Like D.H. Lawrence, David Howell was born in Nottinghamshire. He still works in a university - he is professor of politics at the University of York - and remembers fondly the days when universities were not corrupted by so-called academics trying to be entrepreneurs. His books include A Lost Left: Three Studies in Socialism and Nationalism, MacDonald's Party and Attlee. Here David writes about Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover.
David Howell on Lady Chatterley's Lover by D.H. Lawrence
I went to the cinema on an August Sunday afternoon to see Lady Chatterley. The reviews had blended the cautious, the patronizing and the unenthusiastic, although whether these sentiments were directed at the film or at D.H. Lawrence was not entirely clear. I came out into early evening sunlight dismissive of reviewers and their careless prejudices.
Lawrence wrote two versions of Lady Chatterley's Lover between October 1926 and February 1927. A third, the best known, followed between December 1927 and February 1928. All were written in Italy. The film is based on the second version, first published in Italian in 1954, and in English in 1972 - the latter under the title John Thomas and Lady Jane. Unlike in its predecessor, the sexual relationship between Connie Chatterley and the gamekeeper Oliver Parkin is presented in explicit and lyrical detail. Lawrence commented during the writing, 'It's what they'll call improper - in fact impossible to print. But they'll have to take it or leave it. I don't care. It's really of course very pure in heart.' The film's triumph is the slowly emerging and nuanced portrait of this relationship. The lovers meet in the wood, separated temporarily from the constraints of a damaged society.
The damage is in part a legacy of war. Sir Clifford Chatterley is a war victim, crippled and impotent, but his paralysis represents the wider failure of a class. He is a coal-owner and an aristocrat whose snobbery cannot be hidden by a progressive veneer. Within the film there are scenes where he enthuses over schemes for the modernization of his collieries or defends his elitist insistence on the necessarily unequal relationship between the few and the mass. These elements are peripheral to the film's core, yet they are present to differing degrees in all versions of the novel. The concern with the destructive impact of mechanization was a recurrent theme in Lawrence's work. There are obvious parallels between Clifford Chatterley and Gerald Crich in Women in Love, but the creation of the later novel had a very specific root in Lawrence's experience in his own region - what he would call, while writing the early drafts, 'the hard pith of England'.
In the late summer of 1926 Lawrence made what proved to be his last visit to England. In mid-September he spent two days with his sister Ada in Ripley at the southern end of the Derbyshire coalfield and only a few miles from his birthplace in Eastwood. On his first day he walked round his childhood and adolescent world - the Eastwood streets and woods that had provided much of the setting for Sons and Lovers and which would inform the novel that he would soon begin. But it was his second day perhaps that provided decisive images.
The 1926 miners' lockout had begun on May 1. By mid-September many miners in the Nottinghamshire coalfield, which included Eastwood, were returning to work. In many other districts, where the employers were demanding heavy wage cuts along with an extension of the working day, resistance remained strong. But in relatively prosperous Nottinghamshire the threat was slight and many miners were non-union. Within weeks of Lawrence's visit the flood of returning Notts miners would fatally divide the union. In neighbouring Derbyshire the same economic pressures to return to work applied, although the union proved more robust.
Lawrence's return was at a critical moment for the mining communities of the East Midlands, divided between strike-breakers, radicals and the demoralized. Two weeks before on the Lincolnshire coast, he had acknowledged his fears. 'I am afraid of the class hatred which is the quiet volcano over which the English life is built. Above all things it is dangerous here in England: class hatred. Superficially one feels none at all - absolutely none. But there's something underneath.'
This sense of breakdown is evident in a piece unpublished in his lifetime, 'Return to Bestwood', written in response to his coalfield experiences. Women charged with public order offences, their supporters waving red flags, contrast with Lawrence's mother and her faith in decent, ordered progress, based on optimism about the essential decency of the upper classes. A similar claim could have been made about the local miners' leaders, respectably clad in discreet dark suits, their world now falling apart.
Above all 'Return to Bestwood' graphically presented an outing in his sister's car through the Derbyshire coalfield. The trip provided material for a journey by Connie that is central to the characterization of coalfield society across all three versions of the novel. 'Great houses loom from hill-brows, old villages are smothered in rows of miners' cottages.' But other images were not represented directly in the subsequent fiction: police assembled at lane ends, strikers squatting by the roadside, scabs escorted home in their pit dirt.
Lawrence described his first attempt at what was to become Lady Chatterley's Lover as 'a novel in the Derbyshire coal-mining districts - already rather improper'. The memories of September shaped this creation. The text is preoccupied with a sense of class - inequalities, cultural differences, antagonism. The shift between the first two versions is captured in an episode that in its later manifestation was omitted from the film. After his estranged wife has reappeared and precipitated mayhem, Parkin leaves the Chatterley estate and takes a job in a Sheffield steel works. He joins the industrial working class and lodges with the family of an old army friend. In both versions Connie visits this working-class family for a very formal tea. The passage is outstanding social comedy. She is the upper-class visitor who knocks formally at the front door rather than going round the back. She attracts the disapproval of her hostess by referring to 'Parkin' - a servant not an equal. She is uncomfortable in the intimacy of a small terrace house. Class differences are also present in more severe terms as her host quizzes Connie on the possibility of harmony across class lines. In the first version Parkin is scornfully dismissive, in the second much more reserved.
The political implications contrast more radically. The dismissive Parkin, unknown to Connie, is secretary of his workplace branch of the Communist League and an advocate of the Soviet model. He is passionate to her about the shared experience of working men and the need for solidarity. Late in the second version, Lawrence suggests the futility of political commitment. Parkin is now far from the model party member. 'I shouldn't care if the Bolsheviks blew up one half of the world, and the capitalists blew up the other half to spite them, so long as they left me and you a rabbit-hole apiece to creep in, and meet underground like rabbits do.' Connie is relieved. 'I was so afraid you were just going to deteriorate into a socialist or a fascist, or something dreary or political.'
The shift is taken further in the final version. Steelworks and arguments about class over tea vanish. Instead Parkin, renamed Mellors, leaves the estate to work on a farm - a traditional response to the darkness of industrialism. Moreover Mellors is no longer unambiguously working-class but a scholarship boy and wartime army officer who chose to be a gamekeeper. Miners are visible only through a car window or in the gossip of Clifford Chatterley's nurse. Collective solutions are firmly out. Perhaps Lawrence's position in 1926 is best presented by a minor character, Duncan Forbes, in the first draft. 'I've hated democracy since the war. But now I see I'm wrong calling for an aristocracy. What we want is a flow of life from one to another.' This charts Lawrence's own odyssey through the leadership novels of the early 1920s and perhaps connects with the programme sketched in 'Return to Bestwood', a mixture of decentralized and socialized democracy and dirigiste eugenics.
Lawrence wrote the first version of Women in Love in 1916, the year of the Somme, without mentioning the war, but it is properly regarded as a war novel. Similarly the Lady Chatterley novels are often imprecise as to time, although the second version contains two passing references to a strike. The three novels have many themes, but they were shaped to varying degrees by his experience of class conflict in September 1926. As so often for him, a brief encounter meant a creative and complex response.