The great are not always good. If a biography should do justice to greatness, how should the biographer treat a writer’s discreditable acts? Erica Wagner raised the issue in these pages when she reviewed Blake Bailey’s recent biography of Philip Roth. Evidence of Roth’s crassness (slamming down the phone on a patient lover who was helping him to masturbate) could put off some readers; others might feel that a writer’s private habits, however offensive, are irrelevant to their works. The biographer, Wagner argued, must scrutinize the complex relationship between the artistry and the life.
In choosing DH Lawrence, Frances Wilson takes on the challenge of a genius whose fantasies of manhood annoyed some, especially women. As a student in Cape Town, I detested The Plumed Serpent (1926) with its demand for female submission (“marriage as female sacrifice”, in Wilson’s phrase) to a man male enough – that is, violent enough – to be a godlike leader. At the age of 20 I vowed never to read the novel again. Wilson recalls her mother refusing to have Lawrence’s books in the home, and that her tutor in the early Eighties would not teach him. She herself does not flinch from delivering a just opinion: “The Plumed Serpent is alien and alienating, hard to forgive… It is also boring, at times brutally so.” Wilson’s acumen, and willingness to criticise when it is called for, aids her spirited case for reviving Lawrence despite his flaws.
In 1920, when Lawrence was in Capri – he left England in 1919, beginning what Wilson describes as a life “on the run” – his friend and fellow writer, Katherine Mansfield, was slowly dying of tuberculosis in Menton, France. In the past she had served as model for the liberated Gudrun in Women in Love (1920). “I loathe you,” Lawrence wrote in this last letter to her. “You revolt me stewing in your consumption.”
Wilson does more than deplore this as “astonishing… even by Lawrence’s standards”; she puts it in the context of his fear of death, this being “one of the few occasions on which he called the dreaded illness by its name”. We learn later that when Lawrence contracted that same disease, he invented other causes for his increasing weakness. This approach does not excuse the writer’s vicious self-absorption, but it joins up facts so as to open the way to understanding.
There can be, however, no explanatory context for casting his generous host, Ottoline Morrell, as what she called the “villainess” of Women in Love. His portrait of her as Hermione Roddice was obvious to all the writers and artists whom she welcomed and offered refuge at Garsington, her country house near Oxford. “It is so loathsome one cannot get clean after it…” she told Bertrand Russell, “making me out as if filled with cruel, devilish lust.” Virginia Woolf commented on the betrayal of hospitality: “What a cheap little bounder he was.”
Burning Man demonstrates how permeable, for Lawrence, was the line between life and fiction, to the extent that we might credit him as an inventor of auto-fiction. In Sons and Lovers (1913), Mrs Morel, whose life is diminished by her coal-mining husband, replaces him with her beloved son, Paul – an imaginative retelling of Lawrence’s childhood and youth in the mining town of Eastwood. His tenderness for his mother led him to “inhabit” female characters with empathy. So there’s a contradiction: he sometimes displays acute sensitivity towards his characters and friends, and sometimes kicks them away with almost savage nastiness. Lawrence compels us to recognise that if socialised beings were more honest about the play of instinct from moment to moment, we too might admit our irrational swings.
This biography explores one of his less familiar relationships, with a charming sponger called Maurice Magnus who crossed Lawrence’s path in Italy in 1919-20. Magnus showed Lawrence a photograph of his German mother Hedwig, and, knowing that Magnus wanted her praised, Lawrence dismissed her loveliness as common and “trivial”. Again, Wilson does not excuse the “perversity” of this put-down, but exercises her flair for linking bad behaviour with a strange frame of mind: Lawrence felt he was “the only boy ever to have had a sacred mother, or to have known the suave electricity that flows in a circuit between the great nerve-centres in mother and child”.
It becomes clear how relentlessly Magnus pursued Lawrence for what he could extract from him, and Lawrence, who worked incessantly and had little to live on, often yielded to the pleas of a well-mannered and devout gentleman who dreamed of taking holy orders. On the whole Lawrence liked Magnus – the attraction was not obviously sexual but more to do with religion, class and charm – and, when pressed, felt sorry for him. Only, Lawrence would then discover Magnus dining at a first-class hotel, as though to the manner born. Magnus did claim that Hedwig had been the illegitimate daughter of the Kaiser. Did Lawrence believe in the royal blood? Who can tell? Magnus was certainly a confidence man, an inventor of stories.
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They met for the last time during a burning summer in Malta, where past frauds and dodges caught up with Magnus. The biography leaves it to readers to make what we will of the revenge Lawrence took by publishing an exposé, Memoir of Maurice Magnus, after Magnus took his own life in 1920. Lawrence sent a copy to the monastery of Monte Cassino, near Naples, where Lawrence had accompanied Magnus, ensuring that Magnus was smirched in a place he’d venerated.
When people or places did not live up to Lawrence’s hope, disappointment turned swiftly to rejection. He admired Paul Gauguin’s paintings of Tahiti but when Lawrence’s ship stopped there – on a voyage from Australia to San Francisco in 1922 – he disliked bodies that were “brown and soft”. Did Lawrence succumb, here, to the racism of his society? Wilson explains “soft”: it’s antithetical to the hard masculinity to which Lawrence aspired. This “particularly tiresome” attitude provokes Wilson to confess a “temptation to ignore Lawrence at moments like this”. She is sure, though, that “these tensions, or rather lesions, in his character are precisely what Lawrence’s biographer must seize in order to see not only the stuff of which he was composed, but the world as he saw it”.
Wilson turns our attention from the well-known novels to less familiar poems, short stories, essays, letters and travel-writings. She makes bold claims for Lawrence’s achievements, and each is worth considering. One is that Lawrence has remained unrecognised as a travel writer because he journeys inwards as well as outwards, and discovers “in geographical extremes a way to symbolise his own poles of being”. Wilson describes Studies in Classic American Literature (1923) as the greatest literary criticism of the age. It’s a striking proposition and could well be right. I remember this book as mind-changing – like a chain of explosions – when I left South Africa for New York. It revealed American literature not as an offshoot of English literature but, behind a nice-as-pie exterior, hiding an otherness unknown to foreigners.
Lawrence was one of the first writers to give expression to “otherness”. He has the eye of a poet. Who can forget the way terror dissolves in reverence for a yellow, venomous snake visiting his water trough in Sicily; his bat whose wings are like “bits of umbrella”; or his Mother Kangaroo with her sloping Victorian shoulders, muscular tail and a thin arm trailing from her belly? His poems bring us close to creatures when we sense their bodily life as they, not we, feel it.
This poetic phenomenon was formed alongside a mine. David Herbert Lawrence grew up in the coal mining town of Eastwood, Nottinghamshire, the son of a miner, Arthur Lawrence. His mother, Lydia, the daughter of an engineer, wrote verse and loved reading. A scholarship gave Lawrence a middle-class education but his love of literature came from the local library – from the age of 17 he would go there every Thursday with his friend Jessie Chambers.
Arthur Lawrence was a violent man who came home, blackened, from the coal pit and drank. In Lawrence’s essay, “Nottingham and the Mining Countryside”, he seems to mine the underground sensibility of men like his father. He imagines the bonds they developed down the pit, working in darkness, naked and physically close, under conditions of extreme danger and intimacy, like men in the trenches during the Great War.
Lawrence had a lifelong craving for brotherhood, for a relationship with a man to balance intimacy with a woman. This biography dwells on Lawrence’s unsatisfied search for a same-sex tie that eludes definition. Burning Man plays down the significance of novels that once were banned, The Rainbow (1915) and Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928) – an approach that serves also to ditch his image as the priest of love. In Wilson’s portrait, his fearless German wife Frieda, cigarette in the corner of a lopsided mouth, is always present, encased in her “happy flesh”, often confronting her husband’s godlike stance, yet she remains a little to the side when the pair are not fighting.
Frances Wilson does not attempt to reconcile Lawrence’s contradictory extremes. Her solution is to divide “Self One” from “Self Two”. Self One could “inhabit” women warmly and had a remarkable imaginative reach for what is non-human, whether it be the New Mexican desert or the difficulty of tortoises in mating. Self Two, sadly, was a megalomaniac, a ranting prophet, prone to crush Self One.
Burning Man also assents to Aldous Huxley’s alternative line on Lawrence as a “nocturnal” creature loyal to his “own self”. Huxley came to know and admire Lawrence in his last years, and Huxley’s preface to his edition of Lawrence’s letters (1932) claims that he can only be understood as an artist seizing what his art needs in that instant. It’s an art that quickens in response to a person, animal, or scene, as Lawrence travels restlessly from place to place.
This biography shows us an astonishingly resilient Lawrence. Despite the tuberculosis he contracted in his early forties, and despite the attacks on and bannings of his work, Lawrence remained hopeful. His aim was to realise a vision of how to live: an intimacy with other living things, to be gained by discarding the contrivances of society and its dependence on technology.
His vision can speak to us now, and this is the rationale for reviving Lawrence. Wilson is a feminist who dares to consider herself Lawrentian in the face of the feminists who excluded Lawrence a generation ago. The anti-Lawrence campaign began with Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics (1970), which labelled Lawrence phallocentric. The book grew out of a dissertation at Columbia University, and there, in 1970, I was at the meeting where Millett called for women’s liberation. Lawrence, along with Norman Mailer and Henry Miller, was among the prime targets of this revolution. That day it seemed as though hundreds of women had crawled out of their burrows to roar approval of Millett’s full-throated rage.
A good biographer knows that nothing is as simple as it may seem. Each of Frances Wilson’s books presents a masterclass in handling the nuances of complexity. The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth takes on the indefinable relationship between Wordsworth and his sister with a focus on the crucial years, 1799-1802, of their creative sharing. How to Survive the Titanic explores the shadows in the afterlife of Bruce Ismay, the chairman of the White Star Line, who shouldn’t have survived, yet did. Wilson measures Ismay against Joseph Conrad’s guilty survivor of shipwreck, Lord Jim. How does a moral being live on after succumbing to an animal instinct to save his skin? Wilson has the imaginative courage to look into the heart of disgrace.
In Burning Man she takes up the challenge of an even more “difficult” man, and places him in a Dantean narrative, moving from the inferno of a coal miner’s pit to the elevation (9,000 feet) of a dwelling on Lobo mountain near Taos in northern New Mexico, where the altitude was said to help suffering lungs (it was the winter of 1922-23 and his health was already failing; he died in 1930 from the effects of tuberculosis). The phases of this life turn into a triptych of “stories”, a form more revealing than the straight line of a single narrative.
Not only does Frances Wilson revive her subject, she lifts the whole genre. Biography of this calibre is rare. Characters flash off the page. For example, Mabel Dodge, a wealthy, eloquent dynamo from Buffalo, New York, married to Tony Lujan, a Native American. Mabel invited Lawrence to her adobe mansion (replete with mod cons) in Taos. Lawrence observed the dances of Native Americans and penned essays about them.
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Mabel wants Lawrence to put her in a novel. He resists, then complies in The Plumed Serpent, but not as Mabel would have wished: in the final version of the novel the Mabel figure – Kate Leslie, an Irish tourist – gets overpowered; submitting to the Mexican general Don Cipriano. Wilson describes how Mabel’s “magnetism” set off a battle of wills between her and Lawrence:
The battle took the form of a bullfight, where Lawrence shook his red cape and Mabel, horns lowered and eyes narrowed, came charging forward. Their dynamic might equally be seen as a snake dance, with Mabel manipulating the serpentine Lawrence, whom she held, for the moment, in captivity.
Wilson’s verve and wit are inseparable from her leaping insights. Marital fights are unashamedly public because, we come to see, this is theatre. The drama craves an audience. Lawrence “believed in the vitality of difference, and marriage as the home of opposition”. The Plumed Serpent, Wilson suggests, may be rehabilitated after all as a version of The Taming of the Shrew. Such ideas leave their sparks in our minds, the effervescence of our most original biographer.
Lyndall Gordon’s biographies include “The Imperfect Life of TS Eliot” (Virago)
Burning Man: The Ascent of DH Lawrence
Bloomsbury Circus, 512pp, £25
This review was amended on 22 May to clarify the reference to Erica Wagner’s review of “Philip Roth: The Biography by Blake Bailey
This article appears in the 19 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, In defence of meritocracy