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Book Review


More of a son than a Lover

Jane Stevenson

DH Lawrence: The Life of an Outsider
John Worthen

There was a time when anyone who read Eng. Lit. at all had at least read Lady Chatterley's Lover, but now it is the end of the Chatterley ban and not the book itself, which marks an epoch. Profoundly estranged from the literary establishment of his own time, between the Fifties and the Seventies Lawrence provided a model of genius which was highly convenient to male writers, and shaped such creations as Jimmy Porter in Look Back in Anger and Jack Torrance in The Shining. After which, the women's movement came along and trounced the entire enterprise.Lawrence has been purged from the new canon on grounds of sexism (and racism). Worthen does a good job of contexting the apparent racism, but the sexism is a more complex issue. After the death of his could-do-no-wrong elder brother, Lawrence became mother's boy, and one of the things about men who have had that particular experience is that in their subsequent relationships with women, they are apt to take it for granted that their own emotional welfare is the overriding concern of both parties. Lawrence felt entitled to supersede his father, use up and ultimately to reject, his mother, and then to maintain a series of profoundly exploitative relationships with other women. It was in the nature of his achievement as a writer to draw on his relationships, reflecting them through the powerful but distorting lens of his own ego, and it is unsurprising that this angered and distressed most of those who had loved him.

However, one issue which Worthen curiously neglects is Lawrence's religious formation. Lawrence was not just 'nonconformist', he was a Congregationalist, and thus the heir of a socially vital but theologically terrifying tradition which argues for the damnation of the entire human race apart from a minute band of perfected 'saints'. Lawrence repudiated the doctrine, but kept the spiritual arrogance, which helps to explain why he envisaged 'losing nine-tenths of my few remaining friends' over Lady Chatterley with such equanimity.

He declared, characteristically: 'We can go wrong in our minds. But what our blood feels and believes and says, is always true.' This is the discourse of radical religion, guided by inner sendings; though it was sex, not God, he turned to for transformative experience.

But the prophet of transforming sexuality was a late developer. After a series of tormentingly tentative relationships with socially aspirant female counterparts to himself, he fell for the first aristocrat to cross his path. Frieda von Richthofen had the confidence generated by a privileged upbringing. She enjoyed sex, loved her children, and was freedom-loving, habitually unfaithful, and shrewd. Lawrence was in flight from English social mores, so the fact that she was German may also have helped, since there were many aspects of Englishness she neither knew nor cared about.

Worthen seems to go along with Lawrence's view that he was too ready to give way to Frieda's demands to be loved. But Lawrence forced Frieda, born, it would seem, to be a lover and a mother, to make wifehood her sole occupation; so it is small wonder that she demanded his exclusive attention.

Worthen writes as sufficiently a partisan of Lawrence's viewpoint to describe Frieda's excruciating pain over her loss of her children to vengeful English divorce laws as 'silliness', and to condone Lawrence's total failure of sympathy.

His attitude towards Frieda's children suggests that he fundamentally perceived them as rivals, and Frieda's own tolerance for his behaviour seems to imply that she had grasped its implications.

Lawrence, Worthen asserts, did not want 'mothering', and in the way that he means, this is clearly true, but at the same time, Lawrence required women to be alertly respectful of his changing needs without regard to needs of their own, and became enraged when they didn't.

One practical question which goes unexamined in this book, which is otherwise stunningly comprehensive, is what Lawrence did about contraception after his marriage (condoms were a feature of his early affairs). Lawrence was absolutely committed to divorcing sex from parenthood: 'The great relationship, for humanity, will always be the relation between man and woman. The relationship between ... parent and child, will always be subsidiary.' How very much he must have wished that to be true. But Frieda was a fecund woman of abundant vitality, and she was also slapdash and impatient; it's hard to envisage her in the context of a cautious routine of rubber preventatives.

What is left, now the dust has settled? A handful of wonderful poems, some outstanding travel writing, and a collection of novels which now seem strangely hard to read. One illuminating fact which Worthen brings out is the speed at which Lawrence composed: 2,000-3,000 words a day. It is unsurprising that some of his writing now seems under-edited.

It is hard to take Lawrence's preachings about 'phallic tenderness' seriously, other than as a reflection of the deep-rooted fears evoked by the first phase of the sexual and economic emancipation of women. He is the ultimate spokesman for a particular type of male personality, so defended against a devouring mother that he is crippled by fear of commitment.

This review was first published in the Guardian



Shonar Shekol

Kaniz Siddiqui
Kakoli Publishers, Bangladesh, 2004

Reviewed by Elora Halim Chowdhury, Assistant Professor of Women's Studies at University of Massachusetts, Boston s

Kaniz Siddiqui's first novel Shonar Shekol is about experiencing "womanhood" in contemporary urban Bangladesh. She engagingly weaves readers through the protagonist Meera's adolescent dreams, family obligations, violence of marriage and then loneliness and conformity of widowhood, and finally experiences in love and self-actualisation.

An obedient daughter of protective parents, Meera is unable to voice her reservations in being married off at 16 to Habib, a self-made successful businessman more than twice her age. Habib is the eldest son with attendant responsibilities in a large family and Meera soon has to learn to negotiate her newfound roles as wife and domestic proprietor. Although she is encouraged to continue her studies through college and university, it is made clear by both Habib and his mother that her real duties lie in taking good care of her husband and the household and eventually bearing and rearing children. As the initial romance and novelty begin to wane in the marriage, Meera becomes increasingly restless and discontent. Her attempts of forging friendships with Habib's younger male cousins are misconstrued as illicit by Habib who in fits of jealous rage subjects Meera to violence and sexual assault. Meera finds empathy and solidarity with the most marginalised in the household -- Habib's poor relatives from the village, and the maid who has been sexually molested by her brother-in-law. Yet, that is declared unacceptable behaviour for someone of Meera's status --symbolically the "lady" of the household, but ironically with little power. Unable to find support from her own family or Habib's, a dejected Meera accepts her lot and retreats into a cocoon focusing intently on raising two sons.

When Meera is 40, Habib dies of cancer leaving all of the family wealth in the hands of his younger brother. In the absence of her in-laws Meera moves in with her parents to a lonely, rigidly defined existence as a widow. The entrance of Ajay, on old friend from university days -- open-up doors to new opportunities, alliances, and imaginations -- disrupting the routine and predictability of long and solitary days. Meera rekindles old friendships, makes new ones, asserts her individuality and realises unfulfilled dreams. Ajay introduces her to his intellectual and politically- minded friends at a local newspaper where Meera is reacquainted with Fatema, a childhood friend, who is now an established columnist. She begins to imagine a different world.

Meera returns to the home she had made with Habib yet shunned after his death and slowly rebuilds a haven for herself on the rooftop apartment surrounded by planters of rose bushes. As Ajay prepares to return to America, to his job and wife, he and Meera realise the beauty of their momentary union yet with limitless and freeing consequences. Meera pours her heart and soul to writing about women's lives as she herself comes to grips with her own multi-faceted desires, experiences and aspirations. Siddiqui's novel is a richly descriptive and moving account of the complexity of being a woman in a patriarchal society, which determines women's positionalities around a set of narrowly defined roles. Meera's mother who is worried about her daughter's resistance to an abusive husband, and then friendship with a Hindu man, her aunt who is so complacent in her financial privilege and moral superiority so as to freely hand out placatory advice to Meera on being patient and submissive, Fatema, her colleague and friend, who has made peace with her husband's abandonment and found meaning in a fulfilling career; Saira, Meera's aggressive sister-in-law, who defies stereotypical notions of femininity among the many female characters in the book depict the range of what it means to be a woman across divides of age, class, and social status. Together they represent a spectrum of victimisation and disempowerment as well as empowerment and resistance experienced by women in society. That which divides women, disallows them from uniting as women yet connects them through gendered oppression. Yet, Meera's self-assertion and agency leaves the readers with a sense of triumph. Ultimately, the novel reflects the complex and often contradictory realities of women. By taking the experiences of ordinary women's lives seriously, Siddiqui exposes the oppressive social, economic and cultural climate and institutions within and against which women must survive.

 

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