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Audiobook Classics: Lady Chatterly's Lover

Updated on April 15, 2014

A Great Story, Interrupted.

If there’s one person that’s more disappointed than Sir Clifford at the way things worked out in the ending of D.H. Lawrence’s masterpiece Lady Chatterley’s Lover, it’s me. Just when I really began to believe that all the fervent intensity of the writing and the powerfully rendered scenes had a purpose beyond quickening my pulse and bathing my senses in both lush beauty and barren industrial grime; just when the plot began to thicken and I thought there might be something more around the corner besides another incredibly vivid sex scene or a stroll through the flowers, I got The Gamekeeper’s tired, repetitious indictment of the capitalist industrial complex, the pursuit of wealth, the death of virility, homage to Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness”, and, to cap it off, a penis saying goodnight to a vagina “with a hopeful heart”.

Up until the mega-disappointment of the cop-out ending I was in awe of Lawrence’s writing: the sentence construction, the dynamics, the vocabulary, the metaphor, the vivid detail, the the natural rhythms of the dialogue, the idiomatic speech of Darby and Yorkshire, the depth and strength of the characterizations, the strong sense of place and, again, the vivid rendering of each scene - it’s all just as good as it gets. Add to that the narration of Maxine Peake, especially her command of the brogue and the dialect, and you’ve got a pretty gripping, almost suspenseful experience - first class entertainment and plenty of food for thought as well (even if the Mellors/Lawrence vision of a red-trousered society without a need for money is a little infantile.)

Maxine Peake, woman of many voices

Maxine Peake
Maxine Peake | Source

The Closet Narrator

Maxine Peake's performance of Lady Chatterly's Lover couldn't be more captivating, yet try to find any information about her career as an audiobook narrator and you're likely to get skunked. One might gather that some actors believe audiobook narration to be a step down from TV, film or stage acting, but to us audiobook lovers narration is art of the highest caliber. She plays each character flawlessly, and her treatment of the various Midlands and Scottish dialects is, to the untrained ear on British and Scottish accents, a joy to hear.

Here's a little Wikipedia write up on Maxine's "other interests":

Born in Bolton, Peake is the second of two daughters born to Brian and Glynis Peake (née Hall).[5] Her father was a lorry driver before working in the electrical industry, her mother a part-time careworker; Lisa, her elder sister by nine years, is a police officer.[5] Her parents separated when Peake was nine and she lived with her mother until the age of 15. When her mother moved in with a new boyfriend several miles away, she went to live with her grandfather so she could continue her GCSE studies at Westhoughton High School, before going on to take her A-Levels at Canon Slade School,Bradshaw near Bolton. Her grandfather encouraged her to develop her creativity and start acting.

Peake joined the Octagon Youth Theatre, Bolton, at 13, before a period at the youth theatre of the Royal Exchange, Manchester. She later attended the University of Salford leaving after two years. Peake was briefly a member of the Communist Party.[6]

D.H. Lawrence: Always the Outsider

D.H. Lawrence and "Savage Exile"

The only thing I would add to this WikiPedia summary is that, of all the classics I've read over the past 2 years, Lawrence has a way of describing the natural world, including that of the body, in such vivid terms that it is easy to get lost in his prose and lost track of the narrative. Not all bad, especially when the narrative gets bogged down by social proselytizing.

David Herbert Lawrence (11 September 1885 – 2 March 1930) was an English novelist, poet, playwright, essayist, literary critic and painter who published as D. H. Lawrence. His collected works represent an extended reflection upon the dehumanising effects of modernity and industrialisation. In them, Lawrence confronts issues relating to emotional health and vitality, spontaneity and instinct.

Lawrence's opinions earned him many enemies and he endured official persecution, censorship, and misrepresentation of his creative work throughout the second half of his life, much of which he spent in a voluntary exile which he called his "savage pilgrimage."[1] At the time of his death, his public reputation was that of a pornographer who had wasted his considerable talents. E. M. Forster, in an obituary notice, challenged this widely held view, describing him as, "The greatest imaginative novelist of our generation."[2] Later, the influential Cambridge critic F. R. Leavis championed both his artistic integrity and his moral seriousness, placing much of Lawrence's fiction within the canonical "great tradition" of the English novel. Lawrence is now valued by many as a visionary thinker and significant representative of modernism in English literature.

Pushing Beyond "Showing" and "Telling"

Lawrence's narrator in Lady Chatterley's Lover takes much getting used to. The idea that a third person narrator, even if aligned with the point of view of one character more than others, should “just tell us what happened” was obviously not a guiding principle. If there was a guiding principle, it might have been to make sure nothing was left to the reader’s imagination. The reader is privy to each of the main character’s feelings, attitudes, opinions, physical sensations, tastes, likes, dislikes, fears, hopes, weaknesses, strengths etc: the narrator holds nothing back.

But Lawrence doesn’t stop there, for his narrator is not only omniscient but a shape shifter as well, fluidly slipping back and forth between female and male points of view. Here, for example, the narrator has aligned with Connie’s opinion of things, and it certainly feels as if the narrator is a woman:

“And a woman had to yield. A man was like a child with his appetites. A woman had to yield him what he wanted, or like a child he would probably turn nasty and flounce away and spoil what was a very pleasant connexion. But a woman could yield to a man without yielding her inner, free self. That the poets and talkers about sex did not seem to have taken sufficiently into account. A woman could take a man without really giving herself away. Certainly she could take him without giving herself into his power. Rather she could use this sex thing to have power over him. For she only had to hold herself back in sexual intercourse, and let him finish and expend himself without herself coming to the crisis: and then she could prolong the connexion and achieve her orgasm and her crisis while he was merely her tool.”

(P. 11)

One can’t but wonder who this rather flippant observer and expert on the attitudes of “women in general” really is, especially after adopting a male point of view just a page or two later:

“Nevertheless he [Sir Clifford] too was a rebel: rebelling even against his class. Or perhaps rebel is too strong a word; far too strong. He was only caught in the general, popular recoil of the young against convention and against any sort of real authority. Fathers were ridiculous: his own obstinate one supremely so. And governments were ridiculous: our own wait-and-see sort especially so. And armies were ridiculous, and old buffers of generals altogether, the red-faced Kitchener supremely. Even the war was ridiculous, though it did kill rather a lot of people.” (p. 18)

In these passages that narrator so completely inhabits the mind of the character that he/she almost slips into first person:

“Certainly she could take him without giving herself into his power?”

“She” meaning herself, Connie. And:

“And governments were ridiculous: our own wait-and-see sort especially so.”

By referring to “our own” the narrator is either voicing his own opinion or speaking with Sir Clifford’s voice. So what we end up with is an omniscient narrator that can tell the story through the eyes of each of the characters, and at the same time is a character with a point of view of his/her own.

The narrator doesn’t say “Connie thought that…” or “Clifford felt that…” but instead assumes the voice of the character. But Lawrence’s omniscient narrator jumps around so seamlessly that I never found myself questioning the “legality” of his moves, though I did feel that in many cases Lawrence could have demonstrated some of the various points of view of the characters by letting them act it out in actions or dialogue.

If Lawrence had assigned the narrator the role of the reporter rather than that of the op-ed columnist, and left the narrator’s own opinion out of it, it would be a different type of novel altogether. Instead, the way the narrator describes the environment makes it very clear that “nature” and “the natural life” is the good guy, and “industry” and “the mechanized life” is the bad guy, and that there’s no in-between. And he beats the reader over the head with it, again and again:

“Connie went to the wood directly after lunch. It was really a lovely day, the first dandelions making suns, the first daisies so white. The hazel thicket was a lace-work, of half-open leaves, and the last dusty perpendicular of the catkins. Yellow celandines now were in crowds, flat open, pressed back in urgency, and the yellow glitter of themselves. It was the yellow, the powerful yellow of early summer. And primroses were broad, and full of pale abandon, thick-clustered primroses no longer shy. The lush, dark green of hyacinths was a sea, with buds rising like pale corn, while in the riding the forget-me-nots were fluffing up, and columbines were unfolding their ink-purple ruches, and there were bits of blue bird's eggshell under a bush. Everywhere the bud-knots and the leap of life!” (P. 375)

“...on the damp, hazy distance of the hill the raw straggle of Tevershall village, a village which began almost at the park gates, and trailed in utter hopeless ugliness for a long and gruesome mile: houses, rows of wretched, small, begrimed, brick houses, with black slate roofs for lids, sharp angles and wilful, blank dreariness.” (p. 24)

These two beautiful passages - both so far beyond my own capabilities it pains me to be critical - clearly declare: nature is good, industrial society is bad. They also illustrate some anthropomorphism that I find irksome. Every time I hear a human characteristic attributed to an inanimate object (attributing emotions to animals doesn’t bother me) it makes me cringe.

“Yellow celandines now were in crowds, flat open, pressed back in urgency, and the yellow glitter of themselves.”

“And primroses were broad, and full of pale abandon, thick-clustered primroses no longer shy.”

“... a village which began almost at the park gates, and trailed in utter hopeless ugliness”

“... sharp angles and wilful, blank dreariness.”

On the one hand such attributes make the image even more vivid. On the other hand I struggle with the idea that a flower can be urgent, shy or act with abandon, the same way I don’t like the narrator deciding that a village is hopeless or wilful. Just show me the village and I’ll decide if it’s hopeless, wilful or not. Or let a character make the observation that there’s a sense of urgency about the way the flowers are pressed back, or that the village seemed hopeless, and thus reveal something I need to know about the character. When the narrator makes such observations it strikes me as false and contrived, perhaps because I have no reason to be interested in the narrator’s opinion.

My personal preference is to either have a third person omniscient narrator that also plays an actual role in the story and thereby justifies the need for the narrator character to have an opinion, or assign the narrator the role of third party observer, as in Madame Bovary, of which Lydia Davis, one of the novel’s many translators, said:

“Flaubert’s stated intention was ‘… to write the novel ‘objectively,’ leaving the author out of it.’ Flaubert is also quoted as saying he wanted to ‘give psychological analysis the rapidity, clarity, passion of a purely dramatic narration.’”

A “purely dramatic narration” is almost the opposite of what we have in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, for though there are many wonderful, richly textured dramatic scenes, each has elements that Flaubert would have probably left out.

The episode in the thunderstorm, where the both get naked and go gallivanting into the woods for a slippery quickie is a good example:

“She slipped on her rubber shoes again and ran out with a wild little laugh, holding up her breasts to the heavy rain and spreading her arms, and running blurred in the rain with the eurhythmic dance movements she had learned so long ago in Dresden. It was a strange pallid figure lifting and falling, bending so the rain beat and glistened on the full haunches, swaying up again and coming belly-forward through the rain, then stooping again so that only the full loins and buttocks were offered in a kind of homage towards him, repeating a wild obeisance.” (p. 507)

All of the passage is straightforward description until the last bit. Would Flaubert have allowed his narrator to make the observation that Connie was intentionally or unintentionally
offering up her ass in obeisance, or was she just dancing? Perhaps Mellors interprets Connie’s movements as a sort of deferential respect, or a signal to come and get it, but it’s a leap for the narrator to make that observation, an abuse of omniscience, perhaps.

In the end, it’s clear that Lawrence had another, more important agenda than to tell a great, memorable story. And once that agenda becomes clear, it’s easy to go back through the novel and discover how Mellors, the author’s mouthpiece, makes his case against industrialized society and capitalism. That the narrator shares Mellor’s view makes it feel even more contrived. Beautifully, fascinatingly, wonderfully contrived, but contrived nonetheless:

“It was not woman's fault, nor even love's fault, nor the fault of sex. The fault lay there, out there, in those evil electric lights and diabolical rattlings of engines. There, in the world of the mechanical greedy, greedy mechanism and mechanized greed, sparkling with lights and gushing hot metal and roaring with traffic, there lay the vast evil thing, ready to destroy whatever did not conform. Soon it would destroy the wood, and the bluebells would spring no more. All vulnerable things must perish under the rolling and running of iron.” (p. 268)

I guess had the story been allowed to play out to a plot-driven conclusion I would have been a more satisfied customer. But even though the novel taken as a whole is disappointing, as well as the general way in which the story is told, Lady Chatterley’s Lover is the kind of novel a writer should always keep at arm’s reach, for if there were ever an author with complete mastery of the language of nature and the inner workings of the heart and soul, D.H. Lawrence is the man.

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