The Letters of D.H. Lawrence Volume 1: September 1901-May 1913
D.H. Lawrence’s Nightmare: The Writer and His Circle in the Years of the Great War
Lives and Letters: A.R. Orage, Beatrice Hastings, Katherine Mansfield, John Middleton Murry, and S.S. Koteliansky, 1906-1957
Shortly after the death of D.H. Lawrence in 1930 Aldous Huxley began collecting Lawrence’s letters for publication, and within two years—taking time off from his own writing, working without benefit of grants or Guggenheims or microfilm or an Editorial Board—he was ready to see through the press a volume of nearly 900 pages. A notable achievement: even the late Dr. Leavis (of mixed memory, as somebody said) was moved to acknowledge how valuable a service Huxley had performed on behalf of his friend. As indeed he had. The Letters of D.H. Lawrence (1932) revealed new and powerful aspects of Lawrence’s genius; it quickly took its place, not as a mere annex to his other work, but alongside the best of his essays and travel writing and literary criticism.
Sooner or later, of course, it was bound to be superseded. When Harry T. Moore published a two-volume Collected Letters in 1962 he was able to draw on a great deal of material that had not been available to Huxley; he also printed many letters that Huxley had chosen to omit or passages that he had judged it better to excise. But his edition made no pretense of being definitive, either, while since it appeared still more material has come to light. Over 5,000 letters by Lawrence are now known to have survived, in one form or another: they are all due to be included, down to the last postcard, in the new Cambridge edition of his correspondence, which will eventually run to eight volumes.
A true collected edition at last, then, and one fitted out with all the accouterments of sound scholarship—fully annotated, with every source conscientiously cited and with the texts (as far as one can judge) scrupulously transcribed. How could anyone interested in Lawrence fail to welcome such an undertaking? And yet I must admit that, faced with the first volume, I also felt a pang of affection for earlier, simpler days. The Huxley collection, and the Harry T. Moore collection for that matter, were books, to be bought and read through; with the Cambridge edition we are in the presence of a Project. All the more incongruous in the case of the early letters, since so many of them show the young Lawrence and his friends conducting their own informal—and intense—literary education, seizing on books in whatever cheap edition or reprint they could afford. By contrast, the Cambridge editors are inescapably involved in the task of bringing literature off the streets and into the library or the seminar room.
Still, how could it be otherwise, if we want a complete record of what Lawrence wrote? The statistics speak for themselves: for the period covered by the first volume James T. Boulton reprints over 500 pages of correspondence, where Huxley offered 120 pages and Moore some 200. And the actual editing is very good: the notes are informative without being fussy, the textual apparatus is decently unobtrusive. There is an interesting introduction, too, in which Professor Boulton concentrates (legitimately, I think) on various aspects of Lawrence’s early life which are not immediately apparent from the letters, and which have been largely overlooked by biographers—in particular, his deep debt to the twenty-volume anthology of world literature edited by Richard Garnett which had originally belonged to his dead brother Ernest; the intellectual influence of his German-born uncle by marriage, Fritz Krenkow (a cashier in a hosiery firm in Leicester who turned himself into an Islamic scholar of international repute); his close friendship with a fellow undergraduate at Nottingham, Thomas Smith (who went on to become a distinguished industrial chemist: as a member of the British Control Commission he was put in charge of dismantling the chemical industry in Germany in 1945).
Of the letters which Professor Boulton publishes for the first time, the most striking are the half-dozen addressed to another figure whose influence on Lawrence has generally been neglected or underestimated: the Reverend Robert Reid, minister of the Congregational chapel at Eastwood which the Lawrence family attended. They show Lawrence turning to Reid for help—in getting Latin lessons, for instance; questioning him on points of doctrine; grappling with Renan and Herbert Spencer and J.M. Robertson; moving away from chapel religion toward an unknown destination (“If only we were allowed to look at Scripture in the light of our own experience, instead of having to see it displayed in a kind of theatre, false-real and never developing…”). Other letters which have not appeared in print before include correspondence with Edward Garnett and Walter de la Mare, communiqués dashed off to publishers, an uneasy (and not altogether intelligible) letter about sex written to Helen Corke after what must have been a difficult weekend, by the sound of it. But on the whole the new material is of relatively minor interest. The chief value of this volume is that it brings together and sorts out a mass of correspondence which has previously lain scattered around in many different publications, most of them fairly specialized or obscure.
To read it through in chronological sequence is to be struck by how early Lawrence found his own voice. Here he is in 1908, for instance, just turned twenty-three and writing to his friend Blanche Jennings about a Ruskin-worshiper of their acquaintance: “The deep damnation of self-righteousness sticks tight to every creed, to every ‘ism’ and every ‘ite’; but it lies thick all over the Ruskinite, like painted feathers on a skinny peacock.” There are a few fumblings, inevitably, an occasional patch of stilted prose or gawky over-earnestness; but there hardly seems to have been a time, after adolescence at least, when Lawrence was not ready to come out fighting, with his characteristic quickness and scorn and spontaneity. If he ever went through a period of paralysis, of blank confusion, the evidence for it must be looked for elsewhere.
What we do have in these letters is a record of growth, conflict, inward turmoil, of hard-fought battles to achieve independence. A partial record, since none of Lawrence’s letters to his mother seems to have survived (he wrote to her faithfully once a week during his school-mastering years in Croydon), and his greatest struggle, as every reader of Sons and Lovers knows, was to break the emotional hold that she had over him. But her presence—her countervailing presence, one might almost say—can be felt in many of the letters which he wrote to other people, especially the women friends on whom he was so dependent, and in whom he found it so easy to confide. He had no qualms, either, about diagnosing his own condition. He could even urge Jessie Chambers to read James Barrie’s Sentimental Tommy and Tommy and Grizel: “They’ll help you to understand how it is with me. I’m in exactly the same predicament.”
Jessie Chambers, the Miriam of Sons and Lovers, was very much more than a confidante. So was Louie Burrows, the schoolteacher to whom Lawrence became officially engaged a few days before his mother’s death (though he had known her since he was fifteen or so) and the recipient of a remarkable series of letters which were first published by Professor Boulton some ten years ago. (She died in 1962.) In Louie. Lawrence had allied himself to a girl of exceptional intelligence who attracted him strongly. Only somehow…. In February 1912 he broke off the engagement; the following month he threw up his teaching post; two weeks after that he first set eyes on Frieda Weekley, the wife of a professor at Nottingham—“the finest woman I’ve ever met,” as he was soon writing to Edward Garnett; “she is ripping.” (Agreeable period slang: it goes with the straw boater that Lawrence wore on his wedding day two years later.)
In May 1912 Lawrence and Frieda left for Germany—first Metz, then on to Bavaria. “By the Isar, there we gathered roses….” But the idyll could not last for long. Even if Professor Weekley had not been so beastly and bourgeois, even if Frieda had not had to face the threat of losing her children for good, she and Lawrence were plainly doomed to “quarrel like nuts” (Lawrence’s term for it, September 1912). The freedom which she offered him turned out to include the freedom to trade blows with a new ferocity, and sometimes with a new crudity too.
By December 1912, for instance, Lawrence was embellishing Frieda’s post-scripts to his own letters (they were now in Italy) with such interjected comments—all meticulously reproduced by Professor Boulton—as “shit,” “arse licking,” “bleeder,” “stinker,” “balls aching rot.” Frieda to David Garnett “If you only knew how in Lawrence I discovered abysses of elusive, destructive, spiritual tragedy.” Lawrence: “Balls.” Frieda to Edward Garnett (apropos of her children): “After all they are my flesh and blood and I must trust in the Lord.” Lawrence: “Who’s he? Some new bloke?” It is rather like some ghastly music-hall routine, although to be fair Lawrence was acting under considerable provocation: Frieda had just had a casual affair with a chance acquaintance and made sure that he knew all about it, as she did on at least two similar occasions during their first year together.
Yet the storms came and went, and the partnership withstood them. For Lawrence, certainly, it represented a total commitment, “the best I have known, or ever shall know.” And meanwhile, with the conviction that he could write “bigger stuff than any man in England,” he was also moving forward toward a full mastery of his art, and much wider recognition. Taken by itself, Professor Boulton’s first volume constitutes a success story: it closes with a letter—a firm, self-assured letter—written in May 1913, on the day that Sons and Lovers was published.
At which point, or thereabouts, enter Paul Delany, who has had the excellent idea of writing an account of Lawrence during the First World War, and made an excellent job of it. D.H. Lawrence’s Nightmare is a longish book, but no longer than its complicated subject demands. Professor Delany follows Lawrence’s zigzag progress from cottage to cottage, from book to book, from crisis to crisis, always setting the scene clearly, reconstructing the story with admirable sympathy and objectivity. And detail, with such a story, counts for as much as it would in a novel. The main episodes may be familiar in outline from earlier biographies, but it is the fluctuations and fine shades that give them half their interest.
In August 1914 Lawrence was back in England. He had just got married, and he and Frieda had been planning to return to Italy, where earlier that year he had completed the first version of The Rainbow. As for the war, he was as psychologically ill-prepared for it as most of his countrymen were. True, he had had the experience of being taken for a British spy in Metz (just as he was later to be suspected of being a German spy in Cornwall—a rare double distinction). But that had been a comic-opera incident, while the England of his youth, whatever its empire-building propensities abroad, had been a profoundly unwarlike country to grow up in. No one had had to worry about military service, and there are no premonitions of the cataclysm to come in the early letters. When Lawrence and his family, on holiday on the Isle of Wight in 1909, watch the Home Fleet drawn up for a royal review, it is like an innocent Edwardian snapshot, almost a cliché. When Lawrence reports to Edward Garnett in 1912 that the Italian papers are full of talk about Serbia, he adds—almost another cliché—“but what has England got to do with it?”