain faithful to a husband who exacted an unreasonable promise before disappearing on a hunting expedition in Africa. He had demanded that she “consider what my position would be...; hoped that I should remember what was due to him,--that I would not so behave towards other men as to bring the name of Constantine into suspicion...” She asks the rector, Mr. Torkingham, whether she need continue to refuse social invitations and “live like a cloistered nun in his absence.” The kind but ineffectual Mr. Torkingham advises her to keep her word even after she confesses that her “life has become a burden,”.

“My conscience is quite bewildered with its responsibilities,” she continued with a sigh. “Yet it certainly does sometimes say to me that--that I ought to keep my word. Very well; I must go on as I am going, I suppose.”.

Her conformity and fear of scandal eventually prove her undoing after she secretly befriends Swithin St. Cleeve, a younger man, an astronomer. Completely absorbed by his astronomical studies, he does not view her as a sexual being or understand that she gives him gifts for his observatory because she loves him When she hears a rumor that Sir Blount has returned to London, she persuades Swithin to travel there on her behalf. After hearing the news of her husband’s death, he still does not understand that her interest in astronomy has an ulterior motive. Not until he overhears the villagers gossiping about her interest in him does he experience a sexual awakening.

The class-conscious Swithin and Viviette marry secretly mainly because of Viviette’s position, though he insists that in his “present position you could not possibly acknowledge me as husband publicly.” Swithin learns that his uncle has left him 600 pounds a year on the condition that he not marry twenty-five. He sacrifices the legacy for the marriage. Ironically, his determination to honor his commitment to Viviette results in the loss of Swithin’s reputation. The secret marriage proves a disadvantage. When the Bishop discerns that a woman is hidden in Swithin’s hut, he does not, of course, suspect Viviette. He lectures Swithin on his morals and implies that he should not have received the sacrament of Confirmation--which, ironically, Viviette had insisted on.

Swithin is as sensitive to the Bishop’s accusation of immorality as Hardy was to critics’ accusations that his art was immoral.

“...Swithin’s nature was so fresh and ingenuous, notwithstanding that recent affairs had somewhat denaturalized him, that for a man in the Bishop’s position to think him immoral was almost as overwhelming as if her had actually been so, and at moments he could scarcely bear existence under so gross a suspicion. What was his union with Lady Constantine worth to him when, by reason of it, he was thought a reprobate by almost the only man who had professed to take an interest in him?”

When he pleads with Viviette to tell the Bishop about their marriage, Viviette refuses because to reveal that she had hidden “would make me ridiculous in the county; and anything rather than that!” She also learns that Sir Blount did not die until after the date of her secret marriage to Swithin, so insists that he accept his uncle’s legacy and travel to do his research. After his departure from England she discovers her pregnancy and, unable to reach Swithin, marries the Bishop. In a hasty ending, Hardy kills the Bishop and Swithin returns to England. Resolved to do his duty though he no longer finds her attractive, he offers to marry her--and Viviette ecstatically shrieks and dies in his arms, paying a high price for passion.

In the postwar England of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Constance is better prepared to stand up to society. She first meets Oliver Mellors, the gamekeeper, when Connie is walking and Clifford is riding in his motor-chair. He has just asked, “But you do agree with me, don’t you that the casual sex thing is nothing, compared to the long life lived together?” Then the gamekeeper, Oliver Mellors, appears, a handsome man with thick, fair hair, to whom she is immediately attracted. Clifford asks Mellors to turn the chair around. .

Their second meeting occurs when she hears finds Mellors in “a secret little clearing, and a secret little hut made of rustic poles,” hammering wood for coops for the young pheasants. And his name is obviously derived from the word mell, which means a heavy hammer, or to beat with a mallet.

Mellors is a collier’s son, a former lieutenant in World War I, who went to India and after an illness, he returned to England and became a gamekeeper. He lives alone because his spouse, a blowsy, tartish Arabella-like character, has left him. Like Swithin, is conflicted about class; he frequently reverts to Derbyshire dialect to show his scorn for the upper classes. Like Clifford, he is benumbed by war and the smash-up of society.

Mellors has a pessimistic post-war view of the mechanization of emotions and the industrialization of England. “Their spunk’s gone dead--motor-cars and cinemas and aeroplanes suck the last bite out of them. I tell you, every generation breeds a more rabbity generation, with indiarubber tubing for guts and tin legs and tin faces. Tin people! It’s all a steady sort of bolshevism--just killing off the human thing, and worshipping the mechanical thing. Money, money, money! All the modern lot get their real kick out of killing the old human feeling out of man, making mincemeat of the old Adam and the old Eve....”

Constance, like Lady Constantine, becomes pregnant. Constance and Mellors meet not in a phallic tower, but in a womb-like hut. Lawrence, who writes from the woman’s point of view, emphasizes Constance’s sexuality even in the symbolic meeting place of the hut.

Hardy’s phallic tower is a symbol unneccessary in Lawrence’s freer century. Lawrence writes erotic sex scenes, though the lovers’ naming of their genitals--John Thomas and Lady Jane--may seem absurd to twenty-first century readers. Lawrence replaces the tower with the hut and house--a symbol of marriage.

Lawrence ends the novel with a letter from Mellors, who is working on a farm while his divorce is pending. Constance is miserable because Clifford refuses to divorce her, but is so repulsed by his childish attitude that she cannot maintain a friendship with him Reviewers ignored the realistically drawn sequence of events, focusing on the “coarseness” of the women’s sexuality.

Mellors writes: “Never mind about Sir Clifford. If you don’t hear anything about him, never mind. He can’t really do anything to you. Wait, he will want to get rid of you at last, to cast you out. And if he doesn’t, we’ll manage to keep clear of him. But he will. In the end he will want to spew you as an abominable thing.”

Monday, October 16, 2006

Viragos and Persephones

After a long summer of reading 19th century novels and 20th century poetry, I’ve been reading women’s novels, especially Viragos and Persephones. I’m having a Viragofest.   Or a Persephonefest.  Maybe both.

Some of the Viragos are first-class literature, like Vita Sackville-West’s THE EDWARDIANS, Oliphant’s  HESTER, Rose Macaulay's TOLD BY AN IDIOT, and Emily Holmes Coleman’s THE SHUTTER OF SNOW.  The latter is a novel about the author’s hospitalization for bipolar disorder. This is her only novel, an account of Coleman's experience and a record of the attitudes of doctors and nurses toward mentally ill patients in the ‘20s.  It’s out of print, but historically significant.  Coleman is an exceptional writer, more interesting in some ways than Janet Frame, a surreal writer about mental hospitals to whom Coleman has been compared.

As for the Persephones, I discovered them quite by accident while browsing at Amazon. These popular novels and non-fiction books of the '20s, '30s, '40s, and '50s have been revived by an English publsher. I think of them as women's comfort reads, but some are superb books one could recommend to one's husband. Viragos tend to be feminist novels, but not all Persephones are feminist. Noel Streatfeild's SAPLINGS, for instance, is a World War II novel which gives a good idea of life during the war. Sarah Waters mentioned this novel in a Guardian article as one she read when researching her own very good novel, THE NIGHT WATCH, a Booker Prize finalist and Orange Prize finalist.

One of my favorite Persephones is Dorothy Whipple's SOMEONE AT A DISTANCE. The novel is beguiling, Whipple's style simple. It's an early example of chick-lit, much more complex and sophisticated, though, with parts having been stolen (perhaps) by Elizabeth Buchan for the much lighter, less interesting THE REVENGE OF THE MIDDLE-AGED WOMAN. The flawless family in SOMEONE AT A DISTANCE is almost too good, honorable and comfortable, but that makes it pleasing: a well-written escape. The characters are completely absorbing, people one wants to spent time with. The forty-two-year-old protagonist, Ellen, gardens and cooks, is always rumpled, and has no idea her husband is having an affair with the disdainful French woman who has come to stay. Their daughter Anne loves her horse and family, especially loves her father, but refuses to see him after she learns about the affair. Her parents' divorce fragments her personality and wrecks her happiness. But Ellen, also destroyed by the divorce, refuses alimony and finds a job. Work saves Ellen. Schoolwork saves Anne. Ellen saves her mother-in-law's ex-maid by finding her a job.

The characters who are not saved--but that would be telling.

This is a feminist novel.