The Grey side of John Ruskin

The Grey side of John Ruskin

When I attended Newport (Mon) High School for Boys (established 1896), from 1958 to 1965, there were six “houses”, modelled, like much of the ethos of the school, on English “public” (actually, private) schools.  I fail to remember all the names of the houses.  I do recall that they were named after men – then, all famous.  I belonged to (Isaac) Newton, as my Uncle Ronald (killed in action in 1941) had belonged to it.  Another was named after (John) Ruskin (1819-1900) – eminent polymath, artist and art critic, social, commentator on social and economic and political matters, etc, etc.

Ruskin’s influence in his day is reported to have been enormous, on individuals and on movements.  (Among others, he influenced Marcel Proust, as can be seen, for example, in the chapter, ‘Séjour â Venise’ (‘Staying in Venice’), in À la recherché du temps perdu.)

I have read Proust but never Ruskin.

It appears to me that Ruskin’s many contributions to serious thought have been absorbed by others and hence have come down to us in the ideas of others.

What an extraordinary legacy, then!

What is Ruskin chiefly remembered for nowadays?  Probably, and sadly, his failed marriage (1848-1854) to Euphemia (“Effie”) Gray (1828-1897).  In 1855 she went on to marry the painter John Everett Millais (1829-1896); and she had eight children.

Much has been written and produced about this “triangle” over the years, to the exclusion, to a large extent, of Ruskin’s own merits.

I have just seen, on BBC television, the 2014 film, Effie Gray, which devotes itself exclusively to the matter of the failed marriage and the developing relationship between Effie and Millais.  Much of the content is based on guess-work.

Nothing indecorous is shown.  The acting and scene-setting convey all we (as viewers) need to know.

Ruskin himself is portrayed as unfeeling and patronising towards Effie, and at the same time largely under the control of his own parents.

As a viewer, I longed for Effie to escape from the stifling atmosphere created by the Ruskin family and to escape – to the arms of her admirer, Millais, as that is what she wanted.  A happy ending for her, then, and for Everett, but not for John.

The film makes much of this happy-sad story; but the material for the plot is rather slim.

There remains a larger story to tell about this Victorian sage.

 

 

 

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Sparks from the flint – an analysis of Chapter VIII of D H Lawrence’s 2nd version of ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’

Introduction

Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover is set in 1920s industrial England.  Lady Constance (“Connie”) Chatterley and the gamekeeper employed by her paraplegic husband (maimed in World War One) have an affair; Connie becomes pregnant; by the end, Connie and her lover are pondering their (rather limited) options for the future.  The novel ends with matters unresolved.

Three principal themes are: (i) class divisions, (ii) relationships between the sexes, and (iii) the dire effects of disappointment and frustration with one’s lot in life.  Class divisions affect sexual relationships across the divide – adversely.  They are implicated in physical damage to ordinary working people, through maiming and death for some.  (World War One has done this too.)  They are also implicated in emotional damage – the encouragement of domination on the part of the employers, and the hurting of pride, and promotion of defiance, on the part of the employed.

Three versions

There are three versions of the novel: the third is the best known.

Pascale Ferran’s film, Lady Chatterley et l’homme du bois (2006) is based on the 2nd version of the novel.  This was first published by Penguin in the UK in 1973.  (It is called John Thomas and Lady Jane; but Tenderness would be more appropriate.) 

The main themes and plot are common to versions 2 and 3, as regards the strengths (characterisation and social analysis) and weaknesses (preachiness).  At the same time, there are also important differences, in the nature of principal characters and in details of the ending.  In the 2nd version, for example, the gamekeeper is called Parkin, not Mellors.  By the end, moreover, Sir Clifford remains unaware both of the affair and of Connie’s pregnancy.  Parkin has to go away to find work, and this disrupts the pursuit of his relationship with Connie.

In my opinion, the 2nd version of the novel compares very well with the 3rd.

Relations among the main characters, in Chapter VIII of the 2nd version

Chapter VIII (which corresponds roughly to Chapter X in the 3rd version) covers one day.  It is pivotal in the development of the story, as I hope to show.  It also sheds light on the nature of the four important characters who appear and speak in the chapter:

  1. Connie Chatterley, lonely and isolated, frustrated with her life, before meeting Parkin
  2. Sir Clifford Chatterley, stoical, strong-willed and domineering, frustrated by his disability
  3. Oliver Parkin, solitary, resentful of authority, mistrustful of women but softened by meeting Connie
  4. Mrs Ivy Bolton, Sir Clifford’s live-in nurse and care giver

Mrs Flint, young mother – neighbour and acquaintance of the Chatterleys – also appears.

In the course of the day covered by Chapter VIII, Connie meets and talks to all the others.  I shall examine the viewpoints of each of these four people and how the events of the day affect them.

CONSTANCE (“CONNIE”)

This is Connie’s view of herself at the beginning of the day: “She was miserable and angry with herself, feeling today more paralysed than Clifford.”

Clifford has gone out: she feels she must go out – so she goes to see Mrs Flint.

This is Connie’s appreciation of Mrs Flint and her child: “The quiet female atmosphere, just Mrs Flint and the baby, and the servant-girl, was infinitely soothing.”

And later: “And she was thinking so deeply of Mrs Flint’s baby.  It was a nice little thing, with hair like red gossamer, and such a delicate skin.”

On her way home, Connie bumps into Parkin, with whom she has already had sex twice. He grabs hold of her – she first tries to push him away.  In the event, this is what happens: “Her instinct was to fight him. He held her so hard.  Yet why fight?  Why fight anybody?  Her will seemed to leave her and she was limp.”

Connie lets Parkin take her.  (Does she give true consent?)  In the event, the sex that follows is described by Lawrence in these florid terms:

And then, something awoke in her.  Strange, thrilling sensation that she had never known before woke up where he was within her, in wild thrills like wild, wild bells.

But, about their relationship, Connie acknowledges her ambivalent feelings:

When she woke to herself, she knew life had changed for her.  Changed with him.  And she was afraid.  She was afraid of loving him.  She was afraid of letting herself go…..Ah, she adored him!  And she longed to abandon herself to the luxury of loving him.  At the same time, she mistrusted yielding to her lover.

Connie is changing, and she realises that she is changing:

She was full of a strange triumph, and a sort of glory of new pleasure.  She could still feel the echoes of the thrill of passion in her blood, ebbing away down all her veins like the rich after-humming of deep bells.”

Connie has a new aspiration: “And she felt sure she would have a child, a baby with soft live limbs, ensheathed in her own life.”

At home, Connie sees Clifford with new eyes:

And she thought, suddenly, what a queer rapacity there was in his naked face and his alert cautious eyes….He no longer cared about persons.  It was the mines that occupied his attention, on them his will was fixed.  He was going to pull them out of the depression: he was going to make money.

CLIFFORD

Clifford has an inkling of changes in Connie and her drift away from him.  First, he notices her inattention to his reading out loud to her (one of their habits):

The reading finished.  She was startled.  She looked up, and was more startled still to see Clifford watching her with a faint, cruel smile in his eyes.

The growing gap is reinforced when Connie goes to bed and wishes Clifford “Good-night!” (only):

As she spoke, she drifted dreamily nearer the door.  She was going without kissing him good-night.  He watched her with lynx eyes.  Even that she could forget!  And he was too proud, too offended to remind her.  Though the kiss, indeed, was but a formality….He could not make love to her! and therefore she was withdrawing every tiny show of love.  She forgot, no doubt.  But the forgetfulness was part of the whole intention….Ah well! he was a man, and asked charity from nobody, not even his wife.

Clifford takes comfort in cherishing his master-servant (child-mother?) relationship with his nurse, Mrs Bolton:

But after all, Mrs Bolton was his best tonic.  She did not understand the awfulness of his mental condition, as Connie did, therefore she was the best help….His dread was for the night, when he could not sleep.  But now he would ring for Mrs Bolton, and she would come in her dressing-gown….strangely girlish and secretive, and talk to him, or play chess or cards with him.

PARKIN

Parkin shows evidence of obsession with Connie, and possessiveness.  When he bumps into Connie, on her homeward walk, he shows anger at the thought that she might be avoiding him.  “You wasn’t slivin’ past and not meanin’ to see me, was you?” he says, challengingly.

In the event, he is implicitly forgiven for his forceful manner, as the sexual act turns out to be satisfactory for both of them, this time: “We came off together that time,” he says to her.

At home, later, Parkin finds that he cannot sleep: “He was unsettled, in a ferment.”  He goes for a night walk, with his dog.   His steps take him to the Chatterleys’ house.  Looking up at it reinforces his desire for Connie, sleeping within:

He went slowly up the incline, towards the house, hoping for the woman.  It was a necessity that he should see her, should come to her, should touch her, if only for a moment.  If he found his way into the house! – or if he made her know he was there! – or if he waited, waited, waited for naked day.

But Parkin realises the “futility of his yearning”: so, “he turned away, slowly, ponderingly, despairingly”.

Parkin, moreover, worries about the strength of the relationship with Connie and about his obsession with her.  His pride and his need for independence come through, in his thoughts: “A man must not depend on a woman.”

MRS BOLTON

Mrs Bolton already has suspicions about Connie, arising from the recent change in her.  On Connie’s arrival home from her walk, they talk, and Mrs Bolton thinks:

The eyes of the two women met, Mrs Bolton’s, grey and bright and cool, Constance’s, bright and burning.  And with the infernal instinct of her kind, Mrs Bolton knew that Constance had a lover of some sort.  She had suspected it before.  Tonight she was sure.  And a curious pleasure, a satisfaction almost as if it had been her own lover, leaped up inside her.  Only the question began to burn in her mind, who was he?

Again, later:

Tonight, at the back of her mind, she was continually wondering whom her lady had found for a lover.  There seemed no gentleman possible.

She does think of Parkin, but rejects the idea:

There was Parkin in the wood, of course!….But then her ladyship would never stoop to him!….He might be attractive to a low sort of woman, if any one could stand his overbearing, nasty way.  But for a refined woman, he was just a snarling nasty brute.

Does Mrs Bolton show insight into Parkin’s character, or prejudice, or indeed both?

Mrs Bolton follows up her critique of Parkin with an unflattering observation about “refined ladies” in general and Connie in particular:

Still, you never knew!  When women did fall, they sometimes liked to fall as low as they could.  Refined ladies would fall in love with niggers, so her ladyship might enjoy demeaning herself with that foul-mouthed fellow, who would bully her the moment he got a chance.  But there, she’d had her own way for so long, she might be asking to be bullied.

Later, still awake, she spots Parkin as he approaches the house in the dark – seeing but remaining unseen.  Her suspicion is confirmed.  Her thoughts, now, mark the end of the chapter:

And Mrs Bolton….saw him turn and disappear.  Yes, he was gone!  And his going made her more certain than ever.

“Well, would you ever now!” she said to herself, dazed with sleep.  “And not a young man either!”

Conclusions and Questions

Is Lawrence obsessed with sex?  Does the reader appreciate Lawrence’s style, when he writes about sex, explicitly?  This is a matter of personal preference, perhaps.

Is Lawrence hostile, not only to class divisions and conflict but also to the sexual morality prevailing in 1920s England (which condemned sex outside marriage)?  I think so.

Are Lawrence’s characters rounded?  Do they change?  Do they arouse understanding, or even sympathy, in the reader?  Are there ambiguities?  Can Parkin (for example) be seen from more than one point of view?  Can they all be true?  Yes, he is hard at times, gentle at others.  (Is there a history behind his hardness?  Yes.)

I believe that in Chapter VIII Lawrence portrays his main characters’ profound feelings and thoughts, especially about their relations with each other, very well indeed.  He is very good at conveying the tensions inherent in the relationship between Connie and Parkin – the forces pushing them together and those wrenching them apart.  On the personal level, both have ambivalent feelings – each wishing to yield to the other, and not wishing to yield, at one and the same time.  True to life, no doubt.