Westward Ho

Frank Kermode

  • The Letters of D.H. Lawrence. Vol. III: October 1916 - June 1921 edited by James Boulton and Andrew Robertson
    Cambridge, 762 pp, £25.00, November 1984, ISBN 0 521 23112 4
  • Brett: From Bloomsbury to New Mexico by Sean Hignett
    Hodder, 299 pp, £14.95, January 1985, ISBN 0 340 22973 X

This, the third of seven volumes in the Cambridge collection, contains 942 letters written by Lawrence in something under five years. Harry T. Moore’s Collected Letters of 1962 did the whole job in less than twice as many pages, though it’s true he didn’t print quite everything; and many more letters have turned up over the last twenty years. They are still turning up: this volume contains letters, formerly unknown, to Robert Mountsier, who later became Lawrence’s agent in the US, and a batch to Douglas Goldring.

The volume covers an interesting period. The Lawrences were having a bad time in Cornwall up to October 1917, when they were expelled by the police. Then they were, on the whole, wretched in London, Berkshire and Derbyshire. Lawrence so often predicted the end of the war, which he hoped would be an almighty smash, that he had to be right in the end, but his main reason for wanting it was his passionate desire to get out of England, and this he was unable to achieve till November 1919, when he left for Italy. He never again lived permanently in England.

If the best part of a thousand letters seems a lot to have written in a five-year span marked by illness, wretchedness and poverty, we can reflect that it works out at only about seventeen a month. Most of us write more letters than that, and it is easy to imagine that if anybody was crazy enough to collect and annotate them the result would be quite astonishingly tedious. Lawrence is another matter, but we shouldn’t be surprised that quite large tracts of this volume are very dull. In early 1920 he sacked his agent Pinker (that ‘parvenu snob of a procureur of books’) and conducted his own business with publishers: so many of these letters, bravely described by the editors as ‘interesting’, are about royalties and advances and the like. Lawrence was bold and direct, peremptory but not greedy – he never bothered as much about money as his sometimes extreme poverty might have impelled him to do – but a little of this sort of correspondence goes a long way. He hardly ever says anything about work in progress, though he mentions the successive versions of his ‘philosophy’ and repeatedly affirms that Women in Love, unpublishable after the suppression of The Rainbow, is a masterpiece.

Indeed, one would never guess from the letters themselves that they were written in the intervals of work on books so various and so many that it is hard to believe they were done in five years. Apart from the ‘philosophy’, for most of which the world had to wait till he was dead, he wrote many poems, stories and novellas: Aaron’s Rod, Mr Noon, The Lost Girl, Sea and Sardinia, Psychology and the Unconscious, Fantasia of the Unconscious, and Studies in Classic American Literature in its early forms. You couldn’t possibly guess from the letters that this last book was one of the greatest and most original achievements of 20th-century criticism; and that is only one of the things you couldn’t guess. For instance, you would need to be told by somebody else that Studies in Classic American Literature, or, to give it its earlier title, The Symbolic Meaning, was read for and written under conditions that most of our later specialists in American literature would regard as excusing them from doing anything at all.

The editors provide an ample chronology and much patient annotation (I was cheered to find mistakes in notes on pp. 509 and 529), but still more help is needed if these letters are to be read in the right spirit, and it would be a good idea to have recently looked at the ‘Nightmare’ chapter of Kangaroo and Paul Delany’s well-written book about Lawrence in the war years, D.H. Lawrence’s Nightmare (1978). Something on the post-war Italian years would also be useful. Without such aids, and despite editorial assiduity, the letters present their author in a dim and sometimes ugly light. The pompousness of his sermons and the cold violence of his quarrelling are equally depressing. It may be thought that Middleton Murry deserved all he got, but it wasn’t for his highminded meddling and fornicating that Lawrence called him ‘a dirty little worm’ three times over in the same letter: it was because Murry had turned down some articles of his. Ottoline Morrell was annoyed to learn that she was recognisable in the Hermione of Women in Love, and for being so is called disgusting and contemptible; she ought to have been flattered, even if Hermione is like her, which, says Lawrence, she isn’t. When Amy Lowell sent him money he forgot to thank her until he had to write about something else. Lawrence was very quick to despise people, not least his benefactors.

Of course no individual stood much chance of pleasing him when he had declared war on the whole human race and frequently prayed for its extinction. He told Forster there was no health in mankind, assured Koteliansky that ‘people and the world are foul and obscene.’ The only decent thing was to reject them all and be isolate. Lovers were included in this rejection; one must aim at ‘star singleness’. At first it seemed that to get out of England would be good enough: but then Europe wouldn’t do either. Among the sites of his utopia were Russia, Colombia, Palestine, Zululand and the South Pacific: but the odds were always that he would eventually choose America.

The best explanation for this choice is in Studies in Classic American Literature, but he keeps mentioning it in the letters. He can’t really explain why the notion is so attractive. The only reason for wanting to be with Americans is that they are ahead of us on the way to total decadence, like Jews. Yet in spite of a temporary transference of his desires to a ship, in which he could wander about the world without being anywhere at all, America was his objective, his ‘untilled field’. ‘Remember,’ he lectures Mountsier, who was American anyway, ‘one should move westwards, never eastwards. Eastwards is retrogression. We move west and southwards – that is the living direction.’ His later career was to prove that you could get to the west by retrogressing eastwards, but the urge to go westwards is interesting. Lawrence’s apocalyptic thought is always intensely traditional, and the idea of a translatio westward belongs to that habit of mind. It is all of a piece with his desire to wipe out the human race and substitute a ‘non-human race of men’; and with his hope for a movement led by him, in a new world where women knew their place and didn’t destroy their men as in the old world. Decadence is in the east, renovation in the west.

So long as the war lasted he was stuck in England with Frieda, and his mood was of intermittent rage at the military authorities, who insisted on his having medical examinations, at politicians, especially Lloyd George, the Welsh rat, though at least he might bring on the debacle a bit faster, and at his friends. Sometimes he says the best thing would be to sleep out the war: it should be a time of rest and recuperation. It is impossible not to be struck by his total lack of feeling for the troops; the war is being waged against him personally. ‘We will triumph even against so many millions,’ he tells Koteliansky. ‘Pity is worse than useless. I move no more upon the basis of feeling sorry for anybody.’ Except himself, of course. Political history counts only as part of the story of his own life; he can’t, for example, bear the thought of America entering the war – it would upset his plans. His mail may have been tampered with: if so, the most bored of censors must have understood that here was a star-single man. He speaks like a nation on his own, asking how much longer he can keep his head up, rallying himself with patriotic speeches: ‘We are not beaten yet. We shall last it out.’ Meantime, however, ‘one groans with torture and horror.’ Not for nothing did the French troops say they’d make it, ‘pourvu que les civils tiennent’.

At the time of these letters, Lawrence was best-known as the author of Sons and Lovers (an aspirant who, according to Henry James, might be seen ‘lagging in the dusty rear’ of Hugh Walpole and Compton Mackenzie), of another banned book, and perhaps also of a third unpublishable one. Yet he was a genius, not only in his own eyes but in the opinion of many discriminating people, not, unfortunately, publishers. For us, the justification of his and their view is easy enough, since we have The Rainbow and Women in Love and the American studies. Yet Lawrence himself did not think of his greatness as wholly associated with his writings; in one letter – understandably, in view of the amount he was producing – he even says he’d like to give up writing altogether. He believed his powers went far beyond books, and others believed it, too. Some of his admirers were pretty odd, but they were also quite talented and quite various: the only thing they had in common was that practically all of them wrote books about Lawrence after his death.

One of these memoirists was Dorothy Brett, the only disciple who followed the Lawrences to New Mexico. Despite her aristocratic origins Brett was as docile as she was devoted. A mean stupid father made her early life difficult. She went late to the Slade and had an odd, apparently innocent affair with Professor Frederick Brown, then in charge at the School. Thence to Garsington, Bloomsbury, and a real, profound and absurd affair with Murry; and so, in the course of things, to Taos. She was famous for her ear-trumpet and her loyalty but never endeared herself to Frieda, who called her ‘one of God’s misfits’ and slept with her lover Murry. In New Mexico she painted Indian ceremonies and added something to the already bizarre establishment. She survived everybody and was much visited by Lawrentians before her death in 1977.

Her life seems to have been eccentric but harmless. During the Second World War she painted bombers. In 1955 she wrote a personal letter to Henry Ford Junior offering him one of her Indian-ceremony paintings in exchange for a new Ford Station Wagon. Some of these paintings, reproduced in colour in Sean Hignett’s book, seem quite interesting, but Henry Ford apparently did not think them worth a station wagon. Mr Hignett’s book involved a lot of research – for instance, he has unearthed a hundred letters from Katherine Mansfield to Brett – but he handles it lightly, and has written a lively and entertaining biography.

In the course of it we learn a little more, a little more perhaps than we need, about Frieda, and a few new facts about Lawrence. Why, since he had many correspondents, are there so few surviving letters to the author? The answer is that although they kept his letters he blew his nose on theirs, or even, as Hignett decorously hints, put them to even baser uses. After all, he rarely read the newspapers. There is also a contribution to the myth of Lawrence’s ashes.

It has been maintained that the author’s friend, the poet Wytter Bynner, well-known as a practical joker, poured them over a Mexican dinner in Santa Fé and replaced them with ashes from his fireplace. These substitute ashes were scattered surreptitiously by Mable Dodge Luhan over the Indian reservation behind her house. She then refilled the urn from her own grate. Brett scattered this third lot of ashes and topped up the urn from her stove. There are many farcical variants. Now we learn, via the distinguished French Lawrentian, Emile Delavenay, that the ashes never reached New Mexico. Frieda’s third husband went to Vence to collect them, but to save the trouble and expense of shipping them home, poured them away and filled the empty pot when he got back to America. This was Ravagli, who, on the death of Frieda in 1956, inherited 50 per cent of Lawrence’s royalties. ‘Poor old D.H. Lawrence,’ he is said to have remarked. ‘He never knew who he was working for ... ’