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Books: Flowering cactus

Mortally ill, the miner's son wrote and travelled with a death- defying energy. Brenda Maddox wonders how he managed it; Dying Game: D H Lawrence 1922-1930 by David Ellis Cambridge University Press, pounds 25
The last eight of D H Lawrence's 45 years are a tribute to the human spirit. From the time early in 1922 - when, wobbly from influenza and God knows what else, Lawrence with his wife Frieda pushed off from Taormina to go to the United States via Ceylon - until the evening early in March 1930 when he died in Venice of pulmonary tuberculosis, he never ceased making his mark. He made it in the form of three novels (Lady Chatterly's Lover itself was written in three full versions), poems, stories, paintings, letters, furniture, shelves, sweaters and innumerable loaves of bread. The multi-media message was the same: he was showing people - his bad temper balanced by humour and generosity - how life ought to be lived.

The "game" in David Ellis's title is an adjective, not a noun. Lawrence died game for what life sent, even death. "While we live, we must be game. And when we come to die, we'll die game too," he wrote to his consumptive home-town friend, Gertie Cooper, in 1927. In this most scrupulous of biographies, Ellis, professor of English at Kent, pointedly quotes a friend as saying that, even as the end drew near, Lawrence never thought his recovery was in doubt.

Ellis, the third of the triumvirate of academic biographers authorised by Cambridge University Press, himself fights hard against the fatal diagnosis. He will not recognise Lawrence's tuberculosis unquestionably to have existed before 1924. The sign Ellis accepts as incontrovertible - dismissing all the earlier anecdotes of coughing, bloodstained handkerchiefs and consumptive rages - is the haemorrhage witnessed by the painter Dorothy Brett in New Mexico in August 1924.

Lawrence heard the official diagnosis, after a long-avoided chest X-ray, from a doctor at the American Hospital in Mexico City in February 1925. He denied it, insisting for the next five years that his real trouble was his bronchial tubes, not the lungs.

But how to explain the sheer outpouring of energy that followed in the intervening years before his death? This is a mystery Ellis austerely refuses to try to solve. We cannot know. There is not enough evidence.

He is more dismissive, but not scathingly, of the Australian journalist Robert Darroch's theories about Lawrence's possible encounters with Australia's secret right-wing army in 1922. Behind this engaging possibility lies the vast amount of minute specific detail which Lawrence, who drew from life, put into his Australian novel, Kangaroo, written in six weeks in 1922. Could he have made it all up? To Darroch's contention that Lawrence met the leaders of the King and Empire Alliance in Sydney, Ellis finds "no convincing evidence" that "he became even remotely intimate with leaders of a group of that kind." But, even for such a prolific letter-writer as Lawrence, there are a few unaccounted hours in the diary. Ellis is too disciplined a scholar to try to prove that God does not exist.

The same cautious treatment is accorded Lawrence's impotence, Frieda's legendary promiscuity, and the alleged attempt at sexual consummation with Brett in Capri in 1926. To these, as to myriad psychological questions of why Lawrence did what he did, Ellis lays out the alternatives. To the big conundrum of late-1920s Lawrence - how so much achievement if so sick? - he suggests three possibilities: a sound constitution, a long medical history of fighting tuberculosis, or the refusal to recognise that he was suffering from a disease for which in his time there was no cure. Which of these applies, "it is impossible to establish".

The pages devoted to such speculation reflect, no doubt, the team-approach to Lawrence's biography. They may slow down the general reader, who will look in vain for a narrative thread. So, too, may the book's bulk - nearly a third of the 780 pages are scholarly apparatus. Scholars, however, will welcome the voluminous analysis, although they may be surprised at the factual errors which have survived the scrutiny of so many Eng-Lit eagle eyes. Harriet Shaw Weaver, James Joyce's patron, was not American, but English. Ford Madox Ford did not spell his middle name with two "d"s.

If reality is multi-layered, so are literary texts. The laying out, side- by-side, of alternative versions of the novels and stories justifies Ellis's forensic approach, and yields biographical rewards as well. His discussion of the three short stories in which Lawrence took revenge on John Middleton Murry for getting too close to Frieda in 1924 is masterly.

Cambridge's three-story mountain is now complete, there to be mined. The vast assemblage of every known detail about the life and work of the miner's son from Eastwood is now ready for the next century to uncover the truth the 20th missed: that Lawrence was far more than a novelist. The greatness, breadth and humour of his poems, essays, journalism, travel writing and letters are still under-appreciated.