D.H. Lawrence: synonymous with Nottingham and the collieries of the county, with the notorious Lady Chatterley’s Lover, with censorship and sex. A literary outsider who divides scholars, students and readers around the world. D.H. Lawrence splits opinion, and with the recent publication of Frances Wilson’s Burning Man and a new adaptation of Chatterley starring The Crown‘s Emma Corrin on the way, his name is cropping up in conversations again – conversations usually accompanied by opinions on what should and shouldn’t be on our screens or in our books.
When faced with writing my dissertation amidst the disorientation of the last year, I wanted to write about something I was passionate about and something that felt personal. The keyword in that sentence is felt. What does it mean to feel, both physically and psychologically? How does that sensual experience translate into words on the page, and can the written form truly do justice to the sense of touch? These questions seemed even more significant in those long winter months in lockdown. So, I turned to one of my favourite writers, D.H. Lawrence.
Sex and touch go hand in hand. And D.H. Lawrence did write about sex, creating a language abound with metaphors and symbolism to describe the female experience. D.H. Lawrence, for many, is associated with sex, obscenity and even pornography due to the prosecution of Penguin Books in 1960 under the Obscene Publications Act for the publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. On the flip side, he’s also linked to liberal values, a freer society, and the sexual revolution of the 60s.
I think touch is more nuanced than that, though. Touch to Lawrence appeared to have a greater meaning than just sex; touch connects us to one another and to what he called the living universe. Lawrence challenged the influential psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud by proposing that the unconscious is located in the body, rather than developing and coming from the mind. An embodied unconscious also fits Lawrence’s idea of blood-consciousness, a consciousness built on touch, feeling and instinct. Lawrence, therefore, saw touch as an important mode of communication and the sense reveals hidden meanings and desires in his writing.
Hands are essential to the sense of touch and have a key symbolic role in Lawrence’s writing. Lawrence wrote that hands have a ‘life of their own’ as they act out unconscious desires in the act of touching and by making contact with what is around us. He created tactile, textured images when describing the movement of the hands, focusing on the interlacing of fingers, the feeling of skin and surfaces, and the pleasure or discomfort accompanying touch in his characters.
To touch and to be touched and all the sensations in between is what it means to be human – to be alive – and that’s what lies between the lines of a D.H. Lawrence text.
Perhaps Lawrence’s most touch-centred character is Maurice Pervin from the short story ‘The Blind Man’, in the collection England, My England, set against the backdrop of the First World War. The War directly altered Maurice’s perspective after an injury led to his blindness, so touch became his primary sense and shaped how he relates to others and the world around him. When Bertie Reid, an intellectual lawyer, comes to visit Maurice and his wife at their home, the only way for Maurice to get to know the other man is to instigate a moment of touch between them. Lawrence draws attention to Maurice’s hands as they feel Bertie’s head, face and hands, and the successive clauses bring to life Bertie’s body, placing the reader in Maurice’s sensory, tactile consciousness. Lawrence evokes an alternative way of understanding the world through language, heavily focused on what you can touch.
So, why is touch so central in D.H. Lawrence’s writing?
He connected these ideas about touch to the writing process, his role as a writer, and to the state of being whole. Lawrence viewed ‘wholeness’ as an aspirational, momentary state of being: when the mind and body are integrated and connected to the living universe. Wholeness can be seen in Lawrence’s characters when they begin to trust their instincts, rely less on logic and more on what they can feel. Lawrence linked his idea of wholeness with the written form and the significance of the novel; in his writing, he wanted to make the ‘whole man alive tremble’ and engage the reader in the search for wholeness often exhibited in his characters. Writing and reading are also touch-based acts, and to Lawrence a sort of exchange can occur between the writer and the reader, in the feeling of the page and the movement of the writer’s hand. I think there’s something to be had in that image.
To touch and to be touched and all the sensations in between is what it means to be human – to be alive – and that’s what lies between the lines of a D.H. Lawrence text. Reach out, and you might just feel it.
Quotations from: ‘Why the Novel Matters’ p. 252, 255
(Lawrence, D.H., ‘Why the Novel Matters’, in Life with a Capital L: Essays Chosen and Introduced by Geoff Dyer (Penguin Classics, 2019), pp. 252-259)
Emma Stirland is a recent English graduate from the University of Nottingham with a passion for D.H. Lawrence and touch/haptics in literary modernism
She’s a Nottingham local with a love for the city, especially its creative and independent scene