Which Lawrence to choose? Lady Chatterley's Lover is arguably the most influential, and certainly the most famous, or notorious. But much of it now seems embarrassing. Sons and Lovers, his unforgettable third novel, is many readers' favourite, but I've chosen The Rainbow, the more perfect twin of the diptych that also contains Women in Love.
No question: Lawrence is uneven, and troubling. In the last century he was fiercely attacked, and wildly overpraised, not least by the critic FR Leavis who clobbered generations of students with his verdict that Lawrence was "the great genius of our time". At the same time, my generation ingested Lawrence – his novels, poems, and stories – like junkies. Here, at last, was a writer who was unequivocally all about the human soul, and who loved nothing better than to explore every nuance of family and marital, and sexual, relations.
For readers who had grown up with JM Barrie, CS Lewis, Arthur Ransome, E Nesbit and all the repressed masters of post-Victorian children's literature, Lawrence seemed to offer the most exhilarating liberation. We, by contrast, would feel the blood thunder in our veins, become spontaneous and vital and instinctual. We would, as Lawrence put it, "break down those artificial conduits and canals through which we do so love to form our utterance". We would celebrate Dionysus, and we would be free. Adolescents had worn khaki in the 1940s, and flannel in the 50s, but we would dress like clowns.
It's an undifferentiated blur now, but if I stop to focus on my DH Lawrence, the Lawrence of the 60s, I can begin to discern the fuzzy but recognisable outline of a literary aesthetic that was both persuasive and, for Lawrence at least, coherent. Anyway, don't we expect our greatest writers to be a little bit mad? As compelling as the fantasy of the creative crucible, we had the puritanical cold steel of FR Leavis to remind us, inThe Great Tradition, about Lawrence's artistic integrity and moral grandeur, his profound artistic seriousness. As he once wrote to Aldous Huxley: "I always say, my motto is 'Art for my sake'." This Lawrence was also the magnificent standard-bearer for English modernism. By the 60s, we didn't need to box him into a pigeonhole: he was protean, inspiring, and with the kind of grandeur that is unknown today. As the novelist and critic Howard Jacobson has written, "Women in Love is the nearest any English novel has so far approximated to the fearful grandeur of Medeaor the Oresteia."
In addition to the attractions of his literary genius, there was the thrill of Lawrence's personal philosophy. This had begun in heterodox meditations on Christianity, and had then swerved towards mysticism, Buddhism and – most arousing of all – earthy, pagan theologies. Seductively, for English adolescents in, say, 1967, Lawrence seemed to celebrate the liberation of the individual in the mass, through the celebration of primal instincts.
The DH Lawence with whom we fell in love with was a protean figure, for sure. The barest sketch of his biography – the humble origins in mining Nottinghamshire; the escape to metropolitan London; his elopement with Frieda, a married woman; the long exile; his "savage pilgrimage" to self-knowledge; and finally his early death from tuberculosis in 1930, aged just 44 – put him effortlessly in the company of the great Romantics, Byron and Keats.
But he was more than a Romantic, apparently in a deep colloquy with some darker forces. He was also intimately in touch with nature, which plays a vital role in all Lawrence's best work. Thomas Hardy had written about rural Dorset with a poet's eye, but Hardy was a Victorian who treated the landscape as an attractive backdrop to the human drama. Lawrence is a 20th-century writer and his vision is fresh, dynamic and modern – as if nature is there to galvanise the human soul, not merely to decorate his or her environment.
Listen to Lawrence describe the scene beyond the grime of the colliery in Women in Love: "Still the faint glamour of blackness persisted over the fields and the wooded hills, and seemed darkly to gleam in the air. It was a spring day, chill, with snatches of sunshine. Yellow celandines showed out from the hedge-bottoms… currant bushes were breaking into leaf, and little flowers were coming white on the grey alyssum that hung over stone walls."
And then, beyond the confines of The Great Tradition, there was that notorious novel with those forbidden words, and those ectstatic descriptions of sexual intercourse. Lady Chatterley was an essential handbook to the 60s. Lawrence's fascination with sex made a wonderful contrast with the terribly grey dullness of the postwar world.
Similarly, in The Rainbow and Women in Love, the sexuality of his characters throbs through the narrative like a feverish pulse. No one writes better than Lawrence about the complexity of desire, especially homosexual desire. "I should like to know," he wrote in one letter, "why nearly every man that approaches greatness tends to homosexuality, whether he admits it or not."
Looking back, Lady Chatterley's Lover was both the making of DH Lawrence in the postwar English imagination, and ultimately, the ruining of his reputation. Most damaging of all – from one book that's a long way below his best – DH Lawrence became fatally attached to the zeitgeist, and fatally identified with just one novel. In time, inevitably, there was a reaction against the bells and the beards, the drugs, the pan pipes and the liberation. So Lawrence got thrown out with the flared trousers, the Beatles and, in America, with the Vietnam war. By the dawn of the 80s there was no place for clowns, and four-letter words were two a penny.
And so, from the occasionally ridiculous to the sublime. Lawrence first attracted the attention of literary London with a short story entitled Odour of Chrysanthemums, and it's as the master of the short story that I began to read him. Where to start? There are many options, including The Rocking-Horse Winner, but one of his finest collections is The Prussian Officer and Other Stories, published in 1914. This places it after his acclaimed third novel, Sons and Lovers (1913), but before The Rainbow (1915), the novel that secures his claim on posterity.
The Rainbow, for me, is as close to perfection as any of his maturefiction. The novel opens with Marsh Farm, the home of the Brangwen family whose men and women, Lawrentian archetypes, inhabit the landscape that Lawrence loved. One of the many joys of The Rainbow is his evocation of the natural world, physical, timeless and symbolic. The novel is also conceived on a majestic scale, spanning a period from the 1840s to 1905, and showing how the Brangwen farming family is changed by Britain's industrial revolution, evolving from pastoral idyll to the chaos of modernity.
Once Tom Brangwen has married his "Polish lady" (chapter 1) and adopts her daughter Anna as his own, the narrative kicks into a high gear, the close-knit exploration of feelings. Anna meets Tom's nephew, Will. They marry; she becomes pregnant with Ursula; and the novel slowly builds to its celebrated concluding section: Ursula's quest for fulfilment in a heartless, repressive society. After her doomed passion for Skrebensky, a British soldier of Polish ancestry, Ursula is left with a more personal epiphany, one doubtless shared by its author, a vision of a rainbow: "She saw in the rainbow the earth's new architecture, the old brittle corruption of houses and factories swept away, the world built up in a living fabric of truth, fitting to the overarching heaven." With this spiritual regeneration, the novel ends, to be taken up again with Women in Love, the story of Ursula and Gudrun Brangwen, the sisters of Lawrence's first draft.
The more we look at DH Lawrence, the harder it is to understand why – apart from a shift in the cultural mood – he should have become so neglected. Certainly, he held some perverse, and often baffling, views on sexual politics, especially feminism; also on democracy and organised labour; and on modernity. Like all radicals, he made some ridiculous utterances from time to time. He is a writer that adolescents devour omnivorously, but then cannot return to. Perhaps if we read him in a less compulsive way, we could learn to benefit from the nurture of the diet he offers, and stay with him at all ages, young and old.
A note on the text
Lawrence began to write a novel entitled "The Sisters" in the spring of 1913, while staying in Italy. "It is a queer novel," he wrote to his editor Edward Garnett, "which seems to have come by itself." After many drafts and revisions, this ur-text would become the source of his two great novels, The Rainbow and Women in Love. Meanwhile, another version, written in the spring of 1914, entitled "The Wedding Ring", was accepted for publication by Methuen & Co but then returned to Lawrence on the outbreak of war in August 1914. The publishers blamed the hostilities, but a deeper reason was probably their anxiety about obscenity, a fear that would soon be fulfilled.
After this troubled start, Lawrence rewrote the book completely in the winter of 1914-15, removing material he would later use for Women in Love, and completed the novel now known as The Rainbow on 2 March 1915. "I know it is quite a lovely novel, really," he wrote to a friend in February 1914. "The perfect statue is in the marble, the kernel of it. But the thing is the getting it out clean." Methuen, meanwhile, continued to worry about the novel's sexual content, urging Lawrence to make additional changes, while also making unauthorised changes to the proofs themselves.
The Rainbow was finally published in Britain on 30 September 1915, whereupon Methuen were almost immediately prosecuted, in November, for Lawrence's frank treatment of sexual love. After the trial, all copies of the novel were seized and burnt, and The Rainbow remained banned in Britain for 11 years under the Obscene Publications Act 1857. However, it escaped repression in America where BW Huebsch published the first US edition in November 1915. After many vicissitudes, the text that is now canonical is the Cambridge University Press edition (1989) edited by Mark Kinkead-Weekes.
Three more from DH Lawrence
Sons and Lovers (1913); Women in Love (1920); Lady Chatterley's Lover (1928, private printing; 1960)
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