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

His obsession with manly power is both off-putting and fascinating.

Penguin Classics

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)."

For these women, Lawrence's embrace of gender is not a bug; it's a feature. Acknowledging the way gender matters to ideas isn't (or rather, isn't only) about imposing hierarchy based on which bits you happen to have. It's also about affirming the weirdness and power and centrality of bodies—and of those people who have traditionally been most associated with bodies, which is to say, women.

"The Border Line," one of my favorite Lawrence stories, is a good example of the way that Lawrence's misogyny and his appeal to women seemed to be tied together in his essentialization of gender. The story is a bleak, atmospheric parable set in the aftermath of World War I. The main character is Katherine Farquhar, a German woman who married a warrior-like, dominant Scotsman named Alan. After he died at the front, Katherine remarried a "little one" named Philip.

On the one hand, the story is an almost parodic reiteration of Lawrence's phallic misogyny. Alan, the dead man, is constantly described in terms of hardness and rigidity; he "asserted himself like a pillar of rock." Philip is soft and yielding; he gets his way by giving in. The whole point of the story is to teach Katherine what she has lost in the death of her husband and his phallus, and how foolish she was to ever defy his mastery.

No matter what a man does or is, as a person, if a woman can move at his side in this dim, full flood of contentment, she has the highest of him, and her scratching efforts at getting more than this, are her ignominious efforts at self-nullity.

Now she knew it, and she submitted.

That seems like a fairly unequivocal statement. Women are most themselves when they are dim and content. Submit, girls, or you'll regret it in the end.

And yet, what is Katherine supposed to submit to? Alan, yes, but Alan is dead. His phallus is gone. Only his spirit, a gendered ghost, remains. That spirit comes for her "triumphantly, rather splendid" but also "utterly silent" and uncanny. In the final scene of the story, Alan, or whatever Alan is now, enters the room where Philip is dying.

Philip unfurled his lips and showed his big teeth in a ghastly grin of death. Katherine felt his body convulse in strange throes under the hand, then go inert. He was dead. And on his face was a sickly grin of a thief caught in the very act.

But Alan drew her away, drew her to the other bed, in the silent passion of a husband come back from a very long journey.

Alan may be the conquering hero, but he's also death. If he's a phallus, he's also a skull. Lawrence asserts that Katherine's gendered destiny is a liberation, but he presents it, almost despite himself, and with great power, as a coffin.

One thing women can do with Lawrence, then, is to read him against himself—as an impassioned critique of the gender essentialism he seems to espouse. But there's also, perhaps, an appeal or insight in that essentialism itself. Alan can almost be a metaphor for Lawrence's own writing—a gendered thing without flesh, reaching out to women with sex and dominance and horror and love. Even without a body, the body owns you—an insight to which many women (and many men) respond with revulsion, and sometimes joy.