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The mail supremacist

THE SELECTED LETTERS OF D H LAWRENCE ed James T Boulton, CUP pounds 29. 95
The Arrival of a letter from D H Lawrence must have been a remarkable event. Passionate, hectoring, tender, funny, tragic, angry, calm, silly, wise, these are letters charged with a sense of self, yet - as the finest are - exquisitely attuned to the recipient. If his furious vatic rage could on occasion seem egotistical or self-dramatising, he never forgot the person he was addressing and mixed eager enquiries about their own lives with his own fiercely lived and fiercely expounded life philosophy.

James Boulton has chosen 330 letters from the massive eight-volume Cambridge edition of well over 5,000, making this substantial selection something like a new addition to the Lawrence canon, a book to have on the shelf alongside The Rainbow and Women in Love. Boulton's editing is deft and helpful (though perhaps we didn't need a footnote explaining what it means to keep one's pecker up) and there are brief - yet necessary - notes on all Lawrence's correspondents, only a minority of whom now are famous names.

A constant theme in these letters, whose provenance maps the pilgrimage of this restless spirit across Europe and several other continents, is Lawrence's angry engagement with England. In his last months he wrote to the American poet Witter Bynner: "I do believe the root of all my sickness is a sort of rage ... it's Europe that has made me ill. One gets so innerly angry with the dull sort of hopelessness and deadness there is over there." Nearly 20 years earlier, he had exclaimed to Edward Garnett over Heinemann's rejection of the manuscript of Sons and Lovers on the grounds that the public (and the circulating libraries) would not stand for it: "Why, why, why was I born an Englishman!"

Lawrence had plenty of reason to be exasperated with his fellow-countrymen, of course. His books were turned down by timorous publishers. When published they were banned by magistrates or seized by customs officials. His paintings were declared obscene, and even his poems fell foul of officialdom. He was driven out of Cornwall during the First World War by locals who spread rumours that he and his German wife were spies. There was an inevitability about the start of the writer's "savage pilgrimage" that ended with premature death from tuberculosis in 1930 in France.

There were, however, deeper sources for Lawrence's rage. "My great religion is a belief in the blood, the flesh, as being wiser than the intellect," he wrote to the artist Ernest Collings as early as 1913. If some of his correspondents, like Lady Ottoline Morrell, found all this Lawrentian philosophising to be "deplorable tosh", it was at the root of his later obsession with "the phallic consciousness" and his diagnosis of a sick civilisation that could not trust its feelings and instincts. He despised Chekhov ("Willy wet-leg") and Dostoevsky as "Murryish", his code-word for the self-pitying angst of writers like John Middleton Murry. And, sounding like an inferior Nietzsche, he screamed in one letter: "Down with the poor in spirit!". One by one, the countries he visited were rejected as they were discovered to be bourgeois or mechanistic or cut off from their true sources of being: "Everything in America goes by will," he complained.

The letters are unsparing and savage. Middleton Murry, told he was "a dirty little worm", declared his intention to "hit you in the face" at their next meeting. Bertrand Russell, accused of masking "repressed desires" in the sheep's clothing of pacifism, for 24 hours contemplated suicide. But this was Lawrence's style. "Don't take any notice of my extravagant talk," he cautioned Lady Ottoline Morrell "- one must say something." He was just as often thoughtful and understanding, particularly to his young niece, Peggy King, notwithstanding his harsh view that Twenties youth was detached from life and cynical.

"I am essentially a fighter - to wish me peace is bad luck," Lawrence told the youth-camp pioneer Rolf Gardiner in another letter. His last years, contending with publishers, booksellers, and customs officials to get Lady Chatterley's Lover out, or battling over his pictures, gave him plenty of opportunity for struggle in spite of his failing health. Whatever one's view of his sometimes woozy philosophising, especially in his "phallic" phase - which issued too frequently in absurdities like: "Why do men only thrill to a woman who'll rape them?" - one is forced to admire the sheer energy and passionate commitment of Lawrence to what he believed in, his refusal to go quietly.

And in spite of his loathing of polite, effete, indifferent Englishness, he thought often of the English Midlands - "the country of my heart" - he had left behind. The 1926 miner's strike and the sufferings of the miners in the Depression affected him deeply. Writing at the end of his life to David Chambers, younger brother of Jessie, the original of Miriam in Sons and Lovers, he said that he would love to be 19 again and catching once more a glimpse of the Chambers' farm, the Haggs: "Because whatever else I am, I am somewhere still the same Bert who rushed with such joy to the Haggs."

It would be wrong to leave an impression of these letters as a prolonged jeremiad. They contain vivid, unbuttoned descriptions of scenes and places that recall Lawrence the poet; they are full of liveliness and humour - one letter sketches out a proposal for a publication, The Squib, that sounds like a prototype Private Eye - and record many instances of generosity, particularly to unknown writers. With Frieda, Lawrence lived for many years hand to mouth. But as soon as he came into money he gave it away, having no desire to buy property or bequeath it. "We only live once, and must use every opportunity of living," he wrote. Scourge of modern industrial and bourgeois society that he was, he never gave in to despair. "I think the world must be fought, not retreated from," he told the artist Earl Brewster. The exhilaration of these letters, which at 500 pages never flag, is to be allowed a ringside seat at that lively bout.