Writing in a time when the vogue of intellectualism was taking over the entire literary landscape, the acclaimed writer and poet DH Lawrence wrote about topics that had seldom been explored before; individualism and sexuality. His poems also were largely written in opposition to industrialism and mechanization of society, which he believed to be extremely dehumanizing. Whether in poetry and prose, Lawrence was a man who strived to move “against the tide”. Predictably, his choice of subject matter did not get him in good books with censors and publishers. With the seemingly controversial content of his acclaimed works like Sons and Lovers (that explored the Oedipus Complex), Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Women in Love (that earned the public disapproval for their erotic passages), Lawrence was highly unpopular during his own time. He had been universally deemed as a ‘pornographer’ when he died of tuberculosis; his works only garnered posthumous acclaim when writers like EM Forster and F.R Leavis took significant strides towards his redemption.
It wasn’t uncommon to find the twentieth century public going berserk over overt depictions of sexuality and physical intimacy. It was the insecurity about topics like these that had led to the Obscenity Act of 1959. Sons and Lovers and Lady Chatterley’s Lover are two novels Lawrence is most known for. In fact, Sons and Lovers is touted today as “one of the hundred best novels of the twentieth century” (again, it had failed to earn much appreciation on its publication in 1913). Both these novels primarily explore psychoanalytic processes; it has been widely claimed that Lawrence was aware of Sigmund Freud’s work on psychoanalysis. But the larger theme was conveniently sidelined in the readers’ obsession with underlying sexual motifs in the stories. Both the books had to be heavily expurgated to be accepted by publishers; the original versions came out much later, after his death.
Sons and Lovers is largely autobiographical, written during Lawrence’s mother, Lydia’s death. The novel was an attempt on Lawrence’s part to explore his complex relationship with his mother. It has ostensible oedipal overtones, where Lawrence’s fictional version in the book, Paul Morel, feels both suffocated and obsessed with his mother Gertude’s love and attention. In hindsight, it is the least “explicit” and controversial book of Lawrence’s, but that might be because the 1913 version had been significantly toned down in its sexual content and almost eighty passages had been scrapped. It was much later, in 1994, that the omitted passages were restored. Although Lawrence’s larger aim was to explore sexual/romantic relationships and the effect of childhood attachments on adult life, the sexually repressed public of his time could not move beyond their notions of the ‘obscene’ and the ‘outrageous’.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover, however, has a more prominent history marred by widespread dissent and court cases. The novel, which has today been categorized as an ‘erotica’, focused on several controversial subjects; an extramarital affair of an aristocratic woman with a man inferior to her class, exploration of a woman’s individualism and sexual desires, and the consequent epiphany of the woman about sex not being an immoral, shameful act that it was upheld to be. Lawrence makes an interesting juxtaposition of two kinds of relationships here; Lady Chatterley’s almost platonic relationship with her husband, Clifford Chatterley (since he had been paralyzed from the waist down) and the sexually charged relationship she shares with the gamekeeper, Oliver Mellors. The one with her husband, dominated by the mind and the intellect, was the kind that was accepted and exalted in Lawrence’s time. Her association with Mellors would have been rendered sinful in all respects. The novel turned out to be indigestible for the twentieth century reader, despite the fact that the 1928 version was significantly sanitized. The real test for the book, however, came after Lawrence’s death, when Penguins Books, who had tried to publish the unexpurgated version in 1960, were tried under the aforementioned Obscenity Act. The book was ultimately given a significant literary merit and the publishers were pronounced “not guilty”.
The trial proved to be incredibly favourable to Lawrence’s reputation. The post-1960 period consequently became the period of sexual liberation and the true worth of Lawrence’s works was recognized. In that sense, DH Lawrence can be credited with pioneering something close to a ‘glorious transition’ for the reading public of Britain. With most of his novels now being deemed as “canonical” and pursued keenly by students of English Literature around the world, Lawrence finally has got his due.