Readers who expect to be treated with gentlemanly courtesy have always found D. H. Lawrence rough going. His explicit fictional representations of sex and his anti-war diatribes were widely condemned in his lifetime, and his novels were duly censored or withdrawn from sale in Britain and beyond. Lawrence’s prose style – lyrical and sensuous one moment, brusque and coarse the next – can be as unsettling as his ideas, extreme as they are strange and seemingly liberated from any wariness about self-contradiction. Lawrence gave full expression to deeply misanthropic moods in person and in writing, which can make him seem misogynist, homophobic, racist, classist, treacherous, or fascistic to those who are on the lookout for such things. A tender interest in all kinds of people and places is equally evident, but that is, naturally, less notable when considering a writer whose fiction carries the mark of being included in F.R. Leavis’s ‘great tradition’. Canonisation has made a literary outsider who enjoyed sparse approval in his lifetime seem symptomatic of the shortcomings of a culture that he himself found wanting.
It is easy to read the attitudes of Lawrence’s flawed and limited male characters as his own, his representations of flawed and limited women as demeaning, and his portraits of flawed and limited indigenous characters as racist. But perhaps it is fairer to view them as the product of a flawed and limited writer who strove to depict and invigorate a culture that seemed, to him, to be flawed and limited.