A Week in Books: D H Lawrence revisited

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The Independent Culture

In 1914, D H Lawrence argued, with typical self-mocking hubris, that his wonderful novel The Rainbow was "my work for women, better than the suffrage".

In 1914, D H Lawrence argued, with typical self-mocking hubris, that his wonderful novel The Rainbow was "my work for women, better than the suffrage". By 1921, he was saying: "If I knew how to, I'd really join myself to the revolutionary socialists now". Come 1924, his visits to Germany had already - with Hitler in jail but Mussolini much admired - persuaded him that fashionable fascism was "a mere worship of force". And by 1928, with Lady Chatterley's Lover completed, this nature-loving pantheist who found as much joy in evoking a carnation as a coition feared he would be marked down as "a lurid sexuality specialist".

Lawrence died aged 44 in Vence, on the French Riviera, 75 years ago this week. Always "a stray individual with not much health and not much money", the miner's son from Eastwood had fought TB for six years, the witless oppressions of the British state for 15 (since The Rainbow was destroyed for its so-called "obscenity") and the class-crippled, prudish yet prurient culture of his native country ever since his anguished boyhood.

To anyone who has swallowed the post-1970s academic verdict on Lawrence as a patriarchal beast who took time out from literal and literary wife-beating to hymn the savage gods of blood and race, uncovering the witty, mercurial and generous reality ought to offer a mind-shifting encounter. Thanks to a grand new biography, such readers can start here, and now. Will they?

This week, my ad hoc survey of Foyles' fiction shelves turned up just 25 copies of works by Lawrence (some dog-eared) as opposed to 137 by Virginia Woolf - another great writer who could fling out cruel and bigoted asides. That more or less reflects the state of play on academic syllabi.

John Worthen's biography D H Lawrence: the life of an outsider (Allen Lane, £30) is the work of a long-term champion, but not an uncritical one. He shows us, above all, the genial Lawrence who enchanted family and friends with his "great resources of humour and fun". This is the multi-talented novelist, short-story writer, poet, talker, mimic and brilliant correspondent who won the heart and mind of the extraordinary Baroness Frieda von Richthofen, as well as of the crowd of supporters who trailed him through Germany, Italy, France, Australia, Mexico and New Mexico after the traumas of the Great War. The frail but open-hearted Lawrence whom Worthen brings to gripping life appeals far more than than the acid-penned persona of his late, embittered works.

In 1991, Worthen published the early-years volume (to 1912) of a multi-authored biography. It accompanied the imposing Cambridge University Press edition of Lawrence's work. Those massive tomes of the 1980s and 1990s built a vast monument of scholarship, but it seemed like a monument atop a grave. All that expert toil failed to stop Lawrence's slide down the literary canon. Too defensive by half, Worthen takes that slide for granted. His prickly preface seems to accept that "Lawrence has dropped off the map".

That's not quite the case. Writers, if not dons, have kept the faith: in Helen Dunmore's lovely novel about the Lawrences' wartime exile to Cornwall, Zennor in Darkness; in Geoff Dyer's hilarious in-the-footsteps travelogue, Out of Sheer Rage; or in Howard Jacobson's stirring TV essay on the necessity of fiction - star witness, DHL.

Many new readers might now be willing to engage with the nomadic rebel who prefigured every key idea about sexuality, the body, the environment, health and civilisation that falls under the rubric of "New Age" thinking. Just as in life, Lawrence stands in need of sceptical but sympathetic companions, not armed camps of disciples and debunkers. John Worthen's deeply learned but immensely readable life could, and should, widen the circle of his candid friends.