Image: Dawn of the Unread

D.H. Lawrence was a man on the run. But what was he looking for and where was he heading? Malcolm Gray, former Chair of the D.H. Lawrence Society, offers some suggestions in this guest blog.

Those of you who know anything about D.H. Lawrence will probably accept that his greatest moment of fame was almost certainly in an English court. Wednesday, 2 Nov 1960 the newspaper headline read “The Innocence of Lady Chatterley”. Penguin Books had won its case against the novel being considered unsuitable for publication and it could now be read by all including ‘wives and servants’.

But, of course, Lawrence was the writer of more than just the ‘mucky book’. Many critics, including F.R. Leavis[1], have described him as the greatest novelist in the English Language. So why do I see him as a man on the run, and what was he running from and what did he seek?

Katherine Mansfield, writer and friend of Lawrence, wrote in one of her letters: “The desire to travel is a great, real temptation. But does it do any good?”  So, what is it that Lawrence runs away from, and what does he seek?[2] And why is it that his search for contentment is so significant when in our own individual and specific ways we all make the same search? I believe that the answer to that question lies in the nature and character of his art. Lawrence records all aspects of his search, and he does so with a keen sense of perception and an extra-ordinary command of language and imagery.

My view is that Lawrence reacted to a number of factors, some specific to his own situation and some common features of all human existence:

  • He moved away from what he felt was a fragmented, dysfunctional family life at home.
  • He turned his back on the strict non-conformist theology that his mother tried to impose on him.
  • Partly for reasons of health he moved geographically to areas where he felt the climate, or the air, might be more conducive to good health. And, of course, he observed the landscape, and the people, in all these places. One sees something of his power of observation in his essay The Crucifix Across the Mountains[3] in the way that he moves from a comment on the form of the ‘wayside crucifixions’ to an analysis of how this reflects the nature of the people in each country.

He disliked what he felt was the sinister decay caused by a ‘new’ mechanised, materialist culture that was creeping across England and Europe. In one sense he pre-dated David Attenborough. He felt men no longer lived ‘with nature’ but increasingly exploited it.

Lawrence loved the concept of man working together with the natural elements, and with his own skills, to produce items that were beautiful in that they contained part of the individual’s creative character. While his mother Lydia went some way towards poisoning Lawrence in his attitude to his father, he later saw the gift his father had for making and mending things and the love his father had for nature. Lawrence wrote a series of poems in which he suggests that ‘We are Transmitters’ and that things made by hands have intrinsic worth. Ironically, he probably would have supported the ‘Arts and Crafts’ movement of William Morris, the Omega Workshop of the Bloomsbury group or Habitat or Dartington Glass. For Lawrence it was a case of ‘Let us Be Men/ not monkeys minding machines’. 

It was very much the case that Lawrence disliked the new emphasis given to the commercial profit motivated culture that he saw encroaching on the traditional values of work undertaken with dignity. Other writers had recognised this change and wrote in protest against it. Thomas Carlyle spoke of ‘mechanical dehumanisation’ and went on ‘Men are grown mechanical in head and in heart as well as in hand. They have lost faith in individual endeavour’[4].

Ruskin would voice the same point in his criticism of what he saw as ‘the rampant triumph of industrial profit and the consequential degradation of the craftsman’[5].

Lawrence was born in Eastwood, Nottinghamshire on 11 September 1885. His father Arthur had worked in the mines since he was seven. His mother Lydia had aspirations to be a teacher. She believed herself superior to her husband in terms of her ambitions. Lawrence describes this conflict in poems such as Discord in Childhood. Lydia was a snob and disliked her husband’s miners’ way of life. In their early courtship she had been captivated by his physical vitality and energy, but this quickly turned sour after their marriage in December 1875. Lawrence’s novel Sons and Lovers is very much autobiographical and at least one of his sisters acknowledged it as being a fairly accurate account of the family life at home.

Lydia’s strong non-conformist religious fervour had a profound influence on Lawrence throughout his life. His relationship with his mother left him seeking a deeper relationship with other women, but his relationship with his mother was strange, and in some ways an unhealthy one. He would admit to Jessie Chambers that he loved his mother not as a son might be expected to love his mother but more as he might love a ‘lover’. In all his relationships with women the shadow of his love for his mother hung over them. He was on the run from what we might call an ‘Oedipus’ type of relationship but I do not believe he ever truly broke that ‘bond’ even when he met, eloped and finally married Frieda Weekley. In writing about her friendship with Lawrence Helen Corke, a fellow teacher in Croydon, and the woman who became the subject (and victim) of Lawrence’s novel The Trespasser would write of how she felt Lawrence viewed their relationship:

‘I feel that his desire at the moment is toward me, and I am glad that he loves me. Yet there is no rest, no assurance in this love of David’s because there comes with it an impossible demand. A demand not merely for passion given and returned, but for the absorption of my being in his.’[6]

Perhaps this absorption of one’s being into his was always at the root of his problems with relationships with women. It was an impossible ask especially from the strong, confident women whose company he seemed to favour. It seems to me that this search for the ‘ideal’ relationship was another example of Lawrence’s searching.

The circumstances surrounding Lawrence’s first meeting with Frieda is interesting. He first met Frieda when he went to see her husband concerning a possible opportunity to live and work in Germany for a while. The Weekleys lived in a very ‘posh’ house in a rather ‘posh’ road in a rather ‘posh’ area of Notts. Frieda was fascinated by the young Lawrence and entertained him while her husband was out on 3 March 1912. By 4 May they were together in Metz after a hasty eloping. Their early days in Metz and Trier were hectic and uncertain but both were keen to be together, though Frieda already had concerns about her three children and missed them.

The nature of their relationship could be passionate and stormy. Frieda felt needed by Lawrence but still felt able to share some physical sexual relationships with other men after their elopement, as she had done with three men while married to Ernest Weekley. Towards the end of Lawrence’s life Frieda again found herself drawn to another man, Angelo Ravagli. He certainly caught Frieda’s eye in his uniform. Andrew Harrison suggests Lawrence might have described Frieda’s need for sexual experience with other men as ‘her necessary dose of morphia in her struggle away from the old life in England’.[7]

The intense and passionate relationship with his mother might be explained by the fact that D.H. Lawrence was from birth a sickly child. A schoolboy friend of Lawrence J.E. Hobbs described him as ‘delicate’. As he grew up his mother acknowledged that she was unlikely to see him reach manhood and in her fear of his health she over protected him. As a child he preferred the company of girls and rarely mixed in the hard physical games the other boys played. He was described as a ‘girlie boy’, weak and puny. He missed many months at school because of his illnesses.

Despite this sickly nature Lawrence was in many ways energetic—he walked across the Alps with Frieda, he walked regularly from Eastwood to Brinsley and he enjoyed helping on the farm at Haggs Farm with the Chambers family. What he lacked in physical energy he more than made up for in the range of his sensitivity and in his intellectual capacity.

As Lawrence moved into adolescence, he met a number of girls and women, but it is interesting in terms of his attitude to women in his own life, and in his fiction, how he often found relationships with the opposite sex confusing and unsatisfactory. He admired strong, intelligent women but he often could not cope with the demands of a commitment to a ‘giving’ relationship, though in some ways he did with Frieda. He ‘ditched’ Jessie Chambers because, as he told her, ‘he could not love you as I feel I should love a wife’. But he was also something of a pig because he had used her intellectually, he had persuaded her to attempt a sexual experience…which failed…and then he exposed everything they had shared as adolescents in Sons and Lovers, and he made little attempt in that text to disguise people or place names. Lawrence used some of the women that he met in his novels, and he was sometimes cruel in how he caricatured them. He could also be very insensitive in his use of material. He took the tragic events of Helen Cork’s trip to the Isle of Wight with her music teacher, his resulting suicide, her guilt, and turned it into the novel The Trespasser.

As the young Lawrence sought to establish himself in terms of making his own relationships so he also sought to work out his own theology. His mother tried hard to impose her strict non-conformist faith in the Congregation church in Eastwood – which has since been knocked down and replaced with an Iceland. He rejected this despite Lydia sending him to church and Sunday School three times each Sunday. Initially Lawrence loved the raucous tub-thumping call to God and later spoke of the old hymns and poetry of the Bible as meaning more to him than much of the secular canon of English poetry[8].The evidence of his own writing would suggest that Lawrence read his Bible carefully, knew parts of it off by heart and later brought a critical, discerning eye to much of the Bible teaching he had got as a young man. His play David covers the early years of King David’s life and David’s time as a fugitive from a jealous and angry King Saul.

In subtle ways Lawrence knowledge and familiarity with the Bible influenced the narrative style of his two best novels The Rainbow and Women in Love. They are almost generational narratives, a ‘he begat’ form. What Lawrence could not accept as a young man was the whole Christian emphasis on the divinity of Christ, the sacrifice of the Cross and the hope of a ‘second coming’, though in his final poems he comes back to the idea of a life (or something) after death[9]. Lawrence seems to have felt that traditional theology, and the accepted code of social behaviour, imposed restraints. In a letter to Rev Reid[10] he explained that he could not accept the notion of the divinity of Christ though he would always acknowledge a Creator God. He expresses something of the theology which he struggled with in the poems Only Man can fall from God, God is a great urge that has not found a body, and The Hands of God.

With early friends including Jessie Chambers and Louis Burrow, and with the support of a local council member and local J.P Willie Hopkin, Lawrence read widely from Darwin to Nietzsche. They formed something of an informal group later known as ‘The Pagans’ to discuss the books. The chapel provided Lydia and her family with a spiritual centre but it was also very much the centre of her social life…as the pubs were for her miner husband. The minister, Rev Robert Reid, was no strict evangelical. He encouraged his congregation to read widely and to respond to what they read with an intellectual curiosity. He founded the Eastwood Literary Society. As Lawrence developed his own reading so he honed his religious and political ideas but he felt frustrated by Reid’s teaching, as he later felt frustrated by what he experienced in the teaching at Nottingham University College[11].

Source: Illustrated Guide to the Church Congress 1897 at Wikipedia

To Lawrence the real energy of the universe was as much in the human body as it was concerned with the soul and hence the emphasis on the physical aspect of human relationships, the intimacy of the body as a tactile form and the significance of  human sexual relationships. For Lawrence the core emotion was in the blood and was the emotion of feeling rather than a reaction to the objective thinking of the mind. It is certainly this that we see in the juxtaposition of his responses to the naked body—-he adored the brazen exhibition of Frieda’s bosom[12] in some of his poems in Look we Have Come Through but he was repulsed by some of the promiscuous sexuality he felt existed among some in the Bloomsbury Group and, much later, in Mexico he was forthright in his criticism of the group around Mabel Dodge. He emphasised the beauty of the human body (male and female) but he could be prudish and was certainly angered by the way Frieda flouted her body, and by her promiscuity even after their marriage. One of the tragedies of Lawrence’s own life, and one which is often reflected in his novels is, I feel, the sense of the absence of the mutual satisfaction which the sexual act was supposed to create. I believe that one of the areas that Lawrence was moving away from and constantly seeking to find a fuller meaning was a fulfilling intimacy in sexual experience and in human relationships. One example of this we can see in Aaron’s Rod and in the episode of Aaron’s sexual encounter with the Marchesa: ‘Shall we be lovers?’ ‘Yes, she said….if you wish’.

It is a strange episode. Aaron can be tender, but he also feels brutality and the affair ends with an element of dissatisfaction. Aaron had originally left his wife and family because he felt trapped, but this new world of freedom also proves frustrating and empty. His friendship with Lilly serves to emphasise this sense of being unfulfilled. Lilly says: ‘What is the use of running after life, when we have got it in us, if nobody prevents us or obstructs us.’ For Lilly Europe is becoming a cage, and certainly Lawrence felt this of the European culture that he knew and had read about.

What we see of Lawrence’s uncertainties and exploration in terms of sex, sexual relations and moral behaviour we also see in terms of his descriptions of the physical environment of England, and the morality and ethos of the culture that he felt was sweeping England and northern Europe. On his last visit to his home town in 1926 he wrote ‘when I was a boy the people lived very much more with the country now they rush….they never seem to touch the reality of the countryside’.[13]

In ‘Nottingham and the Mining Country’ he wrote: ‘The real tragedy of England as I see it, is the tragedy of ugliness. The country is so lovely, the man-made England is so vile’. Lawrence blames the moneyed classes and the promoters of industry. He cites their greed as the cause of ‘ugliness, ugliness’ which has resulted in ‘ugly ideals, ugly religion, ugly hope, ugly love’ as well as ugly relationships between workers and employers. What would he have said of 21st century Britain?

Design James Walker.

Lawrence sometimes puts the blame for this restlessness with the old rural rustic way of life on the women. The opening of The Rainbow, set on the Brangwen’s farm, sees the men content to live with and enjoy the routine fertility of the earth’s natural cycles. It is the women who look away from the church clock and want more. In his early novel The White Peacock he has George and the farmers working close to the land and with nature while Lettie (the woman that George assumed he would marry) seeks new status and worldly trappings. At the end of the novel both are broken. George is ‘downcast’ and ‘like a condemned man’, Lettie gains prosperity in the gloves and furs she seeks but loses her vitality and became a bored mother. Finally, her husband becomes immersed in his business, and politics. When George comes to see her surrounded by the trappings of her new ‘elevated status’ she reflects a sadness and melancholy. It is not the physical landscape that has caused this ugliness, the landscape may be marred by pits and smoke, but it can still be beautiful if it is not polluted by human greed.

We can see something of Lawrence’s disillusionment with the coming of more mechanisation and the cult of materialism in the story ‘The Woman Who Rode Away’. Here Lawrence draws on the landscape of Mexico and New Mexico which is beautiful and far less spoilt than the Eastwood he had left behind. But even here there is a sense that a conflict exists:

  • The beauty of the landscape
  • The vitality and energy Lawrence found in the primitive religious rituals.
  • The breakdown in the relationship between the woman and her husband.

The villain of the story is the husband. I believe that he epitomises everything that Lawrence despises in the creeping onset of materialism. The woman leaves to explore the world beyond her home. She is bored, she feels her husband is careless of her. He lacks humanity and denies her the passion and vitality that she feels they might have shared. He is successful, a ‘good husband’ and she has a ‘comfortable’ life. But it’s not enough. She has to ride away.

The husband shares characteristics with Clifford Chatterley in Lady C. Both are commercially successful, obsessed with the need for material success, to own things, to control people. Clifford returns from the war in a wheelchair, sexually incapable, but so concerned that his business should continue under his ownership and patronage that he is willing to let Connie take another man – a man he approves of – to produce a son and heir for him. She does take another man, but not the one he would have selected.

So, what is it that Lawrence despises when he speaks of the ugliness of new materialism? It is the emphasis on profit and on the potential power that it gives to the ‘magnates’ and the ‘captains of industry’. It is a complex concept and Lawrence seeks to explore what he holds as the ideal, the harmony of men enjoying the landscape and working with the environment and the natural order.  Modern man has become ‘a mechanical being’ mired in thought, regulation, order and structure and racked with the inhibitions of social expectations and restraints.

I have called my talk ‘A Man on the Run’. In one respect Lawrence is like all of us. He is constantly seeking what is better, what might make life more pleasurable, and he is constantly moving on from what frustrates him and what he finds inadequate. He is looking for ‘the perfect’ and in that sense his search is inevitably bound to fall short.

This is an abridged version of a talk by Malcolm Gray to the Lunar Society on Wednesday 19 Jan 2022.


  • [1] F.R. Leavis. D.H. Lawrence: Novelist. 1930
  • [2] Edward Nelhs. D.H. Lawrence: a Composite Biography: 1919-1925. United States, University of Wisconsin Press, 1957. P160
  • [3] D.H. Lawrence. Twilight in Italy. 1916
  • [4] Thomas Carlyle, “Signs of the Times,” Edinburgh Review, 49 (1829)
  • [5] N.M. Wells. William Morris Discovering Art: The Life, Times and Work of the World’s Greatest Artists Series Discovering art. Brockhampton, 1996
  • [6] Helen Corke. D.H. Lawrence: The Croydon Years. 1965
  • [7] Andrew Harrison. The Life of D.H. Lawrence. 2016. Wiley
  • [8] See Hymns in a Man’s Life (1928)
  • [9] See The Ship of Death or Shadows.
  • [10]  In a letter to Robert Reid of 27 March 1911 he expresses his gratitude to the minister but explains ‘for me flesh and blood are the scriptures’.
  • [11] Lydia Lawrence later became concerned about the influence of Rev. Reid, as she became concerned about the emotional influence that Jessie Chambers seemed to have on her young son.
  • [12] See Glorie de Dijon
  • [13] ‘Return to Bestwood’ in Late Essays

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s