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.

It hardly matters, then, that Lydia Lawrence’s class background was not significantly ‘better’ than her husband’s. In a tribally working-class community, she chose what to her were the higher values of sobriety, intellectual culture and individualism; she held out against the unpopularity this choice brought on her, and made sure that her children followed her own path. Despite swinging around to his father’s side later on, if Lawrence had taken his side as a child he would never have become a writer; it took someone as ruthless as Lydia – and later, in her own way, Frieda – to make him one.

Meyers’s treatment of Lydia is, it should be said, exceptional. His biography carries no heavy weight either of moralising or of current literary theory. We get from him the facts (some of them new and significant, thanks to diligent research), worked up into a lively story that is firmly aligned to when, where and what. There are interviews with friends of Lawrence you thought were dead, and the first published photo of Lawrence’s supposed lover, William Henry Hocking. This is surely the most readable, judicious and authoritative scholarly biography of Lawrence yet written. Yet it also presses hard against the limitations of its single-volume narrative format. By embracing Jessie Chambers’s formula that ‘life went straight into [Lawrence’s] work,’ Meyers justifies cavalier treatment of the works in their own right. Three pages each for analysis of The Plumed Serpent and Lady Chatterley’s Lover may be necessarily short shrift when there are more than thirty books to be mentioned. But one would still like a more scrupulous treatment of the autobiographical elements in Lawrence’s fiction, and the irreducibly ambiguous relation between his work and his life. Meyers skates lightly over major issues here. How do the fictional Birkin and real Lawrence mutually criticise each other in Women in Love? If Murry was such a complete worm, what is he doing disguised as the hero of the same novel? What of Frieda’s remark that Lawrence identified with both Mellors and Clifford in Lady Chatterley’s Lover?

Even with the life alone, the massive accumulation of evidence, together with Lawrence’s complex and unstable emotional history, makes it progressively harder for a modern biographer to make concise judgments. Early biographers could take Lawrence’s working-class origins for granted, and balance what he gained and lost by rising in the world. The first wave of feminism then seized on Lawrence’s misogyny, and its roots in a working-class ethic of male dominance. Today, we are more likely to see Lawrence’s sexual identity as fractured between heterosexual and homosexual elements, as the ‘woman-identified’ youth over-compensates with strident machismo.

Meyers takes two short cuts through the intrinsic complexities of his task. One is the double-entry list, as in: ‘From his mother he absorbed artistic sensitivity, intellectual curiosity, ambition ... from his father, intuition, vitality, zest for life.’ This covers the ground fast enough, but at the expense of any more careful analysis. Meyers’s other quirk is to make a blunt factual pronouncement on hitherto uncertain questions, especially those concerning Lawrence’s health and sexual history. Frieda was the one person who knew most of the truth here, and despite her gushing manner she was remarkably close-mouthed about the hard facts of her marriage. Meyers relies on her daughter, Barbara Barr, for two bold claims: that Lawrence was sterile from about the age of 16, and that he had a physical affair with William Henry Hocking in 1917. Yet when Barr denies something that Meyers wants to believe – Frieda’s sexual encounter with a woodcutter in the summer of 1912 – he overrules her testimony. Of course, it is tempting to assume that since Frieda had three children and wanted to have a child by Lawrence in the early stage of their marriage, it may have been his fault that no child came. But, as Meyers himself emphasises, Frieda had at least seven lovers before and during her marriage to Lawrence: why did she not become pregnant by any of them? Her last child was born in 1904, and when she eloped with Lawrence eight years later she may have been infertile herself. Although TB probably made Lawrence sterile at some point in his life, we can hardly know the exact date.

The popular imagination may find it intriguing that the author of Lady Chatterley’s Lover was infertile, impotent and inexperienced (Meyers says that Lawrence only slept with three women in his life – how does he know?). But that such paradoxes are popular should warn us also that ‘real life’ is not just a string of facts. It, too, is ‘written’ – shaped, selected, mythologised – by the same rules that govern the creation of literary texts; just as Lawrence himself freely rewrote the lives of classic American writers to make them fit the experiences he read into their works. Once this is granted, the opposing categories of ‘life’ and ‘work’ break down, and the life cannot be made into a fixed standard against which to calibrate the work. Meyers puts forward his version of Lawrence with style and confidence: but other Lawrences could be read between the lines.

Tony Pinkney speaks of the ‘deep slump’ in Lawrence’s reputation in the Eighties, as feminists assailed his attitudes to women and Marxists his attitude to the working class. One way for critics to restore Lawrence to favour is to move his flagrant personality into the background, where it fades into the more comprehensive scandals and achievements of Modernism. This is Pinkney’s strategy and it yields a genuine ‘New Reading’, one of the most provocative and seminal criticisms of Lawrence in years.

Pinkney’s main theme is the cunning persistence within Modernism of ‘classicism’: that is, ‘a culture that defines “reason”, “truth” or the “essentially human” as situated in a transcendental realm beyond history, beyond what it regards as the superficial distractions of local custom, class, gender, race, sexuality’. Modernism feeds on the welling up of disorderly mass culture as traditional beliefs disintegrate: yet it also contains ‘motifs of impersonality, hardness, objectivity’ which are relied on to raise art above the viscosity of ordinary life. These motifs are often associated with the male: as Wyndham Lewis put it in Tarr, ‘God was man: the woman was a lower form of life. Everything started female and so continued: a jellyfish diffuseness spread itself and gaped upon all the beds and bas-fonds of everything.’

Even if we agree with Pinkney that ‘female sexuality is always a, perhaps the, threat for classicism,’ how can this be squared with the exaltation of femininity in Lawrence? Pinkney brings out in Lawrence’s career the counterposing of squishy female generativity to male hardness: Paul Morel’s hatred of ‘femaleness as such’ in Miriam; Birkin’s maxim, ‘a dry soul is best’; the campaign against active female sexuality in Lawrence’s leadership phase. Pinkney applies Fredric Jameson’s concept of the ‘male pseudo-couple’ to Lawrence’s heroes, and he assumes that Birkin makes sodomy the climax of his relation with Ursula in order to avert (literally) face-to-face intimacy and ‘the very biological basis of our humanity’. So Birkin, even as he proclaims himself an ‘arch-organicist’, rejects the feminised marshy fecundity of The Rainbow’s English setting and launches himself and Ursula into a rootless existence of ‘pure trajectory’.

It is easy to quarrel with the details of Pinkney’s readings. The ‘male pseudo-couple’ seems a better formula for Flaubert, Wyndham Lewis and Beckett than for Lawrence. The ‘male couple’ in Women in Love or Aaron’s Rod sustains quite a different ideal, the ‘triangular marriage’ between wife, husband and comrade. Nonetheless, Pinkney effectively applies to Lawrence his own principle: ‘reaction against any force is the complement of that force.’ He turns Lawrence’s texts against themselves in a way that matters – not just making a facile deconstruction, but showing the weight carried by the opposing textual formation. Harsh as some of Pinkney’s judgments may be, they do Lawrence’s works a service by moving them back to the centre of current critical encounters.

Pinkney sneers at the ongoing Cambridge edition as ‘over-bulky, over-annotated and over-priced’. A fairer criticism would be that the edition is trying to seal Lawrence up into a classical self-containment even as critics like Pinkney are trying to re-engage him with the whole textual field of Modernism. The copyright notice for ‘England, My England’ must set a record for length, 16½ lines in small type, in claiming copyright for the text ‘now correctly established from the original sources’. With the title story of this collection the Cambridge claim for ‘correctness’ – and thus for a new copyright for decades to come – rests on just two changes from the text of the American first edition of 1922 (for most of these stories, no manuscripts have survived). One change is the replacement of a semi-colon with a dash: an editorial regularisation, with no evidence that Lawrence wanted it. The other change affects this phrase: ‘he could no more be aggressive on the score of his Englishness than a rose can be aggressive on the score of his rosiness.’ So reads the American edition. The English edition of 1924 prints ‘its rosiness’, and so does Cambridge.

Now, in his introduction Bruce Steele argues that Lawrence had nothing to do with the setting of the 1924 edition, and that the above reading is ‘more typical of editorial interference than of authorial change’. In other words, ‘his rosiness’ is almost surely what Lawrence wrote, but the Cambridge editor – following some anonymous grammarian at Martin Secker in 1924 – has chosen to ‘correct’ it. Without even arguing the case for Lawrence’s usage, it should be clear how flimsy are the grounds for the Lawrence estate to claim a new copyright on the Cambridge text of ‘England, My England’. ‘The Blind Man’ has a similar status, the Cambridge text hinging on a dubious reading of ‘patronised’ for ‘despised’ on page 58. With other stories, such as ‘Samson and Delilah’, Steele has substantial and useful editorial work to do, and it is good to have in this volume the original version of ‘England, My England’ from 1915. In general, though, biographical and critical commentary would be more relevant to the reader of these stories than textual refinement.

Unfortunately, the policy of the Cambridge edition is to reduce such commentary to a minimum, and to make no explicit reference to the critical tradition. The explanatory notes to ‘England, My England’ strip down the biographical background to a degree that makes it useless for interpreting the story. Meyers, in contrast, covers the essentials in three pages and interviews a surviving witness. Steele places the setting of ‘The Blind Man’ in Upper Lydbrook when it is more like the house at Porthcothan where the Lawrences lived in early 1916; and he suggests that ‘Bertie Reid’ is based on Bertrand Russell, when he is actually a libellously exact portrait of Sir James Barrie.

The Cambridge edition is, on balance, a great contribution to Lawrence studies, especially through its complete and comprehensive editing of Lawrence’s letters. Nonetheless, putting so many resources into one massive editorial project over fifteen or twenty years tends to lock scholarship into a single and rigid format, when other kinds of editions can be just as valuable in their own way (compare the ill fate of the attempt to produce a ‘definitive’ Ulysses). In our present age of intertextuality there is more interest in opening out connections from Lawrence’s texts than in locking them up in an authorised version. Lawrence himself, of course, was a great one for rewriting, scattering, defacing and recycling both his own and other people’s texts – everything from using manuscripts for toilet paper to saving incoming envelopes to spit into during his last illness!

The Lawrence text with the most complex and eventful history is Lady Chatterley’s Lover. H. Montgomery Hyde’s edition of the proceedings of its trial for obscenity in 1960 evokes the quaint atmosphere of that time, when the British class structure was menaced by suggestive novels and ‘woolly-headed intellectuals’. The law being what it was (and still is), no one could take their stand squarely on freedom of the press or the right of adults to read what they want. The prosecution pointed out, over and over, that the novel combined sex with adultery (though it was unclear which was to blame for the other); the defence had a limitless supply of witnesses whom the novel had not depraved – as shown by their uniformly middle-class status (no miners or gamekeepers called), and possession of degrees, knighthoods, children, good war records and membership in Holy Orders. Unfortunately the prosecution called no witnesses, though Evelyn Waugh was eager to stand in the box and argue that Lawrence ‘couldn’t write for toffee’.

Stephen Tumin’s preface notes that ‘together with the trial of Dr Stephen Ward’, the Lady Chatterley acquittal ‘introduced the Sixties as an age of permissiveness in our morals and manners’. However, the Sixties did not correspond to Lawrence’s agenda for sexual reform, except for the occasional man in tight red trousers. Hyde’s introduction would have been a good place to assess British sex before and after 1960, but he sticks closely to legal issues (not very interesting, in this case) and sprinkles his account of Lawrence with glaring mistakes (that Lawrence ‘tried to join up’ in the war, for instance, and that his brother George shared in the profits of Lady Chatterley). Moreover, this edition omits the testimony of 14 of the 35 witnesses. C.H. Rolph’s The Trial of Lady Chatterley: Regina v. Penguin Books, a 1961 Penguin which has recently been reissued,[*] is much more complete than Hyde, though not without cuts of its own.

E.M. Forster was one of the best witnesses at the Chatterley trial; twenty-five years earlier, speaking of ‘Liberty in England’ (read it to see how little has changed), he protested the suppression of James Hanley’s Boy. I had assumed that Boy was condemned as a gay novel, like The Well of Loneliness in 1928: but its actual offence was to be, as Sir Hugh Walpole complained, ‘unpleasant and ugly’. Now that it has finally been reissued in Britain we can appreciate it as a powerful account of a working-class boy’s loss of moral and sexual innocence: first in a Liverpool shipyard, then as a stowaway to Egypt. If Boy had been widely read, the proletarian novel of the Thirties might have been a better match, in terms of form, for its Modernist predecessors. It goes without saying that Hanley’s personal life and his writing career were grievously harmed by the suppression of his novel, whose real crime was to expose conditions that the people responsible for them did not want to be reminded of.

John Worthen’s D.H. Lawrence: A Literary Life has a narrower aim than its title suggests. It considers Lawrence as a professional writer: how much money his books earned, what kind of life he could afford, and how the literary marketplace influenced his work. Worthen argues convincingly that economic necessity directly affected Lawrence’s style and choice of subjects. He scarcely rebelled against this necessity: partly because he believed in paying his own way, and partly because he wanted popularity in order to spread his message as widely as possible. His friend Mark Gertler complained of being born lower-class, and felt that ‘a modern artist must have an income’ (by which he meant a private income from investments): Lawrence would not have agreed with either proposition. He accepted the literary marketplace because he saw no alternative to it. That the marketplace did not always accept him in return caused him fury and frustration, yet he always believed he would make money as a writer in the long run.

Worthen is a bit off the mark in saying that Lawrence’s career ‘exemplifies the problems encountered in this century by the serious writer who has to compromise with publishers needing to make profits’. Lawrence was not a highbrow Modernist like Pound, Joyce and Eliot – all of whom were nicely helped along by patronage or private incomes. Some of his writing was too esoteric for popular taste, but his main problem was that his fiction was routinely repressed or censored. Worthen shows in detail that both kinds of external control were bad in America but much worse in Britain, where publishers seemed to take it for granted that anything Lawrence wrote could be chopped and changed as they liked. Still, Lawrence made more than a thousand pounds in 1922, largely from the popular edition of Women in Love in the US, and he has been a commercial success ever since. That his success was often contested, and that his rank among the major writers of the past century is still uncertain, would only please him. As he said to a friend who had gone to the East and turned Buddhist, ‘I do not want peace nor beauty nor even freedom from pain. I want to fight and to feel new gods in the flesh.’

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