Lawrence, D. H. (1885–1930)
LAWRENCE, D. H. (1885–1930)LIFE
David Herbert Lawrence was one of the greatest English writers of the first half of the twentieth century. Although preeminently a novelist, he was also an important and prolific poet, short story writer, travel writer, essayist, and even playwright. Lawrence is most commonly remembered for his frank depiction of sexual experience. This lent him notoriety during his lifetime and often embroiled him in censorship difficulties.
Lawrence's writings are characterized by spontaneity, vividness, and intensity of feeling. Like many other modernist writers, he sharply criticized industrial society while trying to imagine a new, more authentic basis for modern life. From World War I until his early death in 1930 he wrote out of a sense of cultural crisis. In his greatest, most innovative novels—The Rainbow and Women in Love—he aimed to reveal the elemental essences of his characters as well as their social selves. And, as he put it in an essay titled "Morality and the Novel," he believed that we moderns need to achieve "a pure relationship between ourselves and the living universe" in order to reenergize lives that have gone dead (Study of Thomas Hardy and Other Essays, 1985, p. 172).
The son of a coal miner, Lawrence was born in 1885 in a mining village near Nottingham in the English Midlands. He attended Nottingham High School and later trained at Nottingham University College to become an elementary schoolteacher. In 1906 he began working on the book that would become The White Peacock (1911), his first novel. He taught elementary school in a south suburb of London from 1908 to 1911.
In the spring of 1912 he fell in love with Frieda von Richthofen Weekley, the wife of his language professor and a distant cousin of Manfred von Richthofen, the legendary German World War I flying ace known as the "Red Baron." Frieda left her three children when she and Lawrence traveled to Europe together. In 1913 Lawrence published his breakthrough novel, Sons and Lovers.
After two years in Italy, Lawrence and Frieda returned to England. They were married in July 1914, less than a month before the outbreak of World War I. Lawrence published The Rainbow in September 1915. The novel was prosecuted and banned for indecency in November 1915. No one in the literary establishment came to Lawrence's defense. The government viewed this outspoken critic of the war as subversive and refused to issue him and Frieda passports, thus barring them from leaving the country for the duration. Although Lawrence had completed Women in Love by 1917, no one would publish the book until 1920.
The Lawrences' second sojourn in Italy began in 1919. This marked the beginning of the self-exile that lasted until the end of Lawrence's life. Although he never again lived in England, he remained profoundly English, never assuming the cosmopolitanism of a writer like James Joyce (1882–1941). Lawrence's restless travels would take him and Frieda to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and Australia, and for two years in the first half of the 1920s they lived in Taos, New Mexico, and Oaxaca, Mexico. Their third stay in Italy lasted three years between 1925 and 1928. During this period he wrote Lady Chatterley's Lover (1928), his most controversial novel. The lung disease Lawrence suffered from most of his life was another reason he so often traveled in search of the sun.
D. H. Lawrence died of tuberculosis in Vence in southern France in 1930 at the age of forty-four. In recent years his literary reputation has declined, primarily because of feminist critiques of the sexual politics of some of his fiction. Lawrence, a passionate, provocative, sometimes disturbing writer, is not always politically correct. Nevertheless, he remains a major modern novelist, notable for his authenticity, his intensity, his range, and for his challenging assault on accepted ideas and modes of feeling.
The semi-autobiographical Sons and Lovers is notable for its rich evocation of working-class life and its compelling depiction of the Oedipus complex. The Rainbow, Lawrence's boldly original family chronicle, traces three generations of the Brangwen family from 1840 to the turn of the twentieth century. The novel focuses primarily on the modern woman Ursula Brangwen's passionate quest for independence and self-fulfillment. Women in Love dramatizes Lawrence's turbulent vision of human relationship, in which love and elemental conflict are often difficult to distinguish. This masterpiece of literary modernism also offers a harsh critique of modern civilization.
In Lady Chatterley's Lover Lawrence confronts the "censor-morons" head-on, explicitly describing sexual intercourse and letting his gamekeeper-protagonist use four-letter words. The novel is also a tender fable of human renewal through touch and reciprocal love, but it presents no parallel vision of social regeneration. The court cases that legalized the publication of Lady Chatterley's Lover in the United States (1959) and the United Kingdom (1960) are landmarks in the history of freedom of expression. After the Lady Chatterley's Lover trials ruled that the novel was not obscene, no area of human experience and no language would be off-limits to American and English writers.
Lawrence's other greatest works include the stories of The Prussian Officer (1914) and England, My England (1922); the travel books Sea and Sardinia (1921) and Etruscan Places (1932); the novellas The Fox (1923), The Captain's Doll (1923), and The Virgin and the Gipsy (1930); the poems of Birds, Beasts, and Flowers (1923); and Studies in Classic American Literature (1923). The novella St. Mawr (1925) and the novel The Plumed Serpent (1926) grew out of Lawrence's experiences in the American Southwest and Mexico.
Each thing, living or unliving, streams in its own odd, intertwining flux, and nothing, not even man nor the God of man, nor anything that man has thought or felt or known, is fixed or abiding. All moves. And nothing is true, or good, or right, except in its own living relatedness to its own cir cumambient universe; to the things that are in the stream with it. ("Art and Morality," 1925)
Daleski, H. M. The Forked Flame: A Study of D. H. Lawrence. Evanston, Ill., 1965.
Poplawski, Paul. D. H. Lawrence: A Reference Companion. Westport, Conn., 1996.
Siegel, Carol. Lawrence among the Women: Wavering Boundaries in Women's Literary Traditions. Charlottesville, Va., 1991.
Squires, Michael, and Lynn K. Talbot. Living at the Edge: A Biography of D. H. Lawrence and Frieda von Richthofen. Madison, Wis., 2002.
Squires, Michael, and Keith Cushman, eds. The Challenge of D. H. Lawrence. Madison, Wis., 1990.