Like ink and milk

John Bayley

  • ‘Sons and Lovers’: The Unexpurgated Text by D.H. Lawrence, edited by Helen Baron and Carl Baron
    Cambridge, 675 pp, £70.00, September 1992, ISBN 0 521 24276 2
  • D.H. Lawrence: The Early Years, 1885-1912 by John Worthen
    Cambridge, 464 pp, £14.95, September 1992, ISBN 0 521 43221 9
  • ‘Sons and Lovers’ by Michael Black
    Cambridge, 126 pp, £19.95, September 1992, ISBN 0 521 36074 9

The novel is a natural vehicle for superiorities. In an age which took competition for granted, the novelist possessed a means of distancing himself, morally, socially and sexually, from his contemporaries; and many of them seized the opportunity, D.H. Lawrence no less than Jane Austen. That establishing and disengaging of the self became in the 19th century more and more a part of the classic writer’s instinct, and merges with the novel’s own unique form of self-therapy. Dickens explores himself through it and Lawrence cures his sickness; Hardy assuages his Biblical ‘astonishment and fear’ at the horror of life: Jane Austen overcomes helplessness, malice and contempt.

Fiction had also taken over the sermon. From George Eliot to the present day, bossing the reader about with your own view of things – no longer with the sermon’s universal assumptions – has been the simplest mode of being superior. But of course the form has its own deep ways of compensating for all this. It overflows, given half the chance, with its own involuntary generosity. Rereading Sons and Lovers is to be filled afresh – more even than at a first reading – with the truth of Leavis’s old dictum that here is ‘where life flows’, as well as with that of Lawrence himself: trust the tale and not the teller. It is not the tale which absorbs one here, however, so much as the closeness and richness of experience that comes fizzing out of words and pages. Lawrence’s message, and even his insight into this classic Oedipal situation, have become as a tale that is told: but the genius of people, place and language is more vivid and compelling than ever, the very top of that abundance and generousness the great classic novel had and ought to have. It exhales a prodigious, at times comically portentous, concentration upon the self, but none of that superiority which has become at once second nature, style and integument to the combative and cosmopolitan literary milieu of Lawrence’s novels.

Suspected as a spy in Metz, the highly sensitive German frontier fortress in which Frieda’s father held a humdrum position as garrison adjutant and engineer, Lawrence sat down to pass the time, while his intended engaged in distracted conclave with her family, by writing some pieces round the incident for the Westminster Gazette. ‘How a spy is arrested’ was set up in type but never printed: the Westminster’s editor, Stephen Spender’s uncle, was mildly pro-German in 1912, and he also turned down a piece called ‘In Fortified Germany’. But the third and fourth articles made it – Lawrence’s debut as a travel writer – and they already exhibit their author’s hedgehog defences against other people’s superiorities. A German officer ‘in a flowing cloak of bluey-grey – like ink and milk’ (a wonderfully characteristic phrase) looks at him ‘coldly and inquisitively. I look at him with a “Go to the devil” sort of look and pass on.’ Much more important to Lawrence than German-occupied Alsace were his own reasons for being there, which overflowed into the piece he was writing. England, he implies, would also give in to the conqueror, ‘Nowadays it is easier not to live than to live... to suffer than to insist.’ The English instinct is ‘to forgo life... I know a certain woman wants to love me. I know I want to love her.’ Was he to renounce her, in typically English way, because ‘there are plenty of well-shaped women in England and Germany who would love me enough in a licentious fashion’? One wonders what an editor not privy to Lawrence’s situation as he was writing made of all this.

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