Prof James Phelps speaks informally on “A Lifetime’s Enjoyment Reading DH Lawrence”

Prof Phelps first acknowledged the teachers who encouraged his love for literature. He read his first DH Lawrence novel at 18 and was immediately fascinated.

DH ( David Herbert Richards) Lawrence was born in 1885, the son of an almost illiterate miner, who had started work at 7, and a slightly better educated mother who had aspirations for her children. She was determined that they would not be going down the mine. (Prof Phelps always stressed this deprived background when lecturing at the University of Kwazulu-Natal).

DH Lawrence


DH Lawrence’s novel Sons and Lovers is the story of his own family. He was one of five children and sickly – he ultimately died of TB. It is known that, by the age of 21, he had read nearly all 3000 books in the local library in Eastwood.

Poetry was his first love but he also wrote novels, short stories, novellas ( a challenging genre), essays, Literary Criticism, especially on American writing, reviews, many letters (which have been collected into 8 thick volumes) – a huge achievement in his short life. He was also a painter and multilingual and practical – his mother expected him to help in the home and kitchen.

He started work as a school teacher but, when it was discovered that he had TB, he had to resign. From then on, he earned his living by writing.

In 1912, he met and married the aristocratic Freda von Richthofen. They went to Germany together. She was happy to have an affair with him but wanted to keep her children. However, when her husband, Prof. Weekley, found that she had eloped with a student, he divorced her and kept the children.

Freda’s love liberated DH Lawrence’s writing. After his marriage to Freda, he travelled widely – Italy and Mexico were his favourite places.

Prof Phelps read several pieces of DH Lawrence’s work, starting with the poem The Piano, an early poem, followed by Giorno dei Morti. This is a poem inspired by a funeral procession, written while the couple were in Italy.

Then we had a passage from The Rainbow about the Brangwen family, living on a farm. The men are mentally inert while the women look outward and away. Like Lawrence himself, later generations moved to London and further.

In a passage on Literary Criticism, DH Lawrence wrote ”it can be no more than a reasoned account of the feeling aroused in the reader by the book.”

He met Ezra Pound when they were both 24 and said “His god is beauty, mine is life”.

He died at the age of 44 of TB but he had never admitted to it. He always said he had “trouble with his bronchials”.

Prof Phelps ended by reading Bavarian Gentians with its references to Pluto and the ‘Halls of Dis’.

The talk was very much enjoyed by all present.

Submitted by Friends of Fish Hoek Library