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.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.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.
In D.H. Lawrence in the Modern World, Kinkead-Weekes suggests a reading against the grain when he points out that The Rainbow could be described as a historical novel: a novel concerned, not with the travails of the phallic imagination, but with provincial middle-class life between 1840 and 1905. ‘Moreover the movement into history is an important theme. We shall not find the “hungry Forties” or the Chartists in the world of the beginning: Tom’s Marsh Farm is still relatively isolated and Lydia comes there as a refugee from history: but we can watch Anna and Will begin to enter the mainstream of their time; and Ursula and Skrebensky live in a fully historic world.’ Like Paradise Lost, the novel moves from myth into history. But for Lawrence, as for Milton, history can only be explained mythologically, by a fall from grace. In The Rainbow, modern history exemplifies, according to Kinkead-Weekes, ‘the atrophy of man’s sense of organic beauty related to the natural landscape, and of togetherness with other men – the unifying impulse that is one essential pole of the dialectic of creative growth’. This, surely, is a Lawrence who invites fastidiousness. What does ‘atrophy’ mean here, or ‘organic beauty related to the natural landscape’, or ‘togetherness with other men’? But the novel’s concern with history does at least suggest another Lawrence: one who has to be read against the grain of his own transcendentalism.
‘I am a passionately religious man,’ he told Edward Garnett in April 1914, as he was completing ‘The Wedding Ring’, an early version of The Rainbow and Women in Love, ‘and my novels must be written from the depth of my religious experience.’ But it remains at least possible that his religious experience falsified what he had to say about human behaviour, since religious experience sometimes does that. His psychology has, to my mind, a materialist as well as a transcendental aspect. ‘For Lawrence,’ Jacques Berthoud speculates valiantly, ‘the self has a centre, which is the subjective life of the body, and a circumference, which is the outgoing life of the mind.’Lawrence felt that mind and body do not settle into a fixed relation, but rather interfere constantly in each other’s designs. In materialist mood, he insisted that mind cannot circumvent body. Identity is not only the way we are represented, but the way the life of the body modifies or negates those representations. As he told Garnett in June 1914: ‘somehow – that which is physic – non-human, in humanity, is more interesting to me than the old-fashioned human element – which causes one to conceive a character in a certain moral scheme and make him consistent.’ We might say that it was the increasingly apocalyptic thrust of Lawrence’s religious experience which drew him to the ‘non-human’ and which led, in Women in Love, to Gerald Crich’s hunger for ‘snow-abstract annihilation’ and Rupert Birkin’s disappointment with the ‘merely human’. But we must also acknowledge that he had always been fascinated by the ‘non-human’ or the ‘physic’ in men and women. The letter to Garnett restates this preoccupation. ‘I don’t care so much about what the woman feels ... That presumes an ego to feel with. I only care about what the woman is – what she is – inhumanly, physiologically, materially.’ This preoccupation with ‘physic’ seems to me one of the strongest emphases in the stories and novels up to and including The Rainbow.
Lawrence’s descriptions of the life of the body connect him with Thomas Hardy, a novelist deeply implicated in 19th-century materialism, and one he was writing about in the second half of 1914, shortly before he began to revise ‘The Wedding Ring’. Hardy was fascinated by the way a body can be so altered during a lifetime that it becomes the history of its alterations. In The Woodlanders, for example, George Melbury’s stiffness is the ‘net product’ of the various over-exertions required of him when handling timber as a young man; he can recall the occasion of each fracture and sprain. The injuries are as much the man as his social and professional status. To live and work is to deteriorate physically, until you become your deteriorations. Deformation is formation.
Lawrence was less interested in the causes than in the effects of such deformations, less interested in the labour which produced them than in the desire they arouse. In ‘The Prussian Officer’ (written May-June 1913), the scar on a young orderly’s thumb drives his superior to distraction. ‘And the next day he had to use all his will-power to avoid seeing the scarred thumb. He wanted to get hold of it and – a hot flame ran in his blood.’ The scar is the trace of an event, an accident with a wood-axe. It gives the young man a history; and the history gives a social and physical presence potent enough to abolish his role as an orderly, and the distance which surrounds that role. The officer does not desire an unmarked body – the flawless beauty of youth – but a marked body which is the history of its deformations. Similarly, in The White Peacock, Lettie Beardsall is aroused not so much by George Saxton’s physique as by the deep cut across his thumb; it is the cut which releases her ‘insurgent tenderness’. (In Women in Love, Gerald Crich’s mangled hand seems to be less of a plus; Gudrun, in any case, soon acquires her own electrifying gash.)
Tenderness is always insurgent, it seems, always refusing the identifications offered by participation in family or community life. Yet those identifications are necessary, and creative, and very much a part of Lawrence’s own creativity. As Raymond Williams pointed out, his achievement in Sons and Lovers – ‘writing with the experience; with the mother as well as the son; with the life they belong to’ – is a validation, rather than merely a description, of community. In Sons and Lovers, in The Rainbow, the writing reproduces community, partly by closeness to the lives described, partly by its organisation into short, simple sentences which refer back directly, through repetition and presupposition, to those which have gone before, just as an individual life refers back to the lives which have made it possible. Like a personal or a collective history, discourse accumulates until it is more than the sum of its parts – until it is the sum of the relations between its parts. Insurgencies thus occur as breaks in cohesion, a suspension of the perpetual reference back to a predecessor.
Lydia Lensky, domiciled in England after her husband’s death, lives at first in a kind of trance, apparently without a will of her own.
She was sent to Yorkshire, to nurse an old rector in his rectory by the sea. This was the first shake of the kaleidoscope that brought in front of her eyes something she must see. It hurt her brain, the open country and the moors. It hurt her and hurt her. Yet it forced itself upon her as if something living, it roused some potency of her childhood in her, it had some relation to her.
Elements in the second sentence either repeat (‘she’) or presuppose (‘this’) elements in the first, binding the two together. The third opens with a dummy subject (it), which has replaced the subject clause (‘the open country and the moors’) at the head of the sentence, and does not refer back to a previous subject but forward to the clause it has replaced: the pattern of backward reference has been suspended. Furthermore, the dummy subject has, in this case, a syntactic but not a semantic function. It has, for a split second, only the anticipation of a meaning. The presence of this ghostly syntactic double creates a moment of vertigo, when interpretation fails. What does ‘it’ refer to? Lydia has been hurt into refusing the destiny chosen for her; physically, materially, she can no longer believe what she has been telling herself. Her ‘automatic consciousness’ gives way, and its failure frees her. ‘Her soul roused to attention.’ The paragraph closes, like Lydia’s mind, around this new effort of attention, with subsequent sentences referring back to its catalyst, ‘the open country’.
Later, when she marries Tom Brangwen, her rediscovered self-belief will play its part in breaking down his automatic consciousness, his received ideas about marriage.
‘Would you like to have another woman?’ she asked.
His eyes grew round, he did not know where he was. How could she, his own wife, say such a thing? But she sat there small and foreign and separate. It dawned upon him she did not consider herself his wife, except in so far as they agreed. She did not feel she had married him. At any rate, she was willing to allow he might want another woman. A gap, a space opened before him.
‘No,’ he said, slowly. ‘What other woman should I want?’
The gap or space which opens up before Tom Brangwen has already been opened up in the narrative by a dummy subject (‘It dawned upon him she did not consider herself his wife’). Physically, materially, he can no longer believe what he has been telling himself about marriage – and will go on telling his wife. It is through this negation, this moment of vertigo, that he begins to know himself.
It is dangerous, of course, to lay so much stress on an inconspicuous effect of language. The effect in question, however, does occur frequently in the early writing, and usually at moments of painful but liberating self-recognition. In Sons and Lovers, for example, a dummy subject registers the ‘blank’ in Mrs Morel’s heart, the end of her love for her husband. ‘It hurt her most of all, this failure to love him, even when he roused her strong emotions.’ The loss of a feeling that should be there, but isn’t, even when strong emotions are, is itself a feeling that can only be registered in language by the most discriminating of effects. So it is with Paul Morel’s recognition, at once numbing and fortifying, that his mother has suffered. ‘It hurt the boy keenly, this feeling about her that she had never had her life’s fulfilment: and his own incapability to make up to her hurt him with a sense of impotence, yet made him patiently dogged inside.’ These moments are never consoling: the end of consolation is the beginning of selfhood. Miriam Leivers is most herself when she recognises the strength of Paul’s attachment to his mother and his male friends. ‘It was a great bitterness to Miriam to see herself deserted by Paul for Edgar, who seemed so much lower.’ The inconspicuous effect of language enables Lawrence to witness the moment at which his characters stop believing what they have always thought about themselves. Mrs Morel is not a devoted wife. Miriam is not Paul’s shadow. The description of these bitter but fruitful self-negotiations seems to me as assured and as distinctive in its way as anything in James, Conrad or Joyce.
But the transcendental Lawrence wanted to do more than describe an awareness that was, after all, negative: a gap or a blank, rather than a new life. The dummy subject performed a particular task. It reproduced a feeling of separation within community, a sudden loosening of ties. At the end of Sons and Lovers, however, Paul Morel separates himself from family and community, as Ursula Brangwen does during the course of The Rainbow. When Lawrence left Eastwood, then abandoned his career as a teacher, then eloped with Frieda Weekley, he cut rather than loosened ties. These separations from community had a more drastic effect than the separations within community which had characterised his life up to that point. They presented him with a new problem. Identity had now to be conceived not differentially but dialectically, as a marriage of opposites, a resolution of the conflicts engendered by the abandonment of a way of life; and it had to be expressed as a doctrine rather than simply registered. In the ‘Foreword’ to Sons and Lovers (January 1913) and the ‘Study of Thomas Hardy’ (September-November 1914), Lawrence began to elaborate his religious philosophy or ‘metaphysic’. He now spoke, not of differences between the way we are and the way we have been represented, differences felt as a gap or blank in the representations which constitute us, but of polarities which must be reconstituted as a higher unity, a self without gaps or blanks. Selfhood now depends on equilibrium or transcendence rather than negation. The emergence of this metaphysic signalled the end, for better or worse, of Lawrence’s short-lived materialism. It bears the mark, in language and conception, of his religious experience.
The Rainbow becomes increasingly polarised as the focus shifts from Tom and Lydia to Will and Anna, and finally to Ursula. In the penultimate chapter, ‘The Bitterness of Ecstasy’, Ursula turns, as Lawrence himself had done, against an educational system which regards knowledge not as a ‘religious virtue’ but as the means to material success. The biologist Dr Frankstone is condemned for creating the monster of scientific materialism. Then Ursula turns against Anton Skrebensky, who had previously seemed quite a good thing, but comes back from Africa intent on dedicating himself to public service, at the expense of his ‘under-life’. Lawrence told Garnett that the subject of ‘The Sisters’ was ‘woman becoming individual, self-responsible, taking her own initiative’. Ursula will never become ‘self-responsible’, as Lydia and Anna had done, as Miriam Leivers had done, by negation: materially, physically. Her ‘antagonism to the social imposition’ is such that it cannot be resolved within community – that is, within plot and discourse – but only by apocalyptic metaphor. ‘She saw in the rainbow the earth’s new architecture, the old, brittle corruption of houses and factories swept away, the world built up in a living fabric of Truth, fitting to the over-arching heaven.’ Just as myth supersedes history in The Rainbow, so metaphor supersedes plot and discourse. Women in Love does attempt to make apocalypse real, and its qualified transcendentalism remains the most fully evolved statement of Lawrence’s metaphysic. But if there is to be a Lawrence for as well as in the modern world, it cannot simply be the Lawrence who created and was sustained by that metaphysic.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.