But what is most compelling in Lawrence’s work is his delving into questions of what makes us human, what drives us at the most primary level. To think about his novels involves our facing – with appropriate trepidation – the deepest level of our own psyche. The primitivism associated with his treatment of sexuality is bracing and disturbing, not least because it is part of his effort to delve into the hidden levels of unconscious motives. His works confront not only any hangover of fastidious Victorian repression; they also expose the efforts to simplify and reduce the deeper workings of our passions through antiseptic detachment and materialist allure or “packaging”[see his late essay “Pornography and Obscenity” - which can be found in any (used) copy of Portable D H Lawrence (Viking Portable Library)]. In a significant early letter to his editor Edward Garnett, he voices his aim to get beyond the portrayal of superficial characteristics of life, the glittering facets of what he calls “diamond,” and to dig beyond the surface to the level of the essential carbon of existence; Lawrence uses as the essential element of his novels just this sort of imagery (like coal and diamond), images which function like quasi-sacramental symbols and rhythmic incantations conveying his elemental insights into the passions which drive human beings, above all sexual passion.
These motifs of style and theme are evident in the story “The Horse Dealer’s Daughter,” in which a country doctor saves a poverty-stricken woman from suicide by drowning; in his rooms, she has been warmed in towels, and she responds with desperate neediness to his kindness. The souls of these characters are in danger of expiring, hers from despair and his from emptiness; as a result they are on the verge of doing something extreme, struggling confusedly, even grotesquely toward life. Here is a passage in which images as well as the individual words themselves are incanted as a means of summoning up the subconscious knot of feeling operating beyond the surface of the ego: “Her hands were drawing him, drawing him down to her. He was afraid, even a little horrified. For he had, really, no intention of loving her. Yet her hands were drawing him towards her. He put out his hand quickly to steady himself, and grasped her bare shoulder. A lame seemed to burn the hand that grasped her soft shoulder. He had no intention of loving her; his whole will was against his yielding. It was horrible. And yet wonderful was the touch of her shoulders….” Carbon, not diamond: the “primitive” frankness of the passage points toward the full physical honesty of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which employs the Anglo-Saxon words for sex and excrement.
Diamond versus coal: these are logical images to employ for this son of a coal worker and the brilliant product of the working class miner’s passionate marriage to an ex-teacher from a failing middle-class family. Lawrence, born in 1885, was raised by the coal mine in the “company town,” and as a gifted student, he was the beneficiary of Gladstone’s Education Act of 1870 (one of several bills which saved England from much of Europe’s revolutionary disturbances). Like Joyce, he was a working class or at least lower-middle-class genius; he came in first in the country-wide King’s Scholarship exam, enabling him to attend the University of Nottingham. He and his closest friend in late adolescence, Jesse Chambers, formed a small group, the Pagans, dedicated to the ideas of Pater, Wagner, and Nietzsche; his first publication was a group of poems Jesse sent to Ford Maddox Ford, editor of The English Review. In 1912, he met Frieda Weekley, wife of his French professor at the university, a German woman who had undergone psychoanalysis; she left her husband for him, and his relationship to her lasted the rest of his life, through travels to Europe, Australia, Mexico, New Mexico and back to Europe. Her influence is to be felt immediately in the Freudian portrait of mother and son in Sons and Lovers, and she contributes features to several heroines in his novels. His life was ever in exile – whether driven into a sort of internal exile by British hypocrisy and hostility, or embracing external exile in his travels and foreign residences, continually searching for a more living community, often with close friends.
An aspect of Lawrence’s ambition is this transformation of his intimate biography into the matter of his fiction, so that the novels cumulatively evoke an encompassing chronicle of his life experience. This is not only a matter of the extraordinary appropriation of himself as a character (akin to the gigantism of self in Joyce’s Stephen or Proust’s Marcel), or of the novels’ chronicle of his world travels, both physical and spiritual – from despair to rebirth. It is also a matter of his appropriation and transformation of the lives of his intimate friends – Jesse Chambers becomes Miriam in Sons and Lovers; Katherine Mansfield becomes Gudrun, and John Middleton Murray becomes Gerald in Women in Love.I’ll try in my next post further to explore some of the features of Women in Love. [Here are some Amazon links to Lawrence's works: Selected Stories (Lawrence, D. H.) (Penguin Classics), Sons and Lovers (Vintage Classics), The Rainbow (Vintage Classics), Women in Love, Lady Chatterley's Lover (Penguin Classics)(Vintage Classics).]