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.
He concedes that many people suppose that young Lawrence was rather a weed, that his father was a low-class drunk and his mother a snobbish old shrew. These accusations are unfair, he declares. He then describes a scene which begins with the mother sneering at the father’s accent, upon which D.H. (‘Bert’) joins in and calls his father a beast. The father goes for him:
and there they stood, breast to breast, teeth exposed and all but snarling, glaring into each other’s eyes, just as you have seen the untamed things of the wild. Poor Little Woman! ... I took her by the shoulders and placed myself in front of her. With my right I forced the father back, while the left arm held off the son. ‘Enough of that,’ I said. ‘Listen to me. I’ll knock down the one who strikes first, without the slightest hesitation; and I mean just that.’ That settled it, for I had something of a reputation in the fistic art in those days, and old Lawrence went to his chair. I told him a few real home truths, including the fact that he might consider himself very lucky that I had not been in Bert’s place, that had it been my mother of whom he spoke I would have licked him unmercifully, and then I turned to D.H. and told him that he ought to be ashamed of himself, ‘For, after all, he is your father,’ I concluded ...
It might have happened like that, I suppose, but it does sound rather like a mixture of Walter Mitty and Tom Brown’s Schooldays. There is the tone here of a conceited man who thinks himself just as good a writer as the famous man he is writing about – and also much more manly, worldly and socially acceptable. It is, in fact, precisely the tone of Trelawney’s memoir of Shelley.
Even when he is not being carried away by self-regard, George Neville has a problem with his defence of Lawrence. He has to fight on two fronts, against two classes, the locals and the metropolitans. The locals might say that Lawrence was a dirty beast, or that he was a Jessie, always going about with girls instead of with men. The sophisticated metropolitans, conversely, might say that Lawrence was a twisted neurotic and a repressed homosexual. There is no answer to an attack on a man’s sex life: the accused has always done too much or too little. George Neville was the last man to make a good job of the defence. He wanted to appear as a respectable local citizen; and in fact he led a distinctly hairy sex life – involving an illegitimate child about whom Lawrence had written, excitedly, to his metropolitan friends. Then there is the matter of Lawrence’s admiration for men’s bodies. George Neville knows that he is the original of the young man whose body is admired in The White Peacock: in his own memoir he discusses Lawrence’s description (which he thinks ‘beautiful’) and the incident which prompted it, with honest satisfaction. He uses the story as a defence against those who thought Lawrence cold-hearted and inclined ‘to regard sentimentality as weakness’. It does not seem to have occurred to honest Neville that other detractors might use the story to ‘accuse’ Lawrence of homosexual feeling, as if this condition were a crime.
Neville is comical because he is unusually naive – and especially comical when he is trying to be dignified (for the locals) or clever (for the metropolitans). Sometimes he seems like the self-exposing narrator of a comic novel, like Moll Flanders, Barry Lyndon or Mr Pooter. So, it is not surprising that some have suspected that his memoir is a hoax. We may more safely suppose that he was a genuine person, striving to be candid against all the odds. We leave him running a sex education class for the local youngsters, ‘calling a spade a spade’, against the local vicar’s advice.
Witter Bynner is a more wily bird. James Kraft’s selection of his letters presents him in a good light and few would claim to ‘see through’ him, as we think we see through Neville. Bynner’s comments on The Plumed Serpent seem just and gentlemanly. He challenges, without malice, the tone of the whole novel, with its tough-guy posturing. As for the caricature of himself as Owen Rhys, he laughs it off, plausibly informing his correspondents about what really happened.
The first chapter of The Plumed Serpent, burdened with Lawrence’s rather stupid and ill-tempered generalisations about sexes, races and classes, is a lively narrative about Owen Rhys, an American sissy, accompanied by an American tough guy and an Irishwoman called Kate, attending a revolting Mexican bull fight. Owen Rhys insists on sitting among the crowd – because he is a socialist, a ‘trendy Lefty’, hints Lawrence – but he cannot stand up for himself when the horrible Mexican crowd presses about him. Owen Rhys’s feebleness is symbolised by the bald spot on the back of his head. The crowd’s beastliness is mirrored by the savagery in the arena. Kate walks out in disgust, but the two Americans will not escort her. One of them, in Lawrence’s view, is too tough. The other, Owen Rhys, is nasty and soft.
This scene is based on a true experience in the early Twenties. In 1931, Bynner wrote to a friend:
As to my role in The Plumed Serpent, which he was writing while I was writing my adverse poems and notes about him, he played the trick, as I remember it, of having me refuse to escort his heroine away from the bull fight. As a matter of fact, the heroine was himself. It was he who strode away from the arena muttering imprecations upon toreadors and their watchers and it was his wife who refused point blank to accompany him. Naturally, I remained behind with Frieda although I was by no means relishing the show. His other whack at me which, as I remember, was having me morbidly curious about an automobile accident, is as opposite to my normal course in such matters as it well could be. I have a notion that he destined me for further punishment in his book but that, as our friendship grew, he relented and let me drift out of the story ...
This is a decent and tolerant response to an insult. Witter Bynner seems to have enjoyed sparring with his fellow writers and he willingly admits that he had written ‘adverse poems and notes’ about Lawrence, asking for trouble. In 1923 he was writing to another friend: ‘I see now how he has been defeated by people all through his life and has consequently lashed their paper images with his poor fury.’ Bynner’s comments on Lawrence are severe and witty. He was demonstratively fond of Lawrence’s wife, remarking in several letters how much he preferred Frieda to her husband.
After the publication of The Plumed Serpent, Bynner wrote a friendly but sparring note to Lawrence. He praises parts of the novel but continues: ‘After that, I’m ready to quarrel with you ...’ He states the cause of the quarrel:
You are forever hunting out in mankind some superior being (sometimes yourself) and attributing to him mystical or semi-mystical qualities of godly leadership ... There is always a physical tinge in it – an animal admiration – and often, arising out of that, a blur of spiritual admiration. You carry over, from Egypt or England, a need of religion: or of authority. Touching on it, you become vague and feminine. Fair enough. Distrusting your gesture toward religion, I see well how you must detest mine ...
He offers some more criticism, civil but tough, and concludes his letter: ‘Now flay me.’ Perhaps the editor of the letters, James Kraft, ought to have printed Lawrence’s reply. He wrote:
On the whole, I think you’re right. The hero is obsolete, and the leader of men is a back number ... I’m becoming a lamb at last, and you’ll even find it hard to take umbrage at me. Do you think? But still, in a way, one has to fight ... I feel one still has to fight for the phallic reality ... So I wrote my novel, which I want to call John Thomas and Lady Jane ...
It rather looks as if Witter Bynner was a good influence on Lawrence, as well as being a severe and witty critic. But then, to judge by these letters, he was a pretty good fellow all round. He seems to have fancied himself as a sort of bohemian drop-out from the American upper class, a supporter of Whitmanian multiracial democracy, ever ready to challenge Anglo-Saxondom. At moments of political crisis, though, he resumed his air of authority and wrote to his powerful friends explaining what was the ‘decent, republican’ thing to do. His relationship with the United Kingdom is interesting and provoking. There is a touch of the white settler about him: in his youth, before he became so liberal, there is an ugly smack of the white settler’s attitude to subject blacks, and there is always a suspicion of British imperial manoeuvres. He wants to patronise Britain: he was the first to publish A.E. Housman in America and he boasts that it was in the States that Housman and Meredith first got the appreciation they deserved. (What about the appreciation of Whitman in London? One wants to join in this interesting correspondence.) He wrote a play with the young Cecil B. DeMille and camped out with him in Maine, meanwhile corresponding with W.B. Yeats. He knew both Henry James and Tennessee Williams, patronised Masefield and Ezra Pound. Mark Twain wrote a poem about him ...
Altogether, Witter Bynner seems too large a person to be discussed merely as an appendage of D.H. Lawrence. This collection of letters (selected from more than seven thousand) represents the fifth volume of Bynner’s collected works, and indicates that we might have paid more attention to the previous four – especially, perhaps, the translations from the Chinese which he undertook in collaboration with Kiang Kang-hu, the man who taught Mao about socialism.
Bynner died in 1968, aged 87. He seems to have been quietly and unashamedly homosexual or bisexual, not keen on Lawrentian candour about such matters. The fictional character most resembling him is, perhaps, the long-lived homosexual (who had also been everywhere and met everybody) in Anthony Burgess’s Earthly Powers. D.H. Lawrence certainly did not do Bynner justice. Of course, he had no intention of doing so: but it seems a pity that he should have reduced him to the footling Owen Rhys.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.