On the centenary of the publication of Women in Love, Gerie Herbert takes on the literary defence of author and writer D.H. Lawrence who endured a searing critique and censorship in his lifetime and beyond – can his work be considered anew as a relevant voice?
Love, love: why do I feel I would have known and loved Lawrence – how many women must feel this and be wrong!” It might have been intriguing to know if Sylvia Plath’s selection of Lawrence as a kind of literary forebearer, her appreciation of the leaves and earth and beasts and weathers in his work, could have withstood the intensity of the feminist critique that followed some decade or so after her death. A critique ensuring the work of Lawrence was not to be held up by any right-thinking woman, or one that held any scintilla of outward respect for herself. If Lawrence was censored in his lifetime, Kate Millett’s 1970’s classic Sexual Politics pinioned him down as a crucible of misogynism, and came as the last onslaught in a line of many, including the infamous 1960’s trial of Lady Chatterley. Lawrence’s reputation never fully recovered.
And yet this writer from the most modest of backgrounds created almost 800 poems, a wealth of novels, short stories and some of the greatest travel writing. The son of a coal miner, he had taken his stint on the factory floor, before progressing to University College, Nottingham. Still Lawrence differentiated himself from most young men irrespective of class, becoming not just a good writer, but a truly great one according to F.R Leavis, the great critic of the age. A writer recognised by other great writers like Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, and Phillip Larkin, as well as by playwright Tennessee Williams, by Aldous Huxley and by Antony Burgess who held Lawrence up as a writer who had to prevail against the weight of a literary establishment that had him down as an interloper. It seems an amazement that a boy from a small mining community, ridden with tuberculosis could follow such a trajectory at all and at such a deeply conservative time.
But then swiftly as he rose, Lawrence disappeared from syllabuses and bookshelves, and you weren’t supposed to like his work. He was filthy and facile and self-indulgent. Was there any point resuscitating a writer whose name has become synonymous with all the more salacious bits readers had gleaned from perhaps his thinnest work, Lady Chatterley, or the biographical knowledge gathered about his terrible marriage or his complex relationship with his mother. Lawrence had been held up as a pornographer in chief and a hater of women for a long time, he had put ideas so contentious in his novel The Rainbow that he had had it condemned in a court and burned publicly. At one point an innocuous Lawrence even fell under suspicion of spying and was accused later by readers of being a quasi-fascist despite the fact he had openly condemned Fascism as the worst kind of bullying. Lawrence, if readers had sense, should be discarded, and even if you could rekindle his reputation, why would you? Because even the most ardent admirer of Lawrence can’t deny some of the more uncomfortable parts of his writing or biography. There exists huge warmth, kindness, and a rare truthfulness, but reading Lawrence can be a bit like reading one of the more sublimely compassionate parts of the New Testament to uncover an Old Testament god of thunderbolts rampaging within it. Lawrence’s work in terms of opinions, emotion and tone contains multitudes. For many he is exhausting and polemical. And for a world in which nobody any longer reads digressive novels by anyone, let alone books where non-conformity is the only norm, societies where an eight-word tweet might cause offence, what relevance could Lawrence’s work still hold? For that very reason, quite a lot perhaps!
Still if you want to tackle what remains relevant in Lawrence you must first tackle the hurdle of gender. This autumn sees the release of two books with Lawrence as the central axis, Frances Wilson’s biography Burning Man: The Ascent of D.H Lawrence and Second Place by that most dispassionate of English writers Rachel Cusk. The interesting thing about both is not only are they written by intelligent women openly professing to loving the complexity and wildness of Lawrence, reintroducing discussion about his gender politics, both writers are forced to defend their interest in Lawrence openly. No woman can deny there are bits of Lawrence that induce eye-rolling or are so fantastical as to cause laughter (though ask if Mr Rochester or Mr Darcy have been the greatest of experiments in social realism!) but Lawrence’s heroines to the uninitiated hold far more complexity than you might imagine, and that perhaps is what attracts writers as first rate as Cusk, Wilson and Plath.
There is good reason Sylvia Plath related to Ursula Brangwen of Women in Love, as a character mirroring her own fight for a fully realised autonomy. Lawrence’s female characters possess a genuine voice not simply because he is projecting his own puerile wishes onto them, which he sometimes is – Lady Chatterley is being written while his withered body is dying and failing him, Women in Love is being written by a man whose wife cuckolded him on his own honeymoon – but because there is genuine sympathy and kindness toward his female characters and a willingness for them to find equality.
To some extent Lawrence’s female characters were projections of his own sexual fluidity and perhaps as a consequence their inner selves are richer and more believable. Attracted to men and women, his books contain a measure of something that was only ever lived out on paper. Read the end of Women in Love and it will seem progressive even now and Ursula will seem every bit as believable as the male protagonist Birkin. Lawrence ‘is’ his female characters to some extent. Even in Lady Chatterley, Constance is the soul and Mellors the eye-candy. Balance between men and women lies at the centre of Lawrence’s philosophy. For though it was somewhat eccentric, he did have one.
For Lawrence was no pornographer. Give any teenager permission to read Lady Chatterley and tell them it is about being with one person forever and see what happens. The idea of relationships without love was anathema to Lawrence. He simply understood that a society which insisted on looking respectable outwardly was often less so beneath the surface. Now we’re all sat cross-legged in mindfulness sessions, holding the mind and body in balance doesn’t seem that extraordinary and tackling shame and repression is our new normal for good reason.
Lawrence was above all things interested in how the mechanisation of culture had removed men and women from their instincts and left them not knowing what they really felt about things. Though a deep lover of nature, the scarred industrial landscape that had surrounded him in his Nottinghamshire youth and the way it degraded people by sending them underground made a mark on him, and the ‘in-between’ bits of Lady Chatterley are the bits that contend with politics and the commodification not only of a landscape, but of people’s raw existences. For Lawrence’s recurring point is often about what happens to people when their lives are industrialised to the extent that they can no longer feel free to speak or act as an individual or know what it is to be the source of their own happiness. Lawrence’s chief concern being what happens to people when they make money their only god.
At a time when rapid digitalisation has dizzied us so much that even our thoughts have been commodified without our express permission, where to speak against the herd is positively foolhardy, a view that encourages non-conformity held in check with natural sympathy, seems not only timely but deeply sensible.
For all his wild eccentricities and the things he got blatantly wrong, for a man who died at the tender age of 44, Lawrence had rather a lot to say. Some of it encouraged people to examine their own existences and make sure their lives had lovely things in it that made them happy without recourse to money or innate servitude, and it was this perhaps that made him dangerous and worthy of continual censure. For Lawrence has continued to be condemned without recourse to any kind of further examination or admittance of nuance in a way that is without parallel. Here was the son of a miner, brim full of poetry, who neither ignored class nor was dull-witted enough to be bound by it. He was not remotely interested in men living out societal anger on the streets, he was interested in their senses being blunted so much by their working lives that they couldn’t appreciate all that was beautiful set out before them. He sought to make them look at it. Yes, you might not have wanted to be married to Lawrence, but neither would many have wanted to be parented by anybody in the Bloomsbury group; this didn’t stop us appreciating their work.
If you have been put off ever looking at him, it will be interesting to see if writers such as Frances Wilson and Rachel Cusk can begin to make you change your mind. Start anywhere but Lady Chatterley, and if so, head straight for all the boring bits!