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D. H. Lawrence (David Herbert Richards Lawrence) Biography

(1885–1930), (David Herbert Richards Lawrence), Sons and Lovers, English Review, The White Peacock, The Trespasser

British novelist, short-story writer, poet, playwright, critic, and essayist, born in Eastwood, Nottinghamshire. Lawrence had one of the most extraordinary yet representative twentieth-century literary careers in its fierce alienation from mainstream British culture. He was the fourth son of a coal-miner and a mother who had trained as a school-teacher and whose family had wider cultural and social aspirations. Despite their early attraction, Lawrence's parents were not well matched, and his mother encouraged the early evidence of his gifts as a way of fulfilling her own frustrated ambitions. Lawrence was educated locally and, on a scholarship, at Nottingham High School, before working for a brief period as a clerk in a surgical appliance factory. He then became a pupil-teacher and, in 1906, entered University College, Nottingham to train as a teacher. During this youthful period he had a close relationship with Jessie Chambers, a farmer's daughter, to whom he became engaged and whom he controversially portrayed as Miriam in Sons and Lovers. (They separated in 1910.) Jessie Chambers and other local friends encouraged his literary aspirations, and she sent some of his poems to Ford Madox Hueffer (Ford), which were published in the English Review in 1909. Lawrence was thus introduced to the metropolitan literary world. He began work as a school-teacher in Croydon in 1908, but his teaching career was cut short by illness—he had suffered from bouts of pneumonia since childhood—and he resigned in 1912. Meanwhile his first novel, The White Peacock, was published in early 1911, though too late to be seen by his mother who had died two months earlier. His second novel, The Trespasser, was published in 1912, but he had long been at work on an autobiographical novel eventually published as Sons and Lovers (1913). This established his name and remains his early masterpiece. Throughout his career, Lawrence used the details of his own life and those of his friends for his fiction, and Sons and Lovers tells a skewed version of his family history (he came to regret the portrait of his father in particular) and early sexual experience. The final version of the novel was written to some extent under the influence of his German wife-to-be, Frieda Weekley (née von Richthofen), the wife of his former tutor at Nottingham, Ernest Weekley, with whom she had three children. Lawrence and Frieda eloped in 1912 and married after her divorce in 1914. She introduced Lawrence to a range of continental thought, including Freud's psychoanalysis. He later rejected Freud's ideas fiercely, but the theory of the ‘Oedipus Complex’ provides, in part, the narrative shape for Sons and Lovers. Its publication closed the first stage of Lawrence's career.

The Rainbow (1915) opened the next. By now Lawrence was moving in avant-garde circles which included Bertrand Russell, Lady Ottoline Morrell, E. M. Forster, Katherine Mansfield, and John Middleton Murry. The Rainbow established him as both talented and controversial. Published during the war, the book was immediately banned and the next few years were some of the worst of his life. Rejected from the army on health grounds, unable to publish, with a German wife and a suspect reputation, Lawrence lived a marginalized, poverty-stricken life. They settled in Cornwall for a time but were mistrusted by the locals and subject to police and military surveillance. Eventually, they were ordered to leave under suspicion of being German agents. Thereafter, for the duration of the war, they lived in some hardship, often dependent on the charity of patrons and family. Lawrence opposed the war totally, and for the first time began to formulate his life-long hostility to industrial culture. For him, the war was butchery on an industrial scale and symptomatic of a general cultural disease. None the less, he fell out with Russell and other anti-war dissidents and began to stake out a lonely and not altogether coherent critique of all forms of modern collective life. From this point his vision is predominantly individualistic. His best-known novel of this period is Women in Love (1920 USA; 1921 UK), an embittered and in many ways pessimistic indictment of the culture of the war years which grew directly from The Rainbow. After the war the Lawrences left Britain and thereafter, except for three brief visits to Europe in the mid-1920s, lived a globe-trotting life. They went first to Italy where Lawrence spent three creative and productive years from 1919, travelling widely and living for an extended period at Taormina, Sicily. Work produced in this period includes The Lost Girl (1920), The Sea and Sardinia (1921), Aaron's Rod (1922), many of the stories in England, My England (1922), and the novellas The Lady-bird, The Fox and The Captain's Doll (published together in 1923). In 1922 the Lawrences went to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), then Australia (where he began Kangaroo), and then to the USA, settling in Taos, New Mexico for a brief period. Trips to Mexico in 1923 and 1924 inspired The Plumed Serpent, and Lawrence, preoccupied by themes of violent conversion away from Western lifestyles, also wrote the long stories St Mawr (1925) and The Woman Who Rode Away (1928). After returning to Europe following a temporary estrangement from Frieda, he settled with her at the Kiowa Ranch outside Taos (given in return for the Sons and Lovers manuscript) where he cherished hopes, entertained since the war, of founding a visionary community he called ‘Rananim’. However, after several serious illnesses, diagnosed as tuberculosis, Lawrence returned to Europe in late 1925, visiting England twice (on one occasion witnessing the General Strike of 1926) and Germany, but settling in Italy for his final years, first at Sportono and then at the Villa Mirenda outside Florence. He died, of tuberculosis, in a sanatorium in Vence, France in March 1930.

Lawrence's fiction in his last period falls into two overlapping groups, and he continued to write poems and shorter pieces, plays, travel books, and other nonfictional work in great quantities, in addition to taking up painting seriously for the first time since his youth. Novels such as The Lost Girl (1920), the newly recovered Mr Noon (written 19201), and Aaron's Rod (1922), as well as novellas such as The Fox (1922) and The Virgin and the Gypsy (1926) are preoccupied with themes of renewal and the need to break from inhibiting cultural and social environments. As in much of his work, this search is conducted through complex, ambiguous portraits of sexual relationships. Other works, like Kangaroo (1923) and The Plumed Serpent (1926), however, deal with more explicit political issues related to the rise of fascism, and, despite his explicit loathing of Mussolini, Lawrence has been accused of leaning towards the irrationalist Right and the cult of male violence in this period. However, his final work, Lady Chatterley's Lover (originally entitled ‘Tenderness’), reverses this trend sharply.

The variety of Lawrence's work has often not been fully acknowledged and there is now substantial critical interest in his stories and poems where he is recognized as a major figure. The stories, which often do not have the doctrinal attack which became a feature of his longer work, include the collections The Prussian Officer (1914), England, My England (1922), and the posthumous Love Among the Haystacks and Other Pieces (1933). The range of Lawrence's poetry is also considerable, from satirical squibs and polemical pieces to his best work which displays a mastery of tone, free-verse rhythm, and an under-appreciated complexity of emotion and argument. Like many of his generation, Lawrence was influenced by the American poet Walt Whitman whose rangy, personal verse liberated Lawrence from the conventional poetic structures with which he began. These freer forms suited his insouciant outlook and modes of composition. Often, in his best poems about the natural world, Lawrence combines an observational detail with the ability to develop associations of meaning which give a mythological grandeur and depth to the exploration of often startlingly mundane experiences. As with many of the leading modernist writers of his generation, the reworking of classical and Christian myths to speak to contemporary concerns was a matter of major interest. Some of his finest poetry is to be found in the volume of wartime verse, Look! We Have Come Through! (1917), and in New Poems (1920), Birds, Beasts and Flowers (1923), and Pansies (1929), while the substantial Complete Poems were published in 1964.

Lawrence is also an underestimated playwright; his range includes naturalistic pieces about the lives of miners, such as The Daughter-in-Law and The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd (both 1913), and later work with mythological themes like David (1925). Many of these are still performed. Lawrence's speculative non-fiction and criticism is also a key part of his œuvre, particularly that written after the war when he turned to non-fiction as publishers closed the door on his novels. Often this work shows the influence of the nonconformist sermon tradition, and, in essays like ‘The Whistling of Birds’ (1919), he displays his talent for turning stylistic and formal convention inside out. This venture in the Edwardian nature essay becomes a rhapsodic meditation on death to provide an extraordinary commentary on the aftermath of the war. He was later to bring the same gifts to some splendid travel writing, including three books about Italy, Twilight in Italy (1916), The Sea and Sardinia (1921), and Etruscan Places (1927), and Mornings in Mexico (1927). Particularly in the later works, this writing mixes rapt meditation and a vividly observant, often comic, eye for detail with engaged political concerns. Lawrence's longer non-fictional prose can appear disordered and hectoring by comparison with his shorter pieces. But his two dissertations on psychoanalysis, Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious (1921) and Fantasia of the Unconscious (1923), are interesting rejections of Freud and reformulations of some key psychoanalytic positions. Essentially, though, Lawrence was not a measured writer in this vein and his discursive books are sometimes only loosely tied to their subject, though in fact this is the source of their interest now. They offer free-wheeling, assertive, characteristically Lawrentian meditations on a variety of topics including the influential Studies in Classic American Literature (1923), Movements in European History (1924), and Apocalypse (1931), a loosely conceived exercise in biblical criticism.

Frequently Lawrence's best work, in all genres, moves effortlessly and disconcertingly from the banal to the metaphysical. It is a risky way of writing and can court disaster, but it is also the source of some of his best and most knowingly ironic effects. In developing this style Lawrence was trying to find a language for experiences the prevailing literary language could not accommodate, in particular that of sex, but more generally a sense of the unconscious depths of personality and behaviour and their intersection with cultural and social norms. As a result he ran into persistent difficulties with the authorities who sought to ban not just The Rainbow and Lady Chatterley's Lover, but also his poems and paintings. Since his death, Lawrence has remained a controversial figure, as the famous trial over the eventual publication of Lady Chatterley's Lover as late as 1960 amply demonstrates, but his reputation has swung sharply. Censored and vilified by the establishment in his own time, he was later valued as a moralist and spokesman for stifled instinct by a range of major critics and writers after the Second World War when his work became for many a cornerstone of the twentieth-century canon. Subsequently, however, he has been revalued by feminists troubled by what is seen as his male-centredness.

John Worthen's D. H. Lawrence: The Early Years 18851912 (1991) is the first volume of a definitive biography, and the scholarly Cambridge Edition of the collected works and letters is well on the way to completion. All but the last volume of letters have been published. Full scholarly editions of the novels, with the exception of Lady Chatterley's Lover, are available, although a number of these have been controversial in seeking to restore unmolested what the editors have taken to be Lawrence's intended text. In the case of Sons and Lovers, for example, this has added a substantial amount of material to the novel which Lawrence himself, admittedly under pressure, participated in deleting. Whatever the merits of these changes, all the Cambridge editions give superb notes and textual apparatus. There are stimulating general critical books on Lawrence by Frank Kermode, Lawrence (1973), Keith Sagar, D. H. Lawrence: Life into Art (1985), and Tony Pinkney, D. H. Lawrence (1990), while Keith Brown (ed.), Rethinking Lawrence (1990) and Peter Widdowson (ed.), D. H. Lawrence: A Critical Reader (1992) are useful collections of essays. An illuminating, more specialized work is Paul Delany's D. H. Lawrence's Nightmare: The Writer and His Circle in the Years of the Great War (1979).

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Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionEncyclopedia of Literature: Mary Lavin Biography to Light Shining in Buckinghamshire