On D. H. Lawrence’s birthday week, I take a quick look at his eventful life. David Herbert Lawrence is most well known for his erotic novel, ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ but people often forget that he was also a poet and painter. ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ probably gets the most attention because of the 1960 obscenity trial that it precipitated. Penguin Books were taken to court over the publication of the novel and won the case. The novel then promptly sold three million copies. But what led Lawrence to write this novel, and how did his life and upbringing affect its subject matter?
Lawrence was born on September 11th 1885 into the mining community of Nottingham. He had three older siblings. He was deeply close to his mother, Lydia Beardsall, but had a tempestuous relationship with his father, Arthur John Lawrence. It is through his father however that Lawrence developed a deep love of nature. His mother hailed from a higher class than his father, who was known in the local area for his drinking.
Throughout his life Lawrence had poor health, and a bout of pneumonia aged nineteen plagued him for the rest of his life. Lawrence never properly settled in one place either, and for several years after school, he worked as a clerk, and then as a teacher. He developed a close bond with fellow bookworm Jessie Chambers, and their bond became so close that his family encouraged him to marry her, or break contact with her completely. He chose the latter in 1910. It was that year that his mother also died from abdominal cancer.
After his brief teaching career, Lawrence decided to become a lecturer in Germany. He enlisted the help of a former professor, Ernest Weekley to help him do this. When arriving to discuss the matter with Weekley at his home, Lawrence instead was welcome by his wife Frieda. Frieda had just engaged in a love affair with Otto Grosse, a Freudian analyst. It was here that Lawrence and Frieda discussed the love and sex, deciding that all desires should be freely expressed and enjoyed. Frieda was to have a profound impact on Lawrence, as he persuaded her to leave her husband and three children and elope with him.
Lawrence published ‘Sons and Lovers’ in 1913. The book is almost semi autobiographical, and chronicles the life and losses of Paul Morel. The novel focuses on his relationship with his mother, and his relationships with two women, Miriam Levers and Clara Dawes. The novel almost tries to analyse what went wrong with Jessie Chambers. In the novel, Paul has sex with Miriam, and then sex with Clara. He notes that sex with Clara is physical, not spiritual, whereas sex with Miriam is the reverse. Paul cannot integrate a sexual relationship with a spiritual one, and it would appear that this is what Lawrence was seeking in his life. Frieda helped him write the novel, and told him how it would be seen through Freudian eyes. Her notes are present in his manuscripts. It is conceivable to think that Freud would have picked up on Paul’s closeness with his mother, and would have made further comment on this. Her death in the novel marks a major turning point for Paul.
Lawrence’s next novel ‘The Rainbow’ was much broader than ‘Sons and Lovers,’ and covered several generations of the same family. The material again was controversial, and as was his reputation. Ezra Pound even described Lawrence as a ‘detestable person.’ Frieda and Lawrence married in 1914, and their neighbours noted that, although they would literally tear each other’s hair out in rage, they were deeply attached to each other. Lawrence once recounted to a friend that he wanted a woman who challenged him. During this time, as Lawrence struggled to get his work published, Frieda and Lawrence were so poor that they relied on charity to live.
Lawrence finally decided to leave England after the war. Although not a pacifist, he detested the war so much that he became alienated from his own homeland. For the rest of his life, he would continue to travel.
Lawrence began his ‘savage pilgrimage’ in 1919, and his travels took him to Sri Lanka and America. He eventually settled in New Mexico. It was in 1925 that Lawrence received his tuberculosis diagnosis. His rapidly declining health affected his ability to work, and wit much effort, ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ was published privately in 1928. While Frieda had several affairs during their marriage, Lawrence only had one with Rosalyn Banes. Scholars think that this one night of passion in 1920 partly inspired the novel, as did Frieda’s liberal feelings about sexuality. Rosalyn herself may have been a model for Constance, as both had similar upbringings. The novel may have also been inspired by Frieda’s affair with Angelo Ravagli, the couple’s landlord. ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ might have been Lawrence’s way of telling Frieda that she needed to explore her sexuality.
In 1929, an exhibition of Lawrence’s paintings ended in a police raid, and thirteen of his paintings were confiscated for obscenity. Lawrence succumbed to his tuberculosis on 2nd March 1930, and he died in France in the presence of Frieda and novelist Aldous Huxley. Frieda would go on to marry Angelo in 1950. Angelo was tasked with bringing Lawrence’s ashes to be interred at Lawrence’s former ranch in New Mexico, at a shrine Frieda had built for him. However, on discovering that Angelo had to pay a tax to take Lawrence’s ashes on the boat, he decided that the Mediterranean sea would be a better resting place for him. The urn was then filled with dust and dirt, and interred in a concrete block in the chapel in New Mexico that Frieda had erected.
Thanks for reading!