A demi-vierge, or demi-monde?
Wragby was a long low old house in brown stone, begun about the middle of the eighteenth century, and added on to, till it was a warren of a place without much distinction. It stood on an eminence in a rather fine old park of oak trees, but alas, one could see in the near distance the chimney of Tevershall pit, with its clouds of steam and smoke, and on the damp, hazy distance of the hill the raw straggle of Tevershall village, a village which began almost at the park gates, and trailed in utter hopeless ugliness for a long and gruesome mile: houses, rows of wretched, small, begrimed, brick houses, with black slate roofs for lids, sharp angles and wilful, blank dreariness.
Wragby Hall, January 1921
I am disturbed by the landscape of the Midlands, being far more used to Kensington, or the hills of Scotland, or the Sussex downs. The rattle and clank of the colliery, and the stench of the burning pit-bank, left to burn itself out for lack of funds to smother it, loads the air around Wragby, even on windless days. Black ash settles on the white Christmas roses, like manna of doom.
At night the low-slung ceiling of cloud over Tevershall ripples with a red light, dappling and quavering. It is the reflection of the furnaces; the sight fascinates me with a horror, as I watch from the windows of these rather dismal rooms at Wragby Hall. I could believe that Wragby Hall exists here under the Earth itself, in the bowels of Hades. The morning brings sullied rain, washing away the illusion, but bringing more of the air-borne slurry with it, darkening windows, and smearing picket fences which are never able to remain white.
Clifford is invigorated by Wragby in a way that London could not afford him; it matches his cold, grim determination, and he professes that the people here have ‘guts’.
In my opinion, they certainly need them, being not possessed of either eyes nor minds. They are a queer, haggard, shapeless folk, as dreary as the countryside they occupy. Something in their deep-throated slurring of the unfamiliar dialect, and the thresh-thresh of their hobnailed boots, as they troop home in their gangs from the pits, is strangely terrible and mysterious.
I have learned to harden myself to the inhospitable denizens, not to take every stare as a slight, nor to expect friendly greetings from folks who did not consider me their equal, or vice versa. Clifford, although keen to observe the work done, as a scientist views things through his microscope, detached, feels humiliation in his being lame. His sister Emma, having been thwarted in her desire to retain childhood plans, had long ago left Wragby for a flat in London. I suspect he felt as much pain of rejection there as in any circumstance.
He has re-invented himself as raconteur and literary artist, writing stories for the most modern magazines; witty, cruel, timely, and observational, but again at the same scientific distance. I expect you have read a few in the London circuit! He obsesses over these tales and their subsequent reviews, and sometimes my entire being feels as if it is drawn into analysis of his new image, of the finer points of his writing; that his demand for my attention in these things is like sex, the needy animal of single-minded fixation. I am pleased to be sought in the matter, that he wishes my mind turn inside-out, to join him in his learning curve. In a way perhaps that I am unable to provide in physical gratification, in the nuptial state of union. He is morbidly sensitive; he pesters me for advice on finer details of sensual things that he can transcribe into narrative. I am honoured and thrilled to be treated as his muse.
In physical ability he is also needy, and still impatient at times. But it is his fragile ego which suffers most. Although a sturdy and bucolic man not at all like the feminine fops in most of the high society, his upper self as vibrant as ever, to have no motility, no impetus of his own, is a disability far beyond that of the body. For this reason he occupies his mind; studies the workings of the mines as a gardener studies an ant-hill, and studies the smart set of society in his stories in much the same way. He enjoys to dress well; appearance is all to him, that he must appear sound in both brain and in taste. The new Bond Street neckties you sent for Christmas were very greatly appreciated, I can tell you! I hope soon he will consent to a nurse being employed, for although our companionship is so close, I feel I also require the constitution and strength of a work-horse to meet his every small need, day and night.
Do I have needs of my own? Oh, so many, dearest Hilda! But none of which I dare to speak. They only haunt my dreams now. It has been more than three years since our honeymoon. I have become as a small child again; of a mind to whom the minutest distractions separate each living moment, with no thread of congruence in-between. It is my husband’s life, his own mind, which seeks meaning and purpose. I am there just to wait with baited breath on each esoteric whim, that he may be fulfilled.
Clifford has invited many fine folk to visit, now armed with his notoriety in books and stories, and there is barely a week goes by now without company. Miss Emma Clifford has so far visited rarely, with a standoffish arrogance. She feels ousted, it is plain; and her attitude reflects that she also felt she herself should be inspiration enough for his stories. They should be Chatterley stories, and Chatterley books, grown out of childhood tales shared between siblings together. For me to inspire them, means that no organic connection exists with the name that ought to be carried forth; yet again, an implied indication of the ‘impotence’ in our marriage, as viewed by outsiders. I bear her visits lightly, as I do in contact with the rest of the family, his visiting friends, and the villagers. I do not wish to arm my sister-in-law for any lawful assault of character.
In this I sense my husband’s pride in me. His impression of my loyalty from my calm unruffled presence, is all that is required on such occasions, and reflects very well upon him in his social circle.
I miss you, dear sister; I hope this letter finds you well.
…And in this way, Sir Clifford and Lady Constance Chatterley passed a year in the gloom of Wragby, in the shade of the smoky foulness of Tevershall pit.
Constance Chatterley’s diary, January, 1922.
My father has come to visit, and it is a delight to see his warm familiar face among so many existing here that are grey and debilitated!
But for a few days he has carried a strange countenance about him. His concern that I was not eating was met with much argument from myself and Clifford alike; I eat very well. Perhaps not with the great, gutsy appetite of a young woman in the bloom of her honeymoon, for I have none to gorge about. But I fare well, and showed clean dinner plates at every sitting, as proof of such.
It was this afternoon that he made the most curious statement, as I was gathering my coat for a solitary walk in the park.
“I hope, Connie, that you won’t let circumstances force you into being a demi-vierge.”
“A demi-vierge!” I repeated, not in the slightest knowing of what he spoke, but only curious as to his tone of disapproval. “But why? Why not?”
“Unless you like it, of course!” he replied, a little too hastily, and retired at once to the library, where Clifford was working on a new story. His seriousness in opening the subject followed by such an abrupt retreat peaked my curiosity further, and I regret to say I eavesdropped outside the door while buttoning my coat.
“I am afraid it doesn’t quite suit Connie to be a demi-vierge,” my father told my husband, as if somewhat fixated on the words.
“A half-virgin!” Clifford replied, sounding rather startled.
Goodness! I could picture his face turning very red indeed, in the uncomfortable silence.
“In what way doesn’t it suit her?” he asked at last, stiffly.
“She’s getting thin… angular. It’s not her style. She’s not the pilchard sort of little slip of a girl, she’s a bonny Scotch trout.”
“Without the spots, of course!” Clifford joked.
But I could hear the denial in his tone, the awkwardness with which such matters touched him. We were too intimate in one another’s innermost thoughts, on weaving stories and their meaning; and far too distant on the corpus delicti of our non-existent sexual congress.
So close, and yet so out of touch.
I wrapped my coat tightly around against the chill frost, as I took my turn into the park. Clifford would not care if I were a demi-vierge or a demi-monde, a demi-mondaine! What he would neither know nor see would matter not to him. I could pickle away as a married old maid, an owned nun, with only sloe gin as my nightly companion; or service idle squires around the country. Neither would he see, and neither would he fret about.
But this is life, in the void. The cold great house; the oasis of the park; the encroaching nether-lands of the pit. The spectral denizens, barely real in our world. I enjoy the park, and the woods beyond. The freedom of a child; not the same as the freedom of womanhood (so long ago Dresden seems now! So long!) but the freedom to run in the open air, to kick fallen leaves about, to search vainly yet for those first snowdrops, crocuses and other spring flowers. I look forward to the primroses… and still I see myself from the outside, a wood-nymph, haunting the park; maybe I am of it, as much as the gangs of lurching, unintelligible men are of the village and the colliery. A part of this unreality, a woman-child, without physical contact in this world. A spectre of this empty space, where an heir of Wragby Hall should appear, to put forth new seeds in turn. A ghost of a non-mother.
If only this life with Clifford could bring forth such a life in turn! This endless spinning of yarns and webs of complex nature, on the page in a fictional world! The minutiae of consciousness revealed; if not of substance, then of the appearance of reality, until such a reality existing can be fully denied; whether by his critics, or by his own insecurity, and then he writes no more.
It is true, I am not ‘a little pilchard sort of fish’. When I am hostess to my husband’s guests, they partake of a sherry and remark upon my freckles, my brown hair, and then my feminine shape; for me, no boy’s flat chest, or little buttocks of no movement. I treat those observations in vague quietness, too loyal to flirt. I like my husband’s comfortable smile when he notes how unaffected I am by these strange compliments.
His relatives are kind, although I know this means they do not feel threatened by me. But why should they? I am in turn Clifford’s nurse, and muse, and counsel. Perhaps the least of which in traditional concepts, his wife. But we are man and wife, on paper, and in exchanging vows.
Just not in fulfilling them, in the bedroom. Or anyplace. I blushed in the gathering dim fog of the wood, thinking of many secret places that we could, but forever would not, explore.
Time passes quickly, and reluctantly I turned out of the woods before dark could fall. Half-past seven might as well be half-past eight in winter! Something crackled in the frozen bracken behind me; perhaps a creeping fox, hoping to snatch a remainder of the winter game fare. But I did not stop to look for its questing snout.
In darkness, all poachers are alike, and I still have yet to meet the new gamekeeper since the last one passed away between Christmas and New Year, merry on brandy, and skating on the lake without his long-johns.
I picked up my pace a little, and hurried back to the Hall.
Inspired by D.H. Lawrence