David Herbert Lawrence, the fourth of the five children of Arthur John Lawrence (1846–1924), a miner, was born in Eastwood near Nottingham on 11th September, 1885. His father was barely literate, but his mother, Lydia Lawrence, was better educated and was determined that David and his brothers should not become miners.
According to his biographer, John Worthen: "Arthur Lawrence, like his three brothers, was a coalminer who worked from the age of ten until he was sixty-six, was very much at home in the small mining town, and was widely regarded as an excellent workman and cheerful companion. Lawrence's mother Lydia was the second daughter of Robert Beardsall and his wife, Lydia Newton of Sneinton; originally lower middle-class, the Beardsalls had suffered financial disaster in the 1860s and Lydia, in spite of attempts to work as a pupil teacher, had, like her sisters, been forced into employment as a sweated home worker in the lace industry. But she had had more education than her husband, and passed on to her children an enduring love of books, a religious faith, and a commitment to self-improvement, as well as a profound desire to move out of the working class in which she felt herself trapped."
As a child Lawrence preferred the company of girls to boys and this led to him being bullied at school. He was an intelligent boy and at the age of 12 he became the first boy from Eastwood to win one of the recently established county council scholarships, and went to Nottingham High School. However, he did not get on with the other boys and left school in the summer of 1901 without qualifications.
Lawrence started work as a factory clerk for a surgical appliances manufacturer in Nottingham. Soon afterwards, his eldest brother, William Ernest Lawrence, by now a successful clerk in London, fell ill and died on 11th October 1901. Lydia Lawrence was distraught with the loss of her favourite son and now turned her attention to the career of David. John Worthen argues that "she needed her children to make up for the disappointments of her life." David now gave up his employment as a clerk and started work as a pupil teacher at the school in Eastwood for miner's children.
Lawrence became friendly with Jessie Chambers. Her sister, Ann Chambers Howard, has argued: "They spent a great deal of time together working and reading, walking through the fields and woods, talking and discussing. Jessie was interested in everything, to such a degree that her intensity of perception almost amounted to a form of worship. She felt that her own appreciation of beauty, of poetry, of people, and of her own sorrows amounted to something far greater than anyone else had ever experienced. Her depth of felling was a great stimulation to Lawrence, who with his naturally sensitive mind was roused to critical and creative consciousness by her." Together they developed an interest in literature. This included reading books together and discussing authors and writing. It was under Jessie's influence that in 1905 Lawrence started to write poetry. Lawrence later admitted that Jessie was "the anvil on which I hammered myself out." The following year he began work on his first novel, The White Peacock.
Lawrence's mother wanted him to continue his education and in 1906 he began studying for his teacher's certificate at the University College of Nottingham. In 1908 Lawrence qualified as a teacher and found employment at Davidson Road School in Croydon. According to the author of D. H. Lawrence: The Life of an Outsider (2005): "He found the demands of teaching in a large school in a poor area very different from those at Eastwood under a protective headmaster. Nevertheless he established himself as an energetic teacher, ready to use new teaching methods (Shakespeare lessons became practical drama classes, for example)."
In 1909 Jessie Chambers sent some of Lawrence's poems to Ford Madox Ford, the editor of The English Review. Ford was greatly impressed with the poems and arranged a meeting with Lawrence. After reading the manuscript of The White Peacock, wrote to the publisher William Heinemann recommending it. Ford also encouraged Lawrence to write about his mining background.
While living in Croydon Lawrence became friendly with a fellow schoolteacher, Helen Corke, who had recently had an affair with a married man who killed himself. She told Lawrence the story, and showed him her manuscript, The Freshwater Diary. Lawrence used this material for his next novel, The Trespasser.
Lawrence also began work on the autobiographical novel, Sons and Lovers. He sent the first-drafts of the novel to Jessie Chambers. As her sister, Ann Chambers Howard points out: "The ruthless streak in his nature now began to emerge and halfway through the book Jessie became increasingly alarmed and bewildered by his cruel treatment of people whom they knew. He began to include people, episodes and attitudes which were quite foreign to their nature and to their previous behaviour and experience.... My father remembered watching her as she read the manuscripts, writing her comments carefully at the side before sending them back to him. Lawrence rejected her advice completely, insisting on including all the things which she had begged him to alter or omit. He continued to send her the manuscripts, asking for advice which she in her anguish repeatedly gave, only to be continually ignored." Eventually she refused to answer Lawrence's letters and their relationship came to an end.
In August 1910, Lydia Lawrence became ill with cancer. Lawrence visited his mother in Eastwood every other weekend. In October he realised she was close to death and he decided to stay at home to nurse her. He wrote to a friend: "There has been this kind of bond between me and my mother... We knew each other by instinct... We have been like one, so sensitive to each other that we never needed words. It has been rather terrible and has made me, in some respects, abnormal." His mother died on 9th December 1910. Soon afterwards Lawrence had got engaged to his old college friend Louie Burrows.
In January 1911, Lawrence's first novel, The White Peacock, was published. However, his writing was not going well. Without the advice of Jessie Chambers, he found it difficult to continue with Sons and Lovers. His health was poor and after falling seriously ill with pneumonia he decided to abandon his teaching career. After convalescence in Bournemouth, he rewrote The Trespasser.
Lawrence broke off his engagement to Louie Burrows, and returned to Nottingham. On 3rd March 1912, Lawrence went to see Ernest Weekley, who taught him while he was at the University College of Nottingham. During the visit he met his much younger wife, Frieda von Richthofen. Lawrence fell in love with Frieda and in May 1912 managed to persuade her to leave her husband and three young children. However, as John Worthen has pointed out: "Frieda's desire to be free of her marriage was not consistent with Lawrence's insistence that she become his partner, and she suffered agonies from the loss of her children (Weekley was determined to keep them away from her)."
Claire Tomalin has argued: "She (Frieda) gave him what he most wanted at the time they met, being probably the first woman who positively wanted to go to bed with him without guilt or inhibition; she was not only older, and married, but bored with her husband, and had been encouraged to believe in the therapeutic power of sex by an earlier lover, one of Freud's disciples. Lawrence was bowled over by this... Whether her decision to throw in her lot permanently with Lawrence contributed positively to his development as a writer is at least open to question. There could have been a different story, in which Lawrence married someone like the intelligent Louie; in which he settled in England and lived a quiet, healthy - and longer - life, cherished by his wife and family; in which his novels continued more in the pattern of Sons and Lovers and The Rainbow, social and psychological studies of the country and people he knew best."
Lawrence set-up home with Frieda in Icking, near Munich. Lawrence claimed "the one possible woman for me, for I must have opposition - something to fight". The author of D. H. Lawrence: The Life of an Outsider has argued: "He cooked, cleaned, wrote, argued; Frieda attended little to house keeping (though washing became her specialty), but she could always hold her own against his theorizing, and maintained her independence of outlook as well as of sexual inclination (she slept with a number of other men during her time with Lawrence)." While living in Germany he finished his autobiographical novel Sons and Lovers. His publisher, Heinemann turned down the novel on grounds of indecency. He sent it to his friend, Edward Garnett, who read manuscripts for Gerald Duckworth and Company. The novel was accepted and published in May 1913. It received some good reviews but sold poorly.
In 1914 the couple returned to England. Lawrence's novel brought him to the attention of Edward Marsh. He introduced Lawrence to Katherine Mansfield and John Middleton Murry. They were witnesses to Lawrence's marriage to Frieda. Claire Tomalin has pointed out: "The men put on formal three-piece suits, Frieda enveloped herself in flowing silks and Katherine wore a sombre suit." Lawrence wrote to a friend: "I don't feel a changed man, but I suppose I am one."
The two couples established themselves in two cottages near Chesham in Buckinghamshire. Later, Mansfield and Murry joined the Lawrences at Higher Tregerthen, near Zennor, in an attempt at communal living. It was a failure and within weeks she and Murry moved on.
On the outbreak of the First World War the authorities became concerned that Frieda von Richthofen was a spy. Local people reported that the Lawrences were using the clothes hanging on their washing line to send coded messages to German U-boats. After searching their cottage, the authorities forced the Lawrences to leave the area.
Lawrence began spending time with Philip Morrell and Ottoline Morrell at their home Garsington Manor near Oxford. It was also a refuge for conscientious objectors. They worked on the property's farm as a way of escaping prosecution. It also became a meeting place for a group of intellectuals described as the Bloomsbury Group. Members included Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell, Clive Bell, John Maynard Keynes, David Garnett, E. M. Forster, Duncan Grant, Lytton Strachey, Dora Carrington, Gerald Brenan, Ralph Partridge, Bertram Russell, Leonard Woolf, Desmond MacCarthy and Arthur Waley. Other people who Lawrence met at Garsington included Dorothy Brett, Mark Gertler, Siegfried Sassoon, Aldous Huxley, Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, Thomas Hardy, Vita Sackville-West, Harold Nicolson and T.S. Eliot.
The Rainbow was published in September 1915. According to Claire Tomalin: "Katherine Mansfield's reminiscences of New Zealand probably inspired Lawrence with the lesbian episode in The Rainbow, and she was certainly the model for Gudrun in Women in Love." It received hostile reviews that concentrated on the way Lawrence dealt with sexual themes. Robert Wilson Lynd in The Daily News said the book was "windy, tedious, boring and nauseating". Lynd, and another critic, Clement King Shorter, condemned the lesbian episode in the book. Another reviewer argued that the book "betrayed the young men" fighting on the Western Front.
At Bow Street Magistrates' Court on 13th November the novel was banned as obscene. As John Worthen has pointed out: "Its religious language, emotional and sexual explorations of experience, and sheer length had given its readers problems, but it was Ursula's lesbian encounter with a schoolteacher in the chapter Shame which had finally condemned it in the eyes of the law and of a country now focused on conflict."
In the autumn of 1915 Lawrence had joined forces with Katherine Mansfield and John Middleton Murry to establish a new magazine called The Signature. Claire Tomalin, the author of Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life (1987) has argued that it was decided "to sell by subscription; it was to be printed in the East End, and the contributors were to have a club room in Bloomsbury for regular meetings and discussions." Sales were poor and the magazine folded after three issues.
Ottoline Morrell helped Lawrence with his writing by supporting him emotionally and financially. In December 1916 he showed her his unpublished novel, Women in Love. On reading it she was extremely upset at the unflattering portrayal of herself that was thinly disguised in the character of Hermione Roddice. Philip Morrell went to Lawrence's agent and threatened to bring legal action against any publisher who brought out the book.
Lawrence, who was opposed to the war, was twice called up for military service but was rejected on health grounds. The couple went to live in a cottage at Pulborough. Later they were joined by John Middleton Murry when Katherine Mansfield suffering from tuberculosis, had moved to Bandol on the south coast of France.
Lawrence caught influenza during the pandemic in November 1918, and once again he nearly died. It was not until a year later that he was fit enough to leave England. At first he lived in Florence but after Frieda Lawrence joined him after her visit to her family in Germany, they settled temporarily in Picinisco, in the Abruzzi Mountains, before moving on to Capri, where the English writing colony, including Compton Mackenzie, W and Francis Brett Young. In February 1920, they moved to Sicily, where they stayed for the next two years.
In 1920 Martin Secker agreed to publish Women in Love, a sequel to his earlier novel The Rainbow, and follows the continuing loves and lives of the Brangwen sisters, Gudrun and Ursula. Once again the sexual content of the book caused controversy. over its sexual subject matter. W. Charles Pilley in the John Bull Magazine, said: "I do not claim to be a literary critic, but I know dirt when I smell it, and here is dirt in heaps - festering, putrid heaps which smell to high Heaven." Even his friend, John Middleton Murry, wrote in the The Athenaeum that Lawrence was "far gone in the maelstrom of his sexual obsession" and that the novel was "sub-human and bestial."
In January 1921 Lawrence and Frieda visited Sardinia and he wrote the travel book, Sea and Sardinia. He also completed his next book Aaron's Rod, a novel in which Aaron Sisson, is a union official in the coal mines, decides to leave his wife and family, and move to Florence, where he attempts to make a living as a musician. In order for it to be published, Martin Secker, heavily censored the passages describing Aaron's sexual experiences.
This time John Middleton Murry liked the book describing it as "the most important thing that has happened to English literature since the war". The author of D. H. Lawrence: The Life of an Outsider argues that "to most reviewers, however, it was simply another interesting book made rather unpleasant by Lawrence's obsession with sex." Richard Rees has argued: "If Lawrence was the one great original genius of English literature in my time, Murry was the one critic with the necessary combination of gifts for coping with him, and Lawrence was aware of this, off and on. In the process Murry sometimes made mistakes and sometimes made himself ridiculous. But how can anyone fail to see that this was inevitable in the circumstances?"
Over the next few months Lawrence's revised his short novels, The Fox, The Captain's Doll, and The Ladybird. He also wrote ten short stories with a First World War background that appeared in the collection, England, my England and Other Stories (1922). According to John Worthen the stories were "a way of coming to terms with the past, and putting it behind him".
In February 1922 Lawrence and Frieda decided to travel to Ceylon. He found the country too hot for writing and moved onto Australia. Settling at Thirroul, 69 km south of Sydney, Lawrence wrote his novel Kangaroo, in six weeks. The book tells the story of an English writer, Richard Lovat Somers, and his German wife Harriet. This appears to be semi-autobiographical and is based on the time he spent in New South Wales. "Kangaroo" is the nickname of one of Lawrence's characters, Benjamin Cooley, the leader of a secretive, fascist paramilitary organisation. It has been argued that Cooley was based on Major General Charles Rosenthal, a notable right wing activist in the early 1920s.
Lawrence and Frieda visited North America and while in Santa Fe, developed a close friendship with the poet, Witter Bynner and his lover, Willard Johnson. Bynner took the Lawrences to Taos in New Mexico to see a local Apache reservation. Lawrence also met Mabel Dodge Luhan and later these characters are portrayed in his novel The Plumed Serpent (1926).
Lawrence returned to England for a brief holiday and having invited his London friends to dinner at the Café Royal, he encouraged them to come back to New Mexico with him and Frieda where he was "committed to... establishing a new life on earth". Only John Middleton Murry and Dorothy Brett were the only ones to accept the offer. However, Middleton Murry changed his mind at the last moment. In March, 1924, the three left for North America and with the help of Mabel Dodge Luhan they established a small community at Taos.
In March 1925, D. H. Lawrence went down with a combination of typhoid and pneumonia, and nearly died. The doctor also diagnosed tuberculosis. Lawrence and Frieda had planned to return to England, but the doctor advised altitude, and they made their way back up to the ranch. Lawrence recorded that "New Mexico was the greatest experience from the outside world that I have ever had." However, for the sake of his health it was decided to move back to Italy. This time they stayed in Spotorno with Angelo Ravagli. Frieda's daughters also lived with them for a while. He used these experiences to write his short novel The Virgin and the Gipsy. Frieda began an affair with Ravagli, who later claimed that Lawrence discovered them "flagrante delicto". Lawrence's biographer argued that he responded by having an affair with Dorothy Brett while she was on holiday in Italy.
In 1926 he visited Nottingham. This inspired him to begin a new novel, Lady Chatterley's Lover. Lawrence's biographer, John Worthen, has argued: "His sympathy was now far more with his father (who had died in 1924) than with his mother, and the novel's central character was thoroughly working-class. The second version, started in November 1926, made the novel sexually explicit; it became a hymn to the love-making of the couple, to the body of the man and the woman, for sexuality as it could potentially be between an independent working-class man and an independent upper-class woman. It was a final fictional reworking of a theme which he had always written about for the chance it gave him to concentrate on sexual attraction (and to some extent had enacted in his own life and relationships), but which he now returned to both polemically and nostalgically."
The highly explicit sex passages in the book meant that Lawrence was unable to find a publisher for the novel. With the help of the Italian bookseller Pino Orioli, Lawrence arranged for Lady Chatterley's Lover to be printed in and distributed from Florence. The book made him so much money that he could now afford to live in expensive hotels. Later he moved to Bandol on the south coast of France.
Lawrence gave up writing fiction but he continued to write poems and newspaper articles. In 1929 the police seized the unexpurgated typescript of his volume of poems Pansies. An exhibition of his paintings in London that summer was raided by the police, and court hearings were necessary before the paintings could be returned to their owner.
In February 1930, D. H. Lawrence went into the Ad Astra Sanatorium in Vence, where he was visited by friends from England, including H. G. Wells and Aldous Huxley. He discharged himself from the sanatorium on 1st March, and Frieda Lawrence helped him move into the Villa Robermond, a rented house in the town. He died the following day and was buried in the local cemetery on 4th March.
Soon after his death, the novelist Ethel Mannin, wrote: "D. H. Lawrence turned his back in disgust on civilization as we know it and attempted to find uncorrupted life in the Mexican wildernesses. Since his death various little people have written patronizing little articles about him pointing to his limitations, regardless of the fact that in his limitations he was infinitely greater than any of them in their fulfilments. His preoccupation with sex was a preoccupation with life."