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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer, Lord Alan Sugar, Karren Brady are returning for The Apprentice series 10

TV
Arts and Entertainment
There has been a boom in ticket sales for female comics, according to an industry survey

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Angelina Jolie and Winona Ryder star in 'Girl, Interrupted'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Ed Stoppard as Brian Epstein, Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Elliott Cowan as George Martin in 'Cilla'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Thomas Pynchon in 1955, left, and Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix in Paul Thomas Anderson's adaptation of his novel, Inherent Vice

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Nicole Scherzinger will join the cast of Cats

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Fans were left surprised by the death on Sunday night's season 26 premiere

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Watson has become the latest target of the 4Chan nude hacking scandal

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lady Mary goes hunting with suitor Lord Gillingham

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Dunne, played by Ben Affleck, finds himself at the centre of a media storm when his wife is reported missing and assumed dead

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lindsay Lohan made her West End debut earlier this week in 'Speed-the-Plow'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Artist Nathan Sawaya stands with his sculpture 'Yellow' at the Art of Brick Exhibition

art
Arts and Entertainment
'Strictly Come Dancing' attracted 6.53 million viewers on Friday
tv
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant plays Detective Emmett Carver in the US version on Broadchurch

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor goes undercover at Coal Hill School in 'The Caretaker'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ni , Rock of Rah, Vanuatu: The Ni live on one of the smallest islands of Vanuatu; Nelson flew five hours from Sydney to capture the 'isolation forged by their remoteness'
photographyJimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style
Arts and Entertainment
David Byrne
musicDavid Byrne describes how the notorious First Lady's high life dazzled him out of a career low
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Italian couples fake UK divorce scam on an ‘industrial scale’

    Welcome to Maidenhead, the divorce capital of... Italy

    A look at the the legal tourists who exploited our liberal dissolution rules
    Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

    Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

    The vintage series has often been criticised for racial stereotyping
    An app for the amorous: Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?

    An app for the amorous

    Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
    Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid. Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?

    Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid

    Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?
    Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

    Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

    After a few early missteps with Chekhov, her acting career has taken her to Hollywood. Next up is a role in the BBC’s gangster drama ‘Peaky Blinders’
    She's having a laugh: Britain's female comedians have never had it so good

    She's having a laugh

    Britain's female comedians have never had it so good, says stand-up Natalie Haynes
    Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LED lights designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows

    Let there be light

    Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LEDs designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows
    Great British Bake Off, semi-final, review: Richard remains the baker to beat

    Tensions rise in Bake Off's pastry week

    Richard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
    Paris Fashion Week, spring/summer 2015: Time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris

    A look to the future

    It's time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris
    The 10 best bedspreads

    The 10 best bedspreads

    Before you up the tog count on your duvet, add an extra layer and a room-changing piece to your bed this autumn
    Arsenal vs Galatasaray: Five things we learnt from the Emirates

    Arsenal vs Galatasaray

    Five things we learnt from the Gunners' Champions League victory at the Emirates
    Stuart Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

    Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

    This deal gives England a head-start to prepare for 2019 World Cup, says Chris Hewett
    Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

    The children orphaned by Ebola...

    ... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
    Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
    The magic of roundabouts

    Lords of the rings

    Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?