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Mission Impossible!

D.H. Lawrence: A Biography

by Jeffrey Meyers
Knopf, 445 pp., $24.95

D.H. Lawrence suffered the fate of one of those heroes in the Iliad—Patroclus perhaps—who are destroyed by the gods. Patroclus storms across the plains of Troy killing and scattering the Trojans until at the height of his brief triumph, Apollo steals up behind him, breaks his spear, knocks off his helmet, and leaves him defenseless. The young Lawrence, too, had his brief hour of triumph when he emerged as a new star in literary London, the renowned young author of Sons and Lovers, and boasted of his sexual success with Frieda in his book of poems Look! We Have Come Through! Then Apollo struck. The First World War turned Lawrence into a pacifist and an outcast. His great new novel, The Rainbow, was prosecuted for obscenity; suspected of being German spies, he and his wife were harassed by the authorities and hounded from their Cornish cottage where they were living penniless. At the end of the war he shook the dust of London off his feet and set off on a long Odyssey wandering from country to country only to see, at the end of his life, his last novel banned and his paintings seized by the police in England.

In the Iliad the Greeks and Trojans fight over the dead body of a hero, and when Lawrence died it looked as if his enemies would feed his body to the dogs. Turncoats like Middleton Murry went over to their side and hacked and spat upon the corpse; only E.M. Forster among the obituarists and Arnold Bennett put up much of a defense. Yet almost at once Lawrence’s friends rallied. Led by Aldous Huxley they recaptured the body and began to wash and anoint it. Frieda herself and practically everyone else who had known him published their recollections, and a priest appeared in the shape of F.R. Leavis to make a funeral oration and utter imprecations against any doubters.

But his enemies had only retreated. They have reappeared in England to interrupt the obsequies. Penthesilia has joined the fight; and her militant Amazons, the feminists Germaine Greer, Kate Millett, and Angela Carter, are especially valiant. Why, they ask, should we honor this chauvinist who preaches that women should be passive partners in sex and submit to male authority? Why listen to one who disparages the clitoris by calling it an illicit means of achieving orgasm?

Not only the feminists. An astonishing onslaught was delivered in the Times Literary Supplement this year by the poet Tom Paulin. Reviewing an account of the famous trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1960, Paulin called it “a racist tract which exalts male violence.” Might not the world, he asked, be a slightly better place “if this specimen of sadistic porn had never seen the light of day?” He then went on to accuse the witnesses for the defense of being naive, pompous, aesthetically stupid, and almost criminal in colluding with Lawrence’s prejudices.

Perhaps Paulin was getting rid of his bile after a night out, but the confusion of thought here is so dense as to be almost impenetrable. Paulin seems to imagine that a court of law is a seminar room. Under our adversarial system of justice, Lawrence’s defense was under no obligation to call attention to the weaknesses in Lawrence’s book or in his conception of sexual relations. Paulin is unaware that when a witness praised Lawrence as a writer the witness was not endorsing that particular novel. Some of the witnesses thought that the novel was a failure but believed it would do no harm to publish it. Others, such as Graham Hough, emphasized that it was irrelevant whether they, or any one else, approved of Lawrence’s vision of life.

What was at issue was whether a serious writer should be allowed to express his vision of life however much it might offend a minority (or even the majority) of his fellow countrymen. Unless the prosecution could prove that it would corrupt and deprave them, he should be free to do so. It is true that Lawrence disliked Jews and despised blacks as did many others in his pre-1914 generation. But has anyone ever claimed that Lawrence’s works incited people to abuse or injure others? Paulin seems to believe that any book that offends against modern concerns for good relations between people of different color, or that fails to give women their due, should be consigned to the dustbin. More sinister still, scholars in university departments of literature insist that classic works of literature should pass an examination. They give good grades only to those which praise or promote equality between the races and sexes. This is cant. What difference is there between this new puritanism and that of over a hundred years ago, when literature was scanned to see if it imperiled the sanctity of the family by daring to mention sexual desire or cast doubt on the saving grace of the Christian religion?

Perhaps it is partly for these reasons that Jeffrey Meyers’s biography of Lawrence has had a mixed reception in England. Only Frederick Raphael was enthusiastic in praising the book and its subject. One critic said that Meyers’s work was probably the best biography of Lawrence, but then added that we should not be sorry it will make Lawrence no new friends. On the other hand some think trite Meyers’s short character sketches of the minor actors in the drama such as Mary Cannan, Norman Douglas, or Dorothy Brett, others complain that he is mechanical in identifying so many of these actors with the characters in the novels and stories. Meyers is thought to be cold, simplistic, plodding; and more than a hint of feminist concerns appears in the accusations that he is too unsympathetic to Jessie Chambers, Lawrence’s first love, and too skeptical of Dorothy Brett’s claim that she went to bed with Lawrence. His critics have some justification in questioning Meyers’s claim to have unearthed new facts in Lawrence’s life. The story that Lawrence gave his mother an overdose of morphine to end her sufferings is told at length in Harry T. Moore’s Priest of Love (1967); the claim that Lawrence was sterile rests on the say-so of Frieda and Barbara Weekley, Lawrence’s stepdaughter, neither of whom could know the details of Lawrence’s adolescent illness said to be “rather like mumps” and therefore the cause of sterility; and the conclusion that Lawrence had an active sexual encounter with the young Cornish farmer William Hocking again rests on the gossip of Frieda and Barbara Weekley. It is rather more likely that he did not than that he did, since if he had, he would have been likely to write about the experience; and he did not. But we can never know.

Meyers’s claims for originality, however, are not spurious. He has unearthed new material about the mining community in Nottinghamshire in which Lawrence grew up (he went down a coal mine in search of authenticity) and has added to our understanding of Lawrence’s childhood. He shows with a force that has not been equalled elsewhere how Lawrence’s mother undermined his father’s authority, nagged him and taunted him for having coarse habits; and how she stole her son away.

I do not share the deprecating judgment of my compatriots on this biography. I think Meyers’s book is a fine piece of work. It is dispassionate; it is a cool, not cold, analysis. It sets out the record, and untangles conflicting accounts. Time and again he sifts the evidence about incidents in Lawrence’s life. For instance the allegation that Ford Madox Ford, who gave Lawrence the chance to make his name by printing his stories when he was still a schoolmaster, falsely told the British authorities that Lawrence had made pro-German remarks during the war. Meyers retails all the accounts of the incident (three by Frieda) and convicts Ford of lying not once but twice, in his efforts to evade the truth. Moreover, Meyers is scrupulous. He hardly ever fails to put the other side’s case. Yes, the authorities persecuted Lawrence, but he, and Frieda in particular, spoke in a reckless manner about the war, sang German songs, and scandalized their working-class neighbors at a time when England was seized with war hysteria and the horror of the slaughter had unhinged many people.

This biography is not a month-to-month account of Lawrence’s peregrinations, nor does it let Lawrence write the biography through his letters. Nor yet again is it an evocation of Lawrence like Richard Aldington’s Portrait of a Genius But…. Whereas Aldington gloated over the flare-ups, the exhibitions of rage, the scenes and prodigious rows Lawrence had with Frieda, and put Lawrence in the wrong in most of them, Meyers reminds us of the circumstances that provoked these outbursts. He simply describes what happened. Meyers seems just and wise about Lawrence’s feelings for Frieda and hers for him. He seems to understand both, to feel for both, recognizing that Frieda, as Lawrence put it, “is the one possible woman for me, for I must have opposition—something to fight or I shall go under.”

He does not whitewash Lawrence: he describes as unforgivable the horrible letter Lawrence wrote to Katherine Mansfield when she was in the throes of tuberculosis—“I loathe you. You revolt me stewing in your consumption.” (Curiously Katherine Mansfield’s biographer, Claire Tomalin, reveals that Mansfield resented it less than might have been expected; and she was touched when Lawrence on a visit to her homeland, New Zealand, sent her a postcard with the one word, “Ricordi.”)

With some of the people who had been friends of Lawrence, such as Bertrand Russell, there could be no reconciliation. Russell, no less than others, fell under Lawrence’s spell and even contemplated suicide after receiving one of Lawrence’s most lacerating letters that exposed his emotional inadequacy. But in the end he was exasperated by Lawrence’s irrationality. When Lawrence insisted that London should be pulled down, or that it didn’t really exist, Russell concluded, “He is a little mad and not quite honest….” Yet even those like E.M. Forster who broke with him, weary of being harangued and ordered to change their nature, spoke of him with admiration. Even those he tortured by impersonating their failings in his characters became reconciled as the years passed. Cynthia Asquith, the Brewsters, Catherine Carswell, the artist Mark Gertler, the writer and translator Koteliansky, and Aldous Huxley, for instance, spoke of him as a man who made them see the world in a different way. As Meyers says, “Friendship with Lawrence…was the most significant event in their lives.”

He was entirely dedicated to his role as an artist. Nothing was allowed to stand in the way of telling the truth as he saw it about people. He had only to make a friend and the friend figured in his next story, usually most disagreeably. Lawrence homed in like a missile on their weaknesses and falsity. They were too feeble, too cowardly, too etiolated, too enslaved to bourgeois values or to mechanical reason: too lacking in spunk and originality, too unwilling to surrender their wills to his. When his novel or story appeared in print the victims yelped. Ottoline Morrell was not the only one driven frantic by her portrayal in Women in Love. But Lawrence ignored their howls. “Why should I let any woman come between me and the flowering of my genius?” he wrote to a childhood friend after publishing his first novel.

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