D. H. Lawrence: The Life of an Outsider
By John Worthen
Counterpoint, 518 pp., illustrated, $29.95
Throughout the fiction, poetry, plays, and essays of British author D. H. Lawrence flow themes that criticize industrial society and praise all things natural. Many of his works are autobiographical, revolving around the complex relationships between men and women, and his candid sexual portrayals aroused much controversy on publication, however tame they may be by today's erotic standards. Lawrence wrote an astonishing amount in his short life, but his critical presence has dwindled in recent times, and his reputation today rests on a handful of novels that are more often cited than read. John Worthen, former professor of D. H. Lawrence Studies at the University of Nottingham and noted Lawrence scholar, has written a fresh and intimate portrait of the author, the first single-volume biography since his reputation came under assault, which draws quotes from rarely seen letters and original research.
Born in 1885 in Eastwood, Nottinghamshire, Lawrence was a sickly child who spent much of his childhood in bed. His home was not happy; his father drank most of his wages and raged at and beat his wife, who in turn never let up on her insistence that she had married beneath herself. The lifelong hatred of his father, and the violence of the marriage, are reflected in much of Lawrence's early writing, notably through Mrs. Morel in ''Sons and Lovers." Encouraged by his mother, with whom he had a deep emotional bond, he become interested in the arts and in writing in particular. He never forgot his mother's agonizing death by cancer in 1910, when, after watching her suffer for many days, he apparently hastened her death by administering an overdose of sleeping medication.
Lawrence hated the mining community in which he grew up, although he loved the limpid landscape surrounding Eastwood, and this, combined with the stark contrast of mining, inspired his early novels. A gifted child, he was educated in the local grammar school and won scholarships to the local high school and later to University College Nottingham. In 1901 he met Jessie Chambers, the model for Miriam Leivers in ''Sons and Lovers." Jessie was more than his first love; she criticized his writing, read his early literary attempts, and collaborated with him on writing projects. It was Jessie who in 1909 submitted some of Lawrence's poems to Ford Madox Hueffer (later Ford) at the English Review, who subsequently published them.
A teaching career in London was cut short by a serious illness in 1912, and Lawrence returned to Nottinghamshire, where he met Frieda Weekley, the wife of his former professor and mother of three children. Born in Metz, Germany, Frieda was a cousin of Baron Manfred von Richthofen, who would become the air ace known as the Red Baron. Frieda and Lawrence began an affair, she deserted her family, and for the next two years the pair traveled to Bavaria, Austria, and Italy before returning to England in 1914. They were married at the Kensington registrar's office in London on July 13 of that year, shortly after Frieda's divorce. The outbreak of the world war kept them in England, and they moved to a cottage in Cornwall that overlooked the British shipping lanes, paying a rent of five pounds a year. Money was always in short supply for Lawrence; he was totally dependent on the earnings from his writing, and when cash was scarce, he again fell back on the generosity of his friends and family. The Lawrences' marriage was notoriously abusive, involving verbal and physical battles sometimes culminating in cutlery-throwing -- Frieda once broke an ironstone plate over his head -- and fistfighting in the presence of friends. Bitter over the lost custody of her children -- her ex-husband refused to let her visit them -- Frieda increasingly found Lawrence unable to sympathize with her suffering. Talk of the children was taboo well into the 1920s.
During his writing years in England, Lawrence created poems, essays, and plays, but became disillusioned and persecuted by the law because of his ''obscene" style and because of his marriage to Frieda. In 1915, ''The Rainbow" was banned for its alleged obscenity. More than 1,000 copies of the book were destroyed, and the press was brutal. The actions not only caused major financial hardship but also damaged his chances of getting subsequent novels published in England. To compound these troubled times for the couple, they were both accused of spying for Germany and were served with a military exclusion order forbidding them to reside in Cornwall. After a brief stay in London and the Midlands, Lawrence turned his back on England and began a nomadic life with Frieda, living for short periods in countries around the world, including Ceylon, Australia, New Mexico, and Mexico, where in 1924 he had a bronchial hemorrhage diagnosed as tuberculosis.
Lawrence harbored a lifelong love-hate relationship with England, which gave him a sense of being trapped or suffocated. He claimed to feel ''buried alive under the yellow air and the vast inertia." By the summer of 1926, however, he and Frieda were back in London. The Stage Society was putting on his play ''David," and he wanted to see his family in the Midlands. It was here that he began work on the short story that would become ''Lady Chatterley's Lover." This book would occupy him for two years until its publication in Paris in the summer of 1928, and it would elevate him from obscurity to a household name; it would also earn him more money than he had ever had in his life. Initially, ''Lady Chatterley" received very few reviews, and despite attempts to ban it by bookstores, police, and customs on both sides of the Atlantic, its notoriety spread by word of mouth. Still, it would not be published in England until 1960, and only after a powerful battle to suppress it.
Lawrence's health continued to deteriorate, and he spent the last two months of his life in a sanatorium in Vence, France. He died on March 2, 1930, and was buried two days later in a cemetery overlooking the Mediterranean. As Worthen points out, at the start of the 21st century Lawrence is arguably once again the outsider he was during his lifetime. But his legacy goes beyond the notoriety of his sexually explicit novels. His poems, essays, and letters relay succinctly his observance of the natural world. As he wrote to a friend of the experience of dying, ''While we live, we must be game. And when we come to die, we'll die game too."
Robert Taylor is the former chief book critic of the Globe.