The Letters of D.H. Lawrence, Vol I: September 1901 – May 1913 
edited by James Boulton.
Cambridge, 579 pp., £15
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In 1932,​ Aldous Huxley published The Collected Letters of D.H. Lawrence, a large brown volume, printed in a curiously elaborate type, which has no doubt become something of a special item in booksellers’ catalogues. It contained 889 pages. Exactly 30 years later Harry T. Moore edited The Collected Letters of D.H. Lawrence. This consisted of two volumes totalling 1,307 pages. Both before and subsequently several smaller, independent collections of letters appeared; one, for example, contained the correspondence Lawrence had with Bertrand Russell during the First World War, another, entitled Lawrence in Love, presented the letters he wrote during his abortive engagement to Louie Burrows, one of the many girls who seem to have fallen irrevocably in love with him when he was an unknown youth. Now, it seems, those of us who live long enough will eventually be able to peruse The Letters of D.H. Lawrence in no less than eight volumes, of which the one under review is the first. It contains 579 pages. Since the last volume of the series will, we are told, be an index volume, and will presumably be shorter than the others, one can calculate that when the publication of the series is concluded, it will consist of approximately 4,500 pages.

In scale, then, this project can be justifiably compared with the flagship of modern Anglo-American literary scholarship, the Pilgrim Edition of the letters of Charles Dickens, of which Volume IV (771 pages, covering two years of the author’s life) appeared last year. In terms of the number of letters to be included, the Dickens volumes will in fact be about three times as long, but the principle of a strict all-inclusiveness is being followed in this case too. Everything, whether previously published or not, comes in. Two-line postcards count as well. The letters (and postcards) are fully annotated, with short biographical notes both on the recipients and on the people mentioned in them, and much supplementary information is given to elucidate references and allusions of all kinds. (In the case of picture postcards a brief description of the verso is supplied.) In addition, we are provided with an elaborate genealogy of the Lawrence family, a chronicle of the major events of Lawrence’s life during the period covered by the letters, and maps of South-East England, of the Eastwood and Nottingham district, of Croydon and London, and of those parts of Germany and Italy which Lawrence visited in 1912-13. The editor, Professor James T. Boulton, who edited the letters to Louie Burrows mentioned above, also contributes a modest and sympathetic introduction, which is in effect an admirably concise intellectual biography of the young Lawrence.

Then there are the letters. If any English novelist other than Dickens deserves this kind of treatment (in one sense of the phrase) it is, I am sure, D.H. Lawrence, both because the letters are so vivid and interesting in themselves, and because of the scope of his artistic achievement. But does anyone deserve – in the other sense of the phrase – to be treated in this fashion? What kind of a favour do you do to a writer when everything he ever scribbled off is subsequently dredged up, annotated, and made available to be used in evidence for or against him? What is the real rationale of the fanatical drive among modern literary scholars to get everything in? The answers, I think, are rather paradoxical in nature. On the one hand, there are the responsibilities felt by the scholars to notions of the ‘purity’ or ‘wholeness’ or even ‘perfection’ of the texts they deal with, notions which are perhaps derived ultimately from the traditions governing the transmission of the Scriptures, but which were powerfully reinforced in the 19th century by the competitive influence of what were believed to be scientific methods and procedures. On the other hand, devotion of this kind can also be thought of as the product of an excess of humility on the part of scholars, which leads to a complete abdication of critical responsibility. Who am I, an editor in effect asks, to say that this letter or postcard or laundry-bill is not worth bothering about? How do I know that Dr Tomorrow of the University of Atlantis won’t see in this or that jotting the key to the understanding of the entire oeuvre? So in it goes.

After all of which admonitory frowning and lip-pursing, it has to be said that the results in this case are fascinating. The story told in these letters is such a touching and dramatic one that the very thickness of the volume, its detailed and sometimes repetitive effect, add to the almost novelistic quality it has. Once again we see the poor boy from the provinces – adored by his mother and by a flock of young women who know they will not find another like him in Nottingham or Croydon – becoming increasingly conscious both of the extent of his gifts and of the danger of their being crushed or destroyed by the obscurity of his circumstances, or by bad luck, or by illness, once again we see a greedy relish of the first signs of recognition to come his way wrestling with his conviction that they are no more than his due, we see him struggling through his mother’s painful and protracted death, which leaves him outwardly jaunty and inwardly empty, adrift, until he himself falls seriously ill, just a year after her funeral (almost to the very day), we see him recovering from that illness and making a dash for the Continent with Frieda Weekley, who is herself a mother, another man’s wife, older than he is, and upper-class (after a fashion), we see him finishing Sons and Lovers, and, as he does so, assuming a role which he fully intends to be an exemplary one, that of the rebel, the artist, the despiser of conventions, the preacher, the pilgrim.

No wonder that when he looked back at the age of 28 he seemed already to have had ‘several lives all queerer than novels’. Here we have those lives in his own words, all, that is, except the life he shared with his mother. His letters to her have disappeared, and one can only assume that Lawrence took care to burn them in the ‘twilight’ after her death. As one might expect, there are things to dislike in the hundreds of surviving letters. He is sometimes jaunty, narcissistic, callow, xenophobic (before his travels, that is); though few of the letters are ‘theoretical’ in any way, there are premonitions, and more than premonitions, of some of those neurasthenic obsessions which he could deal with only by diagnosing them as the ills of others, and which as diagnoses or imputations were to disfigure his novels from The Rainbow onwards. This is particularly true of his discovery, after his flight with Frieda, of the hideous ‘deadness’ of England, the country in which his mother had died and he himself had been severely ill, and from which there came an incessant series of tormented and tormenting letters from Frieda’s distraught husband.

None of this, however, does much to diminish the impression of overwhelming originality and imaginative power which one carries away from the book. Almost from the very beginning Lawrence writes like a supernaturally gifted sportsman making his strokes; there is no gap whatever between eye, brain and hand, the words just seem to happen before us on the page rather than to arrive there as the result of any conceivable process of calculation. But the analogy is inadequate in at least one important respect: often enough what this brain and eye are observing, and this hand is transcribing, are not so much ‘events’ as internal states and feelings. Yet the result is the same: the observation and the act of communicating it are perfectly integrated with one another, and the writer has total confidence in them both. Hence the dazzling swiftness and spontaneity which create the effects of pathos in the letters as well as those of wit; or which mark the reflective as much as the dramatic and descriptive passages – or indeed the transitions between and combinations of all these elements.

An example? Here is one from a letter written during his mother’s last illness:

My mother is a sight to see and be silent about for ever. She has had a bloody hard life, and has always been bright: but now her face has fallen like a mask of bitter cruel suffering. She was, when well, incredibly bright, with more smile wrinkles than anything: you’d never know that this was the permanent structure on which the other floated. I sit hour after hour in the bedroom, for I am chief nurse, watching her – and sometimes I turn to look out of the window at the bright wet cabbages in the garden, and the horses in the field beyond, and the church tower small as a black dice on the hill at the back a long way off, and I find myself apostrophising the landscape. ‘So that’s what you mean, is it?’ – and under the mobile shadowy change of expression, like smiles, on the countryside, there seems to lie the cast of eternal suffering. Banal!

In this book we are always under the spell of that ‘mobile, shadowy change of expression’ which Lawrence sees as existing outside himself, and yet in which or through which he lives, and which is itself an unsurpassable description of his own mode of writing. One more example, of a very different kind:

Christmas was all right. My sister had her boy [friend] down. He follows her round like a dog. They had tea tête-à-tête – I was lying on the couch with my back to them. When I scanned round, he sat holding a mince-pie minus one large round bite, and leaning forward to her so pathetically. She gave him a quick kiss, he bowed his head and humbly bit his mince-pie. All the time they kept up their trivial conversation, and I should never have known.

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