Ours is essentially a tragic age…
Constance Chatterley’s diary, Autumn, 1920.
My husband’s recovery was a miracle, but it was ultimately the death of his father.
Now the poor man is buried, Clifford and I are installed at the family seat of Wragby Hall, here in the smoky, industrialised Midlands. My husband is risen to baronet, SIR Clifford Chatterley. And I am his Lady Constance. Connie, in affectionate address.
In the past, he would have found such societal fripperies all so ridiculous… he feared himself one day to become such a pillar of his own ridicule. It has come, but has brought with it so much of regret.
Clifford ascended to heir of Wragby Hall by surviving his elder brother, Herbert, in the war; but only barely. It was fallen to him to provide the next. I would be a willing chattel; yet returning home from the fighting as he did, only away but six months following our brief honeymoon, all hope of such joy is dead. My husband lives; his ability, his seed, does not.
And so the elder Sir Geoffrey Chatterley has pined away, unfulfilled. It is a time of great tragedy in the world, but we must strive not to dwell on tragedy inside. It eats the soul; it poisons the heart.
Clifford and I shared a great intimacy. Not that of love-making; he was a fellow as to whom such a thing was mechanical, a by-product of marriage, into which he entered still a virgin. For him, passion was politics, and coal; engineering, and public service. We shared an affection and rapport, within which the physical exertions of lust would have been an unnecessary distraction. It was wholesome; it was modern; it was spiritual. There was nothing that he did not give me, or allow me to be. I could be seen AND heard. We did share the sexual act in our honeymoon, but it was a courtesy. An acknowledgement of the marriage vows; not a celebration. A simple address of the ‘dearly beloved.’
My husband knew of my former life as a free, willing Bohemian music student, with my sister in Dresden. We were well-travelled by the age of fifteen and seventeen respectively, taking in Paris, Florence, Rome, the Hague, Berlin; all for the absorption of art, language, and civilised culture. Hilda and I had already lost former lovers in the war, by the Christmas of 1914; German young men, philosophers, musicians, from whose embrace we were torn, at the start of hostilities. We were so young. The young men so vibrant! How they talked. How they sang. How they persisted in physical intimacies… Afterwards, so strange to think of them gone, no longer existing. A passionate loss to suffer. I was home again, helping a little in the war effort, barely twenty years old.
I find myself thinking more of their passions, their eagerness and excitement, since my husband’s luxury of exploiting the marriage bed has been stolen from him. I never thought I would miss it; I had Clifford. He had me. We were yet still young, and time was our cohort, in which to feel the heat of tenderness and closeness if we so wished. But now the bedroom door is closed forever between us. There is no more luxury of that option. There are only the marriage ties of law. There is no marriage of consummation.
Clifford does not punish me for being modern, and cosmopolitan in upbringing. In fact it rather suits him, to have a little exotic inspiration in the package of what would be a ruddy, wholesome country girl in appearance, as I have been described; not brash like city folk, or wilting like a kept flower. The same time that Hilda and I were in Dresden with our German young men, he had been in Bonn at the time of early unrest, studying the science of mining and its application; conscription to active service in the response was his impetus to hurry home, and fulfil the vocation of every worthy aristocrat. The company of academic intelligentsia stimulates him, and defies the awkwardness he feels in the wide world outside of his family home, and limited higher echelons of society. As children, his sister, brother, and he had vowed never to leave Wragby Hall, but to live as privileged hermit siblings under the rule of their private, obstinate father, Sir Geoffrey. Clifford’s sister Emma, although ten years older, had clung to this childhood ideal; until finding that she could not put a stop to his marrying me to fulfil the new obligations of heir, in the wake of his brother Herbert’s passing a year earlier.
We met while Hilda and I were back at home in Kensington, mixing with the earnest young Cambridge anarchy. Hilda married an elder member of this sometimes foppish group, and they moved into a small Westminster house; a good man ten years older, with a government post achieved through his family, who wrote essays in philosophy. While not in an elevated position of power, he occupies the ranks of those with true insight and intelligence in this country. Clifford was also in this Cambridge sect, and we became good friends. That he found me fascinating was an entertainment in itself. He admitted he envied my self-assurance in the world. In turn, I found his rebellious streak and fondness of making ridicule of all traditional structures in society refreshing. That his ridiculing emerged from insecurity, his sheltered aristocratic upbringing, mattered not. In the same way that my own worldly experiences of passion mattered not to him.
We married in 1917, while he was home on leave for a month, from Flanders. I was twenty-three; he was at the time twenty-nine. Six months on, he returned again from Flanders, a shattered remnant of former manhood. He was two years under the care of excellent doctors; they grew him back together in physical form, but they could not engineer his lower limbs to function, nor his serviceability as a husband.
My husband has his toys, with which he is well pleased. A motorised bath-chair, so that he may take a drive around the gardens of Wragby Hall park, or the village. He shows concealed pride in the gardens, but it is the proprietary pride of a man who cannot dig into the earth, or plant a tree, or create the life they contain with his own hands. As for the village, they mumble greetings filled with pity and fear. Pity as they look upon me, the strange married nun of Wragby Hall; fear as they see Clifford, that for the grace of God they suffer such a fate. Or indeed, survive such a fate as he.
My husband clings to small joys like an ivy. His intellect is not affected. He exclaims upon good weather and good news alike; every moment of every day is a blessing to him. His complexion is full of vigour; his eagerness to participate in work, in thinking, and in discussions, is as avid as before. Perhaps more so. He compensates for his losses greatly by this, and his attentiveness to my own wellbeing is unmatched. That I am fed; that I am warm; that I am well. He is a good husband, if not a husband in the sense of being whole, or of participating in the marriage as such.
He only defects through his own frustrations. Of bathing, and of dressing. He is useless below the waist, and feels greatly his own weight when moving, if not his own sensations there. So far he resists the employment of a nurse. But his look of impatience at times when I try to help, makes me feel in my own way impotent. I think he will struggle for some time before asking for qualified assistance.
There is a skeleton staff at Wragby Hall; a cook and maid; a gardener. There is a cottage in the grounds occupied by a gamekeeper, as yet unseen by me. My husband has not yet been in a shape well enough to take the full tour, and make introductions. The Hall and park are very quiet, melancholy and haunting. Even here we can feel the desertion left behind upon our land by war; all the strongest and most vigorous of us have been away fighting. Many of them dying. A few returning, like Clifford, to a half-life, a half-marriage.
I would not wish such an event on any young married couple. I feel fortunate, that I am me, and he is he; for between us, there is still the marriage we entered into. That of spiritual intimacy and debate, of small entertainment, and of companionship. Were it not for his father’s deterioration and death, blamed on my husband’s condition, we would not notice the cloud over our heads. We are not those old-fashioned people in our minds, to whom a marriage without sex is a dried-out empty husk, left without pollen.
But in my pre-nuptial brain there are stored memories of campfires, of singing under Dresden stars, of flirting eyes and wandering hands. Of the beautiful congruence of a shared conversation, continued over many days and nights! Never before had I known such a continuity could exist, a perfectly hung debate on all things, forever balanced and profound. The breakfasting on German sausage… how they insisted on the sex thing, like dogs! It is these memories, accompanied by the plucking of remembered guitar-strings, love-notes written on skin in the firelight, and the salt of tears at the mourning of deceased lovers whom God saw fit to draw into his net rather than cast back, which fill my waking nights, alone in the supposed marital bed.
Ah! It was easy to play with the emotions of young men. If we surrendered our bodies, but our minds remained free. The men were always that bit more attentive; that bit more persuasive and persistent; that little bit more lustful. But as students abroad, Hilda and I had no need of commitment, or of emotional bonds, or financial support. Our parents were artistic, broadminded, and we rejoiced in the freedom of womanhood. The freedom to speak, to sing and to make love. Our futures were vast. Our time on Earth was unlimited. There would be many lovers in our future; many husbands, even; possibly many children. These memories, these memories of plans, are now my aching dreams in solitary moments.
But those futures were drawn up before the great storm of war came, and suddenly there was no more abroad. Future dreams were shadowed. Suddenly we were home, and there was honour in obligation, especially to marry a lieutenant, to become his rock, his correspondence. New futures were drawn up, not in celebration of the freedom of womanhood, but in support of the freedom of our country. The sisterhood was now a military conscript, drying her tears, and tilling the soil, so that her husband would eat on his return.
The war brought me my marriage, my security; but it also closed my bedroom door forever.
Inspired by D.H. Lawrence