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.

Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’


Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'


Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from


Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?