Working class boy-made-good. Misogynist. Libertine. Argumentative bigot. Modernist poet. Purple prose-writer. Smut-merchant. Outsider. Genius.
Many and varied are the opinions that have been espoused about DH Lawrence, but... homosexual? Could the man who wrote one of literature's greatest works of heterosexual "erotica" Lady Chatterley's Lover, the man who "ran off" with the buxom and flirtatious Frieda von Richthofen Weekley and spent the rest of his life adoring and battling with her in turn - could he have really been a tormented closet gayer (or at least bi)? This, in effect, was the argument that the eminent musician, author and scholar Dr Bryce Morrison posited in his talk Same-sex sacredness and D.H. Lawrence last night [at which I was, unfortunately, the only attendee] as part of Camden and Islington LGBT History Month.
There are plenty of contradictions in Lawrence's attitudes - he wrote with obvious contempt for the effete coterie that inhabited "The Bloomsbury Set", including the openly gay Duncan Grant and John Maynard Keynes - yet this is also the man who once wrote: "I should like to know why nearly every man that approaches greatness tends to homosexuality, whether he admits it or not."
Unconvinced? Try these extracts from his classic Women in Love:
There was a pause of strange enmity between the two men, that was very near to love. It was always the same between them; always their talk brought them into a deadly nearness of contact, a strange, perilous intimacy which was either hate or love, or both. They parted with apparent unconcern, as if their going apart were a trivial occurrence. And they really kept it to the level of trivial occurrence. Yet the heart of each burned from the other. They burned with each other, inwardly. This they would never admit. They intended to keep their relationship a casual free-and-easy friendship, they were not going to be so unmanly and unnatural as to allow any heart-burning between them. They had not the faintest belief in deep relationship between men and men, and their disbelief prevented any development of their powerful but suppressed friendliness...Or this, from The White Peacock:
...the two men entwined and wrestled with each other, working nearer and nearer. Both were white and clear, but Gerald flushed smart red where he was touched, and Birkin remained white and tense. He seemed to penetrate into Gerald's more solid, more diffuse bulk, to interfuse his body through the body of the other, as if to bring it subtly into subjection, always seizing with some rapid necromantic fore-knowledge every motion of the other flesh, converting and counteracting it, playing upon the limbs and trunk of Gerald like some hard wind. It was as if Birkin's whole physical intelligence interpenetrated into Gerald's body, as if his fine, sublimated energy entered into the flesh of the fuller man, like some potency, casting a fine net, a prison, through the muscles into the very depths of Gerald's physical being.
So they wrestled swiftly, rapturously, intent and mindless at last, two essential white figures working into a tighter closer oneness of struggle, with a strange, octopus-like knotting and flashing of limbs in the subdued light of the room; a tense white knot of flesh gripped in silence between the walls of old brown books. Now and again came a sharp gasp of breath, or a sound like a sigh, then the rapid thudding of movement on the thickly-carpeted floor, then the strange sound of flesh escaping under flesh. Often, in the white interlaced knot of violent living being that swayed silently, there was no head to be seen, only the swift, tight limbs, the solid white backs, the physical junction of two bodies clinched into oneness. Then would appear the gleaming, ruffled head of Gerald, as the struggle changed, then for a moment the dun-coloured, shadow-like head of the other man would lift up from the conflict, the eyes wide and dreadful and sightless.
At length Gerald lay back inert on the carpet, his breast rising in great slow panting, whilst Birkin kneeled over him, almost unconscious. Birkin was much more exhausted. He caught little, short breaths, he could scarcely breathe any more. The earth seemed to tilt and sway, and a complete darkness was coming over his mind. He did not know what happened. He slid forward quite unconscious, over Gerald, and Gerald did not notice. Then he was half-conscious again, aware only of the strange tilting and sliding of the world. The world was sliding, everything was sliding off into the darkness. And he was sliding, endlessly, endlessly away.
I left myself quite limply in his hands, and, to get a better grip of me, he put his arm round me and pressed me against him, and the sweetness of the touch of our naked bodies one against the other was superb. It satisfied in some measure the vague, indecipherable yearning of my soul; and it was the same with him. When he had rubbed me all warm, he let me go, and we looked at each other with eyes of still laughter, and our love was perfect for a moment, more perfect than any love I have known since, either for man or woman.He even touched upon S&M in The Prussian Officer:
As yet, the soldier had held himself off from the elder man. The Captain grew madly irritable. He could not rest when the soldier was away, and when he was present, he glared at him with tormented eyes. He hated those fine, black brows over the unmeaning, dark eyes, he was infuriated by the free movement of the handsome limbs, which no military discipline could make stiff. And he became harsh and cruelly bullying, using contempt and satire.Dr Morrison made a very convincing case indeed. For are not Lawrence's female characters always depicted as somehow alien, contrary and troublesome, yet the men in his prose - possessors of the much-admired phallus - always primitively heroic, always in touch with their emotions; more deserving of the reader's admiration? Did he not express, time and again, his "love" of the masculine? Even in the aforementioned Lady Chatterley's Lover, his descriptions of Mellors are ecstatic:
How beautiful he felt, how pure in tissue! How lovely, how lovely, strong, and yet pure and delicate, such stillness of the sensitive body! Such utter stillness of potency and delicate flesh. How beautiful! How beautiful! Her hands came timorously down his back, to the soft, smallish globes of the buttocks. Beauty! What beauty! a sudden little flame of new awareness went through her. How was it possible, this beauty here, where she had previously only been repelled? The unspeakable beauty to the touch of the warm, living buttocks! The life within life, the sheer warm, potent loveliness. And the strange weight of the balls between his legs! What a mystery! What a strange heavy weight of mystery, that could lie soft and heavy in one's hand! The roots, root of all that is lovely, the primeval root of all full beauty.Of course, we all agree with that sentiment!
A great evening with Bryce Morrison, that continued in the pub afterwards. Solo "audience" or not, I thoroughly enjoyed it!
To conclude, of course, we return to Women In Love, and that notorious wrestling scene - as so ably portrayed in Ken Russell's screen adaptation, with the (then) sexy Alan Bates and Oliver Reed:
DH Lawrence website