Robert McCrum on D.H. Lawrence

Robert McCrum on D.H. Lawrence

I am a child of the late 1950s and 60s, raised on D.H. Lawrence (and some

other books, too). As young teenagers in the summer of Love, we found our perception transformed by Lawrence’s rainbow prose. His multi-coloured, emotional language, and his intoxicating passion for expressing the unexpressed and inexpressible was like a drug. My generation ingested Lawrence – his novels, poems, and stories – like junkies. Here, at last, was a writer who was unequivocally all about the human soul, and who loved nothing better than to explore the fathomless complexity of family and marital relations.
Our hunger for Lawrence was stoked by cinema: films like The Virgin and the
Gypsy and (of course) Ken Russell’sWomen in Love. Loose white cotton shirts and bra-less women? Yes! Uninhibited conversations about sex? Yes! Frolicking naked, at dawn, in deep summer meadows? Yes, please! Tumultuous orgams? Yes, we said, yes, yes, yes! Young men wrestling – naked again – in front of log fires ? Why not!
For a society that had grown up with J.M. Barrie, C.S. Lewis, Arthur Ransome, E. Nesbitt and all the repressed masters of post-Victorian childrens’ literature, Lawrence seemed to offer the most exhilarating liberation. To hell with discipline. Stuff the self-sacrifice. Our parents, having come through world war two, were committed to such stoic ideas. We, by contrast, we 4 would feel the blood thunder in our veins, become spontaneous and vital and instinctual. We would, as Lawrence put it, “break down those artificial conduits and canals through which we do so love to form our utterance.” We would celebrate Dionysus, and we would be free at once, and – thank God Almighty – free at last. Adolescents had worn khaki in the 40s, and flannel in the 50s, but we would dress like clowns. How wonderfully young and stupid we were.
It’s an undifferentiated blur now – like the memory of a terrible hangover – but
if I stop to focus on my D.H. Lawrence, the Lawrence of the Sixties, I can begin to discern the fuzzy but recognisable outline of a literary aesthetic that was both persuasive and, for Lawrence at least, coherent. Anyway, don’t we expect our greatest writers to be a little bit mad? As compelling as the fantasy of the creative crucible, we had the puritanical cold steel of F.R. Leavis to remind us, in The Great Tradition, about Lawrence’s artistic integrity and moral grandeur, his profound artistic seriousness. This Sixties Lawrence was also the magnificent standard-bearer for English Modernism. We didn’t need to box him into a pigeon-hole. As the novelist and critic Howard Jacobson has written, “Women In Love is the nearest any English novel has so far approximated to the fearful grandeur of Medea or the Oresteia.”
In addition to the attractions of his literary genius, there was the thrill of Lawrence’s personal philosophy. This had begun in heterodox meditations on
Christianity, and had then swerved towards mysticism, Buddhism and – most
arousing of all – earthy, pagan theologies. Seductively, for English boys and
girls in, say, 1967, Lawrence seemed to celebrate the liberation of the individual in the mass, through the celebration of primal instincts, while also finding, in physical intimacy, an elite and private communion with the Self and (with a bit of luck) the Other.
The D.H. Lawence with whom we fell in love was a Protean figure, for sure.
The barest sketch of his biography – the humble origins in mining Notts.; the escape to metropolitan London; his elopement with Frieda, a married woman;
the long exile; his “savage pilgrimage” to selfknowledge; and finally his early
death from tuberculosis in 1930, aged just 44 – put him effortlessly in the company of the great Romantics, Byron and Keats.
But he was more than a Romantic, we sensed that he was in a deep colloquy
with some darker forces. And then, shadowy and tantalising, beyond the
confines of The Great Tradition, there was that novel with those forbidden
words, and those ectstatic descriptions of sexual intercourse. Looking
back, Lady Chatterley’s Lover was both the making of D.H. Lawrence in the
post-war English imagination, and ultimately, the ruining of his reputation.
Here’s what happened.
A censored version of Lady Chatterley had been published in America as long
ago as 1928. In the 6 late 50s, the publisher Allen Lane, who had done well
with Penguin editions of Lawrence’s finest books, The Rainbow, Sons &
Lovers and Women in Love, decided that a new generation of readers should
be allowed to enjoy an unexpurgated version of a great English writer’s
transgressive last novel.
But there was a problem: the 1959 Obscene Publications Act. Lane, who liked
a fight, decided to test the new legislation by publishing Lady Chatterley. The
inevitable trial had high stakes. If convicted, Lane would have gone to prison.
In fact, the case became both a legal challenge to the new law and an
entertaining literary circus. A procession of writers and critics, led by E.M.
Forster, filed into the witness box to declare that not only was D.H. Lawrence
a great artist but that his novel was a) a masterpiece and b) certainly not
obscene. Penguin won the case, in part thanks to the prosecution, which
never recovered from suggesting to the jury that Lady Chatterley was not the
kind of book, “you would wish your wife or servants to read.”
After that, Lady Chatterley’s Lover became a massive bestseller, and Allen
Lane a millionaire. Most damaging of all – from one book that’s a long way
below his best – D.H. Lawrence became fatally attached to the zeitgeist, and
fatally identified with just one novel. In time, inevitably, there was a reaction
against the bells and the beards, the drugs, the pan pipes and the liberation.
So Lawrence got thrown out with the flared trousers, the Beatles and, in
America, with the Vietnam War. By the dawn of the 80s there was no place for
clowns, and – WTF – four-letter words were two a penny.
So, when we come to Lady Chatterley now, what do we find ? One publisher’s
blurb boldly declares that “Lady Chatterley’s Lover is all about sex”. But that’s
wrong. What you discover on a grown-up reading is that it’s all about class.
And after that, it’s all about the wasteland of the years after the Great War.
Lawrence, the inveterate fingerwagger, is unequivocal about that. “Ours is
essentially a tragic age,” he begins. “The catastrophe has happened, we are

among the ruins.” For nearly 100 pages, Lawrence gives the reader a portrait
of a dead marriage between a mismatched couple adrift in “the void” of
interwar Britain. It’s not until chapter seven that Connie goes up to her
bedroom and does “what she had not done for a long time: took off all her
clothes, and looked at herself naked in the huge mirror”. Several more pages
pass before Connie finally submits to the gamekeeper’s embrace and we
plunge into those breathless passages, teeming with “fucks”, “loins”, and
“cunts”, that our grandparents thought were pornographic.
Meanwhile, everyday life at Wragby Hall and the desiccated literary career of
Sir Clifford Chatterley rattle along like subplots torn from the pages of a
latterday Mrs Gaskell. Lawrence, from some angles, is simply an enfant
terrible of the mid-Victorian literary imagination. Connie is certainly having
some sexual epiphanies in the gamekeeper’s hut, but she remains a metropolitan snob, despite her passion. To Connie, her lover “seemed so unlike a gamekeeper, so unlike a working man anyhow; although he had something in common with the local people”. Lawrence emphasises this point by Mellors’ use of dialect.
In between the cockeyed social commentary and the phallocentric meeting of
Connie and Mellors, there is, as always with Lawrence, some lovely landscape writing. No one does Spring better than Lawrence, words that remain timeless and true, especially today: “The bluebells were coming in the wood, and the leaf-buds on the hazels were opening like the splatter of green rain.”
And so, from the occasionally ridiculous to the sublime. Lawrence first
attracted the attention of literary London with a short story entitled “Odour of
Chrysanthemums”, and it’s as the master of the short story that I began to
read him. Where to start? There are many options, including “The Rocking-
Horse Winner”, but one of his finest collections is “The Prussian Officer and
Other Stories”, published in 1914. This places it after his acclaimed third
novel, Sons and Lovers(1913), but before The Rainbow (1915), the novel that,
with Women In Love (1920), secures his claim on posterity.

Actually, it makes better sense to treat these two mature novels as one.
That’s how they began in Lawrence’s first draft. The Brangwen sisters, Ursula
and Gudrun, for instance, feature in both books. The other character who
plays a vital role in all Lawrence’s best work, is Nature. Thomas Hardy had
written about rural Dorset with a poet’s eye, but Hardy was a Victorian who
treated the landscape as an attractive backdrop to the human drama.
Lawrence is a twentieth century writer and his vision is fresh, dynamic and
modern – as if Nature is there to galvinise the human soul, not merely to
decorate his or her environment. For instance, listen to Lawrence describe the
scene beyond the grime of the colliery in Women In Love: “Still the faint
glamour of blackness persisted over the fields and the wooded hills, and
seemed darkly to gleam in the air. It was a spring day, chill, with snatches of
sunshine. Yellow celandines showed out from the hedge-bottoms… currant
bushes were breaking into leaf, and little flowers were coming white on the
grey alyssum that hung over stone walls.”
But there is much more than Nature to recommend Lawrence to the contemporary reader. For instance, the frank – I was going to write “obsessive” – fascination with sex. In Lady Chatterley, sexuality is erotically contrasted with the terribly grey dullness of the post-war world. Throughout Women In Love, the sexuality of Ursula, Gudrun, Rupert and Gerald throbs through the narrative like a feverish pulse. No one writes better about the complexity of desire, especially homosexual desire, than Lawrence. “I should like to know,” he wrote in one letter, “why nearly every man that approaches greatness tends to homosexuality, whether he admits it or not.”
The more we look at D.H. Lawrence, the harder it is to know why – apart from
shift in the cultural mood – he should have become so neglected. Yes, he
held some odd, even perverse, and often baffling, views on sexual politics,
especially feminism; also on democracy and organised labour; and on modernity. And yes, like all radicals, he made some ridiculous utterances from time to time. He is a writer that adolescents devour omnivorously, but then cannot return to. Perhaps if we read him in a less compulsive way, we could learn to benefit from the nurture of the diet he offers, and stay with him – at all ages, young and old. He’s so worth it.


Image credits

Cover image: Netflix. 

Image 1: Karen Robinson for the Observer New Review.

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