Kim Nguyen is studying English and Film Studies at Nottingham Trent University. She created her first ‘visual essay’ as part of a third year module called English and Creative Industries Project. The visual essay explores how Lawrence’s work continues to cause controversy long after his death through Ken Russell’s film adaptation of Women in Love.
D.H Lawrence was an English novelist, poet, playwright, literary critic and painter. He was regarded as one of the most influential writers of the 20th century. He was often described as a controversial writer whose work was constantly censored due to the explicit nature of his work. Controversy has been commonly associated with his novels however it did cross over to his other art forms including his paintings and poems which were also censored due to the topics that he touched upon.
As his career grew, D.H Lawrence began to receive negative reviews from the public, building an undesirable reputation from the scandal and outrage. His most infamous work was his last novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover, however The Rainbow, published in 1915, was seized and suppressed under the 1857 Obscene Publications Act two months after publication. In Prosecutor Herbert Muskett’s words the novel was “in fact a mass of obscenity of thought, idea and action”. During these times lesbianism was unthinkable, and even talking about such desires was unheard of. There hadn’t even been a law to punish it yet! By the final chapters Ursula Brangwen’s sexual activities were frequent and directly addressed. Lady Chatterley’s Lover on the other hand was banned in the US until 1959 and England until 1960. Similarly to The Rainbow it was banned due to the graphic details of the sexual relationships it explored. His poetry was equally controversial, being censored due to his attack against politicians and the issues he raised about repression and imperialism. His work in all art forms emphasised the idea of freedom, demonstrated through nudity and nature in his paintings, as well as his novels and poetry. The controversy even continued after his death, when his novels were turned into films.
Take Women in Love for example, the sequel to The Rainbow. Women in Love was Lawrence’s fifth novel. He began writing it in 1913, later completing it in Cornwall during World War I, before being expelled after unfairly being accused of being a spy. The novel was eventually published in 1920. Influenced by Freudian psychoanalysis, Lawrence explored our connection to nature and the repressive, controlling aspects of our psychology and the way it bounds our society with rules and structure.
In 1969, screenwriter Larry Kramer and director Ken Russell came together to produce the first film adaptation of Women in Love. This came 39 years after Lawrence’s death yet was still causing controversy and raising questions about decency. The film became most notable for its ‘Japanese wrestling scene’, making the film the first to show full frontal male nudity. The film connected with the sexual revolution and bohemian politics of the late 1960’s and helped challenge Hollywood conventions. Russell uses film as an explicit medium to fully demonstrate Lawrence’s descriptions of the sexual acts and the relationships that individuals had with one another. The film starred Alan Bates and Oliver Reed. The casting of Oliver Reed was particularly appropriate as Reed courted controversy due to his hedonistic lifestyle and rebellious attitude towards prevailing morality. Alan Bates sported a beard which created a slight resemblance to Lawrence which fit well with his character Rupert Birkin as Birkin was a self-portrait of Lawrence.
Linda Ruth Williams, a professor of Film Studies at the University of Southampton, highlighted the fact that the film adaptation came about only two years after sodomy for men over 21 was made legal in Britain, so the timing of the film was not carefully planned as it was still a time when most people were only just beginning to accept these types of relationships. Needless to say, the reception of the film was not positive from all audiences. After Penguin and the British Publishers won the famous trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1960 it became harder to prosecute on grounds of obscenity allowing film producers to turn their attention to more violent and sexual scenes. It paved the way for more creative freedom and expression. The persecution of D.H Lawrence, and the issues his work raises, has enabled future generations of writers and artists to explore these themes in more explicit ways.
In the DH Lawrence Memory Theatre we want to address various aspects of Lawrence’s life through artefacts. How do we represent the controversy that followed him throughout his life and continues to linger long after his death? Perhaps we can include some models of naked Japanese wrestlers that we can view through a peephole? In 2019 we will be building our Memory Theatre and retracing Lawrence’s savage pilgrimage both physically and digitally. If you have an idea for an artefact, get involved. Submit ideas here.