British and Irish Literature D. H. Lawrence
James Moran
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 August 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 August 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0076


D. H. Lawrence (b. 1885–d. 1930) was born, the fourth of five siblings, in the small mining town of Eastwood, near Nottingham. His father was a collier, who worked a twelve-hour day from the age of seven. Yet from this unlikely background, Lawrence went on to become one of the best-known writers in the English language. The texts that have generally been regarded as his greatest achievements are the novels Sons and Lovers (1913), The Rainbow (1915), and Women in Love (1920), which all draw on his upbringing in the English Midlands. This background also informs his last novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928), which has received much interest because of its explicit depictions of sex. An openly published, unexpurgated copy of the text was published in Britain only in 1960, and it was the subject of a celebrated trial under the country’s obscenity law, with the cultural significance of that moment being famously described by Philip Larkin in his poem “Annus Mirabilis,” which describes how sexual intercourse began “Between the end of the Chatterley ban/ And the Beatles’ first LP.” The Chatterley trial came shortly after F. R. Leavis published D. H. Lawrence: Novelist (1955), which showed how Lawrence’s writings merited serious critical attention and asserted that Lawrence could be considered a deeply moral author. Much subsequent analysis has focused on Lawrence’s novels and short stories, but publication of his complete works and letters by Cambridge University Press between 1979 and 2013 has increasingly drawn attention to Lawrence’s skilled writing in other forms, notably his poetry, plays, essays, and personal correspondence. Nonetheless, Lawrence has scarcely been without detractors. He has been a target for feminist criticism since Kate Millett published her 1970 book Sexual Politics; and the “leadership novels” that Lawrence published in the 1920s have led a number of critics to attack Lawrence as a fascist. Nonetheless, Lawrence has continued to be a subject of considerable academic and popular interest, and the reading list of primary and secondary texts can appear daunting. As Denis Donoghue states, “One of the risks incurred by a reader who takes an interest in Lawrence is that such an interest is likely to become omnivorous. It is hardly possible to place The Rainbow and Women in Love in the centre of that interest without engrossing, as one moves toward the circumference, pretty nearly everything else in the canon” (Donoghue, “‘Till the Fight Is Finished’: D. H. Lawrence in His Letters,” in Spender 1973 (p. 197, cited under Poetry).

General Overviews

Such is the amount of writing both by and about Lawrence that it can be difficult for the reader to know where exactly to begin. Indeed, the comic novel Out of Sheer Rage by Geoff Dyer (London: Little Brown, 1997) revolves around a writer who simply finds it impossible to begin his project about Lawrence because he is overwhelmed by the material. Nevertheless, a number of excellent introductions are available for the student who is new to Lawrence’s work. One of the best overviews is provided by Becket 2002, which provides not only clear biographical details, but also helpful plot summaries of Lawrence’s individual works in different forms, as well as describing the broad critical trends that have affected Lawrence’s later reception. Sagar 1982 is slightly more dated but also provides a helpful overview of Lawrence’s achievement across the range of different forms, and both Sagar 1982 and Becket 2002 provide reading lists that will aid the undergraduate. Poplawski 1996 provides excellent plot summaries of the prose fiction as well as suggested critical readings; it also includes an admirably concise biography by the leading Lawrence scholar John Worthen. Freeman 1985 provides a far less detailed, but nonetheless engaging introduction to Lawrence’s life and work. Those who are bewildered about why Lawrence has been such a well-known yet controversial writer should look at the critical essays in Draper 2013, showing how Lawrence was viewed during his own life and shortly afterward. In addition, the essays collected in Bloom 1986 reveal how Lawrence was viewed in the period when Lawrence’s reputation declined significantly (1966–1985), and Ellis and de Zordo 1992 includes a generous array of essays from 1913 to 1992. Fernihough 2001 is excellent for describing and developing a number of key debates at the start of the second century of Lawrence criticism. A comparison of Fernihough 2001 with Poplawski 1996 reveals the differing priorities of Lawrence scholars: these two books were published only five years apart, but Poplawski 1996 devotes most space to the prose fiction, giving ten times the number of pages to that topic than to the poems, whereas Fernihough 2001 devotes relatively little attention to novels such as Sons and Lovers.

  • Becket, Fiona. The Complete Critical Guide to D. H. Lawrence. London: Routledge, 2002.

    An excellent guide for the neophyte, containing accurate summaries of Lawrence’s life; descriptions of Lawrence’s work as novelist, poet, playwright, and essayist (including helpful ideas about Lawrence’s relationship with modernism); descriptions of some of the main currents in later Lawrence criticism; and helpful suggestions for further reading.

  • Bloom, Harold, ed. D. H. Lawrence. New York: Chelsea House, 1986.

    Includes key contributions by Frank Kermode (on Lawrence’s apocalypticism, not from Kermode’s well-known book D. H. Lawrence [New York: Viking, 1973]), Barbara Hardy (on Lawrence and women), and F. R. Leavis (on the Rainbow). Includes a deconstructive approach by Margot Norris but indicates that, by 1985, literary theorists had not found Lawrence’s work very conducive.

  • Draper, R. P., ed. D. H. Lawrence: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge, 2013.

    This volume was first printed in 1970, then reprinted in 1997 and 2001. Draper includes reprinted reviews (including those by figures such as Ezra Pound and Virginia Woolf) that reveal how Lawrence’s work was viewed and received during his own lifetime. Also includes obituaries and retrospectives from 1930 to 1931.

  • Ellis, David, and Ornella de Zordo, eds. D. H. Lawrence: Critical Assessments. 4 vols. Mountfield, UK: Helm Information, 1992.

    Volume 1, “Contemporary Response,” details reviews and responses from 1913 to 1930; Volumes 2 and 3, “The Fiction,” include critical responses to Lawrence’s fiction from 1939 to 1990; and Volume 4, “Poetry and Nonfiction: The Modern Critical Response, 1938–1992: General Studies,” includes critical pieces on these topics.

  • Fernihough, Anne, ed. The Cambridge Companion to D. H. Lawrence. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

    DOI: 10.1017/CCOL0521623391

    Excellent introduction to the way that leading scholars (both Lawrence specialists and those who are not usually Lawrentians) at the start of the 21st century consider Lawrence. Begins by discussing individual texts, then situates Lawrence in the context of broader issues and trends, for example, psychoanalysis.

  • Freeman, Jill, dir. Anthony Burgess Speaks: The Rage of D. H. Lawrence. VHS. Chicago: Home Vision, 1985.

    Accessible television documentary, freely available on Youtube at the time of writing, in which Burgess introduces Lawrence’s life and work with some excellent biographical material. Burgess also wrote the book Flame into Being: The Life and Work of D. H. Lawrence (London: Heinemann, 1985).

  • Poplawski, Paul. D. H. Lawrence: A Reference Companion. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1996.

    Contains a short biography of Lawrence by John Worthen, followed by a list of helpful guides to Lawrence’s work and Lawrence criticism. Devotes considerably more attention to the prose fiction than works such as poems and plays (which, in contrast to the prose fictions, have no plot summaries).

  • Sagar, Keith, ed. A D. H. Lawrence Handbook. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1982.

    Contains a number of useful materials for the nonspecialist, including an introductory bibliography, chronological contextualizing of Lawrence’s life, social and economic details about Eastwood, and a chronology of major works. Also includes helpful details about stage and screen productions of Lawrence’s work.

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