D.H. Lawrence: The Early Years, 18851912
“There were several million facts of Lawrence’s short life and long work, of which Dubin might master a sufficient quantity. He’d weave them together and say what they meant—that was the daring thing. You assimilated another man’s experience and tried to arrange it into ‘thoughtful centrality’—Samuel Johnson’s expression. In order to do that honestly well, you had to anchor yourself in a place of perspective; you had as a strategy to imagine you were the one you were writing about, even though it meant laying illusion on illusion: pretend that he, Dubin, who knew himself passing well, knew, or might know, the life of D.H. Lawrence…. Though the evidence pertains to Lawrence, the miner’s son, how can it escape the taint, the subjectivity, the existence of Willie Dubin, Charlie-the-waiter’s son, via the contaminated language he chooses to put down as he eases his boy ever so gently into an imagined life? My life joining his with reservations. But the joining—the marriage?—has to be, or you can’t stay on the vicarious track of his past or whatever ‘truth’ you think you’re tracking…. There is no life that can be recaptured wholly; as it was. Which is to say that all biography is ultimately fiction.”
So muses William Dubin, the fictional biographer of D.H. Lawrence whose midlife crisis is recounted in Bernard Malamud’s Dubin’s Lives (1979). It’s a passage that focuses many of the anxieties—professional, ethical, psychological—of the modern biographer: the obsessive and almost perverse nature of the enterprise; the felt need to try to “become” the subject of one’s work, and the impossibility of succeeding; the straining to be comprehensive while knowing that selectivity is inevitable; the desire to give the biographical narrative unity and shapeliness, and the recognition that this is inevitably to deform the “truth.”
Dubin’s conclusion that “all biography is ultimately fiction” is one with which most contemporary theorists of literature would concur. It is a post-structuralist commonplace that language constructs the reality it seems merely to refer to; therefore all texts are fictions (some more useful than others), whether they acknowledge it or not. Even in the groves of academe, however, a distinction between empirical and fictional narrative stubbornly persists. Granted that any interpretation is partial, subjective, and open to revision—therefore a kind of “fiction”—nevertheless there is a difference, many would argue, between facts that are recovered by historical research, and “facts” that are invented by the creative imagination. This distinction is the foundation of literary biography, which is constantly occupied in showing the process by which the first type of fact was turned into the second. Modern theory, in contrast, is suspicious or dismissive of the idea that a writer is the unique origin of the meanings of the texts he or she inscribes. Literary biography thus constitutes the most theoretically conservative branch of academic literary scholarship today. By the same token, it is the one that remains most accessible to the “general reader.”
One respect in which modern biography resembles fiction that has nothing to do with these theoretical arguments, but partly explains why it is so popular, is its fascination with its subjects’ sexual lives. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the novel was the literary genre above all others to which readers turned for the representation of sexuality. Biography restricted itself to the public lives of its subjects—or, insofar as it dealt with their private lives, did not intrude into the bedroom. George Eliot’s second spouse and first biographer, John Cross, transcribing her account of how she came to write fiction (“one morning as I was lying in bed, thinking what should be the subject of my first story, my thoughts merged themselves into a dreamy doze”) cut out the words “as I was lying in bed” because the context made clear that she was in bed with George Lewes. A modern biographer, nothing that the occasion was in effect their honeymoon, would be more likely to draw a connection between the burgeoning of George Eliot’s fictional imagination and her sexual fulfillment.
Sex and creativity are two subjects of inexhaustible interest in our culture. What are other people’s sexual lives really like? And how do writers convert their experience, especially their emotional and erotic experience, into literary fiction? Once readers turned to novels for an answer to the first question, and could only speculate about the second. Modern literary biography attempts to answer both, and its demonstrated power to recuperate facts that one would have thought irrecoverable is impressive. (If, gentle reader, you don’t wish the most private moments of your life to become the object of interested scrutiny by future generations, you would do well not to become a great writer, or have anything to do with one.)
In no modern writer are sexuality and creativity more deeply and intricately connected than in D.H. Lawrence. In other respects too he is an ideal subject for the modern literary biographer. He lived at a time when people still communicated extensively by letter, especially when they traveled abroad, as Lawrence constantly did; and letters are the biographer’s primary source for information about the subject’s inner and private life. One justification for producing a new fullscale biography of D.H. Lawrence now is that much of his correspondence has only recently come to light, in the magnificent edition of the Letters published by Cambridge University Press under the general editorship of James Boulton, which has just reached its sixth volume out of eight.^* At the same time Cambridge University Press has been publishing a scholarly edition of the Works, making available new textual and biographical information—notably a novel, Mr. Noon (1984), half of which was previously unknown, which casts a vivid illumination on the early days of Lawrence’s union with Frieda Weekley.
Contemplating the awesome task of assimilating all this new material (plus the formidable mass already in existence in the form of memoirs and recorded recollections of Lawrence, and his own autobiographical writings) and distilling it into a biographical narrative, the executors of the Lawrence estate and Cambridge University Press evidently came to the conclusion that it was too great a task to be given to one person, and decided to split the undertaking into three parts, each commissioned from a different writer. The first volume, by John Worthen, covers the years from Lawrence’s birth in 1885 to 1912, just before the publication of Sons and Lovers. The second and third volumes, by Mark Kinkead-Weeks and David Ellis, respectively, will cover the middle and late period of the author’s life.
This is an interesting experiment, for which there is not, I believe, an exact precedent. It entails, obviously, abandoning William Dubin’s attempt vicariously to inhabit Lawrence’s life by an act of imaginative empathy. “Can three people, however closely they work together, be sufficiently in harmony to capture Lawrence’s identity?” the Cambridge biographers ask in their joint preface, only to dismiss the question as resting on dubious assumptions. They invoke Lawrence’s rejection of “the old stable ego of the character” in his own fiction, and give a nod toward poststructuralist theory: “three different voices to tell Lawrence’s story…give the lie, by their very difference, to the idea that any single view, however detailed and comprehensive, could be ‘definitive’; any pattern of interpretation the pattern.” Their method, however, to judge by the first volume, will be scrupulously, conservatively empirical; and the fact that they are all British male academics is likely to give the composite biography more unity of tone and consistency of interpretation than if one of them had been, say, an American feminist. (Another biography of Lawrence, incidentally, is in preparation by Brenda Maddox, the biographer of Nora Joyce.)
Not that feminists will find much to complain of in John Worthen’s volume, which is notable for its thoughtful and fair-minded discussion of Lawrence’s relationships with women. In other respects, too, it is a fine achievement. It is a work of impeccable scholarship, and comes provided with an impressive apparatus of notes, appendices, chronological tables, family trees, an exemplary index, and complete lists of Lawrence’s prose and verse writings in the relevant period, making it an invaluable resource for serious students of Lawrence; but it is also written in a lucid, unpretentious style which lay readers will find accessible and enjoyable. In particular, Worthen seems to me to have perfectly judged the proportion of literary criticism to biographical narrative. In other words, there is not too much of the former. Many academic biographers seem to think they must give us an exhaustive critique of each of their subject’s major works, whereas the fact is that, once embarked on the story of a life, we do not want to be detained by a critical essay, however good it is.
As well as creativity and sex, the early life of D.H. Lawrence has one other ingredient that makes it of consuming interest: namely, class. Lawrence, the son of a coal miner, born and brought up in the small mining village of Eastwood, Nottinghamshire, was the only indisputably major British writer of this century who came from the working class. Not surprisingly, Worthen spends a good deal of time examining and analyzing the precise nature of Lawrence’s social background, and how he drew on it, modified it, and variously interpreted it in his work. Lawrence himself liked to give the impression that while his father was working class, his mother was middle class, and he defined the conflict between the Morels in Sons and Lovers in these terms. Worthen argues that Lawrence overstated the social gap between his parents. Lydia Beardsall’s father was only a skilled artisan an engineering “fitter,” which was not a middle-class occupation. A serious accident when Lydia was nineteen rendered him unable to work and the resulting poverty anchored the family still more firmly in the working class.
One of the incidental revelations of Worthen’s biography is the dangerousness and precariousness of the British industrial worker’s life in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Between 1868 and 1919, for instance, a miner was killed every six hours, seriously injured every two hours, and injured badly enough to need a week off work every two or three minutes. Arthur Lawrence (the novelist’s father) was injured several times, once suffering a compound fracture of the right leg which left him with a limp for the rest of his life. Miners could earn relatively high wages when they were fit and strong, but as the years took their inevitable toll they were shunted into less arduous and less rewarding jobs, or laid off altogether. Thus families in mining communities had built into them something of the harsh generational struggle of the Freudian primitive tribe, in that the sons sooner or later challenged, because of their greater earning ability, the authority and status of the father. This led to a locally celebrated tragedy in the family of Arthur Lawrence’s brother Walter, who, unemployed and goaded beyond endurance by the contempt of one of his sons when the latter returned home from the pit, threw a tool at him, and killed the young man. This incident must have made a deep impression on David Herbert Lawrence, then a schoolboy, and probably influenced his portrayal of the violent behavior of Mr. Morel in Sons and Lovers.