According to F R Leavis, who dominated literary criticism for many years in England, the only modern writer fitting into the great tradition of English fiction was D H Lawrence. This view had been expressed many years ago, but it was absorbed by Ludowyke and so stuck in Sri Lanka for many decades. Until relatively recently, all the academics who taught English Literature in our universities, and our Training Colleges too, were products of the even greater tradition associated with that splendid scholar. So, given the practice of sticking to previously studied texts, ‘The Odour of Chrysanthemums’ and ‘The Rocking Horse Winner’ continue on many syllabuses, as does ‘Snake’, sometimes explained to unsuspecting minds solely in terms of phallic symbolism.
I suspect the open – for that time at least – accounts of sexuality had something to do with Lawrence’s exalted reputation in those distant days. This was strengthened in the sixties with some powerful films, stressing aspects of personal relations that were fashionable then, though Lawrence himself seems to have been much less explicit in the first decades of this century, when simple sexuality was circus enough.
Thus ‘The Fox’ was presented in celluloid as being unmistakably about lesbians, two young ladies trying to live alone in the woods but distracted by a sterlingly laconic Keir Dullea, reawakening what Lawrence thought were more natural instincts in one of them. ‘Women in Love’ conversely seemed homoerotic, though it was dominated by a vintage performance by Glenda Jackson, whose most memorable moment was when she chased a herd of cows, an experience that seems to have stood her in good stead when she became a Member of Parliament for the Labour Party.
All this suggests that Lawrence was not a master of subtlety, and even Leavis sometimes seems to sense that occasionally he verged on self-parody. The scenes of sexual excess in ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ for instance, the failed prosecution of which heralded the sexual revolution in Britain, are extravagant enough. Given also the good lady’s running commentary on her predilections, one feels that the poor gamekeeper is paying through the nose, or whatever, for his dalliance with the upper classes.
And yet, with all this, there is a power in Lawrence’s prose which suggests why he seemed so refreshing a writer in a weakened Britain after the First World War. That was a period of great anguish for the elite that had run the country for so long, preserving its influence by allowing a gradual infusion of talent, through its extraordinary public school system, from other backgrounds. The War however changed all that, bringing a host of new people to the top, destroying a whole generation of youthful talent within the elite, and precipitating a tax system that hastened an egalitarian social revolution.
Not entirely surprisingly, given the capacity of the British ruling class to coopt talent, we find that nearly all writers of importance during this period exude nostalgia for what was lost. Galsworthy, described I believe by David Cecil (himself a scion of the long established House of Salisbury, who taught English at Oxford) as the main recorder of social change, began as a forceful critic of his ‘Man of Property’ but soon turned elegiac in tone as he described an upper middle class devastated by war. And ironically, those Cecil characterized as entertainers, through thrills and comedy, Agatha Christie and P G Wodehouse, sanctified a world of butlers and country houses.
Lawrence then seemed unusual, and the more so as Leavis had to cope with the cerebral and the sentimental in Aldous Huxley and Virginia Woolf. The earthiness then of the miner’s son from Nottingham, dealing with the dehumanizing effects of labour intensive capitalism, seemed a breath of fresh air. At the same time he wrote at a time when literacy was impacting on the working classes that he came from, leading to social transitions that caused conflicts within previously homogeneous nuclear families.
Oddly enough, it is I think Lawrence’s second novel, dealing in a very straightforward manner with such themes, that has dated least of his fiction. ‘Sons and Lovers’ is largely autobiographical, dominated by the character of Mrs Morrell, who is based on Lawrence’s own possessive mother. Her resentment of a simple working husband, as she strives to lift her children into another world, is graphically presented, along with the almost unbearable sense of obligation she fosters in the one son who survives to fulfil her hopes.
As Paul outgrows his mother intellectually, he also shifts from a simple if sympathetic girlfriend to a more sophisticated married woman. The relationships between the four, as the mother who is unwilling to share her son realizes she might have to settle for the lesser evil, and as Paul realizes how difficult it is to overcome his appreciation of how his mother contributed to his growth, compel the reader’s attention right through to the dramatic resolution of these conflicting claims.
‘Women in Love’, generally considered Lawrence’s finest work, deals with two sisters in love with two very different men, with the Lawrence figure (there is almost always a Lawrence figure in the novels, dark and slight and intense and incredibly highly sexed) fascinated by the slow moving blonde son of an industrial family. An almost sexual attraction is sublimated into an effort to save the rich man’s soul, but it fails, and he dies, in one of those over the top Lawrence resolutions that is still oddly moving –
He had come to the hollow basin of snow, surrounded by sheer slopes and precipices, out of which rose a track that brought one to the top of the mountain. But he wandered unconsciously, till he slipped and fell down, and as he fell something broke in his soul, and immediately he went to sleep.
Later Lawrence moved further and further away from the world into which he had been born, to Australia in ‘Kangaroo’ and to the West of the United States in ‘The Plumed Serpent’, where the Lawrence figure is a mystic Mexican, if I recollect aright, devoted to the regenerative powers of the Serpent, which is all a bit obvious. However Lawrence also, in addition to powerful if heavy poetry, also wrote in his last years a plethora of short stories which are easier to relate to.
Many of his stories, it is said, were based on actual people, for most of whom he had a healthy dislike. However, he manages to transform prejudices into interesting analyses of foibles that are readily recognizable in the world around us. In addition, the shorter format helps him to focus more appealingly on descriptions of young women awakening to sexuality, of couples recognizing their incompatibility, of individuals alienating themselves from society. The upshot justifies the description of him as a Heroic Vitalist, someone of boundless energy who was intrinsically negative in his approach to life, but the heroism certainly makes him a writer worth reading.