Article abstract: Combining brilliant descriptive powers with compelling evocations of natural settings and basic human drives, Lawrence expanded the limits by which romantic-erotic situations could be portrayed in fictional settings.
Circumstances and situations from David Herbert Lawrence’s early life are important as background to his literary works. In many instances, biographers and critics have been able to trace the development, seemingly on parallel tracks, of Lawrence’s childhood and youth and the progress of his later fictional creations. The fourth child of Lydia Beardsall and Arthur Lawrence, he was born on September 11, 1885, in Eastwood, a mining village situated in a coal-producing region of Nottinghamshire. Early in life, Lawrence preferred diminutive versions of his middle name, and later he was known from his writing simply by his initials and surname. His father was a common collier, evidently a handsome and well-formed man, who had great difficulty in expressing his thoughts and often seemed completely inarticulate. He was also prone to prolonged periods of drunkenness which sometimes culminated in physical onslaughts against his wife and family members. The mother was a schoolteacher from a modest social background who sought to instill her Congregationalist faith in her offspring. In turn, her children felt a greater attachment to their mother and tended to side with her during household disputes. During his early years, Lawrence was considered shy and physically weak. He often took it upon himself to advance his learning by borrowing numerous books from libraries in the area. He was uncannily aware of the stark contrasts that industrial growth had spawned amid the once-verdant landscapes of the Midlands, and as the years went by, divergent forms of class consciousness, notably between miners and owners, became apparent to him. In his youth he learned to distinguish regional dialects (which he later used in his fiction) in contrast to the genteel usage preferred by the upper classes. Lawrence’s academic aptitude and promise were recognized with the award of a county scholarship which allowed him to attend Nottingham High School from 1898 to 1901.
When he was fifteen years old, Lawrence became friends with Jessie Chambers, and in the course of a protracted courtship they were engaged for a time. Lawrence’s first letters of importance for literary scholars date from 1901. Expanding upon his schoolboy efforts, Lawrence turned his hand to poetry and also drafted portions of what were to become his first prose works. He also pursued painting as an avocation, by which he advanced his own interpretations on canvas of human figures and natural scenery. For a certain period, he was employed by a dealer in artificial limbs and also served for four years as a pupil-teacher in Eastwood. In 1906, Lawrence resumed his formal education when he entered Nottingham University College, and in 1908 he received a teacher’s certificate. During the next three years, he was employed at a local boys’ school.
In 1907, one of Lawrence’s short stories was published in a local newspaper, and two years later, his first poems appeared in print. His ardor for Jessie Chambers faded markedly, and Lawrence ended by breaking off their engagement in 1910. In December of that year, one of the mainstays of his early life was lost when his mother, to whom he was inordinately devoted, died of cancer. Relationships with other women, including Helen Corke, a schoolteacher, and Louise Burrows, in the end seemed to him fruitless and unsatisfying. Nevertheless, his literary career proceeded apace; an important landmark was reached early in 1911, when a London publisher brought out his novel The White Peacock (1911). This study of the dissolution of a youthful romance, and the changes wrought over time and distance as leading characters take leave of one another, exhibited variations on themes featured in Lawrence’s later offerings.
Problematical romantic relationships with those from his native region were set aside in a rather dramatic fashion when Lawrence unexpectedly turned to a new love interest: He was attracted beyond measure to Frieda von Richthofen Weekley, the wife of a professor of French at the university in Nottingham. Although she was six years older than he, and already had three children at home, she responded readily to his overtures in situations that suggested amorous intrigue. She left her family behind and traveled abroad with him, primarily in her native Germany and in Italy. It was with some difficulty that the legal travails attendant upon a divorce in England could be resolved. When, finally, in 1914 she became free to marry him, Lawrence had to assume lawyers’ fees as well as the responsibility of sustaining her in their new household. As a wife, Frieda was helpful and supportive at times, but could also be demanding. Much of the time she relegated certain domestic chores as well as their routine bookkeeping to her husband. They quarreled often enough (indeed, once she hit him over the head with a stone plate), but each also had a deep and instinctive empathy for the other’s cares. It has been maintained by some critics that she inspired a fictional counterpart, Ursula Brangwen, one of the major characters in The Rainbow (1915) and Women in Love (1920).
Promising beginnings to Lawrence’s literary career were followed by acute, and in some ways unanticipated, difficulties with the authorities. His second novel, The Trespasser, was published in 1912; it is an uneven work dealing with the conflict between cerebral and sensual love, in which the protagonist finally hangs himself. Far more important was Sons and Lovers, which was received as a major work soon after its publication in January, 1913. This work’s autobiographical origins became evident at many turns. The protagonist, Paul Morel, and the mother and father closely resemble the young Lawrence and his family. Miriam Leivers, who attracts Paul for a time but then repels him by her overly possessive stance, was probably modeled from Jessie Chambers. In the novel, deeply felt but ultimately restrictive ties between Paul and his mother are broken finally when the son administers morphine pills to terminate the mother’s fatal illness. Lawrence’s sensitive depiction of the conflict between nature and industry in the Midlands also won the notice of some critics.
The first of Lawrence’s plays was published in 1914, but to little effect. Though he dabbled occasionally in drama, it was not a genre in which Lawrence felt comfortable. Lawrence also published several short stories during this period. Though he published The Rainbow in 1915, it was almost immediately suppressed. Agents of the Crown contended that its frank physical descriptions and suggestive passages, in which sexual themes were brought into the open, precluded further distribution in its original form; unsold copies were confiscated.
The years of World War I were difficult for Lawrence. Although he was not a pacifist in any strict sense, he felt no particular enthusiasm for the war effort. He was examined and twice rejected for military service because of health problems. He paid little heed, however, to the early signs of tuberculosis. He was more concerned with whether, in an atmosphere that discouraged efforts thought to be subversive of public morals, he could continue to publish his books. Lawrence was also having problems with the authorities because his wife, Frieda, was a descendant of German aristocrats; among others, she was distantly related to Manfred von Richthofen, the celebrated war pilot. Even while in England, she did little to conceal her cultural sympathies, and indeed during the middle of the war, she performed German songs. For a time, the Lawrences lived in Cornwall, but in October, 1917, police officers, afraid that they were in a position to make contact with enemy seacraft, cited suspicion of espionage as grounds for ordering them to leave the area. Although he saw no fighting whatsoever, the war left Lawrence with the unshakable conviction that conflict and suffering had permanently changed society and indeed civilization at large; gloomy, brooding memories of descent into a moral abyss are recorded when characters in his later works recall wartime events.
Lawrence managed to bring out various collections of his poems, as well as his first travel study, Twilight in Italy (1916). One of his most important novels, Women in Love, was written for the most part in 1916, though it did not actually appear in print until...
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