Contradictory Lawrence

The Life of D.H. Lawrence

by Keith Sagar
Pantheon, 256 pp., $17.95

D. H. Lawrence
D. H. Lawrence; drawing by David Levine

The hectoring urgency in D. H. Lawrence’s novels has been outstripped by what has happened to us all since his time. His short stories and poems seem to me his finest work, and his prolific letters stand out among the most lived and arresting in the English language. They reveal all his contradictions: they are instant self-portrayals, for good or ill. They spring from the same source as his need for fearless conversation, with its mixture of beguilement, vision, and insult that kept him alive as an artist and a man. There was always a quiet low laugh from him when silence closed on his exorbitance.

Many of these letters appeared in an edition introduced by Aldous Huxley in 1932; but now far more are available—5,000 in all—and also we have had many intimate recollections from young women Lawrence was in love with when he was young and from the numbers of men and women who were “taken” by his spell throughout his life. Mr. Sagar, who is editing the seven volumes of a collected edition of Lawrence’s letters, has now skillfully drawn on them for an album-like biography. It has over 150 pictures, including sixteen in color, of Lawrence, his friends and acquaintances; places where he lived; and his paintings. (Like many writers with a strong visual style, he was attracted to the instant satisfactions of painting when tired of words; it was, at any rate, a therapy.) At first sight the book is rather a breathless race through what is now well known, but it is not really so much a race as an ingenious mosaic from portions of his letters, cemented by commentary. There is not an item that does not point to the portrait.

Mr. Sagar is acute on the influences of Lawrence’s early life in the now socially remote England of the time. He recovers the sensations of fevered struggle with the Victorian ethos and Lawrence’s passionate pursuit of freedom to go where and how one wanted to go, i.e., anywhere so long as it was outside the Great Britain of the Twenties. Such escapes have since become a luxury. We are now left with a choice between things like the package tour, the gang-life of hippies, the struggle with currency or enforced exile, not to mention the chances of new wars and revolutions. The villas and ranches the Lawrences so easily tumbled into and took over are in the hands of the speculators and may be traps for hostages. Industrial civilization which drove Lawrence to revolt and escape is now more intricately established than it was in his sunny time. The change for the worse, of course, justifies him as a prophet.

When he revisited the mining district of Eastwood in which he grew up a few years after he left England “for good,” the once countrified place and its landscape had already…

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