Why D.H. Lawrence, Misogynist Male Author, Has Lots of Female Fans

His obsession with manly power is both off-putting and fascinating.
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I convinced my wife of the virtue of Jane Austen novels; she convinced me to read D.H. Lawrence.

You could argue that this shows that what you read and what your gender is don't have anything to do with each other. Austen may write about women in drawing rooms chatting about love, and Lawrence may be a modernist obsessed with manly power, passion, and coal miners. But nonetheless, men can love Jane Austen (and pass that love to their wives) and women can love D.H. Lawrence (and pass that love to their husbands) because gendered bodies don't determine aesthetic interests. As commenter Aaron Thorpe wrote in response to a piece I wrote last week, "I have never met anyone—ANYONE—who considers the author's gender when deciding whether or not to read a book."

Thorpe was criticizing my argument that men, in particular, can enjoy and learn from the writing of women like Jane Austen. That article said that the gender, of readers and writers, can affect how we appreciate and respond to literature—though not always in straightforward or intuitive ways.

One person who I think might agree with me is none other than Lawrence himself. Few writers have been as obsessed with the primacy and determinative power of gender and bodies and sex. In his 1922 short story "The Horse-Dealer's Daughter," a small-town doctor—whose job it is to resist and contain nature in the form of disease—rescues the titular horse-dealer's daughter from drowning and falls in love with a violent, rapturous power: "his heart seemed to burn and melt away in his breast. " Moreover, he experiences that violence and that power as an assault on his intellect and his profession. As Lawrence puts it, "this introduction of the personal element was very distasteful to him, a violation of his professional honour." The "personal element" here is, precisely, sex and bodies, and the gender that connects the two. You may hide in professionalism or honor or aesthetics, Lawrence says, but still gender will find you.

Lawrence's obsession with gendered bodies has its downsides. These were perhaps best articulated by second-wave feminist Kate Millet, who in her 1970 book of literary criticism Sexual Politics famously and brutally took a cleaver to Lawrence's critical reputation. The castration metaphor there is a propos—Millet's central contention was that Lawrence worshipped the phallus as an embodied totem of power and authenticity. For Lawrence, Millet observes acidly, "the possession of a penis is an accomplishment of such high order" that the main character in his 1928 novel Lady Chatterly's Lover has his "divine nature [...] revealed and established through this organ alone." Thus, the insistence on the centrality of gender runs easily and inevitably into an insistence on the truth of gendered hierarchy. For Lawrence, Millet shows, men dominate and women are dominated; men are individuals, women are selfless absences.

And yet, nonetheless, as I said, my wife (who is not a selfless absence last time I checked) loves Lawrence. And it's not like she's the only woman in the world who does. One friend of mine wrote me that she loved the scene in Lady Chatterly's Lover where Lady Chatterly is:

having an affair with an awful aristocrat. She's able to orgasm only after he's gone flacid, and he eventually snaps at her for this. My reasons for remembering this scene aren't very poetic—I was having my first sexual experiences at the time, wasn't experiencing anything remotely close to an orgasm, and wondered if this 'worked.' That this whole scene could have been devised by a male author as a symbolic sequence didn't really strike me until later—sexual behavior already seemed strange and inconvenient, even moreso for women, and I assumed the author had a lot of respect, fascination and love of sex (and women) to use it that way.

Claire Jarvis, an Assistant Professor of English at Stanford, also touched on the "strange and inconvenient" sex in Lawrence. Or as she put it in her email to me, " his interest in divesting sexual life from social and political frames" ends up "salvaging sexual life's dislocating, unequivocal weirdness." My wife added that she "appreciated seeing a male author put his passion out there like that; he seemed unable to control himself in a way that is often ascribed to women (annoyingly and often incorrectly, but it is a mode society allows for women but forbids for men)."

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of a forthcoming book on the original Wonder Woman comics.

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