Apocalypse

David Trotter

  • The Rainbow by D.H. Lawrence, edited by Mark Kinkead-Weekes
    Cambridge, 672 pp, £55.00, March 1989, ISBN 0 521 22869 7
  • D.H. Lawrence in the Modern World edited by Peter Preston and Peter Hoare
    Macmillan, 221 pp, £29.50, May 1989, ISBN 0 333 45269 0
  • D.H. Lawrence and the Phallic Imagination: Essays on Sexual Identity and Feminist Misreading by Peter Balbert
    Macmillan, 190 pp, £27.50, June 1989, ISBN 0 333 43964 3

That E.M. Forster gave only two cheers for democracy, but three for D.H. Lawrence, on the occasion of Lawrence’s death, is well-known. Forster was upset that the lowbrows Lawrence scandalised had joined forces with the highbrows he bored to denigrate ‘the greatest imaginative novelist’ of his generation. A bored highbrow, T.S. Eliot, at once protested that he didn’t know what was meant by ‘greatest’, ‘imaginative’ or ‘novelist’. Twenty years later, F.R. Leavis was still having to contend with Eliot’s insistence that Lawrence had been severely handicapped by his lack of ‘intellectual and social training’. Lawrence probably scandalises more highbrows than lowbrows these days, but not as many as he bores.

The academy remains moderately attentive, of course. Monographs and collections of essays appear at regular intervals. The Cambridge Edition of the Works proceeds monumentally.[1] Indeed, even more productive of academic recognition, it has stirred a controversy about editorial method: John Worthen, one of the three editors of the Cambridge Women in Love, describes his approach in D.H. Lawrence in the Modern World and defends it in Essays in Criticism (April 1989). Yet, as H.M. Daleski points out in the same collection, Joyce has effectively eclipsed Lawrence as the representative or iconic 20th-century novelist. Commentary on Joyce far exceeds commentary on Lawrence, both in quantity and quality – commentary of all kinds too, for Joyce, who always attracted the moralists, now attracts the theorists as well. There is a collection of essays entitled Post-Structuralist Joyce: a Post-Structuralist Lawrence would be inconceivable. Joyce and Lawrence, the disciple of Art and the Disciple of Life, the inscrutable and the exscrutable, seem to propose sharply contrasting futures for the novel. And it is the former who has proved more to the taste of the new fastidiousness.

Lawrence’s critics, on the other hand, are rarely fastidious. Peter Balbert’s challenge to feminist ‘misreadings’ of Lawrence, for example, is nothing if not combative. Balbert insists that the ‘seminal’ doctrines of the ‘phallic imagination’ have been seriously misrepresented by the (presumably ovular) emphases of feminist criticism. Enthralled by the ‘fashionable androgyny’ of ‘consumer culture’, these critics will go to any lengths to discredit Lawrence’s advocacy of sexual polarity. Balbert catches them quoting out of context: Paul Morel’s patronising view of the suffrage movement is not Lawrence’s, but part of a dialogue with Clara Dawes which will eventually reveal Clara’s emotional failure; Miriam Leivers’s polemic against sexual inequality reveals her lack of ‘healthy organic roots’ (‘Miriam,’ Balbert declares, ‘has denied the primacy of her womb for the specious satisfaction of getting a nine-to-five job’). Balbert has read the novels more carefully than his opponents, but in the end he shares their emphasis on doctrine rather than writing. His Lawrence, a writer who regards political involvement or getting a job as signs of emotional failure, isn’t likely to attract many readers of either sex.

On the whole, Lawrence’s more recent critics have contented themselves with defining historical contexts for his writing. In D.H. Lawrence in the Modern World, for example, Simonetta de Filippis writes about Lawrence and Italy, Bridget Pugh about Lawrence and the Midlands; while L.D. Clark offers an absorbing essay on an obvious but neglected topic, Lawrence’s relation to American romance.[2] What is still lacking, amid the affirmations and the definitions of context, is any sense that Lawrence might be read against the grain: that there are valuable qualities in his writing which the affirmations conceal and the contexts only hint at.

The publication of the Cambridge Edition of The Rainbow provides an opportunity for reading against the grain, though not, I think, on editorial grounds. Whereas John Worthen speaks of ‘restoring’ Women in Love as one might restore an old or damaged painting, stripping away accretions, Mark Kinkead-Weekes declares his intention ‘to remain true to the nature of The Rainbow, as the work of a continuously revising and re-creating author’. Alterations made between manuscript and first printed edition are usually retained unless they appear to have been provoked by outside pressure. The editorial method errs – rightly, in my view – on the side of caution; it has not given us a substantially different novel. But the novel we now have, the novel we have always had, is by no means easy to interpret or even to describe.

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[1] As does the Cambridge Edition of the Letters, edited by James Boulton and Lindeth Vasey, which has now reached Volume V (686 pp., £45, 10 August, 0 521 23114 0). This covers the period between March 1924, when the Lawrences arrived in New York en route for Taos, and March 1927, by which time they were in Italy, Lawrence having completed the second version of Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

[2] Another context might be that of Fin-de-Siècle writing. Lawrence’s name crops up once or twice in Ian Fletcher’s elegant and informative introduction to his anthology of British Poetry and Prose 1870-1905 (Oxford, 560 pp., £21.50 and £8.95, 22 January 1987, 0 19 254186 2).

[3] In The Cambridge Guide to the Arts in Britain, Volume VIII: The Edwardian Age and the Inter-War Years, edited by Boris Ford (367 pp., £19.50, 8 June, 0 521 30981 6). Berthoud contributes a lucid essay on literature and drama to this helpful survey of the period. There are also contributions by Wilfred Mellers, Rupert Hildyard, Simon Pepper, Michael Kennedy, Richard Cork, John Beer, John Summerson, Neil Sinyard, Gillian Naylor, Frank Whitehead and Ford himself.