Summary (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
Like other biographers, Jeffrey Meyers emphasizes the importance of D. H. Lawrence’s family and class origins. Lawrence’s father Arthur was a semiliterate coal miner who left school at the age of seven to work long days—often sixteen hours—in the fetid “pits,” as the mines were aptly called. Lydia Beardsall, who married Arthur in 1875, has usually been represented by other biographers as essentially middle- class, a schoolteacher whose dearest dream was for her sons to escape the oppressive life of the mines. Lawrence himself contributed to this view in the autobiographical novel Sons and Lovers (1913), in which he depicts his Oedipal bondage to his mother and his rejection of his father largely because of his drunkenness and insensitivity, unmistakable badges of his class status. Meyers maintains, however, that Lydia “had absolutely no [validj claim to class superiority” over Arthur Lawrence, her father being a fitter who assembled machinery and she a shopkeeper before her marriage. Having been dismissed for incompetence as an apprentice teacher at the age of fourteen, she was unsuccessful in her attempt to become a school-teacher.
Lawrence’s depiction of his parents’ largely unhappy marriage in Sons and Lovers was, if anything, understated, according to Meyers. He argues that Lydia effectively excluded her husband from the emotional life of the family, actively encouraging her children to side with her against him. She “had no tact or patience with her husband, taunted and provoked him, treated him with icy disdain, mocked his coarse habits, condemned his drinking, refused to sleep with him and taught the children to look down on their father. Yet despite their conflicts, and despite Arthur’s physically dangerous and debilitating work, Meyers concludes that “the Lawrences were a relatively prosperous working-class family.”
Meyers’ treatment of Lawrence’s religious upbringing is also insightful. Though his great-grandfather was a noted Methodist composer of hymns and Methodist fundamentalists were plentiful in his hometown, Lawrence was reared a Congregationalist, with a strong tradition of dissent, religious liberty, and an avowed freedom of individual conscience. As a boy he regularly attended Sunday school and morning and evening services in the Congregational Chapel; its liturgy left a lasting trace on his sensibility. Though he eschewed the church’s dogma at sixteen, he was permanently influenced by its emphasis on “individualism, enthusiasm, a sense of responsibility and a self-confident, didactic, prophetic and crusading spirit.” The adult Lawrence’s utopianism and his advocacy of sexual fulfilment as a sacred right may be traced to his religious heritage. As Meyers says, “Lawrence belonged to the great Nonconformist tradition of radical outsiders,” which includes such figures as John Milton, John Bunyan, and William Blake.
Lawrence was probably the first English novelist to benefit directly from the education reform acts of the 1870’s and 1880’s, which extended compulsory education to the working class. Because of his delicate health and volatile nature, however, Lawrence was kept out of school and taught at home by his mother until he was seven years old. When he entered school, he proved himself extremely capable and eventually began preparation for a career in teaching. From the age of seventeen until he was twenty-one, Lawrence was an apprentice teacher in his hometown of Eastwood and won a scholarship to University College in Nottingham in 1906, where he began a two-year course of study toward a Teaching Certificate. Thereafter, for more than three years he taught elementary school in Croydon, a district of London. Thus for nearly a decade altogether, Lawrence pursued the profession at which his mother had failed, and in so doing he pleased her doubly by escaping from the mines. Yet Lawrence was unhappy as a teacher, impatient with his slower students and disheartened by the requirement of corporal punishment for misbehavior. Teaching also left too little time for his writing.
Meyers goes over the familiar ground of Lawrence’s lengthy and complicated relationship with Jessie Chambers (on whom Miriam Leivers of Sons and Lovers is based) and the rather less complicated one with Alice Dax (the model for Clara Dawes in the novel). It was Jessie who encouraged Lawrence to write for publication, and she who first sent his work to the prestigious English Review, edited by Ford Madox Hueffer (later Ford Madox Ford). A key event in Lawrence’s life, however, was the death of his mother from cancer in December, 1910, for he could not truly achieve maturity as a man or as an artist until his emotional dependence upon her came to an end.
The most significant step Lawrence took toward maturity was his “elopement” in April, 1912, with Frieda von Richthofen Weekley, the wife of his favorite university...
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