A fiver says it should be D H Lawrence’s face on the back of one of our notes

If Jane Austen had genius, then we need another word again for what Lawrence had

Share

One of the more enigmatic statements on the British economy made by Mervyn King before he bowed out was that Jane Austen was waiting in the wings.

Anyone not paying full attention – as I wasn’t – might have supposed that King had finally lost his marbles: were things really that moribund in the City that his best replacement as Governor of the Bank of England was a long-dead novelist, no matter how alive her prose? It turned out that what Jane Austen was waiting in the wings for was the chance to have her face on the £10 note.

Alien as such a conjunction of literature and filthy lucre is to an old idealist like me, I applaud the choice. But if that’s the tenner sorted, may I put forward D H Lawrence as the new face of our fiver? This year is not only the 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice; it is also the 100th birthday of Sons and Lovers. Lawrence didn’t like Jane Austen much, and she probably wouldn’t have cared for him, but there’s no law that says the people on our currency have to get on. As for the conjunction of filthy lucre and literature being even more inappropriate in the case of Lawrence, who scarcely earned a penny from his work and scorned materialism – “Money poisons you when you’ve got it, and starves you when you haven’t,” he wrote in Lady Chatterley’s Lover – well, there have been stranger marriages. I once owned a D H Lawrence Medal for Promptness that came as a reward for signing up without delay to a book society and agreeing to take six volumes a year, and who has ever thought of Lawrence as notable for promptness?

We don’t, it seems to me – promptness apart – value Lawrence as highly as we should. He wrote two, maybe three, of the greatest 20th-century English novels, countless very fine short stories, some of the sharpest literary criticism (find me something to beat Studies in Classic American Literature), much original poetry, wonderful travel books, essays, journalism, letters, and forget about the paintings. All this before his 45th year. If Jane Austen had genius – and I yield to no one in my admiration for it – then we need another word again for what Lawrence had. It’s no surprise he had recourse so often to language whose mysticism makes our prosaic times uneasy: when the well of your creativity is so deep, you must wonder who is speaking inside you and what impulses you are answering. Of such bemusement are prophets made.

Lacking deep wells of creativity ourselves, we scorn the wild words and warnings of such visionary writers, mistrust their fluency and vehemence, fear their long grey beards and glittering eyes, preferring the reserved, spare, well-shaved demeanour of those who work the surfaces of things.

Lawrence is not, for these and other reasons, the ideal writer for a reading group to tackle. This is not the first time I have addressed the phenomenon of the reading group. If anything should give one hope for the continuing vitality of our culture, it’s the reading group. People giving up their time, willingly, to exchange informed, animated judgements about works of literature over wine and canapés – reader, I can think of nothing better. It’s what passes as informed, animated judgement that’s the problem.

Chairing the Guardian Reading Group’s assault on Sons and Lovers recently, Sam Jordison, author of Sod That!: 103 Things Not to Do Before You Die, ventures to suggest that reading D H Lawrence might be one of them. “We’ve already developed quite a rap sheet against Lawrence here on the Reading Group,” he writes, “and to that growing list ... I can also add being silly, tedious and sloppy.” Not great critical terms those, I would venture to suggest in return, not least as you must wonder why, if the faults of this novel are so glaringly obvious, readers as astute as Philip Larkin, who found “nearly every page of it absolutely perfect”, and Blake Morrison, who only the other day described it as “momentous – a great book”, failed to spot them.

I don’t say we must bow before authority; in the great democracy of reading, our first duty is to report what we find. But we must also face the fact that sometimes all we find is ourselves. That which we call tedious might be no more than the echo of our limited capacity to be interested; that which we call silly no more than a prim refusal to let a writer take us where we are unwilling emotionally or unable intellectually to go.

Jordison cites the following passage from Sons and Lovers as evidence of Lawrence’s silliness and sloppiness. “She felt the accuracy with which he caught her, exactly at the right moment, and the exactly proportionate strength of his thrust, and she was afraid. Down to her bowels went the hot wave of fear. She was in his hands. Again, firm and inevitable came the thrust at the right moment. She gripped the rope, almost swooning.”

“That’s a description,” says Jordison, “of Paul pushing Miriam on a rope swing. Steady on!” Steady on, Turner, it’s only a bloody sunset! Steady on, Wagner, it’s only a ring! But it’s not necessary to pursue the Michael Winner Calm Down Dear school of criticism to its philistine conclusion, because Jordison is doubly wrong in this instance – the passage is not a description of Paul pushing Miriam, it’s a description of Miriam being pushed. The drama of quivering sexual fearfulness is entirely hers. To accuse Lawrence of overwroughtness when overwroughtness is his subject is like accusing Shakespeare of jealousy for creating Othello.

Reading is a two-way activity: some books fail us, but it happens just as frequently that we fail them. There’s silly, sloppy writing out there, but there’s silly, sloppy reading too.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SSRS Report Developer - Urgent Contract - London - £300pd

£300 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: SSRS Report Developer – 3 Mon...

KS1 Teacher

£95 - £150 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Key Stage 1 teacher require...

HR Business Partner - Essex - £39,000 plus benefits

£32000 - £39000 per annum + benefits + bonus: Ashdown Group: Generalist HR Man...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £30000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Do you feel like your sales role...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Several police officers walk near downtown Ottawa  

Nigel Farage on the Ottawa shooting: It could just as easily happen on the streets of London

Nigel Farage
Simon Stevens, NHS England chief executive  

To improve the NHS, it must stop being a political issue

Mary Dejevsky
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?