Lara Feigel on Look! We Have Come Through! : Living With D.H. Lawrence

We spoke on the phone to academic and writer Lara Feigel about her new book, Look! We Have Come Through! Living With D.H. Lawrence, out now with Bloomsbury. 

You began writing the book during the pandemic. How did this isolation impact your writing? 

I knew at the start of 2020 that I had to write a book about D.H. Lawrence. At that point I expected his voice to be one among many in my life. But, suddenly, with most of the other people I normally have daily interactions with taken away, I was left alone with Lawrence and it became very intense. It became clear that it was going to be a book about our encounter: close up and one-on-one. 

Lawrence quickly began to inflect every aspect of my life. I was doing a lot of home-schooling, as so many of us were, and I think if I hadn’t written the book in the pandemic then I wouldn’t have written a chapter on childcare. He became an unlikely guide to how to navigate this very intense period with my children. Everything he thinks is so unlikely, and therefore refreshing. Here he was telling me that it’s better not to smile at your children when you’re telling them off and to match their anger with yours, rather than pretending to be calmly content when they shout at you. I found that unexpectedly helpful.

I’d also just moved to the countryside and was immersed in the natural world in a way that I’d never been before. It was wonderful, spending all our days in the same place watching the seasons change. I found that he was so attentive to not just what month it was but what week, what stage of May or June. He was alongside me when we watched with the hawthorn coming out and the poppies bursting out in the fields. He was helping me to enjoy it but was also reminding me how strange and destructive nature is. He was also reminding me how similar the natural world remains. I found that very moving and grounding.

Could you imagine being locked down with any other writer? 

I think as a writer he was very easy to be locked down with! He was very angry about a lot of things and that meant I had a lot of anger in my day which maybe was helpful because there was a lot of anger around in the pandemic; it was a very divisive experience. There were people calling for us to be locked down forever, there were people who felt we should continue to throw ourselves into the world in ways that seemed irresponsible to others. Because Lawrence thinks in such extreme ways, and because he’s prepared to contradict himself, I found him ideal company. Everything around me was divided but people weren’t prepared to be divided within themselves and to admit ambivalence and contradiction. Lawrence’s thinking was so often contradictory and dialectical. Although he was exhausting in his way, he was also helpful in keeping me sane and open to ambivalence and thinking outside the boxes that I found myself driven into. And reading Lawrence is to enter a whirl of energy and affirmation. This energised me during these years.

Why Lawrence? 

It was partly because this book was commissioned. I had not particularly liked Lawrence in adolescence but got very into him aged thirty when I accidentally found myself shortlisted for a job in D.H. Lawrence studies! At that point, I became rather a naïve fan. I wasn’t alone in this – Lawrence had often produced this devoted enthusiasm in readers, and I was very much that reader for a phase. So, I turned up to the job interview dressed as Gudrun – one of his characters – determined that I was going to get this job and that no-one could love Lawrence as much as I did. They did say that I was the most passionate candidate but that they couldn’t give me the job as I hadn’t published anything about Lawrence. This was lucky, in a way, because I became much more ambivalent over the next couple of years. At that point, I told my publisher I wanted to write about him, and I started teaching him to third year undergraduates. I found that reading him alongside my students and reading the feminist critiques across the generations gave me a much more nuanced view of him, and so I didn’t want to rush into writing about him. I then wrote books largely about women – I wrote about Doris Lessing, and my novel about five female friends – but Lawrence was still percolating in the background. I was reading his more difficult novels and his more repellent essays and trying to get a sense of how the man who wrote these extraordinary, sympathetic, complex novels could also write the more mean-spirited passages in the essays. I was already in love with a lot of his poems and becoming very immersed in his thinking about animals and saw how contemporary he is in his thinking about nature. This was the point that I girded myself to write my book about him and then the pandemic hit just as I started it.  

In the book you grapple with presenting Lawrences writing as a feminist, particularly as in some instances his work can be read as it is written from the female gaze – towards the end of the book you analyse descriptions of Mellors from Connies perspective in Lady Chatterleys Lover – while also resenting Lawrences views at times, particularly on motherhood and parenting. Did you find it difficult to engage with the more sensitive & difficult aspects of Lawrence? 

Interestingly, I found that I didn’t object to a lot about Lawrence that earlier generations of feminists had objected to. I hugely admire Kate Millett in the round, and I think a lot of what she’s written is wonderful – Sexual Politics is an absolutely vital book and got people thinking about the ways that male writers have coerced their readers into patriarchal views on sex. However, I think her arguments about Lawrence in that book leave too much out. She’s not prepared for novels to be novels. She allows Mellors’ statements to be the voice of Lady Chatterleys Lover, which they’re just not. In none of Lawrence’s novels is there one person whose views carry the book, and all his pontificating men are challenged by women – that was crucial for him. In Lady Chatterley’s Lover that is more true than in any other book because it’s Connie whose voice we get right from the start, and even that extraordinary opening  paragraph is written from her point of view. And so, when Mellors says clearly repellent things about the clitoris being a kind of terrifying, tearing beak, Connie hates him for it. The reader is absolutely allowed to hate him too. He then tempers his views, and I think he changes more than anyone else in that novel and is changed by his encounters with Connie. So, I think Millet really misreads that novel. I think for me, as a feminist, what I find hard about Lawrence are particularly his later essays where he talks about ‘hensure’ men and ‘cocksure’ women. He objected to everyone who was over-wilful. The kind of will that he liked was a bodily will, but there was another kind of will that involved imposing ourselves on the world and not allowing ourselves to ride with the flux, which he hated. But though he disapproved of this kind of will in everyone, he castigated wilful women much more frequently than wilful men. He was always telling his female friends to relax and stop imposing their will on the world when he was being as wilful as anyone can be and he didn’t quite acknowledge that. He hated modern women – he hated aspects of the modern world although he was as modern as anyone can be in other ways – but he complained about modern, wilful women in ways that I find it hard to take.

I also find his views of motherhood difficult. Reading about his relationship with Frieda and reading their letters from their early relationship, when he had persuaded her to elope with him and ended up cutting her off from her children, I find his callousness towards her as a mother shocking. I think because he was so anxious about being over-mothered and feeling that he hadn’t been able to develop as a sexual man because he was in the embrace of a cloying mother, he could never give Frieda her due as a mother or see what she had given up for him. He was very cruel to Frieda as a mother and in quite a lot of the essays he wrote around that time, he is particularly vehement about mothers needing to take a step back and not love their children too much. I found those aspects of Lawrence trickier than the aspects that Kate Millet writes about. Interestingly, at about the time Kate Millett wrote her book, Angela Carter was writing various essays and letters about Lawrence. She loved Lawrence and saw him more as a kind of drag queen than a traditional male with a male gaze, and in some ways that stands more true for me. He had this astonishing fluidity when it came to gender himself. My students read his novels and say ‘but it’s like he’s a woman’ and it’s true, there’s a real passion for female experience and inhabiting the female gaze that I think Millet doesn’t really explore. 

You commit to reading Lawrences work with the contemporary moment in mind, engaging with urgent, cataclysmic issues such as the climate crisis and the pandemic, as these issues happen in real time. How important was it for you to ground Lawrences work in the present moment? Did you find that you were naturally able to see through Lawrences gaze on contemporary issues? 

Yes, I think it generally comes naturally for me to bring writers from the past into dialogue with the present. It feels that everything we do as critics and as historians should be about creating that dialogue. I think Lawrence is a particularly easy writer to put in conversation with the present because he’s always writing into modernity and there’s a flexibility and fluidity to his thinking that makes it stretch easily in many different directions. He talked about everything; he had a much more holistic approach than most writers do. I think most writers don’t think it’s their responsibility to think about how society should be, and what illness is and what our relationship to nature is. There was really no aspect of life that he didn’t see as his business. I found during that phase that everything I thought about, he had something to say about. If I went to church, I thought about his attitude towards religion. If I thought about illness and death, I thought about his attitude towards illness and death. If I worried that I’d lost my sense of community, I thought about him constantly running away from his community and wanting to forge it again while worrying about what a community was. That all came to a climax for me in thinking about his ideas about apocalypse. 

It felt for me that we were living in a moment that was easy to characterise as ‘apocalyptic’. People talked about the moment as a zombie film, and it was clear that we were going to end up with a lot of apocalyptic, pandemic novels which I think are now on their way! Lawrence embraced apocalyptic thinking more than almost anyone in his generation. During the First World War, he was looking around for signs, as though he was living in the Book of Revelation, that we were at the end of one age and about to embark on another. And yet, when it came to the end of his life and he was writing his book, Apocalypse, he really turned against apocalyptic thinking and castigated the lust for the end of the world that he saw in the Book of Revelation. In Lady Chatterley’s Lover he takes symbols from the Book of Revelation and turns them, talking about cataclysm rather than apocalypse. Here he makes it clear that if there’s any new world to be created it’s going to be within the here and now. I found that extremely helpful for showing how we can want the world to be different without thinking that we should yearn for the world to destroy itself so that we can start again. I think that yearning is visible now and there’s a tendency to blame ourselves. There’s apocalyptic thinking when talking about the climate crisis; we think we’ve done all these terrible things and we’ve created a form of modernity that has polluted our natural world and therefore it’s our fault when the apocalypse comes. If you think about it more tragically, we’ve created this world that we fully believed in. We wanted machines and freedom of movement and a fast-paced modern world – if that’s turned out to contain within it the weapons that will destroy the world, then it’s tragic rather than apocalyptic. I found Lawrence to be helpful in confronting what it is to think apocalyptically and how we can get beyond that. 

You engage with Lawrences work in a personal way, rather than writing from a strictly academic voice. You have previously written another bibliomemoir, Free Woman about Doris Lessing. What is it about this form that draws you in? 

Free Woman began when I went through a brief phase of flirting with the idea of writing a biography about Lessing and when that didn’t come off, I felt bereft of her. I’d gotten to that point, as I have with Lawrence of experiencing the world with her and alongside her; I mentioned that to someone and they said ‘that’s very weird, but also very enticing. Why not write about that?’. I’ve always had obsessive and intense relationships with dead writers and for the first time it seemed to make sense to write out of that energy. I found it very liberating. As a writer, you’re always bringing yourself into your writing and if I’d written about Lessing leaving behind her children when she left her first marriage, I’d inevitably be thinking about my own experience of motherhood and what it would mean to leave behind small children. It felt much more honest to make that explicit, to say ‘yes there are days that are terrible, but how could she do that? There must have been years where she was viscerally conscious of their absence’. It seemed to make sense to really think that through both in terms of my own experiences and that of my contemporaries, and the same thing was true as I considered every aspect of her writing. The Lawrence book is in some ways less personal. In the Lessing book, I wanted to dig deeply into myself. However, the Lawrence book is driven by arguments about Lawrence and my experiences are in some ways more oblique. But my thinking about myself, my life, and the world I live in is the prism through which I’m reading Lawrence. I want to continue doing that. I think this is how we all read, really, and it feels more honest for me to do that explicitly. I want a new, rich idea of reading to inform my writing. I’m part of a movement of writers who take the gains of the complex, critical work produced over the last few decades but throw these writers back into our lives and into what passionate, socially engaged reading is meant to be about.

For those who may not have read Lawrence – which of his works would you recommend for a first-time reader? 

I would say The Rainbow and Women in Love as paired novels. I think everything is in there! The thing I find exciting about Lawrence is that life for him is a series of shifting moods; we don’t have a fixed personality, we act out of whatever mood we’re in at that moment. We meet people, we bring one mood, and they bring another, and that may result in a fight or in passionate love and that’s likely to change at any moment. That for me is a different way of seeing the world from how I saw it before. Lawrence dramatises this extremely well in The Rainbow and Women in Love. There are such moving, complex scenes of family relationships, of sexual relationships all within this huge, containing sense of English life moving from the agricultural to the industrial world. I think there’s a lot for everyone in there. 

Sons and Lovers is also a great place to start. I’d recommend it especially to young people: it brings the energy of that period when you’re making and unmaking yourself against the background of your parents and separating yourself from your parents. And then of course, Lady Chatterley’s Lover is wonderful. Unfortunately or fortunately it’s not quite as sexy as it was made out to be at the 1960 trial! But, I do really believe in it as one of his four great novels.


Lara Feigel is a Professor of Modern Literature and Culture at King’s College London. She is the author of four previous works of non-fiction: Literature, Cinema and Politics, 1930-1945 (2009), The Love-charm of Bombs (2013), The Bitter Taste of Victory (2016) Free Woman (2018), and most recently Look! We Have Come Through! Living with D.H. Lawrence (2022), as well as one novel, The Group (2020). She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and writes regularly for the Guardian and other publications. 

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