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David Herbert Lawrence, most widely known as D. H. Lawrence, is one of the most controversial English writers of the twentieth century: His works were praised and condemned, his novels censored and banned, and his paintings seized by the authorities. During World War I he was suspected of being an enemy spy, partly because of his marriage to a German woman, and their movements were restricted until well after the war. Yet he has had a profound influence on the course of literature. His novels, especially The Rainbow (1915) and Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928), have provided test cases in the battle over literary censorship.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Estrangement and Inspiration
Born in Eastwood, Nottinghamshire, England, on September 11, 1885, Lawrence was the son of a little-educated coal miner and a mother of middle-class origins. His mother fought with his father, rejecting his limited way of life so that the children might escape it or, as Lawrence once put it, ”rise in the world.” Their quarrels and estrangement, and the consequent damage to the children, would become the subject of perhaps his most famous novel, Sons and Lovers (1913).
Lawrence entered Nottingham University College in 1906 with the intention of becoming a teacher. During his second year at college in 1907, he submitted three stories in a Christmas competition to the Nottinghamshire Guardian, which offered a prize of three pounds for stories in each of three categories. Since the rules limited each competitor to one entry, he submitted two of the stories under the names of Jessie Chambers and Louie Burrows, friends and fellow pupils, with their permission. The story entered under Jessie Chambers’s name won one of the prizes. This story was the first by Lawrence to appear in print.
After completing his university course in June 1908, Lawrence got a job at the newly opened Davidson Road School at Croyden, where he remained until 1912. Here he taught with some success, although without great enjoyment. He sent parts of a novel in progress, as well as some poems, to the great friend of his youth, Jessie Chambers, who sent them on to the English Review. Its editor, Ford Madox Ford, hailed him at once as a find, and Lawrence began his writing career.
Love and Suspicion
Lawrence’s constant struggle for a right relationship with women came to a climax in his encounter, liaison, and marriage with Frieda von Richthofen Weekley. They met in 1912 and were married in 1914; their evolving relationship is reflected in all his work after Sons and Lovers. The fulfillment it meant to him can be seen most directly and poignantly in the volume of poems Look! We Have Come Through! (1917). Like Sons and Lovers, Lawrence’s follow-up novels, The Rainbow (1915) and Women in Love (1920), are set in England and reflect Lawrence’s deep concern with the male-female relationship.
Beginning with the assassination of Austro-Hungarian archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, the countries of Europe became divided, with Germany on one side and the Allied Powers—France, Russia, and the United Kingdom—on the other in an attempt to establish control over the region. Because of his wife’s German heritage and his questionable morals in the eyes of the British government—his novel The Rainbow had already been banned for obscenity—Lawrence was suspected of being a spy for the Germans. He was persecuted throughout the war, and even required to move inland when it was suspected that he was signaling to submarines from his coastal home.
The Lawrences lived in many parts of the world—particularly in Italy, Australia, Mexico, and New Mexico. Embittered by the censorship of his work and the suspicion regarding his German-born wife during the war, Lawrence sought a promising place where his friends and he might form a colony based on individuality and talent rather than possessions. This he never realized for more than brief periods. There were quarrels and desertions, and his precarious health was a factor in the constant moves. He wistfully regarded himself as lacking in the societal self, something he felt to the day he died, March 2, 1930, in Venice, France.
Lawrence’s work from the war onward traces his search for that societal self. Most of these works, such as Kangaroo (1923) and Mornings in Mexico (1927), reflect his fascination with the places in which he wrote. Toward the last, his imagination returned to his English origins for the scene and characters of his most notorious and controversial novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928). All through his career, Lawrence’s boldness in treating the sexual side of his characters’ relationships had aroused the censorious. But in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, his last full-length novel, Lawrence went much further. The book was banned in England, and this was followed by the seizure of the manuscript of his poems Pansies and the closing of an exhibition of his paintings.
Works in Literary Context
In the decades following his death in 1930 from tuberculosis, Lawrence’s reputation grew until his works have come to stand among the classics of twentieth-century literature. He produced nearly fifty volumes of novels, stories, plays, and essays, and an enormous number of personal letters to a vast number of friends, including some of the most important and influential writers, critics, philosophers, and patrons of the arts of the early twentieth century. He took as his major theme the relationship between men and women, which he regarded as disastrously wrong in his time, but he also had a special gift for portraying what he called the spirit of place. Landscape is an essential character in his narratives, but often it is more a spiritual than a physical landscape.
Range of Work
Lawrence used all of the literary forms successfully, except perhaps for drama. He wrote notable short stories throughout his career, including ”Odour of Chrysanthemums” and ”The Rocking Horse Winner.” He proved himself a master of the short novel (novelette) form in The Fox and The Virgin and the Gipsy. His poetry ranges from early rhymed poems in Love Poems and Others (1913) through the highly experimental and free forms of Birds, Beasts and Flowers, and on to the deliberately crude satire of much of Pansies (1929) and Nettles (1930). Among travel books, a more casual, less structured Lawrence is shown in Sea and Sardinia (1921), Mornings in Mexico (1927), and Etruscan Places (1932). The short journalistic pieces collected in his Assorted Articles (1930) are witty and challenging.
Interest in Lawrence has come to surpass that of contemporaries who were more favored by birth and education. His work does not seem to become dated. After relative neglect following his death, his books came back into print, and he is the subject of numerous memoirs, biographies, and critical studies. This is probably because so many of the problems he dealt with are increasingly urgent and because he explored them with an original force, commitment, and style that appeal especially to the young. When World War I broke out, he felt that it was then more important to find the grounds of faith in life itself and the means to a new integration of the individual and society. To this he added the question of the nature of a relationship between man and man that would have the same higher significance as that between man and woman. Religiously and ethically he can be described as a vitalist, one who finds a source and a guide—in a sense, God—in the ”life force” itself as it was manifested in nature, untampered with by ”mental attitudes.” He was concerned with how this force might be restored to a proper balance in human behavior.
In preparation for immigrating to America to form his ideal colony of like-minded individuals to be called “Rananim,” Lawrence read several American authors, including Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, James Fenimore Cooper, and Edgar Allan Poe. In preparation for such novels as Sons and Lovers, although he denied intentional use, it seems clear he read Freudian theory—at least enough to find readers quickly identifying the Freudian theory of the Oedipus complex throughout the work. Italy also influenced and informed a number of Lawrence’s work. Referring to Italy, Jeffrey Meyers noted that ”the sympathetic people, the traditional life, and especially the pagan, primitive element revitalized Lawrence and inspired his astonishing creative achievement. . . . Lawrence’s discovery of Italy was also a discovery of himself.”
His impressions of people in other countries also made their way into his depictions. Too often, however, these depictions, sexually explicit in many of Lawrence’s books as well as paintings, inflamed contemporary public opinion and resulted in several notorious court cases on charges of obscenity and pornography.
Works in Critical Context
Lawrence received a great deal of criticism for both his writing and his attitude. He believed the goal for society was to keep the sexes pure, not in the sterile sense but in
the sense of keeping women purely feminine and men purely masculine—because they were ”dynamically different in everything.” Various contemporary writers have supported Lawrence’s beliefs. Writer Anai’s Nin thought Lawrence had a ”complete realization of the feelings of women.” Writer and feminist Kate Millet labeled Lawrence ”a counterrevolutionary sexual politician.” Other critics have argued that Lawrence was an androgynous artist attuned to the inner experience of both sexes. Contemporary Spanish novelist Ramon Sender said that Lawrence saw the world as if he were the first man.
The Plumed Serpent (1926) was poorly received by readers in England but better received by the American public and press. The Rainbow (1915) and Women in Love (1920, 1921) have been claimed to represent ”a supreme creative achievement by ”the greatest kind of artist.” Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the subject of intense controversy for decades, was classified by critic F. R. Leavis as being among Lawrence s ”lesser novels because of its ”offenses against taste.
While most of his works have elicited both negative and positive attention, Sons and Lovers stands out as being Lawrence s most widely read and most widely reviewed novel.
Sons and Lovers
An autobiographical account of his youth, Sons and Lovers involves what Lawrence referred to as ”the battle between mother and the girl, with the son as object. Some critics immediately regarded the novel as a brilliant illustration of Sigmund Freud s theory of the Oedipus complex. Others, such as one reviewer from the Nation, warned of ”boredom” and found the plot ”commonplace and decadent. Still others, such as a Manchester Guardian contributor, judged the book ”an achievement of the first quality.”
- Burgess, Anthony. Flame into Being: The Life and Work ofD. H. Lawrence. New York: Arbor House, 1985.
- Millet, Kate. Sexual Politics. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1970.
- Nin, Anai’s. D. H. Lawrence: An Unprofessional Study. Paris: Edward W. Titus, 1932.
- Pinion, F. B. AD. H. Lawrence Companion: Life, Thought, and Works. New York: Barnes & Noble,1979.
- Pinkney, Tony. D. H. Lawrence. New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1990.
- Levy, Eric P. ”Ontological Incoherence in Women in Love.” College Literature (Fall 2003): 156.
- Review of Sons and Lovers. Manchester Guardian, July 2,1913.
- Reviews of Sons and Lovers. Nation, July 12, 1913; November 14, 1914; April 26, 1947.
- H. Lawrence Index Page. David Herbert Lawrence(1885-1930). Retrieved February 8, 2008, from http://web.ukonline.co.uk/rananim/lawrence.
- The Literature Network. DH Lawrence. Accessed February 8, 2008, from http://www.online-literature.com/dh_lawrence.
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