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We Look Further Into D.H.Lawrence and His Depiction of Same Sex Relationships

25 July 22 words: Lewis Keech

Born in Eastwood in 1885, D.H. Lawrence is one of Nottingham’s most famous writers, penning novels like Sons and Lovers, The Rainbow and Women in Love. But what did this prolific author have to say about same sex relationships? One of our literature writers Lewis Keech takes a deep dive into Lawrence’s novels to find out…

If you think of D.H. Lawrence, you might think of Mellors and Lady Chatterley. You might consider Lawrence’s writing as an early moment of sexual liberation, a challenge to prudish Victorian attitudes about male-female sexual behaviour. One thing that you might not necessarily think of, though, is same-sex attraction. What place does it inhabit in Lawrence’s world, and can we consider him as a writer of the history of homosexuality? 

Although present in his writing, Lawrence’s non-heterosexual characters are often marginalised, their relationships shunned and left unresolved. I wouldn’t necessarily like to explore the reasons for this; after all, homosexual acts were criminalised in England at this time, so it’s unsurprising that even Lawrence wouldn’t openly explore such topics in his novels. What I would instead like to argue is that their marginal position is what makes these romances notable and important in Lawrence’s writing.  

The Rainbow features a lesbian relationship between the protagonist Ursula Brangwen and her teacher Winifred, largely contained within one chapter entitled ‘Shame’. We could say then that their relationship is concealed not only by the world they live in, but by their author. As two women living in early 20th century England, any relationship they had with each other was supposed to stay platonic, to never become sexual and to never threaten their relationship with a man. The chapter title ‘Shame’ perhaps reflects societal disapproval of any relationship which deviates from this model.  

Winifred is a schoolteacher who transgresses the traditional domestic space, and who is someone Ursula looks up to. She represents a threat to patriarchal order because she encourages Ursula to leave it behind too. I don’t have the space to describe the novel’s end in too much detail, but the image Lawrence chooses to end with is, unsurprisingly, a rainbow. This symbolises Ursula’s pursuit of personal fulfilment, as opposed to a pursuit of validation from a man or from anyone really: “I have no father nor mother nor lover”, she declares. Their relationship is an important component of the novel then, even if it is left unresolved, because it teaches Ursula to head into the world on her own terms. 

This activity, at first meant to demonstrate their masculine physical prowess, soon becomes a demonstration of physical attraction:

Winifred and Ursula’s relationship soon comes to end, however, and by the opening of The Rainbow’s sequel Women in Love, Ursula is in a relationship with a man called Birkin. Her sister Gudrun is in a sort of parallel relationship with Birkin’s close friend Crich. The relationships seem to come in pairs, not only between these opposite-sex couples, but between the sisters, and most interestingly, between the two men. The men’s relationship is interesting because Lawrence repeatedly hints at it crossing the platonic line; many of the passages describing Birkin and Crich’s encounters abound in sexual innuendos. In the famous ‘Gladiatorial’ chapter, Birkin and Crich wrestle naked on a carpet. This activity, at first meant to demonstrate their masculine physical prowess, soon becomes a demonstration of physical attraction: 

‘It was as if Birkin’s whole physical intelligence interpenetrated into Gerald’s body’

Here it’s as if through wrestling in the masculine way they do, they allow themselves to give into desires they may be ashamed of. Lawrence goes on to describe their physical struggle as something which unifies them, creating a sort of ‘oneness’. This is interesting because elsewhere in the novel, there is the idea that the male-female bond is essential because it creates a oneness, yet this same-sex bond seems to be just as unified.

Considering this, how does the men’s relationship compare to the female one we discussed earlier? In terms of similarities, both relationships are important in the narrative, but mostly remain secondary to the heterosexual relationships. However, Ursula seems to feel better able to move on after her relationship with Winifred than Gerald does after his ends with Crich. Crich’s absence at the end of the novel leaves Gerald wishing he had ‘another kind of love’ with a man, as if Ursula’s love isn’t sufficient. She ironically replies: 

"You can't have it, because it's wrong, impossible […]"

How can Ursula say it’s wrong and impossible for him to have a same-sex relationship when she also had one? Perhaps it’s a projection of her shame… Or perhaps it’s a projection of Lawrence’s.

reading Lawrence is useful because it gives us an insight into attitudes towards relationships between same-sex couples at the margins of society

Brenda Maddox, in D.H. Lawrence: The Story of a Marriage, writes that Lawrence’s relationship with wife Freida Weekley was rocked by infidelity. She says that Weekley explored her sexuality much more freely, having a string of affairs with other men, whilst Lawrence apparently remained faithful. Furthermore, Freida apparently claimed her husband had at least one romantic relationship with a man. Could Lawrence’s contempt for his wife’s freedom, paired with shame of his own sexuality, have produced such a disdain towards his characters’ homosexuality?  

Or is his attitude different? Whilst Ursula and Winifred’s relationship is contained by ‘Shame’, Crich and Birkin’s is one that is represented in the ‘Gladiatorial’ scene as being ultra-masculine, and because of this, perhaps purer; Lawrence describes the violent collision of their two bodies as creating a sort of spiritual ‘oneness’. This could be less about a rejection of homosexuality, therefore, and more about a rejection of female sexuality. Is Ursula’s same-sex relationship more shameful than Birkin’s? 

None of this is completely answerable, of course. His views on homosexuality (and sexuality in general) seem to have changed, not just over the course of his literary career but even from book to book. Also, to ask whether he documented homosexual history is not fully answerable because sexual identities didn’t really exist in his society as they do in ours. Nonetheless, reading Lawrence is useful because it gives us an insight into attitudes towards relationships between same-sex couples at the margins of society. He after all wrote at such a crucial time in the development of attitudes towards sexuality, still at the margins of popular discourse, but which were beginning to gain more scientific and cultural attention. 

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