If the reputation of D. H. Lawrence were to be measured like a heartbeat on an EKG, the graph would show a sharp rise after his death, in 1930, followed by a headlong fall, in 1970, and then fifty years of flatlining. The decline would come as little surprise to a man whose personal symbol was a phoenix. “The Phoenix renews her youth / only when she is burnt, burnt alive, burnt down / to hot and flocculent ash,” Lawrence wrote in a poem. For him, regeneration was just a matter of time.
How that phoenix rose! Before his death, Lawrence was a pariah, living outside the herd and throwing bombs into it. After his death, he was reborn as a Byronic hero: W. H. Auden described the carloads of women who, having lurched across the Taos desert and up the Rocky Mountains, stood in reverence before a memorial chapel to Lawrence, wondering “what it would have been like to sleep with him.” Back in England, the young Philip Larkin held that Lawrence “had more genius—more of God, if you like—than any man could be expected to handle,” and the critic Raymond Williams reported how “if there was one person everybody wanted to be after the war, to the point of caricature, it was Lawrence.” The mania peaked in 1960, when Lawrence’s 1928 novel, “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” became the subject of a historic obscenity trial, turning him into a mascot of the sexual revolution. Then—bang—it was all over. In 1970, Kate Millet published “Sexual Politics,” which skewered Lawrence’s work and singled out the self-declared priest of love as one of the Shitty Men of Literature. Lawrence was once again a pariah.
But was he really snuffed out by second-wave feminism? When I discovered Lawrence, in the late seventies, he was a harmless peculiarity from a distant age. And there was still much to admire: born in 1885, Lawrence was the first English working-class novelist, the son of a coal miner. He was raised in Eastwood, a small town in the Midlands, and won a scholarship to Nottingham High School, just a few miles away. Lawrence had as good an education as any middle-class boy, which he furthered by—in Larkin’s phrase—hurling himself upon the corpus of the local library. By the time he was twenty, he had read his way through Western literature, from Virgil to Oscar Wilde. Ford Madox Ford, who first published Lawrence in The English Review, in 1909, said that he had “never known any young man of his age who was so well read in all the dullnesses that spread between Milton and George Eliot.”
Ford had imagined Lawrence to be a forelock-tugging ingénue, but the wily creature who turned up at his office was, he discovered, “a fox” preparing “to make a raid on the hen-roost before him.” It was Ford who encouraged Lawrence to write about the world he knew, and Lawrence would have continued down the path of social realism—the mode that defined such early work as “Sons and Lovers,” from 1913—had he not met Frieda Weekley, the freewheeling daughter of a German baron and the wife of one of Lawrence’s former professors. It was Frieda, with whom Lawrence eloped and then wandered the globe, who convinced him to discard his former self and rise again, as a prophet and sexual guru.
Even a brief engagement with Lawrence’s subsequent work—“The Rainbow,” “Women in Love,” and so on—will reveal that Lawrence had something to say about sex, though I was never quite sure what it was. But then, any novel by Lawrence, even a great one, is an imperfect, uneven, and self-sabotaging creature. He said this himself, when he warned us, in his 1923 book “Studies in Classic American Literature,” to “trust the tale” and not “the artist.” Lawrence contradicts and quarrels with himself, and the fact that he had no idea where his strengths as a writer lay made him thrillingly unpredictable. He aimed high and wavered in the balance; reading one of Lawrence’s opening lines is like watching a man on a high wire. His first words are fleet, utterly certain of their step; he begins “The Poetry of the Present” with “It seems when we hear a skylark singing as if sound were running into the future.” “Sea and Sardinia” is even better: “Comes over one the absolute necessity to move.” Can he maintain this poise, or will he start writing about quivering wombs? When Lawrence falls off the wire, his readers, white-knuckled, hold out for the next sentence, at which point the tension begins again. In other words, Lawrence was always strong enough, perverse enough, to survive Kate Millett’s attack.