D H Lawrence (1885 - 1930)

David Herbert Lawrence is remembered as a pioneer of sexual and psychological description, and his reputation as a writer and the notoriety of his books cannot be clearly separated. Like Thomas Hardy, he saw the last of rural England disappearing before the final onslaught of industrialisation and felt that mechanisation of the world also implied a corroding of human relationships. In fact Lawrence believed most people are only half-alive most of the time. His attempt at an honest description of human sexual relations was condemned as pornography by some, and two of his books were suppressed for indecency. A more serious criticism of his works came from Bertrand Russell, a one-time friend with whom Lawrence quarrelled, that the apparent cult of ‘man-alive’ and ‘blood-consciousness’ propounded in the sub-text of the books, together with the over-use of certain words were an expression of racism or fascism that could be connected, ultimately, to the extermination camp at Auschwitz.

Unlike so many of his famous contemporaries, Lawrence did not come from a background of privilege and money. He was born the fourth child of an illiterate coal miner and grew up in poverty, being obliged to leave school and work as a factory clerk at the age of 15. In spite of these disadvantages he gained a place at Nottingham University and became a schoolteacher in Croydon, where he worked from 1908-11. During this period he wrote his first novel The White Peacock (1911) and contributed poetry to Ford Madox Ford's literary periodical English Review.

The death of his mother, to whom he was very attached, in 1910 provided material for his third novel Sons and Lovers (1913) which established his reputation as a writer. The book, which is largely autobiographical, shows the sensitive Paul Morel to be attracted to his mother and afraid of his brutal and drunken father. Completion of his second novel The Trespasser (1912) was delayed by illness. Lawrence was unhealthy throughout his life and was aware of his constitutional weakness - his puny skin-and-bone frame - and his lack of physical attractiveness. Yet, his personality and talents were engaging enough to bring him to the attention of many famous names including Bertrand Russell, Lady Ottoline Morrell, John Middleton Murry, Katherine Mansfield, and a writer with whom he never argued - unlike so many others - Aldous Huxley.

Lawrence gave up teaching in 1911 and attempted to support himself by writing. In 1912 he met Frieda Weekley, the wife of a Nottingham professor and mother of three children, whom he eventually married. They ran off to Bavaria where they were sheltered by Frieda's relatives - members of the aristocratic von Richthofen family. (Frieda's cousin Manfred became the famous World War I flying ace.) The local people, however, regarded Lawrence with suspicion. Political and military tension was mounting between Britain and Germany, and Lawrence was thought to be an English spy. Ironically this situation recurred in 1917 when he and Frieda were suspected of being German spies in Cornwall. Lawrence was a pacifist as well as being unfit for military service during the war. Conscientious objectors such as Bertrand Russell were imprisoned for their beliefs; the Lawrences were merely harassed by officials and rural busybodies.

Lawrence and Frieda returned to London and married in 1914. They were not allowed a passport to leave the country after the outbreak of World War I, and settled in Cornwall where they lived precariously while Lawrence worked on his next novel.

The Rainbow (1915) introduces the Brangwen family, who are representatives of the older agricultural way of life, and reappear in the sequel Women in Love (1920). Although Edward Garnett strongly recommended The Rainbow to his publishing partner William Heinemann, the work was rejected and William Heinemann refused to accept or look at any further works by Lawrence. The book was suppressed shortly after its eventual publication on the grounds of obscenity. In 1978, however, it was prescribed as a set book for study in UK schools.

Lawrence was forced to leave Cornwall in 1917 after local people claimed they had seen Frieda signal to German submarines by waving her scarf on the cliff-tops. He and Frieda spent the remainder of the war in London then emigrated in 1919 vowing never to return.

In Women in Love Gerald Crich, the son of a mine owner, represents the cold mechanical world that the author loathed. There is a void in Crich’s life that cannot be filled even by the love of a woman, Gudrun Brangwen. Although attracted to the intellectual school inspector Birkin, who is the lover of Gudrun’s sister Ursula, Gerald’s incapacity for real human love leads to his death, which takes place in the Alpine snows.

The Lawrences went to Italy in 1919, then to France, Ceylon, Australia, Mexico, and, finally, the United States where they settled on a ranch at Taos in New Mexico in 1926. An American socialite gave them the property in return for the original manuscript of Sons and Lovers.

During their travels Lawrence completed Aaron's Rod (1922), Kangaroo (1923), and The Plumed Serpent (1926). At Taos Lawrence was again overcome by illness, which was diagnosed as tuberculosis. He began work on his most notorious novel Lady Chatterley's Lover in 1926. It was printed privately in Italy in 1928 but banned in the US and the UK for over thirty years. Knowing that he did not have long to live, Lawrence made one last journey to France in 1930, and died in Vence in the company of Frieda and Aldous Huxley, at the age of 45. His and Frieda’s graves lie beside one another in the grounds of their New Mexico ranch.

Critics invariably claim that Lady Chatterley's Lover is far from the best of Lawrence's novels, although it is the one that ensured his notoriety. It describes how Constance Chatterley, the aristocratic wife of a rich mine owner, takes a lover – a game keeper called Oliver Mellors – because her husband is impotent. Mellors’ speech is written in Nottinghamshire country dialect and is hard to follow, though the censors concentrated on certain words which even when printed in reverse cipher as kcuf and tnuc were deemed highly offensive.

In 1960, thirty years after Lawrence's death the unexpurgated edition of Lady Chatterley's Lover was brought out by Penguin Books and caused a sensational trial. Luminaries such as E. M. Forster and Richard Hoggart appeared for the defence, and the prosecution made a comment which is more memorable than anything in the novella itself. Asked of an all-male jury, 'Is this a book you would wish your wife or your servants to read?' the question appeared so absurdly anachronistic in 1960 that it was greeted with jeers from the public gallery. The book became freely available and provided a model for much 1960s erotically-charged fiction.

Lawrence's works: The White Peacock (1911); The Trespasser (1912); Sons and Lovers (1913); Love Poems and Others (1913); The Prussian Officer and Other Stories (1914); The Rainbow (1915); Twilight in Italy (1916); Look! We Have Come Through (1917); New Poems (1918); Women In Love (1920); The Lost Girl (1920); Sea and Sardinia (1921); Aaron's Rod (1922); England, My England (1922); The Ladybird (1923); Kangaroo (1923); The Plumed Serpent (1926); Mornings In Mexico (1927); Lady Chatterley's Lover (1928); The Woman Who Rode Away (1928); Pansies (1929); The Escaped Cock (1929); Nettles (1930); The Virgin and The Gipsy (1930); Love Among The Haystacks (1930).

Author: Stephen Colbourn

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Women in Love The Sisters in D H Lawrence's Women In Love
Naturalist Drama The Daughter-in-law and The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd
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