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How D.H. Lawrence shook the literary world

It would have been Lawrence's 135th birthday today (he was born 11 September 1885) and his controversial novels continue to raise eyebrows, as well as spark debate as he explores issues such as sexuality, emotional health, vitality, spontaneity, and instinct. However, his view on women, life and love could be seen as very modern now we're in a whole new century; consider the quote from Lady Chatterley's Lover, “The world is a raving idiot, and no man can kill it: though I’ll do my best. But you’re right. We must rescue ourselves as best we can.”

So, it begs the question, that he may have been controversial 100 years ago, but is what he writes about really that bad now? I mean, his literary contribution is something that lives on, but yet Lady Chatterley is not used on curriculums instead Hardy and Eliot continue to be a popular choice; although is Tess really that great a role model?! Would 50 Shades have been as successful if Lawrence hadn't paved the way in the early 1900s with the way he used sex and relationships to give a realistic view of the way they lived their lives then?

At the time of his death in 1930, his public reputation was that of a pornographer who had wasted his considerable talents. It was fellow novelist E. M. Forster, in an obituary notice, that challenged this widely held view, describing him as 'the greatest imaginative novelist of our generation'. I would agree that Forster was right to challenge this perception because in fact, Lawrence's novels offer an opportunity to feel a sense of realism as we explore the lives of his leading ladies, how they look to challenge their own realities and restrains of polite society. The Rainbow and Women in Love, is unconventional in many ways because of the way its female characters - Ursula and Gudrun - take centre stage. Both novels were highly controversial due to the frank way that Lawrence wrote about sexual attraction, especially same-sex attraction, and both were banned on publication in the UK for obscenity, although Women in Love was banned only temporarily.

While I wasn't born when the film version of Women in Love was released, the famous wrestling scene between Alan Bates and Oliver Reed lives on, including its own controversy. The scene and the film overall, I think is just a small glimpse at what Lawrence was looking to explore in the 'sequel' novel to The Rainbow, which ended with Ursula rejecting Skrebensky and Women in Love follows her continued search for a fulfilling relationship.

The actors Alan Bates and Oliver Reed are sitting in front of a roaring fire, topless. Oliver Reed has his hand on Alan Bates shoulder.
Alan Bates and Oliver Reed in the film version of Women in Love

Women in Love is very different from its contemporaries like Galsworthy and his Forsyte Saga, which in many ways was a sweeping saga of family intrigue and treachery. Instead, what I love about it is the fact that it really does just capture a moment in time and epitomises Lawrence's matchless ability to describe people in terms of their emotional character.

While The Rainbow introduces Ursula, and focuses more on her family within an industrial setting, what makes Women in Love more of a broader novel is the relationships between Ursula and Birkin, as well as her sister Gudrun and Gerald. Lawrence said, "I can only write what I feel pretty strongly about, and that at present, is the relations between men and women." Both relationships are complex and difficult, but that of Ursula and Birkin is ultimately constructive, that of Gudrun and Gerald, surely doomed.

Lawrence in all of his novels is a master of symbolism, especially with regards to his male characters, whether that's Mellor in Lady Chatterley's Lover, Paul Morel in Sons and Lovers or how Gerald in Women in Love is the most powerful symbol of that web of lust, love and loss. Lawrence writes Gerald as 'cold forever within' for whom the frozen Alps are an appropriate destiny.

Lawrence did not let the controversy surrounding his novels define him as an author, instead it pushed him to continue to explore relationships, sexuality, economics and life in industrial towns. He has left a literary legacy that continues to this day and we hope that many more generations can enjoy these incredible novels. The world has turned a little topsy turvy this year and is probably something that even our dystopian authors could not have seen coming, but it is also a time where love and kindness is becoming increasingly important, so we thought that this quote was a great way to end, "One must learn to love, and go through a good deal of suffering to get to it... and the journey is always towards the other soul."

We hope that we have inspired you to go and enjoy some Lawrence! If you have to start somewhere, then we would say Sons and Lovers is always a good choice and follow this up with The Rainbow, Women in Love, before closing your Lawrence-fest with Lady Chatterley and her lover. We would love to hear your thoughts once you're done.

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