A note to begin: the Wikipedia entry for D. H. Lawrence’s 1925 St. Mawr is kind of pathetically short. Remind me to do something about that, won’t you?
So this story caused a rumble in my class when it was discussed, with the girls on one side of the class, straining under the pressure of not clobbering the boys for their shocking sexism. St. Mawr brings that out in a room, I suppose. Part of the issue, maybe the whole issue, lay with the characters (in the order I remember them being introduced):
Lou aka Louise aka Lady Carrington – A woman once madly in love with her husband Rico, now less than content in her marriage. Not interested in sex anymore, because she thinks men are all playboys or babies, which grosses her out. Buys St. Mawr after she hears he killed some people and gives him to Rico, obviously. Ends up leaving when Rico (who is about to have an affair with their airhead Australian neighbor) decides to kill St. Mawr. Buys a ranch in America and lives as a “vestal virgin” but worshiping (not overtly) nature.
Rico aka Henry aka Sir Henry Carrington – A painter (an impressionist, a school that Lawrence thought was garbage) and an Australian who inherits the title of baronet from his father. Starts to gain popularity as an artist and initially likes St. Mawr. He cannot control the horse, however, and eventually has his ankle crushed by St. Mawr when he falls on top of him. The injury is because Rico will not let go of the reins when they capsize, pulling the struggling horse down on top of him, like a moron. After this he decides to kill St. Mawr, but instead secretly sells him to his airheaded neighbor Flora, whom he is obviously going to have an affair with. She promises to geld (castrate) St. Mawr, presumably to make him docile, but really because Rico wants to enact some grotesque male sexual vengeance on the animal. Rico is gross and should be hated.
Mrs. Rachel Witt – Lou’s mother and Rico’s mother-in-law. She and Rico hate each other and Mrs. Witt says flat out that while she loves Lou she doesn’t like her. Ouch! Mrs. Witt is a domineering, “emasculating” women, or so the text portrays her. She’s a bit of a trope. I like that she’s a jerk, mouthing off to everyone, calling out Rico for pulling St. Mawr down on him (effectively breaking his own ankle), totally aware that the airhead neighbor is trying to get into Rico’s pants. She doesn’t like anyone but Lewis, and she only likes him because he hates everyone too. Never change, Mrs. Witt, never change.
St. Mawr – An awesome horse that kicks out people’s freaking teeth. “You’re going to ride me? I’ll ride your face with my hoof!” he cries, in one of the novel’s most memorable scenes*. A stallion that is beautiful and rad, St. Mawr is the spirit of raw, untamed nature, which is something Lawrence was decidedly for. When a rider respects him he is fine, as we see at the end of the text, but when the weak attempt to control him he rebels. St. Mawr ends up on a farm in Texas and falls in love with a mare; they live happily every after probably.
Lewis – Lawrence’s stand-in within the novel and St. Mawr’s Welsh groom. Very into nature, quiet, and hates everyone. Cannot overcome the class barrier to marry Mrs. Witt, but in his own way, the text says, he loves her. He won’t let anyone cut his beard (Freudian!), this comes up at least twice in the novel, maybe more. He ends up on the ranch in Texas with St. Mawr. Hopefully he lives a life of happy celibacy, which is what he says he wants. The fight in class was about Lewis and Mrs. Witt, which I’ll get to shortly.
Phœnix – Part Native American man and shell shocked war vet, skirt chaser, ends up living with Mrs. Witt and Lou on the ranch in Arizona. He’s a servant and thinks Lou wants to sleep with him, but she does not. He can control St. Mawr, but not easily, because St. Mawr doesn’t respect him. Lawrence’s portrayal of Phœnix is kind of definitely racist.
Flora Manby – Next door neighbor who is trying to steal Lou’s man. Lawrence was very pro-monogamy by the way.
Okay so on to the fight! My class has to be a teacher’s nightmare, with an aggressively sexist person constantly interrupting to list reasons why women are awful. I have no idea why the instructor hasn’t intervened more, maybe he will do so privately, which would be entirely appropriate. Still, I long for the day when one of my favorite instructors, Dr. M-, called out a student for describing a Fitzgerald character by using “the b- word.” She turn on him, eyes flashing, and said something like, “Never use that word to describe a woman in MY class!” It was wonderful. I think young ladies – perhaps especially here in the south – are so ingrained to keep quiet no matter how uncomfortable they are that seeing someone stand up for women at all was an amazing experience. This did not happen during St. Mawr, instead it was business as usual, with the two boys in the class saying how they hated Mrs. Rachel Witt because she was emasculating, domineering, castrating.
The scenes that they had issues with were the ones where 1) Mrs. Rachel Witt cuts Lewis’ hair and 2) Mrs. Rachel Witt proposes to Lewis. The first scene is when Mrs. Witt becomes attracted to Lewis, he is in his early 40s, she her 50s, and when his wild crop of shaggy hair is tamed she thinks, “Dang, he’s handsome.” Lewis will not let her cut his beard – one dead giveaway that this is a Lawrence stand in – which evidences his fears of being symbolically “castrated” by women, which crops up in scene two. This is a scene where the normally dominant Mrs. Witt shows vulnerability, reenacting a time when she worked in a hospital, taking care of young soldiers who were wounded in the war. As a person who is intensely uncomfortable not being in charge, her volunteering to wait on a servant is a rare glimpse into her ability to be vulnerable.
In the second scene the usually distant and difficult Mrs. Rachel Witt proposes to Lewis. Initially he says that the master/servant barrier can never be overcome, but she insists that her daughter is the one who employs Lewis, not her. He then says that if he touches a woman with his body then he “puts a lock on her” and she must never mock him. Mrs. Rachel Witt has already told him to ignore her barbs, that it’s just who she is, but that she doesn’t mean him any harm. Instead of saying he wants respect from the person whose body he touches, or between people who touch each other, he specifically states that it is the person that HE touches with HIS body that he demands total, unwavering, silent respect from. Realizing that Lewis will only ever have sex AT her, Mrs. Rachel Witt says never mind, because honestly, who would be interested in that. When Lewis resigns she tells him that he has to stay, which he does for a time, before leaving the group to stay with St. Mawr on the Texas ranch (not the final ranch that the other characters live on). Even though Mrs. Witt and Lewis want to be together, the divide between them is unbreachable. Of course the boys in my class read this as Mrs. Rachel Witt being a castrating, dominating, awful woman with no comment on the class divide (which is what really separates the characters) or how gross it is that Lewis can only have sex at a woman, which Mrs. Witt is obviously not psyched about. No, no! Instead Lewis is being totally reasonable, Mrs. Witt is showing no vulnerability (which she clearly does, stammering and blushing after she is refused), and just being generally awful because man right woman wrong.
Really this class is incredibly stressful in some ways and I know that some of the other women in the class (who I’ve talked to) are under duress as well. I’m being as non-specific as possible on the off chance that any of my classmates see this – which I would hate – because it’s not personal**, really, it’s just uncomfortable to be in this class for me (maybe for most women). Still, only one more discussion then a 4 hour final exam and this class, at least, will be over. Much like Mrs. Rachel Witt I am so exhausted trying to reason with some people that I will ride my horse (aka sit in my chair) in silence and wait for the offending person(s) to drift away like Lewis.
* I made this up.
** When I say it’s not personal I mean that. I treat class like I would a job, and can vehemently disagree with people, even hate their opinions, without having any personal feelings about them what so ever. In class, it’s incredibly important to be professional. I either like my classmates (and a lot of people in my class are great) or I feel nothing. I just don’t feel comfortable with how out of control our group discussions have gotten. Honestly, I feel like I could/should have handled some things better, but I’m sure I’ll have another chance. I know, for sure, that some of the things said about women would not pass in my class room without comment. Not anger, because many of these comments arise from never being asked to think about things critically – important things about gender – but they will not pass without comment.