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.
Only once did he express any regret. The little daughter of the writer Percy Lucas’s had cut her leg and for years suffered from bone septicemia. In “England My England” Lucas appeared as Egbert, a dilettante living on his wife’s income whose carelessness caused the accident to his daughter. The accident estranges him from his wife and in revenge his father-in-law goads him to enlist when war breaks out and sacrifice himself. No sooner had the tale appeared than Percy Lucas was in fact killed on the Western front, and his family exploded in bitter outrage. “Yet, it seems to me,” wrote Lawrence, “man must find a new expression, give a new value to his life, or his women will reject him, and he must die…. Lucas was, somehow, a spiritual coward… If it was a true story, it shouldn’t really damage.”
How much do we learn about Lawrence from such stories? Saint-Beuve believed that a critic must relate the artist’s work to his life: you could not understand either unless that were done. Proust disagreed. In his Contre Saint-Beuve he argued that the writer becomes a different person when he puts pen to paper. While he writes out of his experience, his characters are never taken solely from one person and are heightened, altered, and enlarged in the course of creation. The New Critics of the Thirties sided with Proust. So did Lawrence. “Never trust the artist. Trust the tale.” And yet we learn almost as much about his vision of life from his own story as we do from his tales. What was his vision of life?
In Isaiah Berlin’s famous division of writers into hedgehogs and foxes, Lawrence was beyond dispute a hedgehog. He had a vision of life and everyone must at once accept it or be damned. But what was the vision? Difficult to say because this hedgehog did not lie inert. No sooner had it rolled itself up, every prickle ready to wound any oncomer, however tender and benevolent—indeed the tenderer the approach the more ferocious the repulsion—than it unrolled itself and ambled off to another place once again assuming its hostile position. It went without saying that for Lawrence there could be no compromise with those middle-class virtues people call good form. Nor with democracy or socialism, two slave mentalities as corrupt as they were common. Certainly not with anemic Christianity. Nor with alse literary London, accept him though it did. Sometimes the hedgehog wanted to curl up in a commune, “Rananim,” where there would be “no money but a sort of communism.” Sometimes he searched for a hero, a Kangaroo or a Don Ramón who would smash civilization and create a new society. Sometimes he told us that sexual honesty would alone save us from this century’s spiritual death: regeneration through physical love was the key to salvation.
Lawrence stands at the end of the Romantic movement where it begins to merge with modernism. Authenticity and sincerity are the greatest of virtues. The supreme duty is to spit in the eye of the world, and then to opt for “life.” To live for beauty, culture, lovely objects, or one’s children; to meditate or resolve to live a life free from greed, pain, and sorrow; to escape and lead the primitive life, to refuse responsibility for the direction one’s life takes—these are all despicable. We must purge our consciousness of the falsities that society demands we accept and of the ideals that our own will imposes on the psyche. Leavis was right to insist that Lawrence, for all his hatred of Russell’s rationalism, was not an uneducated firebrand, but exercised his intelligence to the highest degree and saw intelligence as the medicine that induced a state of spiritual health by harmonizing mind, emotion, and imagination. Our psyche is bombarded by ideas about life, most of them bad. It is intelligence that enables us to recognize which are worthless and which to live by; and our will, if we train it, can make us determined to live by these good ideas—the ideas that make for spontaneous acceptance of “life.” Vital to “life” was sex.
Meyers is right to spend much of his space on Lawrence’s sexual life and ideas. He is at his best describing the shy young man in Lincolnshire, tormented by sexual desire, who had kissed girls only on the cheek, persuading Jessie Chambers to make love with him and then being repelled by his failure as a lover and breaking with her. Next Lawrence became engaged to Louisa Burrows, a fellow student at Nottingham University, and at the same time tried but failed to go to bed with two other women. He was then seduced by Alice Dax and finally transformed by Frieda. Frieda von Richthofen was untamable. She came of a self-willed family. One sister was the mistress of Max Weber and also of his brother, and she became a professor of economics: another sister divorced her staff-officer husband and married a banker. Huxley noted that the aristocratic Frieda was serene, self-confident, without shame; never apologetic tense, or nervous. She was a natural Bohemian, took three lovers during her first four months with Lawrence, and, like many highly sexed women, was passionately attached to her children whom she felt to be part of her flesh. After she left her husband, Ernest Weekley, he determined to make her children hate her. Their hatred nearly broke her, and her love for them was resented by Lawrence.
There are those who see Lawrence as a weak man, preaching that men should dominate women while all the time he was being dominated first by his mother and then by Frieda. He might fly into rages, and plates and saucepans would then darken the air; he might pummel her until she subsided, sobbing: but it was he who was up next morning fetching her breakfast and doing the household chores that she, sexy, slothful, and slatternly, refused to do.
But Lawrence was not simply a male supremacist. He believed sexual relations were a natural conflict.
There is no comradeship between men and women, none whatsoever, but rather a condition of battle, reserve, hostility…. Passion is fundamental hatred, the act of love is a fight.
Yet out of this conflict after consummation steals a spirit of eternal peace. “And my still heart full of security / And my still hands full of her breasts.” As with other topics Lawrence laid down laws. He condemned various other kinds of sexual activity as no better than masturbation. His puritanism was revolted by pornography, analytical discussion of sex, by cock-teasing in women, and womanizing by men. Penetration was the only sanctified act, and there must be something wrong with a union unless both man and woman achieved simultaneous orgasm. But we must, he believed, go deeper, plunge to the fundamental in the sexual act itself. Perhaps there was a more profound method of penetration, an act which by opening a woman’s fundament, expressed the triumph of both of them over the rules infants learn and later religion and society teach. Not only in Women in Love but in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the novel which was meant to speak the truth at last about the sexual act, Lawrence concealed his endorsement of anal sex by using language which, as Denis Harding said, was “as discreetly allusive as the most respectable of novelists.”
But was there not some sexual bond higher still? If men and women destroy each other, should not men engage in a quasi-sexual relationship? There was a strong homosexual strain in Lawrence. The swimming scene in The White Peacock, the wrestling of Birkin and Crich in Women in Love, and the initiation ceremonies in The Plumed Serpent express the ideal he sought for—the love of David and Jonathan. Lawrence professed to loathe the homosexual community. The world of Strachey, Keynes, and Francis Birrell; or of Norman Douglas and Ronald Firbank; or of More Adey, Robbie Ross, Gleeson White, and Festing Jones. What did he mean when he said that every great man loved the body of another man more than that of a woman? He did not mean comradeship—that was too matey. He did not mean what one ordinarily calls friendship. “I should like to see anybody being ‘friendly’ with me.” During the war he was certainly attracted to William Hocking, the young Cornish farmer, and talked about homosexuality with him. But his unpopularity with his Cornish neighbors and his expulsion by the police from Cornwall ended that relationship.
He next proposed to John Middleton Murry, the husband of Katherine Mansfield, that they should form such a blood brothership: just as Birkin in Women in Love when he has quarreled with Ursula proposes such a relation to Crich. On Birkin’s sexuality Meyers makes an ingenious conjecture. He contrasts the mechanical fucking, “the terrible frictional violence of death,” that characterizes Gudrun and Crich’s sexual intercourse with the sodomizing of Ursula by Birkin which gave Ursula such a sense of freedom. What Birkin is really doing is using Ursula as a sexual substitute for Crich. He “does to the woman what he wants to do to the man.” It may be that this was what Lawrence’s unconscious will was saying: but his conscious will always seems to have been repelled by the image of sexual intercourse with a man.
Meyers does full justice to the repulsive character of Middleton Murry. Hardly anyone has a good word to say for this fake, self-pitying hypocrite who confessed his faults and excused them in the same breath. Murry combined religiosity with an injured look. He appealed with his dark, moist eyes for help—a ploy which won him four wives and tumbled a number of girls into bed. Katherine Mansfield herself admitted, “His very frankness is a falsity. In fact it seems falser than his insincerity.” But Meyers only partly explains why Lawrence kept on returning to a man he despised and sometimes hated. Even when he was proposing blood brotherhood to the shrinking Murry in Cornwall during the war, he also screamed that Murry was an obscene bug sucking his life away.
Here was an editor who rejected as many of Lawrence’s stories as he took at a time when Lawrence hardly knew where to turn for money; a reviewer who dismissed Lawrence’s mature work when he was alive and was to write a vindictive biography the year after he died; a friend who was asked by Lawrence, after a fearful quarrel with Frieda in Mexico, to look after her when she came to London, and who at once went to bed with her—and then on Lawrence’s return said at that disastrous dinner party at the Cafe Royal, “I have betrayed you, old chap, I confess it…. But never again. I call you to witness, never again.”
What attracted Lawrence? Murry’s good looks? He admitted that Murry “gave off a great sense of warmth and offering like a dog when it loves you.” Perhaps Lawrence wanted a man whom he could dominate even though physically he was the weaker. (To make it credible that Birkin won the wrestling match with Crich Lawrence has to explain that Birkin knew jujitsu.) The reason why one person is attracted to another remains perennially mysterious.
Lawrence was a man of rocklike integrity. His integrity was never better displayed than when he dealt with money, a subject excellently explored in a recent monograph about his relations with his publishers and literary agents.* In the worst days after the suppression of The Rainbow, when his literary agent, J.B. Pinker, could not place his work with any publisher and kept Lawrence afloat by lending him money and soliciting loans from the well-to-do, Lawrence would not give up his vocation as a writer. His benefactors felt aggrieved that he was not more grateful—though the loans were repaid even if they had to wait ten years—but they could not empathize with that working-class pride that does not like to accept charity and expresses its independence in accepting even so small a gift as a cigarette in such phrases as “I don’t mind if I do.”
He left Pinker because he considered—justifiably—that Pinker had mismanaged his American affairs and had put him in the embarrassing position of turning down a good offer with one publisher because, unknown to Lawrence, he had committed him to another; but there was no quarrel. Nor was there a quarrel when his American publisher, Thomas Seltzer, who had put Lawrence for the first time in the way of money, went broke.
For nearly all his life Lawrence was on the edge of poverty. As late as 1927 he was able “by living like a road-sweeper” to make enough to live on. He would not spend the time to become a good business man but he was shrewd and careful, and he in turn paid bills promptly and settled debts. When Lady Chatterley’s Lover made him almost affluent, he lent money to a young writer and in the last years did everything he could to ensure an adequate income for Frieda on his death. He complained from time to time about injustice or lack of zeal; but unlike many other authors he did not become obsessed by them nor did he change his view of money. What was owing to him he wanted: but money for him was always dross and a source of corruption in others.
Lawrence’s intensity was often his undoing. His prose is overblown. The satirical hoot with laughter as they select passages about making love and they mock Connie garlanding Mellors’s penis with flowers. Few celebrated writers, even Wordsworth, have ever written worse. Rational readers who prefer fiction in which reality resembles the world about us and characters who act credibly do not enjoy, for instance, St. Mawr. Can one believe that a horsy girl like Flora Manby, born into the gentry, would fall for a clotheshorse like Rico; or that Mrs. Witt would propose marriage to her groom?
His achievements vastly outweigh the blemishes. No one had explored the layers of consciousness that he uncovered. His characters live at an unbearable pitch of tension and he hammers his message and their discontents into the mind of his readers. Impossible to detach, as you can with Tolstoy, his message from the stories he told. And yet no one could write more convincing conversation and convey experience better than he. The talk flies off the page and into the room where you are reading. And, as they talk, his characters convey visions and transports of hate and delight. Sons and Lovers is one of the great classics of growing up, The Rainbow a classic in the genre of the novel as social history. His masterpiece Women in Love is an astonishing work that moves on several levels. It is about the sex war; then it becomes a novel about the class war and the annihilation of the psyche by the industrial revolution; then it explodes the intellectual alternative to moneymaking and grinding the face of those who work for you—that is to say, to live the life of the mind, to live for art and literature, to construct theories about everything, even the sexual act. Next, the novel turns on those who get satisfaction by imposing their will on others, the Hermiones and Lady Ottoline Morrells of the world. And yet, so the novel says, it is right for some to impose their will though wrong for others to do so. It is right to achieve sexual ecstasy through tension and quarrels, but wrong to do so through friction that is caused by sterility of sensibility in the man and woman.
In no other novel does Lawrence criticize his own personification so effectively. Of course one is meant to see Birkin as the hero, but Meyers is right to mention how Lawrence contrasts Birkin’s “wonderful, desirable life-rapidity” with his “ridiculous, mean effacement in to a Salvador Mundi, a prig of the stiffest type.” In the marvelous passage where Ursula finds Birkin hurling stones into the pool to crack the reflection of the moon in the water Birkin is pictured as silly and posturing. At the end Birkin does not “come through.” His character remains obscure. By contrast Don Ramón and Kate in The Plumed Serpent behave in such a psychologically improbable way that the reader, already beaten into boredom by the Aztec dances and rituals, finds insufferable.
Yet even in this novel Lawrence’s power to evoke nature and illuminate the passions of those who inhabit the place redeems the story. Wherever he went in Italy, Mexico, Australia, and England itself, Lawrence wrote unforgettable passages about the countryside. And the tales are even more arresting than the later novels.
Eric Bentley pointed out years ago that Lawrence was a Heroic Vitalist, inspired like Nietzsche, Wagner, Shaw, and others by notions of aristocracy, the life-force, redemption through sex, and the inversion of rational morality. The will and blood dethroned the mind, and primitivism eclipsed civilization. Unfortunately Lawrence expounded his ideas in essays, and Fantasia of the Unconscious is one of the nastiest books ever written by a fine writer. When one remembers the young ex-schoolteacher who captivated the children of his friends whom he taught, when one recalls his hatred of regimentation and the humiliations of army medical examinations, one is astonished to hear him advocating that schools should be turned into gymnasia, boys subjected to a “proud, harsh, manly rule,” and taught to welcome wars that would be fought not for ideals or for sacrifice but to show how strong each person was.
He hated romanticism but no one was more a fully paid-up member of the Romantic movement than he when he wrote about sex. The act was sacred and the highest pitch of ecstasy must be achieved in performing it. Each of us must attain the perfect orgasm. “Could we but live at will upon this perfect height,…” mused the Irish poet Lionel Johnson, “then we were all divine.” But we can’t; and not all Lawrence’s trumpet calls can bring us to perpetual climax.
Many today are repelled by that assertive nagging voice. Some recall the collapse of marriages run on Lawrentian principles or the chaos in many Sixties Rananim communes set up by those who wanted like Lawrence to get away from it all. And yet Meyers’s biography should make us think again. We all know difficult, impossible creatures who patronize or attempt to dominate us, who are irresponsible or at worst malevolent, who denigrate their rivals or, worst of all, lose no opportunity to point at the feet of clay of their friends—and yet possess such gifts that even their enemies acknowledge they are masters of their profession.
We have a choice. Either we say that for all his achievements, such a person is intolerable and, if meet him we must, we avoid his company and scarcely disguise our antipathy. Or we think the merits of this maverick are so undeniable and his impact so powerful that the world would be poorer did he not exist. When we hear the latest tale of his monstrous behavior, we may admit that it is monstrous, but renounce or denounce him we will not. Men and women are what they are and, as we accept them, they become part of our lives. Meyers makes it impossible not to honor Lawrence, and Lawrence compels us to admit that we live less finely than we should, whatever we are.
January 17, 1991