D. H. Lawrence Biography

D. H. Lawrence is an undeniably, extraordinarily important figure in English-language literature, though you'll either love him or hate him for what and how he writes. A prolific author of essays, plays, poems, short stories, and novels, Lawrence focused throughout much of his work on the physical and emotional relationships between men and women, subjects which drew Lawrence into considerable controversy. His novels Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Sons and Lovers were censored or outright banned because of their sexual content, and some of his manuscripts were even seized by British authorities for perceived indecency. Despite his initially shaky reception, Lawrence is now recognized by many critics as a masterful writer who would not shy away from depicting complex human interactions.

Facts and Trivia

  • Lawrence’s childhood was marked by poverty and family discord. He later said that one of the more depressing things he did as an adult was go back and visit where he grew up.
  • In 1912, Lawrence met Frieda Weekley, the wife of his former college professor. Frieda and Lawrence eloped one month later, creating quite a social scandal.
  • While living in Germany with Frieda, Lawrence was arrested and accused of being a British spy. Later, when the couple returned to England, Lawrence was accused of being a German spy.
  • Lawrence once took a walking tour from Germany to Italy so that he could write a travel book.
  • Lawrence also wrote a book about British history. However, he had to use a pen name because of his stained reputation.

Biography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3561

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.

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Early Life

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.

Life’s Work

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 1920. There Lawrence shows how complementary and conflicting romantic ends affect the destinies of major characters. The quest for sexual primacy takes place in an atmosphere charged with suggestions of struggle in various forms; marriage and death ultimately resolve the situations of certain protagonists. Like the novel which preceded it, this work was roundly condemned in the popular press.

The pictures and portraits of Lawrence from this period show a man of a slight build. He had straight reddish brown hair, which he generally combed to one side. His lean, slightly pinched features with sunken cheeks were offset by a prominent, blunt nose; he also had large, flattish ears. To many, his forthright blue eyes seemed direct and penetrating. During early manhood, Lawrence had grown a mustache, and about the time of his marriage, he added a full beard, which his admirers considered a mark of distinction; his detractors likened him to a bearded satyr.

During the autumn of 1919, Lawrence left England; he and Frieda traveled about in various parts of the Continent, particularly in Italy. In addition to a general sense of restlessness, for a time there was some uncertainty about the direction of his work as a writer. Sea and Sardinia (1921), which contains some of his more impressive travel commentary, was composed shortly after the novel The Lost Girl (1920) appeared. Lawrence’s travels in Italy affected the plot of Aaron’s Rod (1922), which, like Lawrence’s other novels, drew to a marked extent from the surroundings where its final portions were written. The last, which concerns a musician who leaves his wife and family behind for a wandering existence in various parts of Italy, probably reflected Lawrence’s view that old social values had given way while new standards remained to be found. Another work, Movements in European History, which appeared in 1921 under a pseudonym and was published under the author’s actual name four years later, recorded some highly subjective judgments on the main currents of cultural developments in the West. Although in many quarters Lawrence was reproached for his unabashed and unsparing treatment of sexual drives, he developed a sharp antipathy toward the psychological theories of Sigmund Freud; he announced his opposition to this school of thought in Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious (1921) and Fantasia of the Unconscious (1922). At different times, Lawrence also tried his hand at translation. His most important contributions in this area probably were his renditions of works by the Italian writer Giovanni Verga.

Evidently persuaded that European civilization was foundering, Lawrence traveled on to Ceylon and then to Australia. His brief visit to the island continent provided the setting for Kangaroo (1923), possibly the most forgettable of his novels. After reaching San Francisco in September, 1922, Lawrence and his wife settled for a while in Taos, New Mexico. For some years, Lawrence had harbored vague visionary hopes of establishing a new social order, beginning with the foundation of an experimental utopian colony. On various occasions he had proposed sites in the New World. During a visit to England and Europe in the winter of 1923-1924, Lawrence again took up such notions with certain friends, but his doctrine of “Rananim,” based upon authoritarian leadership principles within a basic return to natural surroundings, received little firm support. Some time after they went back to the United States, the Lawrences moved south to Oaxaca, Mexico, where further complications began to undermine the author’s health. In addition to chronic struggles with tuberculosis, Lawrence caught malaria, and for a certain period in 1925, it was thought that he might die. As a concession to his weakened condition, he later left for Europe, where it was thought his health might improve in a more hospitable climate. Among the works that appeared during this period were Birds, Beasts, and Flowers (1923), an important collection of poetry, and Studies in Classic American Literature, which also came out in 1923. His production of narrative fiction continued with St. Mawr: Together with the Princess (1925), a curious and imperfectly realized short novel which contrasts the diminished vital forces of male and female characters with the seemingly untamed powers of a stallion. The Plumed Serpent (1926), which has a political theme of sorts, depicts the new and positive directions opened in leading characters’ lives as Mexico repudiates socialism and Catholicism equally; a new national order symbolized by ancient Indian emblems then comes into being.

Lawrence’s last years were troubled by the struggle against prevailing attitudes of propriety. Much of the time, he and Frieda lived in Italy. Much of his effort was spent drafting or revising the novel that became known as Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928), which, in addition to stating more forthrightly themes presented in earlier works, openly challenged the standards of that day with his explicit sexual descriptions. When it appeared, the novel was suppressed almost immediately in Great Britain and the United States, and later it was published in expurgated versions; the entire work could not appear legally in the United States until 1959, while in 1960, a celebrated trial established that it could appear openly in Great Britain. Indeed, a number of episodes seemed to heighten the association with scandal that had grown up around Lawrence. In January, 1929, British police seized a manuscript version of Pansies (1929), a collection of his light verse. About six months later, a public display of Lawrence’s paintings in London was closed after police raided the exhibition. A book showing facsimile reproductions of his visual art was suppressed as well. In a series of essays, Lawrence set forth his own interpretations of pornography and obscenity: He contended that his conception of art and literature, by bringing hitherto forbidden subjects into the open, differed in its intent from the more cynical forms of exploitation with which his work was often classified. His contempt for mere convention, however, took on further dimensions in The Escaped Cock (1929; published as The Man Who Died in 1931), a short novel in which a figure resembling Jesus Christ comes back to life with the realization that the needs of men for women take primacy over religious martyrdom. All the while that Lawrence was writing, it became increasingly evident that he could not struggle much longer against the disease which had settled for so long in his lungs. By 1928, he had moved to France; for a time he traveled about and continued with his literary production. Some articles and poems were prepared as the end of his life drew near. In spite of valiant efforts, he was unable, however, to stave off the ravages of tuberculosis, and on March 2, 1930, he died finally at a sanatorium in Vence, France.

Summary

D. H. Lawrence never had serious ambitions outside literature and art; once he had taken up his calling, he worked diligently and with consistent dedication to his creative efforts. He had great versatility. While his prose works early established his reputation and later were cited both by his admirers and by those who condemned him as indecent, his activity in many genres was noteworthy. Indeed, at various times later scholars have suggested that further understanding of his work may also be approached through the reading of his poetry or his literary criticism. Occasionally, there has been some revival of interest in his drama. His letters, of which several thousand remain, are of interest not merely for literary researchers but also for the commentary that they offer on major literary controversies. It is probably fair to say that some of Lawrence’s political and social views have come to be regarded as curious and unfortunate manifestations of the undeveloped side of an essentially aesthetic temperament. Throughout all of his efforts, however, there are common elements which lend an essential unity to the entire body of his work. In all of his fictional offerings, Lawrence stressed the primacy of feeling, and a sense of emotional directness is communicated both in passages presenting natural descriptions and in his evocation of human relations. On a subjective level, sensations and intuitions are recaptured vividly in many places, though it may be contended that this very tendency produced inexactitude and lapses at times into a repetitive style. Lawrence also had little patience for the development of plot; the structure of some major works may appear arbitrary or disjointed in some ways. On the other hand, many of his protagonists possess a vitality and intrinsic appeal that have made them memorable to many readers.

In a related sense, Lawrence’s work was important for the audacity with which he evoked human sexual drives within a much wider romantic context. To be sure, such episodes are not particularly frequent and are remarkable primarily for the frank and explicit manner in which they are rendered, yet in no instances do such interludes seem contrived or out of place. Much of the romantic and erotic imagery associated with natural settings performs a symbolic function which complements the briefer but more graphic descriptive passages that aroused such controversy when his major works first appeared. Because of Lawrence’s insistence on the explicit handling of sexual issues, in some quarters his work was originally not regarded seriously. The enduring appeal of his major novels and stories, however, which seems to have transcended the vicissitudes of changing mores, points to the deeper forms of artistry that inspired him and were uniquely his own.

Bibliography

Balbert, Peter, and Phillip L. Marcus, eds. D. H. Lawrence: A Centenary Consideration. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1985. Eleven essays are presented here in commemoration of the one hundredth anniversary of Lawrence’s birth; some contributors deal with thematic and doctrinal issues affecting the writer’s work, while others consider the influence and reactions of other important literary figures.

Chambers, Jessie. D. H. Lawrence: A Personal Record. London: Jonathan Cape, 1935. As Lawrence’s first major love interest, the author almost certainly was the real-life counterpart of Miriam Leivers in Sons and Lovers. Her account of the affair diverges from other versions, both actual and fictional; some bitterness at her ultimate rejection is apparent in the latter portions of this biography.

Cowan, James C., ed. D. H. Lawrence: An Annotated Bibliography of Writings About Him. 2 vols. De Kalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1982-1985. This reference work, an essential research tool for serious or specialized scholarship, contains 4,627 entries dealing with publications in fifteen languages between 1909 and 1975. In addition to the main subject, there are a number of comparative studies discussed at various points.

Delavenay, Émile. D. H. Lawrence, the Man and His Work: The Formative Years, 1885-1919. Translated by Katharine M. Delavenay. London: Heinemann, 1972. The most thorough and discerning study of Lawrence’s early career, this work skillfully traces the intertwined elements of his personal life, intellectual development, and efforts in several genres to elucidate the sources of his first major works.

The D. H. Lawrence Review. This periodical, which commenced publication in 1968 on the University of Arkansas Press, Fayetteville, under the editorship of James C. Cowan, subsequently, from 1984, has been issued by the University of Delaware Press, Newark, with Dennis Jackson as editor. A number of important articles by recognized critics and scholars have appeared here, and this journal is useful as a measure of ongoing research in this field.

Lawrence, D. H. The Letters of D. H. Lawrence. Edited by James T. Boulton et al. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979-. This comprehensive collection is useful particularly where it illuminates Lawrence’s personal relationships and the development of his literary ideas. For any comparable period it supersedes in accuracy and breadth any previous editions of Lawrence’s correspondence. By 1987, four volumes, covering the period from 1901 to 1924, had been published.

Lawrence, Mrs. Frieda (von Richthofen). “Not I, but the Wind . . .” New York: Viking Press, 1934. This posthumous tribute rendered to Lawrence by his widow records the positive aspects of their relationship during his courtship and their married life. There are some poignant passages concerning Lawrence’s declining health and eventual death; the darker side of his character is not dealt with to any great extent.

Meyers, Jeffrey, ed. The Legacy of D. H. Lawrence: New Essays. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987. The topical concerns discussed by the seven contributors to this volume include the English and American contexts in which Lawrence’s works were produced. In addition to poems and novels, Lawrence’s travel works and his overall cultural impact are also considered.

Nehls, Edward H., ed. D. H. Lawrence: A Composite Biography. 3 vols. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1957-1959. An important compilation of firsthand accounts, including many by Lawrence which have been selected to provide a chronological narrative of his life. This work is valuable particularly for the diversity of sources upon which it draws, and casts light upon its subject’s work from many points of view.

Sagar, Keith. D. H. Lawrence: Life into Art. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985. A major literary biography, this work demonstrates the relationship between the stages through which Lawrence’s life passed and the themes that developed in turn through his major writings. The origins of certain novels and collections of poetry are discussed on the basis of original materials depicting his personal concerns and aspirations during the creative process.

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