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 …

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