The Fighter

Now a book lives,” wrote D.H. Lawrence, “as long as it is unfathomed. Once it is fathomed…once it is known and its meaning is fixed or established, it is dead.”

If this is the case, Lawrence need not have feared for his own works. Seventy-three years after his death they are all in print and the critics continue to debate, often to fight, over what they might mean. The proliferation of biographies is likewise remarkable, this despite the fact that Lawrence had as little desire to have his life “fathomed” as his books: “I hate ‘understanding’ people,” he wrote in 1921, “and I hate more still to be understood. Damn understanding more than anything.”

But if we are not to understand Lawrence, what is our relationship with him to be? Perhaps we can find a clue in the man’s belligerence. Whether dealing with his dog, his doctors, his wife, or his closest friends, Lawrence’s relationships were characterized by an alternation between intense intimacy and ferocious conflict. In general, the more important a relationship was to him, the more likely it was to be punctuated by violent, even traumatic battles. It thus seems worth trying to understand, if not Lawrence, then at least his literary longevity as a function of his passion for conflict. “I’ve just done the last proofs of Lady C [Lady Chatterley’s Lover],” he wrote in 1928. “I hope it’ll make ‘em howl—and let ‘em do their paltry damnedest, after.”

As might be expected, the fighting started at home. “When I was a small boy, I remember my father shouting at my mother: ‘I’ll make you tremble at the sound of my footstep!’” Fourth of five children born to a Nottinghamshire coal miner in 1885, the young David Herbert was terrified, but also “felt it was splendid and right.” His mother was not impressed. “Which boots will you wear?” she asked her husband wryly. The man was deflated. The boy learned that threats without action are empty. Sick and in bed in his early thirties, Lawrence wrote to a friend of his relationship with his wife: “I suppose I’ll get strong enough again one day to slap Frieda in the eye, in the proper marital fashion. At present I am reduced to vituperation.”

Any battle can be seen from at least two sides. In the fictionalized version of his parents’ relationship in Sons and Lovers (1913), Lawrence wrote of a sensitive, middle-class mother who was obliged to wrest her children’s upbringing from a brutish working-class father. The young writer himself hadn’t been wanted by his parents, was merely the result of his father’s drunken, animal lust. Later in life, he could invert the situation: in some of Lawrence’s writings, the mother is a manipulative snob who imposes her self-righteous, middle-class values on a simple man with honest male instincts, monopolizing the children’s affection to the extent that the husband becomes an exile in …

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