D.H. Lawrence: the Good and the Bad

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Author D.H. Lawrence (1885—1930) is best known for his worst novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover. But he also wrote some genuinely fine works of fiction, including the short story, “Tickets, Please”.

The short story is set in an industrial region of England during World War I. It concerns a young man named John Thomas who works for a tram-service, along with a young woman named Annie. Exempt from wartime service, John Thomas exploits the shortage of men and the availability of women. But one does not get the impression that he is an Alfie-type; the enjoyment he derives from his numerous girlfriends is more flirtatious and cozy than flagrantly sexual, though it might easily lead to the latter. In any case, he is playing with fire; he is stirring things in these women which they expect him to follow through on in a serious way. When he doesn’t do that, the women—instigated by Annie—turn on him violently.

The story’s opening is loaded with mannered, literary clichés—which may or may not have been the author’s artful intention—but then works its way toward the startling attack on John Thomas. What strikes me as remarkable is that the author does not seem to favor one side of the conflict over the other. Both sides emerge as sympathetic, at least in part; both sides have been victimized and both have been the victimizer. The overall result is a potent, earthy, memorable and thought-provoking work of fiction.

The same cannot be said of Lawrence’s 1928 novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Its claim to fame is based primarily on its explicit depictions of sex, which for a time elicited a lot of prudish hubbub. If not for that, it is largely forgettable. The plot concerns the love affair of Lady Chatterley with her husband’s gamekeeper, Mellors, and their efforts to escape from the moral restrictions of their society.  

Lawrence’s novel is sometimes associated with James Joyce’s Ulysses, but that is off target.  Lady Chatterley’s Lover bears a much stronger resemblance to Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, although even this comparison is limited. Both books deal with issues of class and a defiance of convention; Lady Chatterley bears some resemblance to Catherine Earnshaw, Mellors to Heathcliff, and Clifford—Lady Chatterley’s husband—to Edgar Linton; but the similarities end there. Brontë’s novel is so much better than Lady Chatterley’s Lover it almost pains me to draw attention to the likenesses. But when all is said and done, it’s the differences between the two works that matter most. Brontë wrote a novel, not a huffy diatribe; Wuthering Heights is a work of fictional art while Lady Chatterley’s Lover is more like a tract. Or maybe Lawrence thought he could improve Wuthering Heights by sexing things up in a way that Brontë would never have done?  

The central problem with Lawrence’s book is not its affirmation of the human body, human sexuality and erotic love, but its tone of arrogance, intolerance and hostility.