THE DEEP END
A new life of D. H. Lawrence. by BENJAMIN KUNKEL
Courtesy of New Yorker
If, as Oscar Wilde said, when critics disagree the artist is in accord with himself, then D. H. Lawrence must count as one of the most harmonious writers of all time. People talking about Lawrence sound like his own quarrelsome couples: they hate him, they say, or they love him, or both. And the tides of his reception have likewise shifted between adulation and disdain. In the decades after the Second World War, Lawrence was regarded as a culture hero: an intellectual up from the working class, a prophet against mechanized existence, a champion of instinctual life. And, having found a way in “The Rainbow” and “Women in Love” to dramatize the lives of his characters at a level where aggression and desire face off in a kind of primitive incandescence, he was duly credited as a technical innovator. More notoriously, he had also, in “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” opened up the English-language novel to a frank, four-letter-word treatment of sex. A critic as temperamentally unsympathetic to Lawrence as Irving Howe could write, with a revealing sense of priority, of “the revolutionary achievements of Lawrence, Joyce and, to a smaller extent, Woolf.” The list doesn’t usually come out that way today.
Lawrence never quite belonged among the modernists anyway. Impatient with their aestheticism, he declared that his concern was with “man alive.” And there is none of Eliot’s “extinction of personality” about his work; Lawrence’s very personal voice, jocularly abusive like a male friend’s, or high-spirited and judgmental like a teen-age girl’s, bounding always between the disjunct registers of the chatty and the rhapsodic, can be heard in his short stories and essays as plainly as in his letters. But his demotion from the modernist canon has been prompted by moral disapproval as well. Martin Amis has provided a succinct bill of indictment:
When I reflect that D. H. Lawrence, perhaps the most foul-tempered writer of all time (beater of women and animals, racist, anti-Semite, etc., etc.), was also, perhaps, the most extravagantly slapdash exponent of language, I feel the lure of some immense generalisation about probity and prose.
Amis goes on to claim that an author’s life is never more than “just an interesting extra.” But this is what neither Lawrence’s acolytes nor his detractors have ever been able to accept. Invariably, the vitalist is scrutinized in the light of his own vita.
John Worthen, who wrote the first volume of a vast, three-volume Lawrence biography that Cambridge University Press published in the nineteen-nineties, presents his new book, “D. H. Lawrence: The Life of an Outsider” (Counterpoint; $29.95), as a project of rehabilitation, “the first one-volume life of Lawrence to be written since his reputation came under such assault,” and he deals briskly with most of the charges that Amis and others have lodged. Lawrence did sometimes hit his wife, Frieda—though she, much the bigger person, sometimes struck first, with plate in hand. (She claimed that she “preferred it that way. Battles must be. If he had sulked or borne me a grudge, how tedious!”) As for beaten “animals,” these consist of a little black dog named Bibbles, whom Lawrence set to kicking one day because the creature seemed to him too promiscuous, too “Walt-Whitmanesque” in its affections. This is pitiably absurd, and unforgivable, but also unique in Lawrence’s life. His depictions of animals and, indeed, of women are among the most intimately sympathetic in English.
Worthen denies that Lawrence was notably anti-Semitic, and certainly his few unpleasant references to Jews are as nothing compared with the systematic noxiousness of Pound and Eliot. But he clearly thought in racial terms, and took any people, much as he did any person, as an occasion for wild generalization. When a London publisher turned down “Sons and Lovers” on the ground that its “want of reticence” would render it unacceptable to the public, Lawrence responded with a wholesale denunciation of the English people:
Curse the blasted, jelly-boned swines, the slimy, the belly-wriggling invertebrates, the miserable sodding rotters, the flaming sods, the snivelling, dribbling, dithering palsied pulse-less lot that make up England today. . . . God, how I hate them! God curse them, funkers. God blast them, wishwash. Exterminate them, slime.
In a postscript to the same thunderous letter to his friend and editor Edward Garnett, Lawrence mildly acknowledges that the publisher is “quite right, as a business man.”
Probably the least interesting question we can ask about Lawrence is whether on occasion he violated certain worthy contemporary taboos; he did. More interesting is that for a generation or two it was common for the sense of accusation to run the other way: to feel that Lawrence, by example of his passion and courage, stood in judgment over us. “He shames one, Lawrence,” Henry Miller wrote, while Diana Trilling argued that those who disdained Lawrence were exhibiting what psychoanalysts call a reaction formation: “Lawrence hits so directly at our weaknesses that we rush to the attack upon his weaknesses.” Certainly few readers will come away from this latest life of Lawrence feeling that they have been more industrious, honest, and energetic than its subject.
He was also often very angry, unhappy, and ill. The fourth of five children, David Herbert Lawrence was born in 1885 in the coal-mining village of Eastwood, in Essex. A neighbor described a “snuffly-nosed little beggar, seldom without a cold,” whose mother seemed anxious whether he would survive. The same neighbor recalled that the boy didn’t resemble his father, a large, burly man who went to work at the age of ten and stayed in the mines until his mid-sixties. His courtship of Lydia Beardsall, from a genteel family that had come sharply down in the world, resembled a D. H. Lawrence short story: intense physical desire worked its compulsions across classes, and marriage was the quick result. By the time her third son was born, Lydia regarded the union as a disastrous misalliance. Romanticizing her family’s past and plotting her children’s escape from the choking environment of Eastwood, she devoured stacks of books while her husband visited the pub.
In 1901, at sixteen, Lawrence had been attempting to do his part for the family by working in a factory when his elder brother Ernest died of pneumonia. A few months later, Lawrence came down with the illness himself, and had to be nursed back to health by his mother, who escaped her crushing grief over one son by caring for another. “We have loved each other,” Lawrence would write, “almost with a husband and wife love, as well as filial and maternal. We knew each other by instinct.”
By the summer of the next year, Lawrence was well enough to begin paying regular visits to the nearby farm of some family friends, and for the rest of his life, in fiction, essays, and letters, he celebrated the flowers, bushes, and trees he saw along the way. Lawrence’s famous nature descriptions are always grateful and attentive, and to read any biography of him is to understand how often this characteristic mood is the feeling of a convalescent restored to health. Of course, descriptions of hawthorn buds “tight and hard as pearls” and “tender-budded trees” that “shuddered and moaned” (from Lawrence’s first novel, “The White Peacock”) also fairly pulse with suppressed sexual feeling. And there at the farm lived a pretty, intense, and earnest girl his age named Jessie Chambers, Lawrence’s first love.
Lydia encouraged her son, who was not strong enough for manual work, to take a degree at Nottingham University College and become a schoolteacher. But it was Jessie who insisted that the collier’s son might become a published writer, and who, when he was twenty-three, first submitted his poems to the scrutiny of editors. Nor did Jessie remain for long the only believer in his gifts. Ford Madox Heuffer (later Ford), the powerful editor of the English Review, read the poems she sent him and soon urged a publisher to take on “The White Peacock,” Lawrence’s enormously wordy, sluggishly ecstatic tale of doomed love. “It’s got every fault that the English novel can have,” Lawrence recalled Heuffer shouting in a London bus. “But, you’ve got GENIUS.”
The trouble with Lawrence and Jessie was that they had found no role for sex in their relationship; they ignored the looming fact of it for years, and, when they finally gave in, both had a terrible time. It wasn’t until Lawrence met Frieda that he received intellectual encouragement and carnal fulfillment from the same source. Less than two weeks after Lawrence broke with Jessie, his mother began to die of cancer. Lawrence moved back to Eastwood to care for her, and once her pain became unbearable he and his sister Ada took it on themselves to administer an overdose of morphine. “There was one place in the world that stood solid and did not melt away into unreality: the place where his mother was.” The line comes from the closely autobiographical “Sons and Lovers,” and when you think of the desperate peregrinations of Lawrence’s adult life you wonder whether he ever found such a place again.
By the time “The White Peacock” appeared, in early 1911, Lawrence had a sore heart but a well-launched career as a novelist, a respectable income as a primary-school teacher, and a beautiful, if conventional, fiancée in a fellow-instructor, Louise Burrows. When he became deathly ill that fall with double pneumonia, you might suppose that these comforts would have grown only the more attractive, yet Lawrence’s periodic brushes with extinction seem always to have made him want more out of life. Once recovered, he ended his brief engagement: “I ask you to dismiss me. I am afraid we are not well suited. My illness has changed me a good deal, has broken a good many of the old bonds that held me.”
Lawrence wanted to go abroad, and a former professor of his, Ernest Weekley, had contacts in Germany. When Lawrence arrived to meet Weekley for lunch, he instead found his German wife, Frieda, thirty-three years old, the mother of three children, and the former lover of the unorthodox psychoanalyst Otto Gross, from whom she had picked up the congenial idea of the Oedipus complex; her influence is patent in the title of “Sons and Lovers.” Frieda was intelligent, spirited, direct, handsome—and aristocratic. With the maid out, she was at a loss for how to turn on the gas stove for tea, and Lawrence reprimanded her for her incompetence. All his life, Lawrence seems to have endeared himself to people by telling them just what was wrong with them. This was not all he told her, of course. Within days, he had written to say that she was “the most wonderful woman in all England.”
Frieda, it seems, had nothing more in mind than another affair. But to Lawrence she was “the woman of a lifetime,” and by writing to Weekley—“I love your wife and she loves me”—he wrenched his apprehension of fate into the reality of it, forcing Frieda to choose between marrying an “ill bred, common, penniless lout” (as her father, the Baron von Richthofen, called Lawrence) or crawling back to the respectable husband she didn’t love. Frieda let Weekley initiate divorce proceedings. “The promise of life with you is all richness,” Lawrence had written her on a postcard. But exile and poverty also followed, in a highly Lawrentian confirmation of the loneliness of fulfillment.
Before long, the couple was living in Italy; few households would receive them in England, and their scarce British pounds went farther there than at home. Lawrence mailed perhaps the greatest of his letters from the little villa off Lake Garda. In one of them he declares:
The real way of living is to answer to one’s wants. Not “I want to light up with my intelligence as many things as possible” but “For the living of my full flame—I want that liberty, I want that woman, I want that pound of peaches, I want to go to sleep, I want to go to the pub and have a good time, I want to look abeastly swell today, I want to kiss that girl, I want to insult that man.” Instead of that . . . we talk about some sort of ideas. I’m like Carlyle, who, they say, wrote 50 volumes on the value of silence.
Everything is here; in half a paragraph Lawrence comprehends his life. There is the sense, gained from Frieda, of having no obligations but to desire; the virtually pre-Socratic tendency to see all life as a species of flame (in Lawrence, to be alive is always described as being on fire); the tone simultaneously of great casualness and authority; the pleasure taken in vituperation (“I want to insult that man”); and, of course, the awareness that to marshal all one’s eloquence, education, and discipline in defense of mute, dark, instinctual life is a crowning paradox, like Carlyle with his fifty volumes on silence.
In Lawrence’s exhortations we also hear an overwhelming wish to convince himself—for the triumph of having won Frieda might easily have been taken for a disaster. The couple returned to England and were married in a London registry office in July, 1914, with only two friends in attendance. In disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes, the Lawrences had also begun to quarrel in their notorious apocalyptic style. Later, both portrayed this gruelling habit as a reflection of their general honesty, but at first many of the fights had a common source: Frieda in her divorce had lost the right of access to her children. Her grief turned to anger, as did Lawrence’s resentment of her grief. And when the war arrived it only compounded the couple’s furious isolation. Frieda, after all, was German, and in the censorious wartime climate Lawrence’s next and greatest novels, “The Rainbow” and “Women in Love,” would become unpublishable.
From a distance, Lawrence appears an ideal type of the modern artist, perpetrating high-minded outrages on the public in defiance of sales or reputation, and the image is not inaccurate. But he didn’t choose to be the kind of writer he was; it wasn’t as if Lawrence, with a wife to support and no patron, didn’t want to sell out. In 1913, he wrote to Garnett:
I’m a damned curse unto myself. I’ve written rather more than half of a most fascinating (to me) novel. But nobody will ever dare to publish it. . . .Yet I love and adore this new book. . . . So new, so really a stratum deeper than anybody has ever gone, in a novel . . . quite unlike Sons and Lovers, not a bit visualized.
For a long time, people assumed this letter must concern “The Rainbow,” since it so clearly anticipates the troubles and achievement of that book. In fact, Lawrence was talking about another novel (seven years later to become “The Lost Girl”), which he abandoned in order to write something more salably conventional in style and morality. The joke, played by now on several generations of bored British schoolchildren, is that when Lawrence sat down to write a page-turner he stood up two years later with “The Rainbow.”
It was a corroboration of his doctrine: he wrote according to his desires, not his intentions. In “Sons and Lovers,” Paul Morel is a painter, and among the book’s glories are its gleaming visual descriptions. But Lawrence had come to think of the eye as an organ of distance and calculation. In “The Rainbow,” he trades in his great visual powers for a deliberately blind and fumbling account of the bodily lives of men and women. We hardly see the three generations of the Brangwens except in the glowing patterns of their heat, as if the Technicolor of “Sons and Lovers” had given way to infrared:
In his breast, or in his bowels, somewhere in his body, there had started another activity. It was as if a strong light were burning there, and he was blind within it, unable to know anything, except that this transfiguration burned between him and her, connecting them, like a secret power.
Lawrence later scandalized his contemporaries by insisting in “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” on “fuck” and “cunt”; nowadays he embarrasses us with his “bowels” and “wombs.” But the old-fashioned terms shouldn’t hide from us the modern breakthrough: this was indeed a stratum deeper. Lawrence’s formal accomplishment, less obvious at a glance than Joyce’s or Woolf’s, is to narrate beneath the stream of consciousness, and chart subterranean currents of feeling as they shift and swell. These vast impersonal tides swamp what he called “the old stable ego of the character,” flowing from and returning to life at large.
What got him in trouble wasn’t that he composed the would-be potboiler in the blindfolded exaltation of his new style; it was that he’d included scenes of rapturous nudity, a lesbian relationship, and some withering remarks about nationalism. Soon after “The Rainbow” ’s publication, in 1915, a magistrate declared the book “utter filth,” and ordered all copies destroyed under the Obscene Publications Act. A year later, no publisher would risk the same reaction with “Women in Love.” (The novel didn’t appear in Britain until 1920.)
In addition to depriving him of his best chance at a livelihood, the British government relocated Lawrence and Frieda from Cornwall, where it was suspected, absurdly, that they might be in communication with German submarines. Moving from one bare London apartment to the next, in poor health, and living on borrowed funds, Lawrence became, in his words, “a walking phenomenon of suspended fury”; he was determined to quit his homeland as soon as he could. When at last the war ended, he fell ill in the global flu epidemic and once again nearly died. Upon his recovery, he and Frieda made plans to sail to the Continent, and after 1919 they never lived in England again.
The long volume on “the early years” that Worthen contributed to the Cambridge biography is a remarkable book, at once “slow, like growth,” as Lawrence said of “Sons and Lovers,” and enthralling. In this new book, Worthen seems to rush where he would prefer to linger, and it may be that the professor emeritus of D. H. Lawrence Studies is too familiar with his material to capture the excitement that Lawrence sparked in his contemporaries. The impression of Lawrence as a fox let loose in a drawing room, and then trotting off into the wilderness, is probably best conveyed at a readable length by Philip Callow’s two short books on Lawrence, “Son and Lover” and “Body of Truth.” Still, Worthen’s single-volume life has the merit of pursuing a theme detectable in every phase of Lawrence’s life: his perpetually renewed isolation.
It is perhaps no surprise that a frail artistic boy should feel a stranger in a coal-mining village, or that his working-class origins should in turn mark him off from wellborn Londoners “tampering,” as Lawrence wrote, “with the arts, literature, painting, sculpture, music.” And we almost expect the daring modern artist to run afoul of censors and expatriate himself. What’s more remarkable in a writer best known for his erotic rhapsodies and thought of as “a priest of love”—as he pronounced himself after meeting Frieda—is that he should repudiate both love and intimacy. But this is just what Lawrence did, even as Frieda’s presence became the only constant in his wandering life.
In Lawrence’s last decade, he and Frieda moved from Taormina, Sicily, to Thirroul, Australia, to Taos, New Mexico, and, finally, after several other stops, to Vence, France, where there was a tuberculosis sanatorium. It’s a challenge to the reader of any Lawrence biography simply to keep track of his address through these years. Much easier to chart is Lawrence’s pursuit of an ideal of life in which there would be no idealism at all: no Christianized love making a virtue of self-sacrifice, no illusion that lovers, because they share words, can also share experiences. Lawrence’s philosophy becomes a kind of rapt literalism, as his ethic becomes a coldly joyous solitude: the world is only the separate bodies in it. Here is the author of “Sons and Lovers” and “Women in Love” insisting, in a 1922 essay, on the crucial “thing to do”:
And it’s more difficult than poison-gas. It is to leave off loving. . . . Wives, don’t love your husbands any more: even if they cry for it, the great babies! . . . Just boil the eggs and fill the salt-cellars and be quite nice, and in your own soul be alone and be still. . . . Husbands, don’t love your wives any more. If they flirt with men younger or older than yourselves, let your blood not stir. . . . And learn, learn, learn the one and only lesson worth learning at last. Learn to walk in the sweetness of the possession of your own soul.
By the nineteen-twenties, Lawrence wants his writing to indicate, and his readers to embrace, the animal aloneness that human language only seems to overcome; bodies may come into contact, but not souls. His late poems are especially eloquent in their envy of lizards, mountain lions, and mating whales.
Lawrence’s developed creed was a kind of paganism, and in the new worlds of Australia and America, as well as among Mexican Indians and the tombs of the vanished Etruscans, Lawrence went looking for some intimation of a new or old civilization, livelier, healthier, more generous and spontaneous than the one he knew. But he had to drag the same dwindling frame with him wherever he went, and in the end he seems perhaps as tired of himself, “a stray individual with not much health and not much money,” as of Western civilization. He claims that the Etruscan ruins “leave the breast breathing freely and pleasantly, with a certain fulness of life”—and you think of how little of his lungs Lawrence had left to breathe with when he wrote those words, in 1927.
Dying of tuberculosis in the winter of 1929-30, unable to walk, and rendered sexually impotent by his disease, he wrote these words on the last page of his last book:
Man wants his physical fulfilment first and foremost, since now, once and once only, he is in the flesh and potent. For man, the vast marvel is to be alive. For man, as for flower and beast and bird, the supreme triumph is to be most vividly, most perfectly alive. . . . The dead may look after the afterwards. But the magnificent here and now of life in the flesh is ours, and ours alone, and ours only for a time. We ought to dance with rapture that we should be alive and in the flesh, and part of the living, incarnate cosmos.
He died on March 2, 1930, aged forty-four and weighing all of eighty-five pounds, in Vence, where Frieda, Aldous and Maria Huxley, and some others buried him, Frieda wrote, “very simply, like a bird.”
Now that the eighties and nineties fashion of censoriously political reading has come to seem a narrow cut, and nearly as dated as those postwar clichés about the sickness of civilized humanity, Lawrence can be rescued from both the moralists and the Lawrentians. No doubt his vitalism was a sick man’s dream of health, and the sickness sometimes corrupts the dream with misanthropy, misogyny, and self-despair. But it would take a robust human animal indeed not to suspect, reading Lawrence, the unused possibility of a quicker, deeper life just beneath the one we live, and not to feel, reading about the man, that he sometimes knew whereof he spoke.