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Contradictory Lawrence

The Life of D.H. Lawrence

by Keith Sagar
Pantheon, 256 pp., $17.95

The hectoring urgency in D. H. Lawrence’s novels has been outstripped by what has happened to us all since his time. His short stories and poems seem to me his finest work, and his prolific letters stand out among the most lived and arresting in the English language. They reveal all his contradictions: they are instant self-portrayals, for good or ill. They spring from the same source as his need for fearless conversation, with its mixture of beguilement, vision, and insult that kept him alive as an artist and a man. There was always a quiet low laugh from him when silence closed on his exorbitance.

Many of these letters appeared in an edition introduced by Aldous Huxley in 1932; but now far more are available—5,000 in all—and also we have had many intimate recollections from young women Lawrence was in love with when he was young and from the numbers of men and women who were “taken” by his spell throughout his life. Mr. Sagar, who is editing the seven volumes of a collected edition of Lawrence’s letters, has now skillfully drawn on them for an album-like biography. It has over 150 pictures, including sixteen in color, of Lawrence, his friends and acquaintances; places where he lived; and his paintings. (Like many writers with a strong visual style, he was attracted to the instant satisfactions of painting when tired of words; it was, at any rate, a therapy.) At first sight the book is rather a breathless race through what is now well known, but it is not really so much a race as an ingenious mosaic from portions of his letters, cemented by commentary. There is not an item that does not point to the portrait.

Mr. Sagar is acute on the influences of Lawrence’s early life in the now socially remote England of the time. He recovers the sensations of fevered struggle with the Victorian ethos and Lawrence’s passionate pursuit of freedom to go where and how one wanted to go, i.e., anywhere so long as it was outside the Great Britain of the Twenties. Such escapes have since become a luxury. We are now left with a choice between things like the package tour, the gang-life of hippies, the struggle with currency or enforced exile, not to mention the chances of new wars and revolutions. The villas and ranches the Lawrences so easily tumbled into and took over are in the hands of the speculators and may be traps for hostages. Industrial civilization which drove Lawrence to revolt and escape is now more intricately established than it was in his sunny time. The change for the worse, of course, justifies him as a prophet.

When he revisited the mining district of Eastwood in which he grew up a few years after he left England “for good,” the once countrified place and its landscape had already altered. The fields he once walked across, picking flowers and picnicking with his girlfriends, had turned into building estates. His father had walked home across the same fields from the mine where he worked and often caught a rabbit for the family dinner: he himself had as much the character of a merry gamekeeper as a boozing miner. The old boy liked country dancing. In the account of the family background one is struck by the subtleties of class-consciousness within the working class. (The mineowner himself was a country gentleman.) Lawrence’s mother certainly considered she had married beneath her and preferred a visit from the Congregationalist minister to a talk with her rough neighbors. It was she who held to refined puritan talk of “getting on.”

One is struck by the wide and often daring reading, especially among the girls the frail Lawrence knew. (The boys jeered after him, “Dicky, Dicky Denches plays with the wenches.”) No working class “ignorance” among the girls; perhaps they were just a cut above that class. Some were teachers. Lawrence’s own reading was enormous; clever boys had to work hard to get scholarships, but after the Education Act of the 1870s this had become very possible. College was open to him just as it is to the meritorious of today: Lawrence gave up reading for his degree in order to read outside the curriculum. This is not a decision the aspiring modern meritocrat would now think for one moment of taking. Of course he was certain of his genius. He had no belief in democracy and never would have, even when he became a sort of socialist. It is noticeable that when he became a schoolteacher—the usual fate—in a suburb of London, he soon mastered the insolent crowd of boys by bringing out the cane and making it “hum.” He hated the “coarsely dressed” boys but was very taken by the small polite and gentlemanly group “from a fairly well-to-do Home for the children of actors.” He was, as one would expect, a superb and imaginative teacher.

When we look at the Eastwood puritanism and his embittered mother’s possessive love (which painfully he came to think was making him sexually abnormal and turning him into a narcissistic prig), Mr. Sagar has this to say about the strong religious influence in his upbringing:

The Congregational background helped to foster in Lawrence some of his most “Lawrentian” qualities—independence (“Dare to be a Daniel, dare to stand alone”), earnestness, whole-heartedness, enthusiasm, a sense of deep responsibility both for oneself and for others, and that prophetic, crusading, evangelical, hortatory, not to say self-righteous spirit which sallies out and meets his adversary, though in later life adversary number one was to be the puritan to whom all things are impure (a relatively uncommon type at the Congregationalist/Unitarian end of the nonconformist spectrum).

The difficulty of sexual liberation lay as much in himself as in the “idealism” of the girls who attracted him, though he was soon to throw the blame on the debased values of industrial capitalism. He told Jessie Chambers that she was “a nun” and that he wanted a woman whom he could kiss and make the mother of his children; but later in his life he said that in the sort of marriage she hoped for,

I should have had an easy life, nearly everything my own way and my genius would have been destroyed.

This is probably true. Of his genius he was aware. It required a strong, amoral, lazy, above all foreign aristocrat, full of fight, a Frieda von Richthofen, to shake him out of his self-love. Clearly he did not want children at all and was jealous of hers. (He had broken off one love affair because, he said, a doctor had told him his consumptive tendencies would make it dangerous to have children.) There is an odd sidelight on his sexual dilemma: he had seen Sarah Bernhardt play La Dame aux camélias in provincial Nottingham and he warned one of his very liberated girls not to see it—“unless you are very sound”:

[Sarah Bernhardt] represents the primeval passions of women…. I could love such a woman myself, love her to madness; all for the pure, wild passion of it…. When I think of her now I can still feel the weight hanging in my chest as it hung there for days…her terrible panther cries….

The Dame aux camélias was a consumptive and no saint: a foreign adultery would be needed to break the puritan spell.

Most of Lawrence’s letters show the will to dominate not only women but all his friends. He is to be the teacher and leader if they yield and think and feel as he does. He preaches the need for an aristocratic leader and has something like Wells’s idea of the Sumarai. Similar ideas come out in the inchoate Fantasia of the Unconscious:

When the leaders assume responsibility they relieve the followers for ever of the burden of finding a way…. The populace become free and happy and spontaneous…. No newspapers—the mass of the people never learning to read.

But the leader is “for life’s sake only.” Contemporary knowledge is grounded in a sterile mechanical rationalism. “We must discover, if we can, the true unconscious, where our life bubbles up in us, prior to any mentality.” Wild words.

The further Lawrence moves toward wish-fulfilling argument as the dominant male, Sagar notes, the thinner his art becomes. Nevertheless The Captain’s Doll is a striking novella and one of his early best: it is all born out of the struggle of the strong puritan with the incurably unfaithful Frieda, the often savage battle which turned into a lasting love, despite the fact that saucepans and china were vulgarly flying about the kitchen. His rage against the humiliations and destruction of the 1914 war naturally drove him to something close to madness. Bertrand Russell said that he loved Lawrence “more and more,” that his intuitive perceptiveness was “wonderful,” but he had a “tendency to mad exaggeration.” When Lawrence urged Russell to preach Lawrence’s novel form of socialism, Russell rebelled:

I told him to remember that he was no longer a schoolmaster and I was not his pupil.

In his later years, Lawrence modified his views of leadership. The large number of friendships passionately begun and soon ending in rows, insults, and sardonic disillusion do suggest, as Sagar says, that he rushed prematurely into friendship—the “blood brother” suddenly became “a maggot.” For a long time, Frieda, who liberated him, was often thought of as “the destructive mother-figure.”

The “savage pilgrimage” through the Mediterranean, Ceylon, Australia, America, new and old Mexico is a relief to the reader, for travel fired his imaginative insights. The opening account of Australia in Kangaroo is marvelous: only a great short story could guess so much instantly. Oddly he had got wind of the ex-soldiers’ curious semi-fascist conspiracy there, which many Australians were unaware of. He is the master of the vivid evocations, though they are (as he grants) those of a man who will end by hating what he thought he loved:

I like trying things and discovering I hate them.

The one country where he was deeply happy was Italy and especially in Tuscany, though the early Twilight in Italy is a much better book than his Tuscan writing. There he was an active, cheerful cook-housekeeper, while Frieda lazed in bed smoking the cigarettes he hated. It was a gentle, friendly sight to see him sitting under a tree in the sun, writing away, and watching the little animals, the birds, the flowers. Eastwood, of all places, had turned him into a poet-naturalist. And the images that come into his head almost always seem right as poetic symbols—the snow-peaked Alps seen as symbols of death; the gentian of natural wholeness. His sardonic sense of comedy is very English to the point of Jane Austen-like composed acidity. He easily quieted into teasing admirations. He might mock Compton Mackenzie’s silk shirts, his dandyism and the gossip life of Capri, but by the time the two men went to Skye together, the leadership idea had been whittled away:

The hero is obsolete, and the leader of men is a back number…. The new relationship will be some sort of tenderness, sensitive, between men and men and men and women, and not the one up one down, lead on I follow, ich dien sort of business.

On the island of Skye “The Man Who Loved Islands” was not only Mackenzie but Lawrence himself; Lawrence acted himself to everybody. He despised Flaubert’s detachment. Of this island Lawrence wrote:

There is still something of an Odyssey up there, in among the islands and the silent lochs; like the twilight morning of the world, the herons fishing undisturbed by the water, and the sea running far in, for miles, between the wet, trickling hills, where the cottages are low and almost invisible, built into the earth.

The attraction of Lawrence’s good sentences is that they talk the outwardness and inwardness of places and people into life. The bad sentences which died away in the end were part of the incoherent hysteria caused by his conflicts. On his need for serious talk, Sagar has a pointed note on its effect. Lawrence hated trivial talk. In his restless life

…it was simultaneously a relief and a torment to Lawrence to be driven into marital isolation, relief from the company of those who would not or could not understand and be sympathetic and talk in good faith, but torment to have no one to talk to but Frieda and an intolerable burden on her…. And hence the hortatory tone into which the novels of his exile so frequently lapse.

Incidentally, one of Mackenzie’s party turns in old age was to mimic Lawrence’s Nottingham accent in what struck me as a not very believable semi-Cockney, and to claim that Lawrence got the names of flowers wrong. Of course, Mackenzie was annoyed by “The Man Who Loved Islands.” Perhaps the strain of vanity and perverse mockery in Mackenzie was congenial to Lawrence’s own strain of perversity.

Back in England in 1926, four years before he died, hating the coal strike, Lawrence took back his general rancor. He felt deeply about his own region:

It braces me up: and there seems a queer, odd sort of potentiality in the people, especially the common people. One feels in them some odd, unaccustomed sort of plasm twinkling and nascent. They are not finished. And they have a funny sort of purity and gentleness, and at the same time, unbreakableness, that attracts one.

But he did think the country was on the verge of a class war—as once more it might seem to be today, though now within the working class itself. Lady Chatterley came into his mind as a fable of bridging a chasm—if we might put it that way. On one source of the novel Sagar has an interesting suggestion. In Florence, Lawrence had chatted with that formidable eccentric, Sir George Sitwell, the father of Osbert who was trying to save his eighteenth-century house at Sutton Scarsdale in Derbyshire. Lawrence knew this country. The house had been occupied by the Arkwright family so prominent in the industrial revolution. The last Arkwright had recently been thrown off his horse and had been terribly injured: a silver plate had to be inserted in his head. He survived to write books and was a considerable linguist, but the accident had made him impotent. Against the advice of his family he had nevertheless married, unhappily of course. Lawrence went to see the place and used it in Lady Chatterley’s Lover: it was not Osbert Sitwell who was portrayed in the novel (as Edith Sitwell claimed), but the Arkwrights who had “probably inspired the story.”

Knowing Lawrence’s habit of “mixing” the portraits in his novels from several sources, as most novelists do, Sagar’s suggestion seems very plausible. Something of the Big House at Eastwood where the mineowner’s heir had introduced the newfangled notion of “productivity” into the industry must have gone into the book too—and also Lawrence as the son of the game-keeper-like “butty” (mining contractor).

Lawrence did most of his writing out of doors. He worked on Etruscan Places and the first version of Lady Chatterley sitting under an umbrella pine in Italy. He would sit writing away swiftly in his cheap exercise book—as if he were keeping up with the talk in his mind and so still that the lizards would run over him and the birds come happily close. He had no wish to go speeding about France or Italy in Aldous Huxley’s fast car to gaze at cultural objects. Lawrence’s speed was in writing. After seeing one of Lawrence’s plays, Shaw said it rushed through in such “a torrent of profuse but vividly effective dialogue” that it made his own seem archaic. Lawrence’s has not only the tongue of the speaker in it; the whole person fills the words.

In the last years, when he was obviously slowly becoming weak and dying of tuberculosis, he fought hard against invalidism; as always, he was the energetic enemy of his coming death. He knew he would not last, but he turned his back on the medical diagnosis. He regarded his illness “as a sort of rage” and said he “could not digest his spleen in Europe.” He still talked of a return to Mexico. He was often miserable, but Frieda said that he fought “so splendidly—inch by inch he fought…and looked unconquered and fulfilled when he was dead.”

Sagar’s biographical album has the merit of bringing out all facets of the man and letting them stand. Without the contradictions that spurred Lawrence on and often damaged him, we would not have had the artist. (“Art for my sake,” he once said, “is my motto.”) I never met him but when one evening in 1930 I saw on a London newspaper poster that he had just died I could not hold back my tears.

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