Why DH Lawrence still gets under our skin

Author and literary critic Lara Feigel spent the first year of Covid-19 lockdown stuck in a rented cottage in Oxfordshire with his children, his partner and one of the most restless writers of the 20th century: DH Lawrence. Lawrence, who was born close to the border between Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, never settled in his adult life. Despite, or perhaps because of, his poor health, he lived in and visited Italy, Sri Lanka, Australia, New Mexico and France. His impatient energy was also expressed in his writing, and it was precisely this that attracted Feigel to him.

In 20 years, between 1910 and his death in 1930, Lawrence wrote 12 novels, nine books of short stories, some travel books, a book of criticism on American literature, a few books on psychoanalysis, some plays, countless letters and 900 pages of poems. His work was manic. “Most of his novels,” Feigel writes in his book, See! We’ve made it through!, “was written in spurts where he wrote about 5,000 words a day. This was not carefully worded, deliberate composition.” Lawrence instead wrote with his body. Many of his readers, Feigel writes, feel that they are reading his work “with their bodies as well.”

Feminist thinkers and critics, such as Kate Millet, Simone de Beavoir and Germaine Greer, have condemned Lawrence for misogyny. His personality also had other unpleasant aspects: his frantic and pompous tone; his hostility to democracy; his racism; his narcissism. Unfortunately, some of these obsessions seep into his work, especially his novels.

Yet Lawrence has also been admired by many influential women writers throughout the 20th century: Rebecca West, Anaïs Nin, Susan Sontag, Doris Lessing and Angela Carter. And he has recently attracted a great deal of literary and biographical attention, primarily from women. Fascinating biography of Frances Wilson, Burning mandrew a parallel between Lawrence’s travels around the world and Dante’s divine comedy. Two novels published in 2021 drew on his life and work: Rachel Cusks Second place was inspired by socialite Mabel Dodge Luhan’s recollections of meeting Lawrence in New Mexico and Alison MacLeod’s Soreness is about the legacy from Lady Chatterley’s lover in mid-20th century Britain and America.

Why does Lawrence continue to get under our skin? Feigel has his own answer. See! We’ve made it through! began as a critical reappraisal of Lawrence, but the lockdown radically transformed Feigel’s project: she looked to Lawrence now for “urgent literary companionship” and the hope that he would “help me understand the new world we’ve found ourselves in”. Feigel achieved a similar synthesis of close reading and memoir in his 2018 book Free womanwhich is about the impact of Doris Lessing’s work on Feigel as a woman and mother in her 30s.

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See! We’ve made it through! explores the ways in which Lawrence has influenced how Feigel sees the world in chapters that address topics including sex, parenting, religion, and society. Lawrence was not a lifestyle guru. What she gets from him are not lessons in how to live, but an ability to face the world as sensitively and honestly as possible: not to be attached to a fixed notion of the world, but to recognize its changing complexity . “Living with Lawrence,” she writes, “what I want to gain from him is, perhaps most of all, a sense of what it means to accept our lived experience as one of perpetual change.”

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This attention to “eternal change” is evident in Lawrence’s writings. He loved repetition. Words and images often repeat together in close proximity. This often has a halting, distracting effect, as in this description by Ursula Brangwen from Women in love: “There was a shadowy unreal Ursula, a whole shadow play of an unreal life. It was as unreal and circumscribed as a magic lantern show. She wished all the slides could break. She wished it could be gone forever, like a lantern slide that was broken.”

However, Feigel astutely notes that Lawrence used repetition to register movement, not stasis. Each repeated word has a slightly different resonance that builds momentum. “It is this capacity for constant movement,” she writes, “to write to a rhythm rather than a plot, that makes Lawrence so good a guide to modern life, however much he claimed most of the changes, he looked around him.”

His sensitivity to movement and change also distinguishes Lawrence’s writing about sex. Feigel gives an intelligent and insightful account of his attitude to sex that avoids many of the clichés about him. Lawrence was not a benign hero of sexual emancipation as the myths about Lady Chatterley’s lover and its obscenity trial in 1960 at the Old Bailey might suggest. Nor was he a male chauvinist troll. “It was true that the feminists should tear down his reputation as a life-giving freedom fighter,” Feigel writes, “but it’s still worth remembering that it wasn’t exactly a reputation he had sought.”

Lawrence’s approach to sex—informed by idiosyncrasies like his phallus worship—was strange and always ambivalent. He believed that it could enrich us but also destroy us. It’s a shifty thing in his writing, with the power to make us both ecstatic and dangerously vulnerable. As Feigel writes, “if sex is an experience so powerful that it destroys us and allows us to remake ourselves, then of course this process will be fraught and dangerous.”

Lawrence saw sex in terms of creative or generative conflict. From a tension between vulnerability and joy, we can imagine something more important. “This was the ideal for him,” Feigel writes, “a struggle between a man and a woman that drives them toward death and then back toward life.”

“Reading Lawrence about sex,” writes Feigel, “the sensation of feeling like you’re participating in the scene comes not from any individual sex scene, but from the speed with which he allows his characters to scatter between emotional landscapes, at . . one moment to feel together, in the next row after each other over a great distance.” Lawrence exerts a strong fascination with Feigel precisely because of this push-and-pull dynamic.

She also sees her children through a Lawrenceian perspective that simultaneously emphasizes their uniqueness and their attachment to her. “It is precisely because our communion with our children can be so easy and blissful,” she writes, “that it is difficult to accept that there are moments when we must leave them alone, moments when we must see, that our feelings do not help them. .” The lesson of Lawrence is that we must see the things we love—partners, children, families—on their own terms, love them as much as we can, but not try to force them to live up to our expectations.

This way of seeing the world can also serve as a valuable approach to reading. When we read a novel or a poem, we can respond to it by recognizing ourselves in it – finding it “relatable” – but such an approach risks obscuring other vital parts of the work. If the text is merely a reflection of us, it is reduced to a prop for our narcissism. All its characteristic richness and variety are suppressed. To truly engage with a text, we must understand it on its own terms. We must take an imaginative leap.

Lawrence is a writer for people who have trouble sleeping at night because they want to continue reading a book or watching a movie or continuing a conversation with a friend; for people who see their relationship as an ongoing process of play and discovery rather than something settled. “Over the past year,” Feigel writes, “Lawrence has shown me the way to such a space, making me hopeful that I can find a way to live with contradictions while still finding truths that I can believe enough to live by.”

Feigel’s book is inherently Laurentian: exuberant, spacious, passionate, curious, and complex. In our globalized and digital world, our world of pandemics and the climate crisis, we cannot draw simplistic conclusions about how to make the world better – any more than Lawrence could in his. To do so would be dishonest. And DH Lawrence, in his annoying style, always strived for honesty.

See! We’ve Got Through!: Living with DH Lawrence
Lara Feigel
Bloomsbury, 272 pages, £20

[See also: The Goldsmiths Prize 2022 shortlist: “creative daring” and political activism]

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