Made in Heaven

Frank Kermode

  • Frieda Lawrence by Rosie Jackson
    Pandora, 240 pp, £14.99, September 1994, ISBN 0 04 440915 X
  • The Married Man: A Life of D.H. Lawrence by Brenda Maddox
    Sinclair-Stevenson, 631 pp, £20.00, August 1994, ISBN 1 85619 243 1
  • Kangaroo by D.H. Lawrence, edited by Bruce Steele
    Cambridge, 493 pp, £60.00, August 1994, ISBN 0 521 38455 9
  • Twilight in Italy and Other Essays by D.H. Lawrence, edited by Paul Eggert
    Cambridge, 327 pp, £55.00, August 1994, ISBN 0 521 26888 5

Looking down rather reprovingly from the shelf opposite are the three large volumes of Edward Nehls’s Composite Biography, a version or two of Harry T. Moore’s frequently revised biography, the first and so far the only volume of the three-tier Cambridge biography, and the ample lifework of Emile Delavenay. There are more beside them, and more to come: Rosie Jackson says there are ten in progress. Apart from the full-life biographies there are books covering short periods of Lawrence’s life: his wartime adventures and agonies, his years in Italy, in Australia, in New Mexico and Mexico, and so on. There are also numerous memoirs by people such as Jessie Chambers, Helen Corke, Catherine Carswell, Dorothy Brett, Mabel Dodge, a pair of gay Danes, and of course Frieda Lawrence, who knew the novelist at various times in various parts of the world. (There are naturally books also about Frieda, including this new one by Rosie Jackson, and about the von Richthofen family.) To back all this up we now have the seven lavishly annotated volumes of the Cambridge edition of the Letters, and a dozen or so lavishly annotated editions of the Works. I do not speak of more workaday stuff, all the books which have, possibly in the course of saying something else, to say something about Lawrence’s extraordinary life. Now they must all move over to allow another full-scale life, and an impassioned essay on Frieda, to be squeezed in.

The last mentioned is the work of Rosie Jackson, who also reprints Frieda’s self-portrait Not I but the Wind. Ms Jackson believes it time to correct what she takes to be the hostile general view of Frieda, and to show that her insights into Lawrence’s work are important ‘for us in our current crises around gender’. What she takes to be the erroneous received idea ‘is a telling reflection of the way female sexuality has been constructed in literary history’. It is true that Elaine Feinstein, a victim of fashion, dares to describe Frieda as overweight, that Leavis’s account of her might be a touch xenophobic, that Keith Sagar calls her ‘amoral, disorderly, wasteful, utterly helpless in the house, lying in bed late, lounging about all day with a cigarette dangling from her mouth’. Jackson, though far from denying this account, calls it ‘value-laden’ and asks: ‘Why should not Frieda choose to smoke or read rather than attend to household chores?’ She would hardly accept an answer that runs anything like this: Lawrence, though often very unwell, did a lot more than his bit around the house as well as writing as hard as Trollope, so it must have been irritating for him to see his notoriously healthy partner behaving like a lazy slob. As to the ‘amoral’ charge, Frieda’s sexual behaviour was, ‘by modern standards’, so far from being ‘rapacious’ that it can fairly be described as ‘mild and closely related to her emotional demands’. Jackson lists Frieda’s sexual partners but seems, ‘by modern standards’, rather prudishly concerned to keep it short; and she makes much of the recent discovery that Lawrence himself had a fling with Rosalind Baynes, née Thornycroft, his one known adultery. The Lawrences seem to have established what used to be called an open marriage, and it is hard to see why Jackson is so concerned to qualify this description; she hovers between one position, that Frieda didn’t go in for much adultery, and another, on the face of it incompatible, that she believed in free love because her ‘joy in life’ required ‘celebration of the flesh’. We aren’t to suppose these more libertine attitudes were formed without thought; Frieda is said to have been a follower of J.J. Bachofen, whose theory of Mutterrecht had a vogue, long since ended, and also of Edward Carpenter and Bertrand Russell, as well as of her early lover Otto Gross and other pre-war German thinkers and doers. Her performance as a mother must also be shown to be impeccable. Of course it is right to say that Lawrence behaved very badly about the children, though whether her leaving them was consistent with Frieda having no ‘reluctance ... to occupy the mothering position’ may not, if judgments are called for, be so easily agreed.

My own feeling is that among those who care for these matters (and they are not exclusively censorious male oppressors, as here imagined) there is much less animus against Frieda than Jackson chooses to believe. They are likely to deplore the absurd and sometimes dangerous excesses of Lawrence quite as much as the faults, slatternly or sexual, of Frieda, while contriving at the same time to find them both wonderful in their way, as partners in what Brenda Maddox, admittedly a less fervent partisan of Frieda, calls ‘a mismatch made in heaven’.

At some early moment in the gestation of her book Ms Maddox must have looked at the shelf-loads I described earlier and wondered whether the very considerable labour she faced was really necessary or justified; the case for taking on Nora Joyce, the subject of her previous biography, looks stronger. But having decided that it was, she feels obliged to explain why.

Lawrence, she says, ‘does not add up’; ‘he wants capturing between two covers ... The justification for adding to the Lawrencean mountain is to cut through it.’ This tunnelling figure does not truly reflect her method, which is for the most part more like adding another layer on the top, made of selected material from the heap below. The leading idea is that the great man can best be understood in terms of his marriage, that famous ‘mismatch’. It is true that to make this point Maddox needs to do rather more than just sift and shift existing information. As she remarks, things are always turning up: Otto Gross’s love letters to the young Frieda von Richthofen; evidence of Lawrence’s un-incandescent affair with Rosalind Baynes (extravagantly described by Maddox as ‘a return to endogamy’, ‘the choice of a deeply English woman, rather than a foreigner, as a love object’); above all, the mass of newly discovered letters in the Cambridge edition, and the unfinished novel Mr Noon, available only since 1984, which gives a quasi-autobiographical account of the early days of his relationship with free-loving Frieda. And there is the whole business, only quite recently stirred up, of Lawrence’s supposed association during his brief Australian sojourn with extreme right-wing movements in Sydney.

All this is got into the book, but it still cannot avoid being for long stretches a march through familiar territory, which makes its length rather daunting. However, Maddox writes with spirit and skill; the focus on the marriage, with all its brutalities and infidelities and absurdities, its partings and comings together, its superstructure of sexual theory, is very well held, and although we’re asked to see the story rather more from the wife’s point of view than the husband’s, Maddox won’t give her the benefit of outraged or sentimental feminism; she even dares to speak of ‘Frieda’s tedious insistence that she was just as important as her husband’, and she can be even sharper: ‘True to her word, she could find something lovable in any man, even in the scrawny Lawrence.’

Some of Maddox’s emphases are corrective, as on the novelist’s obstinate refusal to admit he had tuberculosis, and his insistence, very well brought out, on paying his way, a characteristic acquired in early youth and unchanged by his extraordinary and apparently bohemian friendships and vagrancies. This adds a touch to Richard Hoggart’s famous puritan portrait. On the other hand, or possibly on the same hand, he is credited with some slightly sinister obsessions, reflected in his penchant for feminine names beginning with C: ‘the demanding female sexual organs’ are given a name beginning with C which also contains ‘the sharp letter “t” ’ and therefore ‘held terrifying and permanent grip on his imagination’. The famously short and very unattractive word encapsulates vagina dentata. On rather shaky evidence Lawrence is said to have regarded writing as a furtive activity like masturbation. There are other over-the-top speculations concerning Lawrence’s dread of the female and other phobias – redundant because there are surely plenty of aberrations on the record already. But just as one begins to fear Maddox will overdo this kind of thing she produces pages of common sense.

She makes much sense, for instance, of questions of class. Lawrence was a successful hypergamist, and did not shun the famous and the titled, but few of them missed an opportunity to remark that he himself always bore the stigmata of an underclass. According to David Garnett, his hair was ‘of a colour, and grew in a particular way, which I have never seen except in English working men ... incredibly plebeian, mongrel and underbred ... He was the type of the plumber’s mate who goes back to fetch the tools ... the weedy runt’, and so forth, whereas it went almost without saying that Frieda was by contrast every inch an aristocrat. E.M. Forster called him ‘a sandy-haired passionate Nibelung’. People were astonished that he scrupulously cleaned the house and washed the dishes – his pleasure in domestic tasks was to them more surprising than his habit of beating his wife and making what Maddox accurately calls scenes ‘of nauseating awfulness’, exemplified here by his complaint against Frieda’s dangling cigarette: ‘Take it out, I say, you sniffing bitch! There you sit with that thing in your mouth and your legs open to every man in the room ...’

In the end the fact that he was a miner’s son just made him seem all the more amazingly gifted, as well as giving him licence to behave badly. Some of his uncontrolled rages can perhaps be attributed to his illness: it would be wrong in any case to ascribe them to his proletarian origins. Possibly they were, as some said, childlike, the other side of his gaiety. As for his personal treacheries, which were many, they were not so different from those of his middle-class friends. You can just imagine Matthew Arnold sighing: ‘What a set!’ But now the temptation is to say, hopelessly, that they should all, gentry and peasant, be left alone for a century or two.

Maddox has some pages about the Australian episode, and so, naturally, does the Cambridge editor of Kangaroo, presented in high editorial style and sold at £60, the sort of price now thought typical of this publisher. (Twilight in Italy, an immensely scrupulous and valuable edition of this very vexatious text, is yours for only £55.) The question is whether Lawrence, during his brief Australian sojourn, had time to cultivate dangerous right-wing revolutionaries in Sydney and form a close association with a quasi-fascist Leader, when he was sitting hour after hour in his seaside bungalow (‘Wyewurk’) and dashing off Kangaroo, a hefty novel, in six weeks. As Shakespeare’s Cleopatra remarks, ‘Celerity is never more admired/Than by the negligent’, so most of us would be inclined to think this admirable if unlikely; but when you think of all the time Lawrence spent sick in bed, and then of his colossal output, you have to admit that he just might have done all this writing and still had time to get mixed up in plots against democracy. There is, however, some discrepancy between Maddox’s report of the supposed goings-on in and near Sydney, and the more cautious account of Bruce Steele, the Cambridge editor.

That there currently was political activity, some of it fairly riotous, among Australian ex-servicemen is not contested, and it is reflected in Kangaroo. The Australian writer Robert Darroch maintains that Lawrence’s character Cooley, the Jewish leader known as Kangaroo, is based on General Rosenthal, who was very well liked by the returning Diggers. He was not a Jew, as Lawrence may have assumed; or he may have got that trait from another celebrated Australian general, Monash. Maddox and Darroch maintain that Rosenthal actually looked like a kangaroo. The suggestion is that Lawrence got himself so involved in the plot that before he could leave Australia he had to give the plotters an undertaking to keep his mouth shut, an undertaking he very soon broke when he published Kangaroo. Darroch believes that Lawrence was later rather worried about the possible consequences of this betrayal, but there is no real evidence for this view, or indeed for his having met Rosenthal. He had met, by chance, a Father O’Reilly, who had played a conspicuous part in a riotous assembly involving Rosenthal.

What is certain is that Lawrence had some sympathy with the antidemocratic movements and their leaders. Maddox, though inclined to press too hard the homosexual element in the relationship between Kangaroo and the English writer Somers, treats the whole complicated set of conjectures with moderation and narrative deftness, not regarding all the attributions as proved, but tending all the same to accept them.

Bruce Steele, the Australian editor of the Cambridge edition, is more dismissive, thinking Lawrence worked from hearsay and newspaper reports rather than direct contact. He is also sure that the ex-service organisations, though anti-socialist, philistine and chauvinist, weren’t remotely likely to support a right-wing revolution. There was no secret army, and the troops marching with Kangaroo at their head owe more to Lawrence’s acquaintance with the Italian Fascists than to anything he encountered in Australia. He might take some features from the famous Monash, but as to Australian politics generally, ‘he made the fullest use of quite minimal knowledge’, and imposed his own élitist politics (‘the dread, almost the horror, of democratic society, the mob’) on this knowledge. Steele will have nothing to do with the idea that as well as averaging three to four thousand words a day Lawrence was constantly rushing off to Sydney from his seaside house at Thirroul to meet his revolutionaries. Still, since Lawrence seemed to have been able to write almost anywhere, why not in the rather slow train? All the same, Steele is likely to have got it right.

Kangaroo has a plot but it also has a lot of scrappy writing, mere filling, and its most famous chapter, ‘The Nightmare’, has nothing to do with Australia anyway. But it is somehow characteristic that Lawrence, with no special reason to be where he was, in a strange country, sitting in a strange bungalow writing furiously, should have used his ‘minimal knowledge’ to stimulate fervent enquiry into a possible biographical episode quite unlike any other part of his life, yet consistent with his more grandiose ideas of himself, a wandering leader naturally gravitating towards the local leadership. Among other things the whole episode tends to explain why there is unlikely to be a definitive biography; these strange shadow-lives have to be explored along with the ones more solidly founded in fact. And the novels seem to be valued less and less for themselves and more and more for the shadows they cast. We may as well get used to the idea that the next ten biographies will be followed by many more.