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
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
Arts and Entertainment
Fake Banksy stencil given to artist Alex Jakob-Whitworth

art

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
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.

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee