Books: Hanky Versus Panky, Or Tolstoy Or Lawrence?

September 12, 2014



Were they still alive today, two titans of literature would have celebrated their birthdays within days of each other: Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), 28 August (new style 10 September), and DH Lawrence (1885-1930), 11 September.

Both wrote passionately about passion, but from diametrically opposed viewpoints: the one denounced passion, the other eulogised it. Unique though they were, they nevertheless focused on common themes and shared a similar intensity of expression. And who, after all, is Lady Chatterley other than a liberated Anna Karenina? When the latter threw herself under the wheels of a passing train, the former threw herself into the arms of her husband’s gamekeeper.

The old Russian wizard, Tolstoy, in his peasant blouse, spouting out impossible moral extremes, was a thorn in the flesh of the gaunt-looking priest of erotic love, Lawrence, who exalted the relationship between a man and a woman as the first and most important of all human relationships – all others being merely incidental. Lady Chatterley’s Lover was written with precisely this in mind, and probably as a protest against Tolstoy’s rather grotesque views on celibacy. In the Kreutzer Sonata, Tolstoy referred to marriage as nothing other than legalised debauchery, and preached sexual restraint, especially in marriage – if marriage is seen as a curb against loose living, then it should be exactly that, even with one’s spouse, he felt. To the embarrassment of Sonya, his wife, he revealed the secrets of their bedroom to the public in this vitriolic little piece, and made it perfectly clear what he thought of sex: a hindrance to achieving a purpose worthy of a human being.

But while Tolstoy preached chastity, he vented his lust – as vast and as mighty as Russia itself – on poor Sonya who fell pregnant for the 14th time at the age of 44! Poignantly she referred to the pregnancy as the real postscript to the Kreutzer Sonata, as opposed to the written one that appeared at the end of the story in which Tolstoy tried to justify his extreme views.

Lawrence – who, incidentally, remained childless all his life – accused Tolstoy of subterfuge, saying he vilified sex because he himself felt wanting as a man. He censured Tolstoy for disparaging and eliminating the healthy specimens of his great novel Anna Karenina – Vronsky is made abject and pitiable at the end of the novel while Anna is thrown under a moving train as punishment for her extra-marital affair. Vengeance is mine, and I will repay – Tolstoy quoting God at the beginning of the novel – irked Lawrence. Quite obviously, as he saw it, vengeance was not God’s, but society’s and, of course, Tolstoy’s.

Lawrence utterly defied Tolstoy’s preaching, and expressed his defiance by eloping with Frieda Weekely, wife of his teacher and mother of three children – and, incidentally, hit her over the head with words, or sometimes a saucepan, when she pined for them. But Lawrence died an early death – like Anna Karenina. Poetic justice? This kind of obtuse judgment is unfortunately hard to resist.

We read their works today – struck by a freshness and vitality which has not faded – wondering which horse to back: Moral Chastity or Libido Rising? Both Tolstoy and Lawrence wrote magnificent stories about horses (symbols of life and sexual energy). Tolstoy’s horse, Strider, a sort of packhorse, is reduced to a bag of bones in the end, whipped and beaten down into submission to man, giving, giving of itself unto death and even after when its carcass serves as food for wolves, and its bones ground to powder for the needs of a peasant. Lawrence’s, on the other hand, a robust Welsh stallion called St Mawr, is never beaten down and remains to the end of the story a resilient and defiant horse symbolic of man’s undying libido.

Tolstoy wanted to conquer his libido but could not – even at the age of 80 he complained that he still burned with desire for his wife.

Lawrence followed his libido but died at the early age of 44.

t is over a century since Tolstoy died, and over 80 years since Lawrence died. In that time sexual liberation has so antiquated the idea of chastity that it is embarrassing to even allude to it, let alone advocate it. On the other hand, the scourge of HIV/Aids somehow lends legitimacy to the call for chastity.

The voices of two prophets echo through our literary wilderness – the one crying chastity, the other love. Either we must gird up our loins, or give ourselves free rein. Either we must fight a seemingly impossible battle, or play with fire. Either the clip-clop of a packhorse in harness, or the rumbling of wild horses’ hooves over the plains.

Tolstoy or Lawrence?


Kimon Neophyte is author of two collections of short stories and five novels, the most recent being Tolstoy’s Passion, published in 2010. For more details, go to