Flame Into Being: The Life and Work of D. H. Lawrence
D. H. Lawrence: Life into Art
Class, Politics and the Individual: A Study of the Major Works of D. H. Lawrence
D. H. Lawrence: A Centenary Consideration
The White Peacock
The Prussian Officer and Other Stories
Letters, Volume III
If there is one quality about D. H. Lawrence that wins the wholehearted approval of Anthony Burgess in his very readable tour through the life and works, it is Lawrence’s Englishness. Lawrence was “the most English of writers,” writes Burgess, “the sort of good Englishman I can never myself be”: a sound animal-loving man full of blunt empirical sense squarely in “a tradition of British Non-conformist decency.” If he does sometimes go on a bit about sex, “he knows in time when to leave off.”
A second feature that gets good marks from Burgess is Lawrence’s professional approach to his job. “He demand[ed] neither silence nor seclusion…. He never whined about distraction or writer’s block; he got on with his trade…. He belongs to [an] Edwardian tradition of steady application to the craft,” a tradition with which Burgess—author by now of nearly thirty novels, as well as books about Shakespeare, Hemingway, and Joyce—fully identifies himself. “It seem[s] to me, as it must have seemed to [Lawrence], reasonable to sit down at a table every morning and fulfill a minimal daily quota of a thousand words.” The blame for bringing such honest professionalism into disrepute, Burgess suggests, should be laid at the door of Lawrence’s foes, the snobs and poseurs of Bloomsbury.
As a technician of the novel, Burgess’s Lawrence went about his writing blithely unaware of the pitfalls that contemporaries like Conrad, Ford Madox Ford, and Joyce, heirs of Flaubert, saw all about them in narrative point of view. “What was good enough for Thomas Hardy, and even George Eliot, was good enough for him.” In his indifference to theory he was “very British.” “[He] seems to bypass [art] and interpose nothing between the reader and the vision…. To read him is to feel oneself in contact with a personality that has broken through form and rhetoric and confronts one in a kind of nakedness.”
Despite his down-to-earth approach and his tendency to dismiss Lawrence’s more extravagant flights in favor of his shrewder, more self-aware side (“He is never without humor or irony”), there are depth and generosity enough in Burgess’s response to Lawrence. But I wonder whether the no-nonsense treatment always serves Lawrence well. I will give one instance.
Burgess is at some pains to downplay any homoerotic element in Lawrence, particularly in his discussion of the nude wrestling scene in Women in Love and of Lawrence’s proposal of a pact of blood-brotherhood to Middleton Murry. He rejects any sexual interpretation of the latter episode, suggesting instead that “an innate power hunger…had to be exercised over some chosen man, since it did not work with the chosen woman [i.e., Frieda was too tough], and this was implausibly presented as a mere longing for fraternal love.”
But it seems to me that we would be taking Lawrence more seriously if we viewed these and other explorations of the potential of male friendship in the light of Lawrence’s erratic, tentative, but persistent efforts to discover a basis on which to build, or at least conceive, a community larger than the married couple—a community whose ideal form he blessed with the name “Rananim.” We might also see his emphasis on a plighted brotherhood as a reaction to what Sandra M. Gilbert (in an essay discussed below) diagnoses as his fear of the Great Mother, of female generative power. In any event, the passional relation of man to man is too fundamental an issue in Lawrence to be categorized as other than passional.
Burgess treats us to some mildly surprising revaluations of individual works. He devotes twenty pages to Lawrence’s first novel, The White Peacock, concluding that it is “even an important novel” (F. R. Leavis called it “painfully callow”), and twenty-four pages to Kangaroo, which he labels “the strangest but in some ways the most satisfying novel of his entire career.” He gives high praise to the poems, claiming that lines from the Look! We Have Come Through! sequence bring tears to his eyes as he copies them out. On the other hand, he admits with relief—now that it is no longer a holy cow—his dislike of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. “Demystification is not always a good thing,” he suggests, apropos Lawrence’s use of taboo words, and buttresses his disapproval with an etymological excursus on “fuck” to prove that the word has always stood for a brutal, aggressive, and impersonal act.
The “phallic tenderness” Lawrence preaches in Lady Chatterley Burgess considers to be “a doctrine of escape, an extrapolation of [Lawrence’s] own success in getting away from the squalor of his boyhood by marrying Frieda and plunging into the land of grape and olive and the smiling priapic statues.” From what was the adult Lawrence trying to escape? Burgess suggests it was from the industrialization and mass culture whose ugly evidences he witnessed on visits to his native Midlands in 1925 and 1926. But the escape into sex may also have been from increasingly desperate and unconvincing efforts—the last in The Plumed Serpent—to portray a future society based on brotherhood and proud male independence.
Burgess’s book is a decent, unpretentious one—in this respect very “British” itself—aimed at ordinary intelligent readers. His purpose is to take Lawrence’s life and work together and make sense of them, and by and large he achieves this purpose, though at the cost of overemphasizing the shrewd craftsman in Lawrence and taking less than wholly seriously the vatic prophet and priest of love. There is perhaps a touch too much of anecdotalism, and the dark motive Burgess imputes to the censors of The Rainbow—that they acted against the book because they recognized Lawrence to be a great novelist—was almost certainly not there. (Has the time not come for a moratorium on gibes about censors, particularly when the censors are dead and one is anyhow preaching to the converted?) Whether Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature gave quite the fillip to American literary studies that Burgess claims is to be doubted: the discipline was already a thriving one in 1923. The most eloquent words in the book are, finally, not Burgess’s but the tribute he quotes from Lawrence’s friend Aldous Huxley:
He had an extraordinary sensitiveness to what Wordsworth called ‘unknown modes of being.’ He was always intensely aware of the mystery of the world, and the mystery was always for him a numen, divine.
Keith Sagar has already published two books on Lawrence, one a work of criticism, one a biography. In this, his third, he goes back to Lawrence’s manuscript drafts and letters in order to trace, not so much the evolution of the final versions from the drafts, as the genesis of Lawrence’s ideas. He devotes himself mainly to the novels of early maturity (Sons and Lovers, The Rainbow, and Women in Love), to the novellas St. Mawr and The Escaped Cock, and to the poems and plays.
The danger of an approach like Sagar’s is clear: that of giving undue attention to themes and episodes for which written sources exist at the expense of those for which sources have not survived. But since Sagar is not attempting to base any overall interpretation of Lawrence on his researches, this bias does not matter much. His book is an honest product of the Lawrence research industry (the Modern Language Association Bibliography, a year-by-year index of international scholarly activity, records seventy-two books and articles on Lawrence in 1983, as against sixty-five on George Eliot and fifty-seven on Hardy; Joyce notches up 137). Its interest for the general reader lies in the picture it gives of Lawrence at work, dissecting Hardy’s metaphysics in order to develop his own philosophy of metaphysical marriage, or worrying at his own premises, through draft after draft, till sometimes these are transformed into their polar opposites.
Sagar knows his Lawrence well and, as far as he is prepared to take us in the maze of texts he has assembled, is a reliable guide. He is not prepared to lead us into the deeper chambers, where such questions are asked as: How does one respond when Lawrence writes the unwritable: “We might [easily] spare a milion or two of humans / And never miss them. / Yet what a gap in the world, the missing white frost-face of [a] slim yellow mountain-lion”? Sagar’s words of mild chiding, insofar as they turn a lazy eye to a very Lawrentian piece of provocation, come down to no less than a taming of Lawrence’s subversiveness. We should be wary of centenary years: they offer opportunities to celebrate, but temptations to domesticate too.
In his short book, Peter Scheckner traces the course of Lawrence’s political thinking. Scheckner’s contention is that Lawrence wrote his best work while he was most deeply engrossed with the question of the relation of private to public life, but that he was unable to reconcile his desire for the end of industrial capitalism with his reluctance to commit himself to mass action to destroy it; he therefore ended his life retreating from social concerns into an idyll in which the importance of sex became artificially magnified.
Scheckner is surely correct in his claim that the “thematic dynamism” of much of Lawrence’s fiction emerges from an evenly balanced distaste for both capitalism and mass movements, reflected in an ambivalence toward working men which he recognized very clearly in himself: “I love them like brothers—but, my God, I hate them too.” Lawrence thought of himself as one of the working class, at least in “blood affinity.” But he felt that the British working class betrayed itself by joining in the patriotic fervor of the First World War. When the general strike came in 1926, he recoiled from the violence that went hand in hand with it, as well as from what he regarded as its disappointingly materialistic objectives.
As the son of a genteel mother who had married into the working class, and later as a member of a declassed intelligentsia, Lawrence’s emotional involvement in class relations was deep. In his writing his great theme is freedom. But about politics and particularly about economics, his ideas are often worse than naive. Had he lived deeper into the age of fascism, he would undoubtedly have made as much of a fool of himself as Ezra Pound was to do: there was certainly in him enough of a mix of furies of hatred (which, to give him his due, he recognized as “vicious against the deep soul that pulses in the blood”), yearning toward the strong man or leader, and utopianism.
Lawrence’s creative life provides yet another chastening demonstration that simple, even simple-minded ideas, explored to their uttermost with passionate persistence, can issue in great art. Somewhere in the back of his mind Lawrence knew this, knew that his own feelings and desires were mere grist for artistic processes whose operations he had best not interfere with or scrutinize too closely. “Morality in the novel is the trembling instability of the balance,” he wrote. “When the novelist puts his thumb on the scale, to pull down the balance to his own predilection, that is immorality.”