I’m currently reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover for the second time, and am about halfway through. And it’s brought to my attention a few of the awkward things about sex and intimacy and disability that, frankly, nobody wants to talk about.
In it, as you probably all know, Constance (Lady Chatterley) is married to Clifford Chatterley (The lord of Wragby), who was crippled during the war and becomes a wheelchair user. Constance goes on to have a long, complicated sexual relationship with Oliver Mellors, the gamekeeper, and eventually leaves not only Clifford, but the whole country.
Firstly – Lady Chatterley doesn’t have an affair (Well, she does, but it’s not with the gamekeeper, Mellors, it’s with the “Dublin street-rat” Michaelis). Instead, Clifford tells her to go and produce an heir to save the family name, with some man of her choosing. The speech around that, talking about her teenage affair in Germany, and thinking about the whole act and point of sex, gets across that it was not Clifford’s injury that made him disinterested in sex, he was just always disinterested in it; He was devoted to the “mental life” even when he was a strapping, healthy, soldier.
This is fairly important, since so many books would have left it as “Oh, he’s a cripple, so of course he doesn’t want sex” – And because of this, I think that it’s actually really important that Mellors is also described as being “rather frail really” and as being thin and pale, and walking with a slight limp. Certainly, both to modern and contemporary eyes, he would be considered to be obviously ill – Not the cartoonishly handsome, mysterious older man that most people would expect. He’s not Mr Darcy, he’s not startlingly more physically impressive than Clifford (In fact, the text goes to great pains to note Clifford’s powerful shoulders, clear blue eyes and strong hands, whereas Mellors is described as being cold and pale and fragile, breathing hard when he walked, and generally as being awkward). Tommy Dukes even chiddes Clifford for being so uninterested in sex, since elthough his cock doesn’t work, his mind certainly does.
It’s all really quite positive stuff – Lawrence gets across that even though the body might be imperfect, or sore, or awkward, the mind can still have that spark of desire in it, and that it still deserves to be fulfilled. And through the first third of the book, Constance and Clifford are intimate, in the way that they are – Talking about stories, having long conversations, generally doing the thing of two people living under one roof in close proximity.
But the text continues, and suddenly it notes a darker phenomenon: Mrs Bolton, the shoelace-tier.
I don’t know what the word for it in the real world is, but around here what she is is called a shoelace-tier. Shoelace-tying is the act of ingratiating yourself into the confidences of someone who’s ill (Whether that be physically or mentally) and forcing them to accept a role. it might be as simple as making them the patient, or the child, or the pet, but it can be complicated and many-layered; I’ve encountered someone before who liked to posit his injured friends as wounded heroes, and make them depend upon him almost as if he was their servant; They would have someone whom they could tell their old stories to, about “back when they were whole”, and he would slowly take over every aspect of their modern life, until the only confidante, practical helper, lover, or friend they had was him. I can see why he’d do it; It probably feels quite secure to feel that someone needs you so thoroughly that they can’t ever risk losing you, but it’s damaging. The person being preyed upon started to feel like the only person “good” enough put up with them was him, they felt indebted to him for all of the help that he so willingly gave – even though others would probably have given it too if they’ known it was neded – and they began to depend upon him for more and more as time went on, more because it was psychologically simple and familiar than becuase it was physically necessary.
And that’s what Mrs Bolton is to Clifford; She slowly isolates him from Connie, who is drawing away from him anyway, giving him the illusion that she cares for him more deeply than Connie does, and eventually “He let her shave him or sponge all over his body, as if he were a child”.
Those lines at the end of that chapter made every hair that I have stand on end. I actually had to close the book and go for a sit down with my friends and a small glass of brandy. That kind of abuse, that sort of sickly-sweet, soft, insidious abuse, is so common amongst the disabled and otherwise vulnerable.
At the other end of the scale, in the book, is again Mellors, who lives alone and keeps himself to himself. I sometimes wonder if Connie’s speculation on why he is so deliberately spiky and isolated is a coded way of suggesting that the same happened to him once?
Anyway, I’ll probably keep digging and commenting on this – It’s a good bit of light reading about the class war, and thus is currently my favourite bedtime story.