D H Lawrence: The life of an outsider, by John Worthen

The emotional extremity that D H Lawrence brought to the English novel floats like woodsmoke over his turbulent life
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

It is sobering to realise that at the age one has reached - natural teeth more or less intact, the future still a comparatively rosy blur - D H Lawrence was already miserably dead. Just as sobering is a recitation of the circumstances in which his life was lived out: that endless round of packing and unpacking, fresh starts and blind alleys, blasts of inspiration and voids of black despair, the whole taking place in conditions of extreme emotional volatility. If there is a characteristic noise in John Worthen's excellent new biography, it is the smash of descending plates or perhaps only the sound of Frieda screaming - "You have no idea how humiliating it is to beat a woman" Lawrence once complained to a friend - and the Stürm und Drang of its end-of-tether brutalities can sometime reach heights of near-operatic intensity.

It is sobering to realise that at the age one has reached - natural teeth more or less intact, the future still a comparatively rosy blur - D H Lawrence was already miserably dead. Just as sobering is a recitation of the circumstances in which his life was lived out: that endless round of packing and unpacking, fresh starts and blind alleys, blasts of inspiration and voids of black despair, the whole taking place in conditions of extreme emotional volatility. If there is a characteristic noise in John Worthen's excellent new biography, it is the smash of descending plates or perhaps only the sound of Frieda screaming - "You have no idea how humiliating it is to beat a woman" Lawrence once complained to a friend - and the Stürm und Drang of its end-of-tether brutalities can sometime reach heights of near-operatic intensity.

However bracing some of the situations evoked, this is hardly untilled ground. The last decade, in particular, came choked with Lawrentiana: a mammoth three-volume life underwritten by the Cambridge University Press and done in such unrelenting detail that one reviewer thought that the third volume should have been re-titled "Lawrence: The Blue Guide"; Geoff Dyer's maverick extravaganza, Out of Sheer Rage; Brenda Maddox's The Married Man: A Life of D H Lawrence and much else besides. John Worthen, who wrote the first of the Cambridge instalments back in 1991, justifies this latest attempt, 75 years on from its subject's death, with the claim that here in the musty groves of 21st-century literary academe, Lawrence's reputation has "fallen off the map". True or not (I can't say I'd noticed myself), the slight air of defensiveness that attends his endeavour is misplaced. Like Dickens, Orwell and Virginia Woolf, Lawrence is the kind of writer who will always have books written about him, and for reasons that will nearly always transcend the narrow chronology of his life.

Worthen's theme - the theme of practically every literary biography that gets written these days - is deracination. Most creative writers spend the early part of their lives trying to escape from the small-scale and ultimately limiting environments in which they were born. They then find themselves stuck on a kind of spiritual pontoon bridge between old life and new, grimly aware that while the past may have given them their material it is almost impossible to revisit. For all his much advertised loathing of England and English bourgeois stupidity, Lawrence, one sometimes feels, was a classic type of deracinated Englishman, the kind of permanent exile who, in whatever foreign clime he happens to be in, preserves just enough of his origins to remain conspicuous. The picture of Lawrence snapped in Santa Fe in 1923 and looking uncomfortably like a Methodist preacher bears this out.

In Lawrence's case, all this was complicated - and at the same time given focus - by the fractures of his upbringing. Such class tensions as afflicted the Nottinghamshire mining household into which he was born in 1885 came courtesy of his mother, one of those "superior" working-class women, the despair of anyone who looks for solidarity in English working-class life, desperate to haul themselves out of the mire by way of small shop-keeping and driving their children into white-collar jobs. Together with Ann Chambers, the mother of Lawrence's first significant emotional attachment, Lydia Lawrence formed a little sorority which "hated the mining communities to which their husbands had brought them", found a solace in "Chapel" that was as much moral as religious and devoutly believed - an exhortation Lawrence carried with him deep into adulthood - that one should be good and you'll get on in life.

Lawrence's route out of the working class was elementary school teaching. Significantly, the discovery that he was "clever" coincided with his first scraps of poetry. He escaped south to Croydon where, nervous, lonely, but free from maternal supervision, he could pursue a series of highly unsatisfactory relationships with women. What one notices about young schoolmaster and aspiring writer alike - a quality Worthen insists on - is his niceness, or, if not niceness, eagerness to please, resolution, personal resonance. The Chambers family, to whom he loved to talk against the old-fashioned backdrop of the Haggs farm, reported "a sweetness of disposition that was quite irresistible". Pupils at the Croydon school found themselves reenacting the Battle of Agincourt over upturned forms. On the other hand, a great deal of psychological cake was being had and eaten too. When the wife of G K Chesterton, to whom Lawrence had sent some poems, returned them unread he was proudly defeatist. "I've been tried and been turned down, and I shall try no more." Luxuriating in the praise of his first great sponsor, Ford Madox Ford of The English Review, however, he professed mild annoyance. "One lies exposed and quiveringly vulnerable in print."

One lay exposed and quiveringly vulnerable nearly anywhere, if it came to that. Already the first faint whiff of the emotional extremism that is Lawrence's legacy to the English novel floats like woodsmoke across the canopy of his interior life. It turns up again in the abortive engagement to Jessie Chambers, of which Worthen charitably remarks that the male half did not so much ask Jessie to sleep with him as tell her that, because he loved her, this was inevitably going to happen. Just as The White Peacock (1911) and The Trespasser (1912) - in which the youthful love of fine writing contends with the primal urge - were first steps on the path to The Rainbow (1915) and Women in Love (1920), so these skirmishes with Miss Chambers, Louie Burrows and others were only the faintest preliminaries to the real business of Lawrence's emotional career.

What Worthen marks down as the half-hour that changed Lawrence's life took place in March 1912 in the Nottingham home of George Weekley, a university professor whose lectures he had attended as a student and whose advice the newly fledged literary freelance wanted about a trip to Germany. Frieda, Weekley's well-born German wife (she was connected to the air ace Manfred von Richtofen) with whom Lawrence decamped shortly afterwards, looks to have been, on the one hand, the worst kind of foil for his emotional paroxysms, and, on the other, a sterling provider of the environments in which he liked to live and work. "Though I am never quite sure whether I love or hate L," she remarked, "I know I would rather die than do without him." Middleton Murry and Katherine Mansfield, who observed them during their war-time stay in Cornwall, were shocked by the level of violence. To do Lawrence justice, it was on his head that the plates were generally smashed. A particular area of conflict was Frieda's three children, with Lawrence, a self-appointed expert on maternal love, insisting that her interest in them betrayed his idealism. Barring a few half-hours in lawyers' offices, she never saw them again.

Inevitably, war hit the vagrant and impoverished couple hard. They were suspected of pro-German sympathies. In a hostile publishing climate, Lawrence's books were either suppressed or rejected outright. There followed what Worthen characterises as "a partnership in a foreign land", a lonely exiles' road that led via Italy, Ceylon and Australia to New Mexico and a protracted tubercular decline in the south of France (Lawrence affected to believe that his medical problems were "bronchial") and an ever more erratic personal philosophy founded on "blood's" superiority to intellect and the sexual act being a betrayal of one's integrity. By the time of Frieda's death in 1956, the Lawrence cult had transformed the copyrights he bequeathed her (there was also £2,000 from underground sales of Lady Chatterley's Lover) into one of the most valuable estates in literary history.

My favourite Lawrence story - not quoted by Worthen - takes in his relationship with the music critic Cecil Gray, who at one time inhabited a cottage not far from the Lawrences' bolt-hole at Zennor. One afternoon Lawrence turned up at the door. "Gray," he enquired, as it was opened, "how long have you been in love with me?" Lawrence's self-absorption and belief in his powers of psychological divination have rarely been better conveyed. Lawrence's trick, as a writer and human being, was to extract both a profound insight and understanding and a habit of being completely intolerable out of the same raw materials. As for his 44 years on the planet, one is reminded of the career-so-far resumé that George Orwell (who had far less to put up with than the pitman's son from Eastwood) offered to a friend in 1936: "a bloody life most of the time but in some ways an interesting one". A minor point, but £30 for a standard-length biography is extortion.

Buy any book reviewed on this site at www.independentbooksdirect.co.uk
- postage and packing are free in the UK

Comments