Of all the British novelists of the early twentieth century, D. H. Lawrence inherited much of his passionate imagination from Thomas Hardy, who might be called his spiritual father. Lawrence’s sensual writing is directly derived from Hardy’s vivid descriptions of women and landscape. Lawrence himself acknowledges in the Study of Thomas Hardy (1914), his longest and most serious work of criticism, that Hardy was his master and the principal influence. However, as Robert Langbaum observed, “Lawrence in the Study partly misreads and rewrites Hardy’s novels as a way of arriving at his own art.” (69) Nevertheless, the roots of Lawrence’s view of life seem to be very similar to those of Hardy. Like Hardy, Lawrence transcended the view of man in society characteristic of Victorian fiction and created his characters as elemental men and women. Like Hardy, Lawrence had a cosmic mind and he evoked in his fiction the feeling of mysterious bonds between human existence and the natural universe. Lawrence revived in the British fiction of the early twentieth century the awareness of the natural, which Hardy emphasised in his novels, short stories and poems. As John Paterson has observed:
If Hardy was dear to Lawrence, it was because he rehabilitated not only Nature as a source of mystery and miracle, but Man himself. By restoring the ancient heavenly connection between the human creature and the natural world around it, by establishing what Lawrence called ’the true correspondence between the material cosmos and the human soul’, Hardy sought, like Lawrence after him, to make the human character more wondrous and surprising than traditionally realistic novelists had dreamed of in their philosophies. 
In his Study of Thomas Hardy, Lawrence continued some of Hardy’s favourite themes: the dichotomy between nature and civilisation, and between “flesh and spirit”. He envisaged human existence in terms of duality. Lawrence endorsed Hardy’s negative analysis of modernity and investigated more daringly the unconscious mind and sexuality of both men and women. Although fascinated by Hardy, Lawrence rejected his treatment of characters. Unlike Hardy’s tragic and passive protagonists, Lawrence’s “positive” characters are dynamic, autonomous and self-conscious. They represent their author’s values. They are hardly susceptible to external circumstances and they develop their selfhood to the full in search for new life. However, the Lawrentian natural universe is quite similar to that of Hardy: humans are united with nature by primeval bonds that modern industrial culture tries to destroy. Like Hardy, Lawrence pointed to the evil of the rapidly expanding industrialisation of England, which deprives men and women of their natural instincts and personal freedom. “Lawrence”, writes John Alcorn, “inherits Hardy’s despair over the mechanical deadness of modern institutions.” (83)
Lawrence discovered in Hardy’s fiction, it seems, a new approach to man and nature; Hardy showed that there is an organic connection between both. Like Hardy, Lawrence saw the duality between “flesh and soul” and he believed that human nature was deprived of its inherent freedom by social and religious conventions. For Hardy and Lawrence human life is split between a conscious rational essence and an unconscious, biological (natural) existence. Lawrence’s view of life, like Hardy’s, is shaped by his belief in irrationalism derived from his trust in instinct and belief that the biological aspect of life predetermines all human actions. Lawrence formulated his philosophical ideas fully in six essays entitled “The Crown” (1915), in which he referred to Hardy’s dualistic imagery. Lawrence’s idea of personal freedom was synonymous with self-realisation. Man has been disabled by escape from nature and acceptance of modern industrial civilisation which imposes arbitrary laws and artificial order incompatible with the laws of nature. Lawrence believed that through sexual relations, which are based on the authentic union between man and woman, people can regain their human dignity and sense of living.
Like Hardy, Lawrence believed that “pagan forms of religion are superior to Christianity in creating vital links between the material cosmos and the human psyche” (Pinion, 81). Lawrence rejected Christian faith even at an earlier age than Hardy, when he was 16. He read Schopenhauer when he was in his early twenties and he appears to have assimilated the ideas of Schopenhauer as well as those of William James and Friedrich Nietzsche together with the scientific discoveries of Charles Darwin, Herbert Spencer and Ernst Haeckel. Both Hardy and Lawrence shared Darwin’s belief that human consciousness is also part of evolution processes. Lawrence employed ideas based on evolution in his fiction, particularly after the publication of Women in Love.
For Lawrence, and for Hardy, physical experience is the basis of all values. The transcending power of physical love is apparent in Lawrence’s fiction. Mutual and fulfilling love offers, as he seemed to convey in his major novels, a sense of purpose in human existence. Through love one can achieve a higher degree of authenticity of one’s existence and a fuller selfhood. Lawrence insisted that an individual human being should achieve the metaphysical fulfilment of his or her instinctive nature. Lawrence believed that the clue to man’s salvation in the dehumanised and impersonal modern civilisation is sex. He believed that in sexual love men and women can achieve their complete self-realisation and selfhood.
Lawrence was inspired by Hardy’s new and frank treatment of sex and the unconscious. Although Lawrence rejected Hardy’s pessimistic and tragic vision of man, he shared his idea of the eternal struggle between “flesh and spirit”. The Study of Thomas Hardy enables Lawrence to present his own views on life and, particularly, on the phenomenon of human sexuality. Sex, or rather sexual love, is for Lawrence the most important existential experience which has been notoriously neglected or misinterpreted by earlier writers. Hardy was perhaps the first British novelist to deal frankly with sexual experience. Lawrence went further in describing the sexual relations between men and women. Both writers derived inspiration from the Wordsworthian idea of nature, but they found a new dimension in it. As Robert Langbaum observed: “Hardy and Lawrence sexualize Wordsworth’s living landscapes.” (71) It should also be added that Lawrence, inspired by Hardy, was one of the first male British writers who viewed women as autonomous individuals and not as a sex or class. The most implicit theme which Lawrence took from Hardy and continued in his major fiction is that of the New Woman, with all her sexual radicalism and Freudian ego.
Like Hardy, Lawrence vigorously rejected the moral and ethical premises of traditional Victorian society. He also refuted the doctrine of the Christian Church. In his view, Christianity has always idealised spirit and depreciated body. Like Thomas Hardy, Lawrence saw that false conceptions of human nature produced and consequently pervaded modern institutions. He blamed Christianity for most of society’s ills. Lawrence rejected Christianity because he believed that it had become a religion of death which favours aspiration toward a heavenly world and denies the importance of the earthly body. In his fiction he tried to formulate a new consciousness of man based on authentic human relationships. Lawrence soon became the prophet of sexual revolution in the twentieth century. He urged the new men and new women to shun the old social conventions in order to establish relationships based on freedom of choice and authentic feelings.
Alcorn, John. The Nature Novel From Hardy to Lawrence. London: Macmillan, 1977.
Paterson, John. “Lawrence’s Vital Source: Nature and Character in Thomas Hardy”, in U. C. Knoepflmacher and G. B. Tennyson, eds., Nature and the Victorian Imagination. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1977.
Langbaum, Robert. “Lawrence and Hardy”, in Jeffrey Meyers, ed., D. H. Lawrence and Tradition. London: The Athlone Press, 1985.
Pinion, F. B. A D. H. Lawrence Companion. Life, Thought and Work. London: Macmillan, 1978.
Last modified 20 July 2010