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Introduction to D.H. Lawrence: His Works and Controversy

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  1. 0:36 Early Years
  2. 1:14 First Love
  3. 1:54 Sons and Lovers
  4. 3:36 The Rainbow & Women In Love
  5. 5:15 Lady Chatterley's Lover
  6. 8:18 Legacy
Show Timeline
Taught by

Ellie Green

Ellie holds a B.A. with Honors in English from Stanford University. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in English Literature at Princeton University.

In this video, we'll introduce D.H. Lawrence's life and works. We'll dig a little deeper into his controversial portrayals of sexuality and explore the social politics at play in his life and in his fiction.

D.H. Lawrence is pretty much a famous figure because of one single book: Lady Chatterley's Lover. It was described as pornographic and was heavily censored. But he's not just interested in sex; he's also interested in relationships and social class (also, coal mining). Basically, there's a lot more to him than Lady Chatterley. We're going to talk about that, but we'll save the best for last.

Early Years

D.H. Lawrence was born in 1885 in English coal-mining country. His father was a coal-miner, so he's extremely working-class, especially compared to the other authors we've talked about so far, but he worked really hard, and he showed from pretty early on that he was a good writer. He won a contest and ended up becoming a teacher in London, where he submitted poetry to various journals. Eventually he got discovered by writer Ford Madox Ford. He starts publishing novels in the early 1910s.

English writer D.H. Lawrence
D H Lawrence Early Years

At this point he's fallen in love with an older woman. Her name's Frieda Weekley. She's a low-level German aristocrat; she's a lot higher class than he is. We'll see this over and over again - the low-class dude, high-class lady. It comes back in his fiction over and over again. It also comes back in Disney in the form of Lady and the Tramp. Frieda Weekley is not only married, but she's actually married to D.H. Lawrence's former teacher. She's not only married to his former teacher, she also has three children with him. So it's a little scandalous when they run away together anyway.

'Sons and Lovers'

They go and hang out in Germany, traveling around. Then they go and hang out in Italy while he finishes Sons and Lovers, which is his first major book, and that's published in 1913. This one is kind of autobiographical. He revises it, like, a zillion times to keep changing it and almost to bring it further away from autobiography than it starts out. It's a lot of oedipal issues played out in coal-mining country.

His character's name is Paul Morel. His mother has married down to a coal miner, so right there you see that high-class lady, low-class man thing coming back. It isn't such a happy marriage, and they don't have money, so it's stressful. She ends up getting really, really attached to her son - that's where the oedipal issues are coming in. He spends the book trying to meet women and trying to fall in love, but he's always drawn back to his mother's love instead.

The book ends with her dying and him not having met another woman. That's kind of cheerful. That's the plot of it: our hero, Paul Morel, dealing with his mother issues, essentially. It's actually voted on Modern Library's list of the best books in English - it's number nine, so check it out. It's pretty good.

Sons and Lovers is what gets him going as an author. It's met with reasonable success. It also establishes some of his primary concerns in literature right away, which are relationships - as we saw with him trying to meet women and with his mother- and also social class - as we saw with marrying up and down; that becomes such a problem for him.

'The Rainbow' and 'Women in Love'

So he's still traveling around Italy and England, and he writes a pair of important books. It was actually going to be one book, but he ended up having to split it because it was way long. This is The Rainbow and Women in Love.

The Rainbow is D.H. Lawrence's first brush with obscenity. It's in 1915, so you shouldn't get too excited about what's in there. But it was definitely banned, and all existing copies were burnt.

Women in Love, which is its sequel, comes out in 1920. Both of these novels deal with this family called the Brangwen family. There are two sisters, named Ursula and Gudrun (which is definitely what I'm going to name my daughters).

They fall in love - remember the second title is Women in Love - with two men, and they think a lot about relationships. They hang out with cool artists types in London. This all takes a look at how the changing world is affecting the way people deal with each other - the way men and women relate with each other. That's how D.H. Lawrence fits into this Modernist tradition of examining how the new world should affect literature, how changes in technology and changes in social structure should affect literature. He takes the approach of looking at what happens to people and documents that in close detail. Women in Love ends really depressingly, with Gudrun's lover trying to kill her and then killing himself, so D.H. Lawrence is not the most cheerful writer that you could encounter.

'Lady Chatterly's Lover'

After this, he takes a little breather and sails around. In 1928, he tries to publish Lady Chatterly's Lover. It ends up being published in a heavily abridged form, so all the good bits are left out. It's about this aristocratic woman, Lady Chatterly, who has an affair with her sexy groundskeeper. Again, you see the upper-class lady and the lower-class man getting played out here. The reason why it happens in this case is because Lady Chatterly's husband is impotent. He got paralyzed. Now he can't have sex with her.

First she has an affair with this playwright, and it's not that satisfying. Then Oliver Mellors turns up. He's the groundskeeper.

They end up having sex a bunch of times in the forest. I think that's supposed to add this primal instinct element to it - she needs fulfillment in a physical way rather than just an intellectual way.

They gradually get closer, and they like each other more. She ends up getting pregnant with his kid. That's a little awkward, because her husband is impotent and it can't be his. Then, Oliver Mellors' old wife comes back. That's bad, because Lady Chatterly's pregnant.

It ends with both Lady Chatterly and Oliver trying to get a divorce. It might be a hopeful ending. We're not sure what's going to happen, but they're both trying to figure out how they can be together. It's not awfully depressing like some of the other D.H. Lawrence endings.

From that plot summary you can probably guess there's a lot of sex in it. From our standards now reading it, it's not that thrilling, but at the time it was really like WHOA. It used the f-word a lot. That was problematic. They published this abridged version and things swam along until 1960, when Penguin, which was a publishing house, tried to publish a full version of it in Britain. They actually had to go to trial because they had this new Obscene Publications Act passed in 1959 that said you're totally fine if you can show that your potentially pornographic work actually has literary merit. It's like it's okay to look at naked ladies if they're Greek statutes or Renaissance paintings, but it's kind of creepy if they're not. That's the distinction they're trying to make for all kinds of art and movies and things like that - obviously it's subjective. At this particular trial they had a lot of famous authors testify and say 'yes, it has literary merit'. It was found 'not guilty.' So now even if you go to Britain you can read the whole thing, which is still not that salacious and a whole lot longer. That's Lady Chatterly - what happens and its significance later on in terms of upsetting the laws and things like that.

Legacy

Shortly after finishing the book in 1930, D.H. Lawrence dies of tuberculosis, which is not a fun way to go. His reputation as an author grew after his death. Now he's definitely considered a significant figure; he's well-studied. Sons and Lovers, like I said before, is number nine on that list of things you ought to read. His novels are important to understanding some of the social concerns of the Modernist movement rather than just their stylistic oddities, which is what a lot of other authors were mostly focusing on. He's getting at the idea that there are changing relationships for changing times. Liberated sexuality is a part of that. Also, contact between different social classes is a part of that.

Lesson Summary

D.H. Lawrence, quick review:

  • Son of a coal-miner, married a low-level German aristocrat. That kind of relationship comes back in all his books.
  • Wrote some pretty famous books: Sons and Lovers, The Rainbow, Women in Love.
  • Wrote a famously sexy book called Lady Chatterley's Lover.

That is D.H. Lawrence.

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