Keeping up the fight

Paul Delany

  • D.H. Lawrence: A Biography by Jeffrey Meyers
    Macmillan, 446 pp, £19.95, August 1990, ISBN 0 333 49247 1
  • D.H. Lawrence by Tony Pinkney
    Harvester, 180 pp, £30.00, June 1990, ISBN 0 7108 1347 3
  • England, My England, and Other Stories by D.H. Lawrence, edited by Bruce Steele
    Cambridge, 285 pp, £37.50, March 1990, ISBN 0 521 35267 3
  • The ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ Trial (Regina v. Penguin Books Limited) edited by H. Montgomery Hyde
    Bodley Head, 333 pp, £18.00, June 1990, ISBN 0 370 31105 1
  • Boy by James Hanley
    Deutsch, 191 pp, £11.99, August 1990, ISBN 0 233 98578 6
  • D.H. Lawrence: A Literary Life by John Worthen
    Macmillan, 196 pp, £27.50, September 1989, ISBN 0 333 43352 1

When Willie Hopkin first caught sight of D.H. Lawrence in his pram, he thought him a ‘puny, fragile little specimen’. Forty-four years later the fragile specimen died, reduced by tuberculosis to a weight of 90 pounds. It is understandable, then, that Jeffrey Meyers should make much of Lawrence’s ‘lifelong invalidism’, and conclude his biography with an appendix called ‘A History of Illness’. Lawrence himself tempted biographers along this road by saying that ‘one sheds one’s sickness in books’: doesn’t this mean that the sickness is the key to the work, linking the man who creates to the pattern of his creation like the skin left behind by the snake?

It may be that a partnership between art and sickness is a trademark of High Modernism, as Edmund Wilson argued in The Wound and the Bow. But if so, Lawrence wanted to be in a different business. Modernist sickness is more likely to be neurasthenia or hypochondria than the real thing, and to Lawrence, such sickness represents the fatal flaw of the modern novel. He described Mann as ‘the last sick sufferer from the complaint of Flaubert. The latter stood away from life as from a leprosy. And Thomas Mann, like Flaubert, feels vaguely that he has in him something finer than ever physical life revealed.’ Lawrence’s heroic vitalism, his belief that ‘physical life’ is the highest value we can know, includes a refusal of what he saw as the morbidity of a century of ‘art for art’s sake’. ‘Art for my sake’ was his defiant retort: more than that, art for England’s sake – since his country was the truly morbid body, and his art the medicine that could cure it. ‘Surgery is pure hate of the defect in the loved thing,’ he told Ottoline Morrell, ‘and it is surgery we want, Cambridge wants, England wants. I want.’

To be sure, he included himself in the list of things defective, which may justify Meyers’s cagey statement that Lawrence was ‘in some respects abnormal’. Meyers’s explanation of the abnormality is, however, all too simple: it was the fault of Lawrence’s awful mother. Her claim to be a former teacher from a genteel background was a fraud: she tormented her bluff and genial working-class husband, and forced her children to hate him; she was rightly ostracised by her neighbours for her disdainful self-righteousness; she ‘cruelly victimised’ her hapless rival, Jessie Chambers; and so the character-assassination goes on. Meyers portrays Lydia as a toxic personality; and because she set out to dominate everyone around her, it was only rough justice when her husband ‘physically dominated’ her in return.

But what does ‘physical domination’ mean here? The phrase is in fact a euphemism for assault – Arthur Lawrence taking revenge on his wife and children in the only way he could, with his ‘hard fists’. Such beatings may have been common enough in working-class homes at the time: but their victims suffered because they were weak, not because they all had the same sharp tongue and exigent temperament as Lydia Lawrence. Arthur Lawrence’s younger brother killed his 15-year-old son by throwing a sharpening-steel at him in a fit of rage (the boy was the same age as his cousin David Herbert). Might it not have been male violence, as much as maternal discontent, that made Lawrence ‘abnormal’?

Lawrence, like his father and uncle, was given to wild fits of rage. When confronted with nothing more threatening than a blank sheet of paper, he composed many justifications of spontaneous violence. His marriage with Frieda often turned into a Punch and Judy show that appalled their middle-class friends, though it doesn’t appal Meyers, who says that the battles between Lawrence and Frieda were something they ‘seemed to enjoy ... as a kind of sexual foreplay’. The people who do appal Meyers are those who light dirty and are sanctimonious about it: Lydia Lawrence and Meyers’s other bête noire, John Middleton Murry.

Murry perhaps deserves what he gets (though one still wonders why Lawrence stuck to him for so long); but Lydia gets a biographical third degree. Her father is said to have ‘described himself as an engineer’ while actually being ‘a fitter who assembled machinery’: this, it is implied, is part of a family tradition of pretentiousness. In fact, the father was using ‘engineer’ in an everyday Mid-Victorian sense. Lydia did, ‘fail’ as a pupil teacher, but so would many people if put in charge of a class when they were small, sensitive, female, and 14 years old. Officially failed teacher or not, she was the informal teacher of a ‘collier’s brat’ who became one of our century’s major writers. Meyers sets about Lydia as if the feminism of the past twenty years had never existed, eliding the central fact that she was an extraordinary person who by accident of birth could not express her talents directly, only through her male offspring. Later, D.H. Lawrence became a fierce critic of two of his mother’s traits: puritanical idealism and the willingness to settle for vicarious fulfilment. Yet it was she who ignited the flame of his genius, and fed it with her own unsatisfied needs.

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[*] 272 pp., £5.99, 25 October 1990, 0 14 13381 X.