There are many good reasons for reading D H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and one of the less recognised reasons is for the comments Lawrence makes about the writing of fiction and characterisation in particular.
The reason for this neglect, of course, is that the novel was censored for so-called obscenity for more than 30 years. It was first written in the 1920s but only after Penguin Books tested the novel in the courts was it subsequently exonerated and published in 1961. Its reputation for being somewhat obscene, however, has remained in some quarters.
Gossip is the discussing of the personal likes, habits, behaviour, weaknesses, and strengths (less often than the others) of other people. It is often frowned upon but no less indulged in for that. When we think of gossip it may be of two people talking about others in hushed tones over the garden fence, during a quiet moment in the office, on the bus, anywhere two or three are gathered together. Those who indulge in it (i.e. nearly everybody) often feel a little guilty about their habit; hence the fact that gossip has a pretty bad press.
It therefore comes as a bit of a surprise when Lawrence in Chapter 9 of Lady Chatterley’s’ Lover appears to equate gossip with what the novelist does and he seems to say that literature is akin to gossip. And he is writing about literary fiction, not just potboilers.
Lord and Lady Chatterley, in the novel, have a domestic help called Mrs Bolton who is in the habit of regaling Lady Chatterley’s husband, Clifford, with the latest gossip from the village of Tevershall. Lady Chatterley sometimes overhears the pair talking and feels a little guilty, not just at her eavesdropping but at being interested in the gossip.
The narrator then writes the following and we can assume that the idea reflects Lawrence’s own:
She (Mrs Bolton) had unloosed to him the stream of gossip about Tevershall village. It was more than gossip. It was Mrs Gaskell and George Eliot and Miss Mitford all rolled in one, with a great deal more that those women left out. Mrs Bolton was better than any book about the lives of people.
The most interesting thing about this observation is that Lawrence compares Mrs Bolton’s gossip with the work of three admired writers. The difference is, of course, that the fiction writer’s presentation of human behaviours and weaknesses is not like gossip about real people, it is fictional; but, of course, many fictional characters are composites of real people.
When the writer makes a judgement about characters we compare it with behaviour we know from observation of people in real life. We often ask if the fiction writer’s presentation of human behaviour is believable. People who gossip are interested in human behaviour; they may be trying to understand why people behave in certain ways. The fiction writer also has this interest and explores human behaviour and the motives for it. There is also an advantage to the writer over the gossip; he or she has time to explore and consider in considerable detail the subject and characters of the story.
Lawrence pursues his ideas later in the chapter. He is noted for his moral stance in his fiction and therefore he would be unlikely to endorse gossip which is malicious. He writes:
After all, one may hear the most private affairs of other people, but only in a spirit of respect for the struggling, battered thing which any human soul is, and in a spirit of fine discriminative sympathy. It is the way our sympathy flows and recoils that really determines our lives. And here lies the vast importance of the novel, properly handled. It can inform and lead into new places the flow of our sympathetic consciousness, and it can lead our sympathy away from things gone dead. Therefore the novel, properly handled, can reveal the most secret places of life: for it is in the passional secret places of life, above all, that the tide of sensitive awareness needs to ebb and flow, cleansing and freshening.
This makes clear that Lawrence believed that we should be sympathetic to what we may regard as weaknesses – even crimes – of people we know or hear about. Equally, good writers will deal with all characters in the fiction they write with what he calls “sympathetic consciousness”, or in a “spirit of fine discriminative sympathy”. After all, everyone is an example of “the struggling, battered thing which any soul is.” So, if I am reading Lawrence correctly he is saying all characters should be treated sympathetically and with understanding and this will be possible if we delve into what makes them tick and why they sometimes behave in ways of which we would disapprove. His use of the term “discrimination” of course means that we do not justify or approve of immoral behaviour. The behaviour may be condemned, but not the perpetrator.
Writers often think of their main characters in terms of heroes, heroines and villains with possibly shades between these extremes. Should the villain, say the murderer, the paedophile, the cheat, the egotist, or the traitor be afforded sympathy? There is a temptation to condemn such people and characters and yet it is often found, if we think of villains in real life, that an understanding of their background and what drove them will lead us to be less condemnatory than we might have been. And surely one of the attributes of a good writer is to be analytic of character and as objective as possible.
Perhaps a distinction needs to be made between what might be called literary or serious fiction and escapist fiction. There is no doubt that the out and out villain is afforded little sympathy and there is a certain pleasure for readers and filmgoers in metaphorically booing the villain just as theatregoers in the 19th century literally booed the villain when he came on stage.
We would not particularly want our sympathies elicited for the arch-villains in the James Bond stories or the master criminals and tyrants who oppose the superheroes such as Batman and Superman. But then we don’t take these characters too seriously. We acknowledge the escapist nature of this kind of fiction.
Notice how we sometimes excuse a “villain” if he or she does some virtuous act. A newspaper recently reported on a schoolboy truant and long-term petty thief who had also been looking after a sick grandmother. For the latter behaviour he escaped borstal training. Remember Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities. The character Sidney Carton was something of a ne’er-do-well but at the end of the story he sacrifices himself for others. On the scaffold he utters the immortal words: “It is a far, far better thing that I do now than I have done.” His past behaviour is forgotten, or at least forgiven.
It may appear impossible for the writer to have sympathy for, and the writer to elicit sympathy from readers for some character types. But it might be useful to think of them this way: what if the killer or paedophile was my brother or sister or my father or mother?
It is considerably easier for the writer to endow their more heroic characters with some faults. We rarely find what may be regarded as the hero or heroine of a story being brave, resourceful, kind, generous, etcetera and not have some negative characteristics as well. Heroes often have weaknesses as, of course, do most people in life. Rather oddly, although the James Bond villains have no redeeming features Bond himself, in spite of his bravery and resourcefulness and being on the side of right, is also sexist, selfish and often without any compassion.
In recent years modern TV drama has promoted the central character or hero as a person beset with many weaknesses. It is almost impossible to find a detective or policeman who isn’t a bad husband or wife and who is quite willing to betray a colleague, falsify the evidence and so on. Even in soap operas the favoured characters often have a clutch of weaknesses. They are more interesting than the stereotypical heroic type. Perhaps we need to rid ourselves of the terms “hero”, “heroine” and “villain” (as I have not done!)
If you are writing purely escapist fiction then it may be acceptable and appropriate to have villainous villains and virtuous main characters. For more serious fiction with truly rounded characters, both the mainly good and the mainly bad, D H Lawrence provides good advice in pointing out the importance of applying discriminative sympathy when we are in the process of creating our characters. We need to respect characters as we should respect people but this does not mean that we sympathise with some of their actions. We should, as Lawrence wrote, “recoil from things gone dead”.
Indirectly there is another thing that Lawrence reminds us of. Gossip is not to be condemned. Both your own gossip and what you overhear may well be the source of what could be a compelling piece of fiction. After all, gossip is usually concerned with human behaviour.
Colin Bulman is the author of Fiction: The Art and the Craft, published by Compass Books, September 2014. He has written books, articles and stories and he teaches writing.
This article first appeared in Writer’s Wheel Magazine Issue 3