We know he was a novelist, a writer of great short stories, a poet of sensitivity, a critic, a playwright and an essayist. However, others have labelled David Herbert Lawrence (1885-1930) as a woman-hater, and even a pornographer. What’s the source of the conflicting opinions on D.H. Lawrence?
D.H. Lawrence: Woman Hater?
Certainly, this teacher and writer from Nottinghamshire, son of a coalminer, who suffered bad health from an early age and throughout his life, openly expressed his fury towards the female gender.
Whatever the answers to these questions, there is no doubt that D.H. Lawrence exerted a powerful literary influence throughout the twentieth century. John Carrington, in his book Great Writers, says, “He believed every person’s moral being and inner life required expression through their sexuality, and through the immediacy of their response to the natural world.”
Many historians have examined how his upbringing shaped Lawrence’s beliefs and question the effects of his religious thought on his sexuality.
Female Independence: Destroyer of Male Potency
Brenda Maddox says in her article, “Lady Chatterley Exposed” in The Times Magazine, “…he got a stronger dose than most boys of that infuriating combination of female love and righteous reproach with which the male of the species is often doomed to start life,” a somewhat sexist generalisation, even for 1994.
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However, Mrs. Lawrence was both an inspiration to her son as well as the source of “the dark current of rage and hatred against the female which surge through his work.” How could that great writer, D.H. Lawrence, sustain such perverse attitudes towards women?
Many of his writings are incisive and empathetic and yet at other times, scathingly offensive, making him a target for fierce discussion among feminist academics for many decades. He was, after all, the sickly fourth child in a mining family who was bedridden much of the time, so it is possible the personality and power of his domineering mother overwhelmed him.
Lawrence was always a man of intense and stark contradictions. From prose so expressive that you may catch your breath at its sheer, intoxicating beauty, to writing which evokes comments such as this one quoted in Brenda Maddox’ The Married Man: A Life of D.H. Lawrence: “…. he allowed himself to produce, along with masterpieces a great deal of bad work. This makes the real D.H. Lawrence a difficult writer to pin down.”
Scathing Insults Towards Women
So, maybe it is not surprising that this bad-tempered, feisty little man, who attacked writer Katherine Mansfield, maybe out of jealousy or rage or a combination of both, decided to conduct a passionate affair with a beautiful English artist.
Here are two of his cruel insults towards Mansfield; many of his insults are too graphic to include here.
“I loathe you. You revolt me stewing in your consumption… The Italians were quite right to have nothing to do with you.”
“Spit on her for me when you see her, she’s a liar out and out.”
Lawrence was also cruel to men, however, and his vitriol steams with unedifying adjectives; for example:
“Curse the blasted, Jelly-boned swines, the slimy, the belly-wriggling invertebrates… God how I hate them!”
Lawrence: Sex and Religion
One of the problems Lawrence faces is a paradox – the incompleteness of the individual that is present in the act of sexual intercourse. This incompleteness, explains Dr. Jan Todd in D.H. Lawrence: Selected Poems, occurs most intensely at the moment of fulfilment, in other words, its climax. This, she says, Lawrence experiences as a “frightening contradiction.”
Dr. Todd claims that this helps to explain the religious nature of the some of Lawrence’s poems. One example is the poem “Whales Weep Not,” which is as beautiful as it is sensual.
Lawrence writes of the coupling of the whales. “…and in the tropics tremble they with love / and roll with massive, strong desire, like gods…” But angels are observing the whales: “…the burning archangels under the sea keep passing back and forth / keep passing, archangels of bliss…”
Dr. Todd raises Lawrence’s identification between sexual intercourse and the crucifixion of Christ or the dismemberment of Osiris. “Sex can be experienced as an anguished tearing apart of the self, a death, from which a new life may emerge.” For Lawrence, it is vital that sex is not demeaned by treating it as an “affair of the mind… compulsive but unsatisfying.”
Lawrence is scathing of obsessiveness and the seeking of “shallow gratification.” In sex, an individual should lose him/herself in order to be renewed and feel balanced.
D. H. Lawrence Prosecuted for his Books
Most people know about Lady Chatterley’s Lover and the famous trials for obscenity in 1959 and 1960, respectively. When the books became readily available, booksellers rushed them to the London railway stations, and the city workers, stiff and proper in their bowler hats and with their black umbrellas, formed enormous queues to buy their copies at the W.H. Smith stalls, an extraordinary scene I witnessed.
Carrington also points out that the trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover revealed a great deal about contemporary attitudes. For example, Carrington quotes the prosecuting counsel’s question to the jury: “Is this a book that you would wish your wife or your servants to read?”
Less well-known than the Lady Chatterley furore was the prosecution Lawrence endured for the novel claimed as his greatest. The Rainbow, published in 1915, was banned for obscenity. The Lawrences’ problems were compounded when the British accused him and his wife Frieda of spying for Germany and expelled the couple from Cornwall in 1917.
As a result, Lawrence was unable to place his new novel Women in Love with a publisher until 1920, four years after he had finished it, a novel that was also subject to “a string of prosecutions,” says John Carrington.
Women in Love explores the emotional complexity of the characters’ lives across three generations in great depth and detail, unusual in novels of that time. In Our Greatest Writers, John Carrington says: “Throughout his life and afterwards, Lawrence’s work has been much misunderstood. It is extraordinary that the puritanical zeal with which he campaigned for a wholesome view of sexuality should have been mistaken for the prurience of obscenity and pornography.”
A Writer Misunderstood
The novel Sons and Lovers, published in 1913, portrays striking similarities between the experiences of the central character, Paul Morel, and Lawrence himself, both having an insensitive father and a possessive mother. “In his early love affairs, there is fierce conflict, characteristic of Lawrence himself, between the compulsion to love and the need to retain emotional independence,” says John Carrington. Perhaps this internal conflict explains the confusion surrounding D.H. Lawrence’s true attitudes towards women.