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Why DH Lawrence still gets under our skin

His vexatious, evolving style demonstrates a capacity to face the world as sensitively and honestly as possible.

By Tomiwa Owolade

The author and literary critic Lara Feigel spent the first year of the Covid-19 lockdown stuck in a rented cottage in Oxfordshire with her children, her 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 throughout 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 also found expression in his writings, and this is what particularly 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 couple of books on psychoanalysis, some plays, countless letters and 900 pages of poems. His work was manic. “Most of his novels,” Feigel writes in her book, Look! We Have Come Through!, “were written in spurts where he was drafting around 5,000 words a day. This wasn’t carefully formulated, conscious composition.” Lawrence was writing, instead, with his body. Many of his readers, writes Feigel, feel they read his work “with their bodies as well”.

Feminist thinkers and critics, such as Kate Millet, Simone de Beavoir and Germaine Greer, have denounced Lawrence for misogyny. His personality had other unpleasant aspects too: his hectoring and pompous tone; his animosity to democracy; his racism; his narcissism. Sadly, some of these obsessions intrude upon his work, especially his novels.

Yet Lawrence has also been admired by many influential female 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. Frances Wilson’s fascinating biography, Burning Man, drew 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 Cusk’s Second Place was inspired by the socialite Mabel Dodge Luhan’s memoir about encountering Lawrence in New Mexico, and Alison MacLeod’s Tenderness is about the legacy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover in mid 20th-century Britain and America.

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

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Look! We Have Come Through! explores the ways in which Lawrence has affected how Feigel sees the world, in chapters that address subjects including sex, parenthood, religion and community. Lawrence was not a lifestyle guru. What she gets from him are not lessons in how to live, but a capacity to face the world as sensitively and honestly as possible: not to be attached to a fixed notion of the world, but to recognise its shifting complexity. “Living alongside 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.”

This attention to “perpetual change” is evident in Lawrence’s writings. He loved repetition. Words and imagery often recur together in close proximity. This often has a stalling, distracting effect, as in this description of 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 the slides could all be broken. She wished it could be gone forever, like a lantern-slide which was broken.”

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Feigel astutely notes, however, that Lawrence used repetition to register movement, not stasis. Each repeated word carries a slightly different resonance, building up momentum. “It’s this capacity for constant motion,” she writes, “for writing to a rhythm instead of a plot, that makes Lawrence so good a guide to modern life, however much he railed against most of the changes he saw around him.”

His sensitivity to movement and change also distinguishes Lawrence’s writing on sex. Feigel offers an intelligent and perceptive account of his attitude to sex that eschews many of the clichés about him. Lawrence was not a benign hero of sexual liberation, as the myths of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and its 1960 obscenity trial at the Old Bailey might suggest. Neither was he a male chauvinist ogre. “It was right 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 a reputation he had straightforwadly sought.”

Lawrence’s approach to sex – informed by idiosyncracies such as his phallus-worship – was strange and always ambivalent. He thought it could enrich us, but also destroy us. It is a shifting thing in his writing, with the power both to make us ecstatic and dangerously vulnerable. As Feigel writes, “if sex is an experience so powerful that it destroys us, allowing us to remake ourselves, then of course this process is going to be fraught and dangerous.”

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

“Reading Lawrence on sex,” Feigel writes, “the sense of feeling that you’re taking part in the scene, comes not from any individual sex scene, but from the speed with which he allows his characters to spill between emotional landscapes, at one moment feeling together, at the next reaching for each other across a great distance.” Lawrence exercises a powerful fascination on Feigel precisely because of this push-and-pull dynamic.

She also sees her children through a Lawrentian perspective that simultaneously emphasises their uniqueness and their attachment to her. “It’s precisely because our communion with our children can be so easy and blissful,” she writes, “that it’s hard to accept there are moments when we have to leave them alone, moments when we have to see that our feelings are unhelpful to them.” The lesson of Lawrence is that we must see the things we love – partners, children, families – on their own terms, loving them as much as we can, but not trying to force them to conform to our expectations.

This way of seeing the world can also act as a valuable approach to reading. When we read a novel or a poem, we can respond to it by recognising 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 distinctive richness and variety are suppressed. To truly engage with a text we need to understand it on its own terms. We need to take an imaginative leap.

Lawrence is a writer for people who struggle to sleep at night because they want to carry on reading a book or watching a film or to continue a conversation with a friend; for people who view their relationships 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 in enough to live by.”

Feigel’s book is itself Lawrentian: sprightly, capacious, passionate, inquisitive and complex. In our globalised 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 vexatious style, always strove for honesty.

Look! We Have Come Through!: Living with DH Lawrence
Lara Feigel
Bloomsbury, 272pp, £20

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

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