“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.* (To give some idea of the copiousness of Lawrence’s correspondence: the latest volume contains 768 items written between March 1927 and November 1928, and runs to over 600 pages. Surprisingly few of these items are trivial or fail to throw some light on the writer.) 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.
When Lydia Beardsall married Arthur Lawrence, however, he was a strong, handsome young man, earning good money as a “mining contractor” (a rather grand local term for the leader of a small team of underground workers). Worthen suggests that she married him because of his virile charm and because he offered her an escape from the cramping poverty of her own family, then spent the rest of her life rather unfairly complaining because he did not share her own aspirations to gentility. Lydia Lawrence believed in self-improvement through education, self-discipline, and thrift. She had a genuine, if conventional taste for literature, and was prepared to tackle anything her son put in her way (he described her reading a translation of Flaubert’s A Sentimental Education in 1910 “with a look of severe disapproval”). She took a leading role in the local branch of the Women’s Co-operative Guild. Within her limited means she furnished her house in a style perceptibly more elegant than that of her neighbors. Realizing that her husband had no sympathy with her values and aspirations (his leisure time was spent in the masculine camaraderie of the public house) she projected them onto her gifted sons: William Ernest (known in the family by the second of these names, but in Sons and Lovers by the first), who died suddenly of blood poisoning at the age of twenty-three; and then David Herbert (“Bert”).
As a rather weakly child, of sensitive temperament and artistic gifts, D.H. Lawrence identified with his mother and feared his father (“Now we are going to be very happy while Father is away,” he is reported to have said as the unfortunate Arthur Lawrence was taken off to hospital after an accident at the pit). After her death in 1910 he came to see this close relationship with his mother as unhealthy, retarding and obstructing his sexual development, especially when Frieda explained Freud’s theory of the Oedipus complex to him, and his final revision of Sons and Lovers reflects this shift of interpretation. Near the end of his life he became more sympathetic toward his father, criticized his mother’s genteel cultural values, and celebrated the physical, masculine world of the colliers as a kind of organic community:
The pit did not mechanise men. On the contrary…the miners worked underground as a sort of intimate community, they knew each other practically naked, and with curious close intimacy…. (“Nottingham and the Mining Countryside”)
In Worthen’s opinion, this was a mythologizing of the pit that owed more to Lawrence’s “religion” of blood and instinct than it did to observation or experience.
Indeed, if this volume has a “thesis” or overarching interpretative theme, it is that D.H. Lawrence’s literary and personal development was achieved at the cost of a certain distortion and neglect of his regional and working-class roots. Worthen praises very highly Lawrence’s early plays like The Collier’s Friday Night and The Daughter-in-Law, with their earthy humor and finely rendered dialect speech, and regrets that Lawrence did not pursue this vein more extensively in his fiction. He shows how Lawrence began to acquire middle-class attitudes and values when he moved from Eastwood to the outer London suburb of Croydon in 1908, to take up a post as a schoolteacher while trying at the same time to launch himself as a writer through contacts in the London literary world like Ford Madox Hueffer (Ford Madox Ford).
“It was in Croydon that Lawrence started to grapple with his awareness of his own strangely ambivalent situation belonging as he did both to the working class and to the educated middle class,” writes Worthen; and he shows with great subtlety the reflection of this ambivalence in the uncertain tone and attitude of the narrative voice in the short stories that Lawrence wrote at this period. On the most famous of these pieces, “An Odour of Crysanthemums,” he comments: “Having in the first part of the story written an incomparable account of the tensions in the lives of ordinary people in the mining community…he turned its ending in the 1909 and 1910 versions of the story into a lugubrious moral epistle about drunkenness and death.”
D.H. Lawrence did not become a middle-class Englishman. Instead he became a bohemian, a traveler, an exile, like so many great modern artists. But more than once Worthen wistfully wonders what kind of writer he would have been if he had stayed in England. What drew or drove Lawrence away from England was primarily sex, incarnated in Frieda von Richthofen. What might have detained him was a permanent union with one of the several English women with whom he was emotionally involved before he met her. The elopement of Lawrence and Frieda is one of the great love stories of literary history, and does not suffer in the retelling. But it came as the climax to seven years’ overlapping relationships between D.H. Lawrence and other women, which Worthen disentangles and examines with commendable clarity and tact.
Like many sensitive, physically delicate, intellectually precocious, and mother-dominated boys, Lawrence seems to have remained sexually innocent and inexperienced beyond the average age for his social class, still ignorant of “the facts of life” at the age of fourteen or fifteen, according to the testimony of one contemporary. It was for this reason that he was able to conduct an emotionally intense but physically chaste relationship with Jessie Chambers, the daughter of a large family of tenant farmers in the countryside near Eastwood, with whom he spent most of his spare time in his youth, as a schoolboy, then a clerk in a surgical support factory, then a trainee schoolteacher. It was to Jessie, herself training to be a schoolteacher, that he confided his ambitions to be a writer, and whom he used as critic, counselor, and collaborator. It was Jessie who launched him into print by sending a sheaf of his poems to Ford Madox Hueffer’s English Review. But Lawrence did not appear to see how odd and potentially exploitative this relationship had become until members of his family, and especially his mother, who had never approved of Jessie’s hold over her son, told him that he must either court her in the normal way or sever the relationship. Lawrence refused to do either, telling Jessie with cruel candor that he did not find her sexually desirable, but that he valued her friendship. Crushed, but helplessly in love with Lawrence, Jessie lived for several years in an emotional limbo, while Lawrence looked for sexual fulfillment elsewhere, often making Jessie the confidante of his relationships with other women.
When he moved to Croydon he courted for a time a young woman called Agnes Holt. It seems likely that he broke off the relationship when she refused to have sex with him, because shortly afterward, in a sudden reversal of attitude, he asked Jessie to do so. As Worthen drily remarks, “he was turning to the one woman in England likely to say ‘yes.”‘ But before Jessie gave herself to him in body as well as soul he had been pursuing another London acquaintance, Helen Corke, a much more liberated young woman than either Jessie or Agnes, who had her own literary ambitions. This relationship, or Lawrence’s fantasies about it (for there is no evidence that Helen Corke ever slept with him) are reflected in “The Saga of Siegmund,” which later became The Trespasser. Lawrence concealed from Jessie the full extent of his interest in Helen Corke, though the introduced the two women to each other, just as he had introduced Jessie to Agnes Holt in 1909. In August 1910, Lawrence terminated the sexual relationship between himself and Jessie (it had been a furtive, infrequent business, which brought little joy to either of them). A few months later, in December of the same year, with his mother dying, he impulsively proposed to Louie Burrows, whom he had met when they were both training to be teachers in Nottingham.
This engagement seems a classic instance of a man snatching at life in the midst of death; and by betrothing himself to someone of whom his mother would have approved Lawrence was perhaps avoiding any sense of disloyalty to her. Louie Burrows was lively and good-looking, but essentially a sensible, conventional young women with sensible, conventional expectations. She believed in “saving up” for marriage in the sexual as well as the financial sense. Lawrence never cared about possessions or, at that time, about financial security, while, as he clearly hinted in his letters to Louie, he was impatient to consummate his desire:
I cannot slowly gather flowers as I saunter. I wish to heaven I could. I cut straight through like a knife to what I want. I cannot, cannot slowly enjoy watching the rose open: I can’t help it Louie, I can’t I am really dangerous in my fixed mad aim. I love my rose, and no other: and when I have her I shall want no other. But when I have her not, I have nothing.
Louie, however, held on to her principles, and her virginity. Some time in the latter half of 1911 Lawrence relieved his sexual frustration by beginning a covert affair with Alice Dax (the Clara of Sons and Lovers), a married woman who lived in Eastwood. In November, he fell ill with pneumonia, and took leave from his teaching post (he was never to return to it) to convalesce, first on the Isle of Wight, and then at the family home in Eastwood. In February 1912 he broke off his engagement to Louie, to her hurt bewilderment. Worthen reprints the rather heartless letter (to Edward Garnett) in which Lawrence describes a meeting in London at which Louie made a last effort at reconciliation:
She had decided beforehand that she had made herself too cheap to me, therefore she thought she would become all at once expensive and desirable. Consequently she offended me at every verse end—thank God. If she’d been wistful, tender and passionate, I should have been a goner…. I took her to a café, and over tea and toast, told her for the fourth time. When she began to giggle, I asked her coolly for the joke: when she began to cry, I wanted a cup of tea.
Fifty years later Louie Burrows read that letter in Harry T. Moore’s edition of The Collected Letters (1962) and was sufficiently moved, and hurt, to emend and annotate her copy. She crossed out the words, “when she began to cry,” and wrote in the margin, “I was simply dumb with misery.” She added: “I said Is there another girl He said Yes, if you’d call her a girl.” It is at moments like this that biography gives us access to intimate human experience that we would have thought long buried with the participants.
Later, Louie assumed that Lawrence had been referring on that occasion to Frieda Weekley, whom she always blamed for “seducing” Lawrence away from her; but in fact he was referring to Alice Dax, for he and Frieda had not yet met. Ernest Weekley, Professor of Modern Languages at Nottingham University, invited Lawrence to call on him and his wife one Sunday in March of that year. Alice Dax remembered Lawrence describing, shortly afterward, the impression Frieda had made on him; she was immediately convinced that their own relationship would come to an abrupt end. She was right.
Though the story of Lawrence’s and Frieda’s elopement is well known, it is worth recalling just how astonishing, reckless, and scandalous an action it was, especially for that time and place. Frieda Weekley was six years older than Lawrence, the mother of three children, the first of whom had been born when he was still at high school. She had a devoted husband and a comfortable house with the servants that went with an upper-middle-class life style in those days. Yet within three months of meeting him, she had sacrificed security, respectability, and her beloved children in order to run away with a penniless, physically delicate ex-schoolteacher with no prospects apart from those offered by a promising first novel (The White Peacock) and a handful of poems and stories. That she did so is testimony to the strength of Lawrence’s will, and his personal magnetism. But it could not have happened if Frieda had been the totally respectable bourgeois housewife she outwardly appeared to be.
She came from a cultured aristocratic German family whose attitude to sexual morality was worlds away from that of the burghers of Nottingham. Her sister Else, married to the economist Edgar Jaffe, had a liaison with the Austrian psychoanalyst Otto Gross, and bore him a son, without separating from her husband. On visits home to Germany in 1907–1908 Frieda herself had a passionate affair with Gross, and enthusiastically embraced his ideas about free love and the supreme value of sexual fulfillment. (Martin Green has written very well about this matrix of ideas and personalities in his book The Von Richthofen Sisters: The Triumphant and Tragic Modes of Love (1974), a work surprisingly not mentioned by Worthen.)
Frieda was erotically unfulfilled by the rather stiff and conventional Weekley, who was fourteen years her senior, and there is evidence that she was discreetly unfaithful to him in Nottingham, as well as on trips to Germany. Even by today’s standards, Frieda’s indifference to sexual fidelity seems pretty startling. While she and Lawrence were walking over the Alps from Bavaria into Italy just weeks after their elopement, for instance, she had a tumble in the hay with a causal acquaintance, Harold Hobson, a friend of David Garnett’s, when Lawrence and Garnett happened to be absent for a few hours (the episode is recorded in both the Letters and Mr. Noon).
Frieda and Lawrence found an opportunity to make love very soon after their first meeting. No doubt she thought that she could have an exciting clandestine affair with this ardent and fascinating young man without disturbing the even tenor of her marriage, but she reckoned without his willpower. In comparison with the timid or repressed English girls he had known, her uninhibited and generous sexuality must have been a heady experience, but the attraction was deeper than that. “There are plenty of well-shaped women in England or in Germany who would love me enough in a licentious fashion,” he wrote, a few weeks later. “But I don’t want them. They are not life to me: they would brutalise me. This woman mates my soul.”
The tragicomedy of the elopement and Frieda’s estrangement from Weekley can be pieced together from the letters and the relevant sections of Mr. Noon. Frieda went to visit her family in May, secretly accompanied by Lawrence. When he turned up at her parents’ house in Metz, her relatives were horrified at the potentially ruinous consequences and tried to persuade her to sever the relationship, or at least conduct it discreetly. Telegrams and anger began to flow between Nottingham and Metz as rumors of scandal reached England. Lawrence retreated temporarily to another town; Frieda dithered and seems to have consoled or distracted herself with another brief affair, with a German officer. Lawrence forced the issue by informing Weekley that he and Frieda were lovers. As Worthen comments, “In the hectic muddle and confusion of these days, Lawrence had one single advantage: he was the only person who knew what he wanted.” What he wanted was Frieda, and he got her. But the price she paid was heavy: custody of her children was inevitably awarded to Weekley when he divorced her the following year. “Lawrence never found a way of coping with her misery,” Worthen comments. And he had left behind in England at least three other women with broken hearts: Jessie Chambers, Louie Burrows, and Alice Dax.
Jessie perhaps had most to complain of, for she had been used by Lawrence over the longest period, and faced further pain and humiliation when Sons and Lovers, finally revised under the influence of Frieda, was published in 1913. (“The Miriam part of the novel is a slander, a fearful treachery,” she claimed.) She derived some solace or satisfaction from publishing her own account of their relationship (D.H. Lawrence: a personal record) anony-mously in 1935. Louie Burrows remained devoted to Lawrence and did not marry until she was fifty-three. “Her family always regarded her life as having been ruined by Lawrence,” Worthen reports. As to Alice Dax, she seems to have been a remarkable woman. She was devastated when Lawrence left her, trapped in an unsatisfying marriage, ill, and pregnant; but on reading Frieda’s memoir Not I, But The Wind… (1934) many years later she wrote her a magnanimous and poignant letter:
I had always been glad that he met you…. I was never meet for him. What he liked was not the me I was but the me I might-have-been—the potential me which would never had struggled to life but for his help and influence. I thank him always for my life though I knew it cost him pains and disappointments…we were never, except for one short memorable hour, whole; it was from that one hour that I began to see the light of life.
To be fair to Lawrence, he did suffer occasional qualms of conscience about his treatment of these women, especially Jessie. In 1910 he confessed to a correspondent that he had behaved “rather disgracefully” to her when he broke off their relationship, and had “muddled my love affairs most ridiculously and maddeningly.” When in 1913 Jessie sent him an account of their relationship in the form of a novel (which she subsequently destroyed), it made him “so miserable I had hardly the energy to walk out of the house for two days.” He did not scruple, however, to use his intimate knowledge of these women in his fiction and poetry. As Worthen comments, “writing and understanding were always more important to Lawrence than personal loyalty.” Though he was a maverick modernist who had little sympathy for the aesthetic formalism of Eliot and Joyce, he did subscribe, like them, to the doctrine of creative “impersonality.” In a remarkable letter to Gordon Campbell in 1915 he tried to express his “feeling that one is not only a little individual living a little individual life, but that is in oneself the whole of mankind…. Not me—the little vain, personal D.H. Lawrence—but that unnameable me which is not vain nor personal, but strong, and glad, and ultimately sure, but so blind, so groping, so tongue-tied, so staggering.” The transcendence of self which he strove to achieve, he tended to demand of others, whether they liked it or not.
By conscious intention Lawrence put women and their plight at the center of much of his mature fiction—to “do my work for women better than the suffrage,” as he put it to a correspondent in December 1912. But as Worthen points out, under the influence of his union with Frieda he tended to present the liberation of women exclusively in utopian sexual terms. “Lawrence’s passionate writing about the liberation of women through the active realisation of their own sexuality would ignore the continuing predicaments—and solutions—of women like Alice Dax and Louie Burrows and Jessie Chambers”—intelligent and progressive women who for one reason or another could not, like him, uproot themselves from their deeply conservative social milieu, but were obliged to reach a compromise with it. As Worthen concludes his biography he seems to stand spiritually with these women on the English shore, looking wistfully and with a certain disapproval as Lawrence and Frieda journey blithely into their bohemian exile.
February 13, 1992