In his introduction to the Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics edition of The White Peacock (1911, 1995), Michael Black writes,
[I]n [the novel's] account of Cyril's relationship with George [. . .] modern, sophisticated readers have to rein in an impulse to say, 'Ah, yes, covert homosexuality'. But the broad mass of the original readership in 1911 was as innocent as Cyril: if there was a violent homophobic minority, acting from ignorance and fear, the majority was not aware of homosexuality, and was very willing to entertain a romantic idea of male bonding. [. . .] Manly men could love each other and not feel confused or guilty. Close friendship was a thing to want; still is, for both sexes; and Lawrence wanted it badly, as a complement to committed heterosexual relationship. (Penguin 20th-Century Edition xxi)
Bell admits that it would be difficult to insist on innocence of homosexuality in Lawrence's later work (especially Women in Love ), but he does his best to restrict our reading of the early novel and to ground this restriction in the text itself. He continues,
[T]he relationship Cyril has with George is the great positive in his life, the only emotional success. It is firmly established as natural because it is set within the network of the imagery: the scene where both men are naked on the bank of the mill-pond and George is holding Cyril (222:25-40) is an exact replica of that depicting two little naked bird in their nest (220:14-25). The two men belong in that setting, grow out of it like the other animals and the flowers. I would also suggest that the powerful and beautiful scene where Cyril helps George with the hay-harvest, the actual working side-by-side (218-24), frames the bathing-scene and controls our interpretation of it. It is one of the places where what one might weakly call the 'nature-poetry' works profoundly: it does tie the human relationship into the setting, and gives George his true role as inhabiting the land he works (219-24). It is in working and living together that men and women find a companionship which is complementary to sexual relationship, and as necessary to a good life. (xxii)
It is difficult to critique Black's writings on Lawrence. He is, after all, the most learned and the most published scholar of Lawrence's early work. D.H. Lawrence: The Early Fiction (1986) and D.H. Lawrence: The Early Philosophical Works (1992) both attest to his careful and attentive treatment of several understudied and nearly out-of-print novels, short stories, essays, and letters. Yet . . .
Why does the naturalness of the relationship between Cyril and George rule out a sensual or sexual charge to their friendship? Black confidently writes, "It [i.e., the relationship] is firmly established as natural," as if this were enough to make a homosexual or homoerotic component impossible and unthinkable. But why is this? And why would Lawrence, Cyril, or his readers need to be aware of alternative sexualities in order for homoeroticism to be a significant component of the novel? And why does he presume that innocence rules out male-male desire? Is the disavowal of a sexual link between these men as easy as pointing out the absence of guilt or confusion? Though Black's reading is certainly not the most egregiously defensive heterosexualizing of Lawrence I've seen, it is somewhat disconcerting that he draws on a rhetoric of naturalness and innocence and ignorance as a means to rule out any attempt to explore what I see as an overtly sexual attachment between Cyril and George. "[S]ophisticated readers have to rein in [their] impulse[s] . . . "
It's clear that Black and I just have different reading protocols. It does not matter to me whether or not Lawrence thought much of homosexuality early in his life. It does not matter to me whether or not his readership would have identified the Cyril/George friendship as covertly sexual (though I do think Black makes a pretty gross assumption about Lawrence's potential readers). It does not matter to me whether or not Cyril and/or George are aware of a sexual element in their friendship. What does matter to me is the text and its process of ideation (its generation of ideas and problems), and perhaps this is where I can engage with Black without getting into a theoretical dispute over authorial intention, original readership, and/or contextualizing.
Black points to two scenes whose analogousness, he claims, should help us rule out any sexual component in Cyril and George's relationship. Here is the "natural" scene:
The two little specks of birds lay side by side, beak to beak, their tiny bodies rising and falling in unison. I gently put down my fingers to touch them; they were warm; gratifying to find them warm, in the midst of so much cold and wet! I became curiously absorbed in them, as an eddy of wind stirred the strands of down. When one fledgling moved uneasily, shifting his soft ball, I was quite excited; but he nestled down again, with his head close to his brother's. In my heart of hearts, I longed for someone to nestle against, someone who would come between me and the coldness and wetness. I envied the two little miracles exposed to any tread, yet so serene. It seemed as if I were always wandering, looking for something which they had found even before the light broke their shell. (220)
And here is the Cyril/George scene (both are naked on a mill-pond bank; Cyril, it should be noted, is the novel's narrator):
We stood and looked at each other as we rubbed ourselves dry. He was well proportioned, and naturally of handsome physique, heavily limbed. [George] laughed at me, telling me I was like one of Aubrey Beardsley's long, lean ugly fellows. I referred him to many classic examples of slenderness, declaring myself more exquisite than his grossness, which amused him.
But I had to give in, and bow to him, and he took on an indulgent, gentle manner. I laughed and submitted. For he knew how I admired the noble, white fruitfulness of his form. As I watched him, he stood in white relief against the mass of green. He polished his arm, holding it out straight and solid; he rubbed his hair into curls, while I watched the deep muscles of his shoulders, and the bands stand out in his neck as he held it firm. I remembered the story of Annable.
He saw I had forgotten to continue my rubbing, and laughed he took hold of me and began to rub me briskly, as if I were a child, or rather, a woman he loved and did not fear. I left myself quite limply in his hands, and, to get a better grip on me, he put his arm round me and pressed me against him, and the sweetness of the touch of our naked bodies against the other was superb. It satisfied in some measure the vague, indecipherable yearning of my soul; and it was the same with him. When he rubbed me all warm, he let me go, and we looked at each other with eyes of still laughter, and our love was perfect for a moment, more perfect than any love I have known since, either for man or woman. (222-23)
I am not going to produce a reading of these passages here (that will have to wait for future work). One thing is clear to me, though: Black's description of the latter scene as "an exact replica of" the former is bafflingly inadequate (unless, of course, Black thinks that tender nestling is the same thing as brisk rubbing . . .). I do agree with Black that Lawrence ties human relationships to the novel's landscapes. (In fact, Black's writing on Lawrence's imagery is some of the best Lawrence scholarship out there. He comes close to conclusively proving Lawrence a careful stylist/artist...) Indeed, Cyril's descriptions of birds, beasts, and flowers are not mere decoration, not inhuman frills to the novel's human plot, not redundant symbolic exertions. However, it does not follow, it does not follow at all, that the ties between human relationships and nature exclude any and all efforts to account for sexual/sensual/bodily attachment between the narrator and his male friend. Exact replica? Good God. If anything, the latter scene demonstrates that Cyril's desire in the former goes a good deal further than wanting "someone to nestle against."
Reading on . . .