- D. H. Lawrence & the Complex Nature of Marriage
D. H. LAWRENCE'S ABIDING INTEREST in the complex nature of marriage derives from his experience both as the child of a troubled marriage and a partner in an even more volatile one. Balbert considers in chronological order eight works, all completed during the last decade of Lawrence's life (1920–1928) each concerned with "the marriage matrix." As Balbert's analyses progress from one fiction to the next, however, he might have just as accurately designated the common denominator "the extra-marital matrix" or the "tawdry triangle" since most of the characters experience erotic satisfaction and "renewal," as Balbert terms it, only outside of the marriage bond. Balbert's subtitle, "Intertextual Adventures in Conflict, Renewal, and Transcendence," suggests the method and the argument employed in the essays. Works which overlap Lawrence's fictions include those of Sigmund Freud, Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer, James Frazer's The Golden Bough, numerous biographies of Lawrence, as well as nonfiction works and even paintings by Lawrence himself. Balbert's interpretive approach is "psychobiographical … synergistic and eclectic." The marriage matrix, or matrices, repeatedly highlight "transitional periods of immaturity, depression, and codependency" which often correspond with analogous phases in Lawrence's chaotic marriage to Frieda Weekly, the married mother of three who eloped with Lawrence in 1912. These stages or episodes, in turn, lead either to "renewal and transcendence" or "atrophy and destructive behavior."
Balbert first examines the novella, The Lost Girl, tracing the progress of the fictional characters, Alvina and Ciccio, from "debasement" to "renewal." He aligns their trajectory with the account Lawrence confided to Katherine Mansfield of his relationship with his "devouring" mother and equally overbearing wife. Among other revelations, Lawrence expressed his conviction that "male primacy [is] crucial to the essential narrative and ultimate longevity of marriage." This emphasis on male [End Page 408] primacy is pervasive in Lawrence's oeuvre. While Balbert also discerns in The Lost Girl the influence of Freud (whom Lawrence only reluctantly admired), the most significant inspiration, in Balbert's view, is James Pryse's explanation of "the coccygeal chakra" in The Apocalypse Unsealed. If I understand the concept correctly, it justifies anal sex as an initiation into a "darkness" within a sexual relationship which can lead to growth and transcendence. Balbert makes much of Lawrence's preoccupation with this form of intercourse and its potentially liberating effect, dubbing it "the coccygeal continuum," and insisting that "one or both acts of coition [suggested in the story] appear to involve anal penetration." Nonetheless, without Balbert's explanation, I would never have surmised that anal sex was implied anywhere in the text. In any case, Balbert believes Alvina's premarital "sexual debasement" provides her a sort of therapy whereby her earlier distaste for sexual intimacy is overcome. At the same time it allows her taciturn lover to overcome his enthrallment to a devouring mother figure and to assert his manhood. Eventually the two marry and briefly reach "a luminous highpoint" of reciprocal lovemaking. Yet only Alvina moves toward the "next stage of marital intimacy" while Ciccio retreats into "extended silence." Balbert thus surmises that Lawrence revises and displaces his real life discontent with Frieda onto Alvina and Ciccio. Finally, though, the married couple embark on a journey toward "maturity and transcendence" initiated by Ciccio, but " completed by his stronger and more confident wife."
The focus of chapter two is The Captain's Doll, a novella written in 1921 which recounts the vexed relationship between Countess Johanna, "Hannele," zu Rassenlow and her laconic lover, Captain Alexander Hepburn, a Scottish officer and a married man. For Balbert, the subject of marriage is "both elusive goal and persistent torment" in the work which promotes a patriarchal ethic—not necessarily pleasing to modern audiences—that finally prevails. This chapter could have inspired a title for this review, "The Taming of the Shrewd," since the two women who vie for Captain Hepburn's loyalty, Hannele and his wife, are shrewd enough to have their way...