“Now a book lives,” wrote D.H. Lawrence, “as long as it is unfathomed. Once it is fathomed…once it is known and its meaning is fixed or established, it is dead.”
If this is the case, Lawrence need not have feared for his own works. Seventy-three years after his death they are all in print and the critics continue to debate, often to fight, over what they might mean. The proliferation of biographies is likewise remarkable, this despite the fact that Lawrence had as little desire to have his life “fathomed” as his books: “I hate ‘understanding’ people,” he wrote in 1921, “and I hate more still to be understood. Damn understanding more than anything.”
But if we are not to understand Lawrence, what is our relationship with him to be? Perhaps we can find a clue in the man’s belligerence. Whether dealing with his dog, his doctors, his wife, or his closest friends, Lawrence’s relationships were characterized by an alternation between intense intimacy and ferocious conflict. In general, the more important a relationship was to him, the more likely it was to be punctuated by violent, even traumatic battles. It thus seems worth trying to understand, if not Lawrence, then at least his literary longevity as a function of his passion for conflict. “I’ve just done the last proofs of Lady C [Lady Chatterley’s Lover],” he wrote in 1928. “I hope it’ll make ‘em howl—and let ‘em do their paltry damnedest, after.”
As might be expected, the fighting started at home. “When I was a small boy, I remember my father shouting at my mother: ‘I’ll make you tremble at the sound of my footstep!’” Fourth of five children born to a Nottinghamshire coal miner in 1885, the young David Herbert was terrified, but also “felt it was splendid and right.” His mother was not impressed. “Which boots will you wear?” she asked her husband wryly. The man was deflated. The boy learned that threats without action are empty. Sick and in bed in his early thirties, Lawrence wrote to a friend of his relationship with his wife: “I suppose I’ll get strong enough again one day to slap Frieda in the eye, in the proper marital fashion. At present I am reduced to vituperation.”
Any battle can be seen from at least two sides. In the fictionalized version of his parents’ relationship in Sons and Lovers (1913), Lawrence wrote of a sensitive, middle-class mother who was obliged to wrest her children’s upbringing from a brutish working-class father. The young writer himself hadn’t been wanted by his parents, was merely the result of his father’s drunken, animal lust. Later in life, he could invert the situation: in some of Lawrence’s writings, the mother is a manipulative snob who imposes her self-righteous, middle-class values on a simple man with honest male instincts, monopolizing the children’s affection to the extent that the husband becomes an exile in his own home.
For biographers recounting such bitter clashes, it’s hard not to take sides. Jeffrey Meyers, whose 1990 D.H. Lawrence: A Biography is now reissued, is pleased to quote research that brings new ammunition to the father’s defense: Lawrence’s mother was not, as we all grew up believing, from a higher class than her husband. The myth of her being a schoolteacher was all airs. Slum-bred, Lydia Beardsall was a factory worker when she met the handsome miner Arthur Lawrence.
Meyers, who loves to close each chapter, well documented and convincingly told as it is, with a dogmatic little summary, as if one more period of his subject’s life had now been safely stowed away, seems to miss the importance of this discovery. There was no inevitable clash between classes in the Lawrence household. Rather, a spurious class struggle was invented to mask an antagonism of pure willfulness. “Their marriage has been one carnal, bloody fight,” Lawrence wrote in 1910. Much of his writing would dramatize conflicts between partners—Gudrun’s against Gerald’s in Women in Love, Lou’s against Rico’s in St. Mawr—but in such a way as to strip them of social alibis and circumstantial explanations. A typical scene in Women in Love describes Gerald, the industrialist, face down on his bed refusing to speak, and Gudrun, the bohemian artist, determined not to let him escape confrontation: “Her mind wondered over his rigid, unloving body. She was bewildered, and insistent, only her will was set for him to speak to her.” With this prevalence of the individual will over its social setting, the characters in Lawrence’s novels can seem shrill and insubstantial, or alternatively they gather the archetypal force of figures in myth. Either way, they are never Dickensian.
Two questions necessarily present themselves to biographers: How was it that the son of a coal miner became one of England’s foremost intellec-tual and cosmopolitan writers? What prompted a man brought up in the rigid moral frame of English Methodism, who “had the Bible poured every day into my helpless consciousness,” to become a prophet of sexual revolution?
Lawrence’s elder brother, William Earnest, the second son and his mother’s favorite, died when Lawrence was sixteen. David Herbert, or Bert as he was called, replaced him, her favorite at last. The boy’s chronic lung problems and general physical frailty made it easier for his mother to draw him away from his father’s world of sweat and coal dust. When Bert proved too weak even to work as a clerk for a surgical appliances manufacturer, he could be sent to train as a teacher.
Thus Lawrence was educated as part of his mother’s struggle against his father. Far from being a neutral quality, heightened consciousness was seen as in direct opposition to mas-culine instinct. His sickliness was helpful to his mother’s plans, and so was soon associated with intellectuality. The boy’s choice of friends fitted too. Mother accepted his relationship with Jessie Chambers and her family on a farm outside their mining village because the boy and girl seemed to spend most of their time reading, talking about books, and in general procuring for themselves a remarkable education.
But it wasn’t a sex education, and despite all Lawrence’s learning and frailty, masculine instinct couldn’t be contained. The problem was that Jessie, like Lawrence’s mother, seemed so spiritual. The young Lawrence was confused. In the event he went off and had sex with another man’s wife, which allowed him, at least in the fictional version in Sons and Lovers, the added pleasure of a very masculine, potentially erotic fight with the wronged husband, a man who in some ways resembled Lawrence’s father. In 1910, long before time and distance might have allowed him to form a less idealized image of her, Lawrence’s mother died of cancer. He was heartbroken: “For me everything collapsed, save the mystery of death, and the haunting of death in life.”
Like many people who are desperately seeking to understand the world but are getting nowhere, Lawrence proved to be an excellent teacher. Between 1908 and 1912 he taught in a working-class school in Croydon, South London. He was full of theories and experimental methods. The pupils were instructed to express themselves freely, but to observe the strictest discipline. Lawrence opposed authority in general, his headmaster observed, except when he himself was imposing it: with the rod. “School is a conflict,” Lawrence wrote to a friend, “mean and miserable—and I hate conflicts.” Not many years later he would explain why he had run off with another married woman as follows: “She [Frieda] is the only possible woman for me, for I must have opposition—something to fight or I shall go under.”
So Lawrence hated fights but needed them to keep him in form for other fights. With sickness for example. In 1911 he fell desperately ill with pneumonia. Just as a previous illness had got him out of clerking, so this one drew him away from teaching. He was physically fit for nothing, it seemed, but writing. And that would be one long battle from beginning to end.
Alongside the huge body of work (a dozen long novels, many volumes of shorter fiction and poetry, three plays, four travel books, three full-length critical works, and scores of essays), Lawrence also found time in his forty-four years to write thousands of letters. He could leave no acquaintance, however casual, alone. He was always ready to invite people to join him in some utopian, conflict-free community, or to curse them for refusing to join him, or for having rejected his work, written a bad review, or in some other way not lived up to his standards. Afterward, he would write again to make up. One had imagined that the wonderful seven-volume Cambridge University Press collection of these letters was complete. Now an eighth volume of addenda has appeared, with hitherto unpublished material from throughout the author’s life. Far from trivia, we find gems like this as early as page three: responding, in 1909, to a typescript of Lawrence’s first novel, The White Peacock, Ford Madox Ford, the first literary man to pay the author any attention, wrote: “As you must probably be aware, the book, with its enormous prolixity of detail, sins against almost every canon of art as I conceive it,” but he goes on to say that he believes Lawrence has great talents and a great future.
This reaction to his work would soon become so familiar to Lawrence that he began to adopt it himself. Presenting his second novel, The Trespasser, to his publisher, he described it as “execrable bad art.” Nevertheless he was confident that the editor would accept it. Lawrence, wrote his close friend (but also bitter enemy) the critic Middleton Murry, “gave up, deliberately, the pretence of being an artist…. His aim was to discover authority, not to create art.”
“To discover authority.” What did Murry mean? No novelist has been at once so highly praised and so frequently attacked as Lawrence; no literary reputation I can think of is at once so vast and so compromised. Two new critical introductions to his work, The Cambridge Companion and The Complete Critical Guide, each excellent in its style and scope, include chapters on the seesawing response to the writer over the years. While he was alive his work was met with incomprehension, contempt, censorship, and adoration. His ability to convey a sense of place, to have drama explode from the apparently mundane, was undisputed. His candor was admirable if disquieting. But his conclusions, and the violence with which he insisted on them, the lecturing tone he assumed, were, to many, completely unacceptable. Immediately on his death, Middleton Murry wrote a book that dismissed his friend as a psychological cripple destroyed by mother love. Aldous Huxley then attacked Murry’s position as “a slug’s eye view.” T.S. Eliot joined in, announcing that Lawrence might have been a good writer if only he had had a proper education. As it was, he displayed “an incapacity for what we ordinarily call thinking.”