More than one world

P.N. Furbank

  • D.H. Lawrence: The Early Years 1885-1912 by John Worthen
    Cambridge, 624 pp, £25.00, September 1991, ISBN 0 521 25419 1
  • The Letters of D.H. Lawrence. Vol. VI: 1927-28 edited by James Boulton, Margaret Boulton and Gerald Lacy
    Cambridge, 645 pp, £50.00, September 1991, ISBN 0 521 23115 9

It was the foible of the heroes of Italo Svevo’s novels to wake up each morning believing that, through their own striving, some splendid vita nuova might have begun and they might at last have become a quite different person; and it was the theme of their cheerfully Schopenhauerian creator that this was the most unchanging thing about them. (As it was, one might add, the most unchanging thing about poor James Boswell, another great vita nuova man, ever inclined to exhort himself: ‘Be Samuel Johnson! Be the rock of Gibraltar!’) All the same, despite Svevo’s rule, there have been a few people – Tolstoy, Wittgenstein and D.H. Lawrence come to mind – who not only went on expecting to be transformed, but managed to be so – and this without much reference to age. I come fresh from reading Ray Monk’s enthralling biography of Wittgenstein, a man who lived for change and through change and put all his genius into it.

The matter is very much on the minds of the authors of the new three-volume biography of D.H. Lawrence, of which John Worthen’s D.H. Lawrence: The Early Years 1885-1912 is the first instalment. The theory, as Worthen explains it, is that having three different people write the life will be ‘an explicit (even dramatic) acknowledgment that, however, important the continuities, the Lawrence of the last years (for example) is so different from the 19-year-old who visited the Haggs Farm, that it sometimes seems only by accident that they share the same name’. This is to be ‘a new kind of biography’, avoiding ‘deterministic’ hindsight and the ‘genetic fallacy’ (or explanation by origins) – a plurality of authors preventing a rigging of the story-line to serve a single interpretation. Evidently what comes in here is that Lawrence himself explicitly denounced ‘the old stable ego of the character’. These three biographers are not the first to have felt that Lawrence needed some special, multivalent, non-prescriptive approach: for it must have been what inspired the ‘composite’ biography by Edward Nehls of thirty years ago, in which the biographer stood aside and allowed the torch of narrative to be handed on from one to another of a relay of competing voices.

This seems to raise some fundamental questions about biography, or at least literary biography, and what it should hope to achieve. One has to begin with an ungrateful query: why, with all its great virtue of sympathy, historical imagination and resourceful marshalling of a huge mass of documents (many only recently available), should Worthen’s book strike one as an exhausting slog to read? Of course it is a long book (about 260,000 words by my rough count), and one has the prospect of two more long books (the David Ellis and Mark Kinkead-Weekes ones) looming up awesomely over the first crest: but Richard Ellmann’s James Joyce was a very long book indeed, and it gripped one from start to finish.

I think the answer may be, partly, that a biography simply has to have a narrative, and a non-prescriptive approach tends to sap the narrative. What will constitute a ‘happening’ in the narrative, and how one happening will be represented as leading to another, must vary according to a biography’s subject, but the invisible connecting cord, which is narrative’s way of supplying significance, has got to be there: and it may be that one cannot have this cord without resort to the ‘genetic’ or ‘deterministic’ fallacies. Once the reader comfortably has hold of this cord, the biographer can, if he wants, allow himself all sorts of telescopings or expansions, reflections, analyses, and puttings-in-historical-perspective. But the trouble with Worthen’s book is that one cannot always distinguish the cord from loose ends; to vary the metaphor, there is a Ganges-delta effect, or a sort of running into the sand.

Two features – two ‘leaks’ – help cause this phenomenon. First, in a biography of Lawrence, it seems to be a mistake to let the stories tempt one into psychologising. To explicate the stories is perfectly proper and may be necessary, but not to make use of them as biographical fodder. For, after all, the invention and creative rendering of psychologies was Lawrence’s métier and central concern as an artist, and for a biographer to compete with him here is to violate his terms of employment. In Worthen’s commentaries on Lawrence’s stories one observes a fatal slide from explication to biography and to thoroughly ‘genetic’ theories about his life and development. It is a matter of narrative being introduced at the wrong point. I am thinking, for instance, of his discussions of the story ‘A Blot’ (later revised as ‘The Fly in the Ointment’) and the sketch ‘A Lesson on a Tortoise’. In both, a schoolmaster narrator, teaching in a school in a poor district, is hurt in his idealism by a piece of petty thieving and reacts with a rush of bullying moral anger – three-quarters of which is really obscure self-hatred. Worthen’s exposition is finely done till, by such a slide as I mentioned, it crosses the borderline into biographical speculation.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in