“The vast marvel is to be alive,” DH Lawrence wrote in his last book, Apocalypse, while he was dying. “The magnificent here and now of life in the flesh is ours, and ours alone, and ours only for a time.” Many people had a similar feeling during the Covid lockdown: how precious life is and how easily snatched away. For Lara Feigel there was a mix of exhilaration and unease as she decamped from London to make a home in the Oxfordshire countryside, along with two small children, her new partner and a stack of Lawrence’s books. She had long planned to write about Lawrence, but it was only in lockdown that he possessed her, as a companion, disputant and “guide to life”.
She finds him posing difficult questions about who she is and what she believes. Is she too wilful? Too frightened of anger? What is her unconscious (does she even have one)? Is she a good mother? Does she ask too much of her friends? How can she get closer to the natural world? Her book is a critical biography but also a pandemic memoir – a story about how an author can inform and change your life.
As she admits, there has been a recent spate of books about Lawrence by women, with Frances Wilson’s biography and novels by Rachel Cusk and Alison MacLeod. She also points to a longer tradition of women writing astutely about him, from Anaïs Nin, Simone de Beauvoir and Susan Sontag to Angela Carter and Doris Lessing. Lawrence’s disapproval of suffragettes and hostility towards the “beak” of the clitoris are an affront to any feminist. But Feigel doesn’t accept Kate Millett’s famous denunciation of him. On the contrary, she’s struck by how perceptive he is about how women think, feel, dress, eat, make love. In Gudrun and Ursula Brangwen especially he created independent, forthright women “who ask for something more from the world than the rhythms of procreation”.
It’s in relation to children that Feigel writes most originally about Lawrence. He was known to be unusually good with them, she says, and finds his theories of child-rearing (“see that your children get their dinners and clean sheets, but don’t love them”) both wayward and “helpfully bracing”. She’s enraged by his failure to understand Frieda’s maternal grief after she left her children to be with him. But even this anger is “thrilling”. The thrill is his challenge to her ideas about life.
As she writes about parenthood, Feigel is immersed in an agonising legal tussle with her ex-husband about where their children should live and go to school; there’s a court case, which she loses. Part of the attraction of the book is her candour: the charting of her ups and downs as the seasons pass. If she weren’t so attuned to Lawrence, it would feel ickily self-absorbed. But she writes insightfully about his central themes, and though she torments herself unduly by taking his wackier theories too seriously, her intensity and intimacy are engaging.
It hasn’t been easy for Feigel to have a ‘grizzled, chuntering ghost’ as a literary co-habitee for a year
She’s particularly keen to emphasise his ambivalence – a self-contradictoriness which mirrors her own. “Once a book is fathomed,” he wrote in Apocalypse, “once it is known, and its meaning is fixed or established, it is dead,” and she’s good in bringing out the ambiguities of his novels and, aside from misfires such as The Plumed Serpent, their refusal to be nailed down. The rhythms of his sentences seduce her; the kisses of his couples make her swoon. But she’s too watchful and cerebral to succumb to his more repellent ideas.
“I think that one thing he has taught me is to battle to become more myself,” she decides while analysing Lady Chatterley’s Lover (which she thinks a tremendous novel and Connie “one of the great portrayals by a man of a female character”). It hasn’t been easy for her to have a “grizzled, chuntering ghost” as a literary co-habitee for a year. But he has helped her gain a clearer sense of who she is and how to accept change. Along the way, between looking after her children or going on walks with her philosophising lover, she puts together a perceptive book about Lawrence, whose view on our Covid pandemic, she thinks, might have echoed Birkin’s in Women in Love: “One is ill because one doesn’t live properly.”
• Look! We Have Come Through!: Living With DH Lawrence is published by Bloomsbury (£20). To support the Guardian and the Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.