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Chapter 10: Versions of Lawrence: 1885-1993

Part I

The difficulty of creating a reliable biography of Lawrence can be illustrated simply by considering what he looked like. This would seem to be an uncontroversial matter: but experience shows that it is not. We need do no more than compare the drawing Lawrence did of himself in Majorca in June 1929 with two studio photographs taken of him the same month. The photographs show a man whose pale, narrow face is calm, gentle, almost ethereal: his collar and tie (because he has grown so thin) hang loosely on him. The drawing shows a man with a broad, intense, angry face, and wild, staring eyes; the same collar and tie fit him perfectly. Lawrence remarked that the drawing was "basically like me. But my wife thinks it is awful - chiefly because she doesn't understand." (Letters VII: 333) Which might be said to be the "real" Lawrence? It depends upon what one understands by "real."

If, however, we draw simply upon memoirs written of Lawrence by people who knew him, some extraordinary divergences can be observed. His Croydon headmaster, who met him in 1908, remembered him as having "a shock of dark hair" (Nehls 1957: 85), and at least one other person who knew him when young referred to him as "dark-haired" (Worthen 1991: 95). Helen Corke, however, who first saw him in 1909, recalled "fair hair," as did Ford Madox Hueffer and Violet Hunt, first seeing him late in 1909, who remembered "sunshot tawny hair" and "yellow hair" (Nehls 1957: 95, 111, 127). In 1917, Esther Andrews noted "ash-coloured hair" while a Berkshire friend Cecily Lambert, the following year, saw "mousey blonde hair" (Nehls 1957: 416, 463). In 1923, Dorothy Brett saw "dark, gold hair" (Nehls 1958: 304); three years later, Montague Weekley thought Lawrence "sandy-haired" (Nehls 1957: 161). David Garnett, however, who met him in 1912, recalled his hair tint as "bright mud-colour, with a streak of red in it": Catherine Carswell remembered "thick dust-coloured hair" in 1914, and Richard Aldington, who also met him in 1914, remembered his "bright red hair" (Nehls 1957: 173, 227, 236). Ottoline Morrell (from 1915) remembered a "mass of red hair" though the writer Douglas Goldring (1887-1960) recalled only "a reddish "quiff'"; but Compton Mackenzie (who saw him in 1914 and again in 1920) thought he had "wavy reddish hair" (Nehls 1957: 271, 490, 248) and Rebecca West (1892-1983) described his hair in 1921 as "pale luminous red" (Nehls 1958: 63). Lawrence himself once remarked that his hair had "got no particular colour at all" (Phoenix II 310), but he also responded to someone who remarked that - with red hair like his - of course he would have a temper, "announcing that his hair was not red, that it used to be pure yellow gold and now was brown; his beard might be red, but his hair was golden brown!" (Nehls 1959: 44).

His hair probably got browner as he got older. He never dyed it, though at least one person thought he did: "one day [Maurice Magnus] said to me at table: "How lovely your hair is - such a lovely colour! What do you dye it with?'" (Phoenix II 310). But in those descriptions we can, over and over again, observe people seeing in Lawrence what they wanted to see. In each case, the person describing Lawrence is actually describing the power and significance of their own reaction to him. The spectrum of colors indicates how striking and unusual people thought Lawrence was, and suggests how they attempted, in their recollections of him, to ensure that the extraordinariness of knowing him might somehow be conveyed. Those who saw him as red haired, in particular, were likely to be thinking of him as some kind of an outsider: as hot-tempered, badly-behaved, and very probably as working- class. This was exactly how he struck middle-class person after middle-class person: "He was the weedy runt you find in every gang of workmen: the one who keeps the other men laughing all the time": "a man sitting in the corner of a third-class compartment ... that sort of working man, you know" (Nehls 1957: 173, 217): "I found standing at the gate a man something between a reddish-bearded, able-bodied seaman and a handy man at the back door!" (Nehls 1958: 133). And others who remembered Lawrence as strikingly red-haired tended themselves to be middle- or upper-class: and were clearly more struck by the color of his beard (which everyone agrees was red) than by the color of his hair.

With this kind of disagreement about something that might seem incontrovertible, it is not surprising that we should find people disagreeing even more comprehensively about what Lawrence was like as a person. He was, according to Willie Hopkin's daughter Enid Hilton (1896-1991), a "kind, fun-loving man" (Hilton 1993: 65) and David Garnett never forgot how his "courage, his high spirits, his perpetual nagging mockery, kept us all gay" (Nehls 1957: 177). On the contrary, the American poet Jean Untermeyer (1886-1970) "was left feeling overwhelmed by a type of arrogance that I was unable to deal with" (Nehls 1959: 104), while William Gerhardi (1895-1977) wrote how there was "something superfluous, something gawky and left-handed about Lawrence. His humour was defective. Yet, like so many people whose humour is poor, he prided himself on his tremendous sense of fun" (Nehls 1959: 14). For Norman Douglas, too, Lawrence - "being inwardly consumed and tormented" - "had neither poise nor reserve. Nor had he a trace of humour" (Nehls 1958: 14). Yet Thomas Seltzer actually singled him out for "extraordinary poise" (Nehls 1958: 210), and Earl Brewster recalled how "gay and free ... were our hours together" (Nehls 1959: 135). Catherine Carswell thought him "an overwhelmingly attractive human being" (Carswell 1932: 213) but the American author Carleton Beals (b. 1893) remarked that "As did most persons - except neurotic females seeking restless freedom - I soon detested him personally" (Nehls 1958: 288). Esther Andrews described him as "the gentlest, kindest person in all human relations that anyone could be on this earth" and Dollie Radford described him as "a sweet man, so simple and kind" (Nehls 1957: 417, 292). On the other hand, Witter Bynner thought he was "a bad baby masquerading as a good Mephistopheles" (Bynner 1951: 2), Cecil Gray described him as "in the r“le of lover or friend or anything else ... a lamentable failure" (Nehls 1957: 437) and Faith Compton Mackenzie wrote how "He did great harm to the people who adored him. I suppose no genius has left such a trail of malice in the hearts of those who professed to love him" (Nehls 1959: 35).

What can a biographer do? Which is the real Lawrence? Or - to be exact - is there a real Lawrence, rather than a perpetually recreated version of him, mysteriously colored by the needs and desires of the particular observer? A biographer cannot simply amalgamate accounts as different as those given above, which is one reason why Edward Nehls's three- volume work D. H. Lawrence: A Composite Biography, published in the late 1950s, was such an intelligent way of creating a biography of Lawrence. Nehls did not have to choose between the details of conflicting accounts; he presented all of them, cheek by jowl, and excluded his own commentating voice except in the end-notes. This means that his work is still very much alive nearly forty years after it was done, while other biographies from the 1950s - like Richard Aldington's Portrait of an Artist, But ... of 1950 and Harry T. Moore's two biographies The Life and Works of D. H. Lawrence (1951) and The Intelligent Heart (1955) - are today interesting only for representing the fashions of the period to students of Lawrence biography.

Part II

There remains, however, the question as to why Lawrence gave rise to such a conflict of versions of himself. To a considerable extent, the version of Lawrence we possess today was created in the early 1930s by a significant succession of publications: and most of the memoirs so far cited were actually written in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, rather than in Lawrence's lifetime. Toward the end of Lawrence's life critical assessments of his writings had started to appear, beginning with Herbert J. Seligmann's D. H. Lawrence, An American Interpretation in 1924, Aldington's pamphlet of 1927 and Stephen Potter's book of 1930. But - with its contract signed in September 1930 - Murry's Son of Woman, which came out in April 1931, only thirteen months after Lawrence's death, was a new kind of book: one which, although outwardly a critical book, was also an attempt at a kind of spiritual biography. It purported to explain what was fundamentally wrong with Lawrence the person, not just what was wrong with his books. (Only Rebecca West's 1930 pamphlet about Lawrence could have been called strictly biographical, up to that point.)

At the start of 1932 the real biographical books began to come out, the first, published in Florence in January 1932, being Ada Lawrence's Young Lorenzo (published in England the following November), which contained a brief memoir of Lawrence's family and early life, and some letters and postcards from throughout his career. In February 1932 came Mabel Luhan's Lorenzo in Taos - which dealt only with two of Lawrence's three periods in the American southwest, 1922-23 and 1924. And in June 1922 was published Catherine Carswell's The Savage Pilgrimage, a kind of answer to the reminiscences of Lawrence which Murry had been publishing in the New Adelphi from 1931 onwards, and the first attempt at a full-length biography drawing on material from outside the writer's actually knowledge of her subject. The Savage Pilgrimage had, however, to be withdrawn after threats of legal action from Murry, who objected to the way he himself was presented; the book was re-issued by another publisher in December 1932. Frederick Carter's book D. H. Lawrence and the Body Mystical and Anaïs Nin's D. H. Lawrence: An Unprofessional Study (neither of them primarily biographical) also came out in 1932: but probably the most significant of all the publications was Huxley's edition of Lawrence's Letters, which came out at the end of September 1932. Then, in January 1933, hard on the heels of the re-issued Savage Pilgrimage came Murry's own collected Reminiscences of D, H. Lawrence, his response to Catherine Carswell's book: it dealt only with the period during which Murry had known Lawrence, between 1913 and 1924, but also contained a collection of the reviews of Lawrence's work Murry had written over the years. Later in 1933 came Dorothy Brett's Lawrence and Brett: A Friendship, which dealt (again) only with the periods during which Brett had known Lawrence (1915, and then 1923-26); the same year came two more primarily non-biographical books, Helen Corke's Lawrence and Apocalypse and Horace Gregory's Pilgrim of the Apocalypse. Three more major biographical works were to come: Earl and Achsah Brewster's D. H. Lawrence, Reminiscences and Correspondence in February 1934, Frieda Lawrence's "Not I, But The Wind... " in July 1934 (1935 in England), and Jessie Chambers's D. H. Lawrence: A Personal Record in May 1935. The Brewsters' memoirs were tactful, respectful and non-controversial, and described Lawrence between 1921 and 1930; Frieda's book described his life from 1912 to 1930; Jessie Chambers was only concerned with the period up to 1912.

Only the first and last books in this sequence - Ada Lawrence and Jessie Chambers - described much of Lawrence's life before the 1920s; even Catherine Carswell and Murry only knew him from just before the first world war. The overwhelming picture given was inevitably that of a man wandering the world in the company of quarrelling, possessive and adoring women. It was also clear that the books by Carswell, Murry, Luhan, Brett and Chambers were all in their different ways attempt to re-possess Lawrence: attempts to be the book written by the one true friend who understood him where none of the other friends (or partners) did. Coming out when it did, even Frieda's book took on the appearance of a slightly sanctimonious book, designed to re-possess him: it tended to play down the painful extremes of his life. A friend heard her giving a very different account of life with him in the autumn of 1930, and observed that the person who came to write "Not I, But the Wind ..." "was not the same Frieda I knew ... but someone who must have been þborn again'" (Crotch 1975: 6).

The end result of this sequence of memoirs was that Lawrence seemed caught emotionally between friends, sexual partners and lovers; the vacillations in his loyalty to one or the other of them apparently being of a piece with the wide range and apparent randomness of his travels. To those who had known Lawrence, the stream of books - all claiming to offer the real truth about him - was a painful and rather shameful experience. How he would have hated it! But it became the standard by which he would be judged. Faith Compton Mackenzie, writing at the end of the decade in 1940, summed up: "For Lawrence to allow himself to be surrounded by a corps of infatuated women was perfectly natural. It is the sport of genius; their antics have a tonic effect, and even the exasperation to which Lawrence was occasionally driven, and of which we read in the copious reminiscences that his death produced, was stimulating enough to be worthwhile .... " (Nehls 1959: 34).

The idea that there might be a rather tough, fiercely private, lonely, very self-reliant, determined and highly intellectual man behind the vacillating and almost wholly emotional being created by these biographies was almost impossible to conceive. Instead, the tone was set for the appreciation of Lawrence as a weak, muddled and emotional man incapable of choosing his friends well, and wholly the victim of his instincts. A final book from the 1930s, this time a critical one, William York Tindall's D. H. Lawrence and Susan his Cow of 1939, took advantage of the previously created portrait of a confused man to mount a satirical demolition of the work as well, concentrating on what Tindall significantly described as "Lawrence's vague transcendentalism and inner confusion" (Tindall 1939: 205).

The 1930s version of Lawrence to some extent remains current to this day; the publicity surrounding the publication in America and England of Lady Chatterley's Lover in 1959 and 1960 tending to confirm once again the portrait of Lawrence as a man helplessly enslaved to the writing of instinctive truths about bodily experience, and never thinking about such things carefully or seeing beyond them. The title The Priest of Love which Harry T. Moore gave as late as 1974 to his reissued biography of Lawrence added its own confirmation of the idea of Lawrence as a man who had made a religion out of his emotions; and in 1990 Jeffrey Meyers's biography D. H. Lawrence, in spite of a wealth of new material unavailable to Moore, was happy to maintain the overall picture of Lawrence as a man obsessed with following the dictates of his instincts: his account of Women in Love, for example, reads the novel simply as its author's exercise in anal homoerotics (Meyers 1990: 216-21). The present writer's first volume of the Cambridge biography of Lawrence, D. H. Lawrence: The Early Years 1885-1912 was, I believe, the first attempt to do justice to Lawrence as a man with an intellectual history; it presented him as an exceptionally thoughtful, coolly judging and reflective individual, whose concern with the instinctive and the physical was to some extent an attempt to overcome serious tendencies toward ratiocination and spirituality within himself.

Part III

The 1930 versions of Lawrence were, however, not altogether supported by Huxley's first collection of his letters, which gave to those who liked Lawrence a chance to point out just how different he was from the person contemporary memoirs and biographies made him - even if Huxley's Introduction was, in its own way, just as possessive of its own version of Lawrence as any of the other books. (Huxley's Lawrence was the extraordinary, natural savant, the man who instinctively and always knew what was true and right, who never revised his books but got them right first time, every time.) But at least Huxley's edition of the letters allowed Lawrence to speak in his own voice; and that voice turned out to be alluringly sensitive, thoughtful, understanding and witty, if at times desperate.

This was the more so because, of course, Huxley had to exert a certain degree of censorship over what he printed; many of the people who had known Lawrence and to whom he referred were still alive. Accordingly, the version of Lawrence's correspondence which Huxley's collection created was distinctly biased toward the sweet-tempered and the appreciative; and, to this extent, collaborated with what was in general Lawrence's own extremely controlled written relationships. Only occasionally would the conflicting evidence of a surviving letter and an unwitting memoir reveal how polite (or two-faced), kindly (or hypocritical) a letter from Lawrence could be, given what he obviously actually thought of the person to whom he was writing. This became clearer in the subsequent, uncensored publications of his letters. But it should also make us aware of how controlled Lawrence's letters are. They are not the simple outpourings of genius; they are deliberate, carefully aimed missives, saying things which Lawrence thinks a particular person needs to hear. It is natural that this should be so; they are the work of a major writer. But one must not be misled into thinking that they simply reveal the man behind them. They do so only in complicated ways.

Part IV

What links this habit of Lawrence as a writer with the oddly varied accounts of him which have survived is, of course, the fact that he always presented himself in strikingly different ways to different people. Jan Juta found it impossible to paint him in 1921 - not because he was difficult to paint, but because "I could not make up my mind which of the facets of his personality I felt most representative." It was, Juta went on, "this complexity which baffled so many" (Nehls 1958: 85). Added to that innate complexity and contradictoriness was the fact that he was to some extent both an actor and an impersonator, in life and in his writing. His skill at mimicry is well-known: David Garnett, for example, said that Lawrence

was the only great mimic I have ever known; he had a genius for "taking people off" and could reproduce voice and manner exactly. He told you that he had once seen Yeats or Ezra Pound for half an hour in a drawing-room, and straightway Yeats or Pound appeared before you. (Garnett 1953: 245)

All his life, Lawrence not only imitated people: he also presented polished and at times complex comic turns to his friends: report after report of such occasions survives in the biographical record. As late as 1927, he was still doing his turn of Florence Farr reciting W. B. Yeats to the minimal music of the psaltery (Nehls 1959: 138) which David Garnett had seen back in 1912 , and which Lawrence had probably first witnessed - and performed - in 1909.

But David Garnett also noticed of the mimicry and the charades that "the person whom Lawrence most constantly made fun of was himself."

He mimicked himself ruthlessly and continually and, as he told a story, acted ridiculous versions of a shy and gawky Lawrence being patronized by literary lions, of a winsome Lawrence charming his landlady, of a bad-tempered whining Lawrence picking a quarrel with Frieda over nothing. There was more than a little of Charlie Chaplin in his acting: but bitterer, less sentimental. (Garnett 1953: 245)

Lawrence knew very well how many people he himself was. And to some extent - and nearly always in his letters - he controlled the version of himself that he presented and by which he would be remembered. He was clearly a radically different person to (say) Catherine Carswell than the person he was to someone like Norman Douglas. Hence, in part, the utter divergence of opinion of him seen in the writing of people like Catherine Carswell and Norman Douglas quoted above.

It is also easier to see in his Letters than in memoirs of him the charming, outgoing person he was: because that is the sense of self he so often projected in his letters. Frieda knew this, too, telling Witter Bynner that

I like people more than he does and he doesn't want me to like them more than he does. He does things for people, Hal, because he's soft in some ways. He writes interesting letters all the time to people he doesn't really like, which is not what I would do. (Bynner 1951: 62).

Lawrence regularly seems to have created relationships, and then to have continued them in his correspondence, from which he also wanted to escape. This is especially visible in his lengthy correspondences with Dorothy Brett and Mabel Luhan in the middle and late 1920s. We can observe, at times, a deliberate (and perhaps necessary) forcing of himself into sympathy with other people, which he carried through in his letter-writing, and which frequently makes his letters so attractive: but we can understand this as, to some extent, making up for the rather colder feelings he had in reality. It is possible to obtain an unreasonably attractive notion of Lawrence from his letters. Mostly, they do not reproduce the kinds of anger and bitterness to which he subjected, at some time or other, almost all those to whom he was close, and which almost every person who met him reported. The written version is nearly always milder than what he would say when actually face to face with people: would say, that is, unless they were sensitive souls like Catherine Carswell, who never got more than a warning knock of the paw in everyday relationships.

Just occasionally, however, the underlying asperity of so many of his relationships breaks through into his correspondence. The letter about Frieda written after influenza in 1919, and quoted above (p. 97), is an example; and in 1920 he wrote savage letters to Katherine Mansfield and Middleton Murry, one of which (that to Murry) survives. Murry had returned some articles Lawrence had written for Murry's magazine The Athenaeum, and Lawrence was furious:

I have no doubt you "didn't like them" - just as you didn't like the things you had from Derbyshire. But as a matter of fact, what it amounts to is that you are a dirty little worm, and you take the ways of a dirty little worm. But now let me tell you at last that I know it - not that it's anything new: and let it be plainly understood between you and me, that I consider you a dirty little worm: and so, deposit your dirty bit of venom where you like; at any rate we know what to expect. (Letters III: 467-8)

Associating Katherine Mansfield with what Murry had done, he wrote something equally savage to her around the same time, remarking (in her own memory of the letter) "I loathe you, you revolt me stewing in your consumption ... The Italians were quite right to have nothing to do with you" (Letters III: 470). In those letters, just for once, we hear what Lawrence's speaking voice and manner were probably like when he was really angry. As Frieda remembered, "he made no concession to the ordinary conventions, and that's what upset people" (Frieda 1971: 12). He would, according to a number of people, say the most extraordinarily bitter and vicious things when irritated, though especially and most often to Frieda; and even Frieda, late in life, when she was doing her very best to recreate an image of Lawrence as a marvellously intelligent, warm and understanding person, could not help confessing that "he had a very nasty temper" (Frieda 1971: 12), and that he was "bad tempered and never sorry" (Bynner 1951: 62).

If it is true that his letters in general reveal a rather more kindly person than he probably was, day to day, then that perhaps helps explain why he wrote to Koteliansky about Frieda as he did. and to the Murries so very savagely about themselves. Just for a moment, thoroughly angry with people he knew very well, his guard was down; he was normally more in control of himself when he wrote - letters, or anything else - than he generally chose to be, or probably thought it healthy to be, person to person: he once remarked that he believed in self-discipline but not in self-control. But in those three letters we find, just for once, the uncensored version of life with Lawrence. That might also help explain why both Murries forgave him for what he had written, too: and how he went on living with Frieda. Lawrence's friends knew this tone, this language. It wasn't as final or unforgivable as it would have been from someone else. He did not hold or bear a grudge; he was regularly forgiven and in his turn forgave.

But there is all the same a great deal of evidence that, in everyday life, Lawrence could be extremely aggravating: questioning, demanding, unrelenting, contradicting - though never so much as toward himself. He clearly gave himself a very hard time. Illness, of course, preyed on him; late in life, he remarked irritably "I have had bronchitis since I was a fortnight old" (Worthen 1991: 6). But he drove himself frighteningly hard, for a man as ill as he was. And, always, he questioned. One of our earliest memories of him comes from his first headmaster: "young Bert was a note of interrogation - he was always wanting to know why" (Nehls 1957: 74). Frieda recalled that when she disagreed with him about his writing, "he worried me about the why. I wouldn't always know the why, but he insisted, and I didn't like so much insistence" (Frieda 1971: 12). It was Lawrence's profoundest need to question, to explore, to understand, to know; and that drove him into extraordinary demands and at times into extreme assertiveness. Frieda once confessed that "Lawrence wasn't a comfortable person to be with ... He worried things out in his own soul. þYou're like a dog with a bone,' I would tell him. But once he had worried a question out to his own satisfaction he stuck to the result." (Frieda 1961: 133) Another friend remarked of a particular problem that "He challenged it as he challenged everything" and that "he had the sense of strife always upon his thought" (Nehls 1958: 316, 318).

Oppositions were, then, both natural to him, and a conscious choice. He once remarked, about his choice of Frieda as a partner, that "She is the one possible woman for me, for I must have opposition - something to fight"; in contrast, he knew he could never have married Jessie Chambers, for "It would have been a fatal step, I should have had too easy a life, nearly everything my own way" (Nehls 1957: 71). A habit of conscious opposition, though, made every day life exhausting. "When Lorenzo feels ill, it infuriates him to have me feel well. When his nerves are carrying him too fast, he cannot bear to have me feel tired" (Bynner 1951: 61). And Frieda herself doubted whether "if any other woman would live with him ... I sometimes wonder if I myself can live with him" (Bynner 1951: 62).

But the habit of never being simple or single, but of being fascinated, and more often than not opposed, means that Lawrence offers us many more biographical riddles than most people: and often, it is only the conflicting versions of him and of his thinking that confront us. A biography should not endeavor to iron these out: only to clarify them. A habit of mind rooted in opposition accounts for some, at least, of his physical restlessness and rootlessness. Frieda commented about it in Chapala in 1923: "He does not dislike it here or the people. He just thinks some other place or some other people might be better. It's all inside him. And I wish it weren't. Ach, how I'd like to settle down somewhere, to stop this wandering. I want a home." (Bynner 1951: 63) She never had that until Lawrence died. But to be awkward, to be contrary, to keep hammering away at problems, to keep questioning, never to be satisfied because "it's all inside him," and to keep travelling on, even when the place he had found was wonderful - he once "tried to explain his wanderings by saying that he intensely longed to visit remote lands and there to live and recreate himself anew" (Nehls 1958: 134) - this was Lawrence as a man and as a writer. The fact of his writing itself was rooted in opposition; he once remarked to a friend that "If there weren't so many lies in the world ... I wouldn't write at all" (Nehls 1959: 293).

Frieda was the only person who accepted all of this in him, though it made her life very difficult at times. But when desperately ill at one of the extremes they had reached, Oaxaca in 1925, he said to her "remember ... whatever happens, nothing has mattered but you" (Frieda 1971: 11-12); and when he was dying in 1930, he told her - after yet another quarrel - "Don't mind, you know I want nothing but you, but sometimes something is stronger in me" (Nehls 1959: 442) She was the one person to whom he was absolutely committed. Although "at times they loathed each other" (Crotch 1975: 6), he knew from 1913 that life with her was "the best I have known, or ever shall know" (Letters I: 553). The French painter Edgar D‚gas (1834-1917) remarked that one can either love, or one can have a life's work, but that one only has one heart. Lawrence seems to contradict that, as he contradicted so much; in forty-four years he managed an extraordinary life, an extraordinary love, and an extraordinary life's work.

© "Biography of D.H. Lawrence" John Worthen, 1997

 

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