Whacks

D.A.N. Jones

  • The Works of Witter Bynner: Selected Letters edited by James Kraft
    Faber, 275 pp, £11.00, January 1982, ISBN 0 374 18504 2
  • A Memoir of D.H. Lawrence: The Betrayal by G.H. Neville, edited by Carl Baron
    Cambridge, 208 pp, £18.00, January 1982, ISBN 0 521 24097 2

Two characters in pursuit of their author: such are George Neville and Witter Bynner, two chunks of raw material, anxious to tell the world about their cook. George Neville went to school with D.H. Lawrence and supposed himself the ‘original’ of George Saxton in The White Peacock: in his memoir he congratulates himself upon his useful contribution to Lawrence’s conception of true manliness. Witter Bynner met Lawrence in later life, in Mexico, and was forced to recognise himself as Owen Rhys in The Plumed Serpent: in his letters we find him deftly defending himself against the accusation of unmanliness which Lawrence had brought against him.

Neville and Bynner were very different. Neville was a local man, from Eastwood, a local journalist. Bynner was determinedly non-local, an aristocrat of American letters, a Harvard poet who had been everywhere and known everybody, a cosmopolitan who was glad to patronise the British and snipe against Anglo-Saxondom. Among his books is Journey with Genius, a study of Lawrence published in 1951: he treats Lawrence as the sort of rebarbative ‘genius’ that a civilised gentleman ought to tolerate and patronise. Neville found his own project more difficult. It seems that he began writing his memoir in the Thirties and completed it in the Fifties. He wanted to defend Lawrence – and Lawrence’s parents – against their detractors; somehow, he could not help patronising them and making them seem even worse. It is this that makes his book so funny.

The difficulty for Neville was that he was so much a local man. Every local journalist has been warned, when he attempts to expose a crook or councillor: ‘Don’t forget, we have to live here.’ He must not be superior about local customs or offend local patriotism; leave that to the national press, the metropolitans. The local man must not ‘betray’ the neighbourhood.

Therefore, Neville’s memoir is subtitled The Betrayal. He knows that the locals think of Lawrence as a dirty-book writer who had let down the neighbourhood and told the world about the faults of his parents. In trying to defend Lawrence, Neville recognises that he might be guilty of the same offence, telling the world about private conversations and events in the Lawrence family home. Carl Baron, introducing Neville’s memoir, suggests that Neville was not the most tactful of local journalists: he was sacked by the Staffordshire Advertiser in 1929, with a curt note saying that ‘his articles had given offence in some quarters.’ This is easy to believe when we read Neville’s memoir, as he blunders around, trying to combine candour with respectability, showing off and showing himself up.

George Neville was an amateur in the art of showing himself in a good light. Witter Bynner was a professional. It happens that Bynner offers a good analogy in one of his letters: ‘I realised how much harder it is for men like Eisenstein and the Flahertys to work with peasants, who become under such scrutiny far more stagey than professional actors ... Whereas professionals could easily appear to be simple and not acting, it is almost impossible for a director to make simple folk refrain from self-conscious miming.’ We have seen this phenomenon, recently, on television: when the cameras are taken into a police station, the simpler policemen who think themselves clever show off and show themselves up. So it is with George Neville, trying to project himself as the defender of the Lawrence family and only succeeding in appearing as a ham actor posturing in the role.

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