The Life of an Outsider
by John Worthen.
Opening the life of one of those writers I think of as mine, I turn first to the photographs. The voyeurism of the biography reader wants its windows, but there's also the hope that the biographer's originality and ability to dig will show in images running counter to the standard portraits. The rare, frankly charming first illustration in John Worthen's D.H. Lawrence: The Life of an Outsider does just this, dissenting from the brooding genius revered in mid-century and the reviled misogynist of later decades: an alert, confident baby, propped upright, sports a comically huge toque of snowy knitting, as well as a deep yoke of impeccable lace, the barely visible folds of his blanket also white, more white in the scallops of lace edging the velvet draped over the carriage edge, the carriage itself trim and high-wheeled, all this ambitious striving on display in the mining town of Eastwood, circa 1886, when a little frenzy of coal dust whipped from every shaken hearth rug, and miners returned for supper masked in black, their eye-whites shining. (Women in Love has a chapter titled simply "Coal Dust.") As an image, the photo is ingenuous, demure, yet also defiant, the beauty of the boy-child celebrated equally by conspicuous consumption and an ardent cleanliness. While pretending to be an innocent artifact of that favored Victorian emotion, maternal pride, the photo bears the secret signature of a ferocious will. So, famously, did Lawrence's psyche.
The woman who staged the photograph, Lydia Lawrence, had married a handsome young man long on joie de vivre and short on veracity, since during courtship he failed to refute her perhaps wishful delusion that his job was higher-ranking and safer than coal-mining. In her personal mythology this marriage was represented as a catastrophic fall from middle-class security, but as Worthen points out, her family had been in dire financial straits ever since her father suffered a crippling accident, and Lydia and her sisters had resorted to lace-making, labor not only ill-paid but notorious for a high incidence of mortality among unprotected workers whose lungs were damaged. Had she persisted in this line of work, Lawrence's mother could have died of breathing the white chaff that powdered from skeins of exquisite lace. Worthen, always astute about the part money plays in Lawrence's life, contends that in marrying Arthur Law-rence she sought a way out of a repressive, precarious home, and that, regret it though she would, under the circumstances it was a shrewd enough decision. Here Worthen, with characteristic scrupulousness, undermines convention, since most biographies take the courtship in Sons and Lovers for reality, and its high-minded young bride"a Puritan"is in thrall to "the dusky, golden softness of this man's sensuous flame of life." In fact, in Lawrence's fiction, young women often reckon their marital options coolly as entrepreneurs, and Lawrence doesn't deride them for trying to figure out which way security lies. But Lydia was high-minded, and could not have foreseen the drastic incompatibility that lay in wait for husband and wife, or the whirlwind of abuse and misery that would be their life together.
The odds against this disaster's wide-eyed child, in his comic white toque, becoming a great writer: incalculable.
Another photo, not from Worthen's biography but from Vogue: a young woman reclines in her lace bra and panties, surrounded, like that baby more than a hundred years ago, by sumptuous fabrics, her eyes slitted, her smile suggesting drowsy satiation. The book about to slip from her languid hand is Lady Chatterley's Lover. That's not proof of greatness, of course. The ad proves only that Lawrence fought censorship with a ferocity time has rendered sexy, and that Lady Chatterley burned very bright against its gray, sullen, frightened moment. The fire in his defiance still gives off heat enough for commerce to warm its hands by. Lawrence would be enraged.
He was oftenyou can almost say alwaysenraged. Contempt, with its high acid content, doesn't age well, and there's something unnatural, almost seizure-like, in a Lawrentian tongue-lashing, the supreme empathy that could lead to the exact depiction of, say, the terror of a mole trapped under a girl's bootsole turned inside out and used for cruel excoriation. One problem with invective on the page is how strongly it invokes the senses: the reader can imagine only too well the voice's shrillness, the blaming gaze with its tiny, black, drilling pupils. The writer is at his unforgettable worst, and a little of the vitriol splashes on the reader. To his once dear friend Katherine Mansfield, suffering from tuberculosis and alone in Italy, he writes, "I loathe you, you revolt me stewing in your consumption," and later asks another correspondent, "Spit on her for me when you see her, she is a liar out and out." "I hate humanity so much," he writes during the torment of World War I, "I can only think with friendliness of the dead."
What Katherine Mansfield called his "black self" surely contributes to the current devaluation of Lawrence, but it's hard to say how much. Love of Lawrence can seem disreputable now for reasons quite different from those available during his lifetime. It's more than possibleit's probablethat a young woman or man with a freshly minted B.A. in English has never read a page of his work, yet can identify Lawrence as a sexist. Ursula LeGuin announced, "He was a sexist and a racist, is there any argument?" Style damns him as well, since against Modernism's mot-juste exquisiteness Lawrence can seem slapdash, lumpen, shunning calculated beauties while overworking a private lexicon"flame," for instance, and "soul"words that are, in Lawrence's handling, more portent or glyph than denotation. Lawrence might as well have stuck his thumbprint on the page every time he uses the word "soul": the urgency to imprint wordless experience gets through, but the meaning can seem impenetrably private. This, too, in the citadels of close reading, is a drawback. Further, Lawrence's liking for thumping cadences and his habit of dogged repetition when he's trying to get at something leave his style spectacularly vulnerable to parody. A feminist-critic colleague of mine does a merry imitation beginning, "He could feel his manhood rising, rising in him, rising."
Who's in, who's out? In 1989, when Worthen published his previous biography, Lawrence seemed safely ensconced in the canon, "clearly a writer whom the twentieth century has taken particularly to heart." His new biography's preface sounds a different note: "But it is, uncannily, as if Lawrence knew where both his contemporaries and those after him would be most sensitive and anxious, and concentrated in his writing on those very subjects: sex, gender roles, the exercise of power. He intuitively worked his way into the concerns of his contemporaries, though by doing so he confirmed his alienation from his own age and (now) perhaps from ours." Worthen does make the puzzling assertion, "This biography is the first one-volume life of Lawrence to be written since his reputation came under such assault," a claim that discounts the existence of Elaine Feinstein's 1993 Lawrence and the Women: The Intimate Life of D.H. Lawrence, which deliberately set out to offer "A fresh and surprising portrait of one of the most misunderstood literary figures of our time," as well as Jeffrey Meyers's detailed D.H. Lawrence: A Biography. It begins to look like Lawrence is very hard to redeem.
His father wanted his bright boys, including Lawrence, to follow him into the mines, but Lydia instilled the desire to escape and the confidence to carry out long-term plans despite setbacks and their father's scorn. For the nine years before his writing started to bring in a little income, Lawrence was to be a schoolmaster, and Women in Love contains a classroom scene that suggests his prowess as a teacher:
Then [Birkin, the supervisor] went in among the desks, to see the scholars' books. Ursula watched his intent progress...His presence was so quiet, almost like a vacancy in the corporal air.
Suddenly he lifted his face to her, and her heart quickened at the flicker of his voice.
"Give them some crayons, won't you?" he said, "So that they can make the gynaecious flowers red, and the androgynous yellow..."
"It will make the books untidy," she said to Birkin, flushing deeply.
"Not very," he said. "You must mark in these things obviously. It's the fact you want to emphasize, not the subjective impression to record. What's the fact?-red little spiky stigmas of the female flower, dangling yellow male catkin, yellow pollen flying from one to the other. Make a pictorial record of the fact, as a child does when drawing a face-two eyes, one nose, mouth with teethso." And he drew a figure on the blackboard.
Because it doesn't mind making books untidy, because in its botany it is sexually explicit and exact, and most of all because it understands the simplicity of childish drawing as a way to fix a transient impression in memory, Birkin's approach resembles Lawrence's. No one has written more beautifully of flowers than Lawrence. In this he was, for once, both his mother's son and his father's, for on his way to the mine Arthur Lawrence would collect wild grasses to suck on, to keep his mouth from parching in the exhausted air underground. He "watched every bird, every stir in the trembling grass," and his detailed knowledge of birds, flowers, and creatures surely returns in the easy competence of Mellors, the gamekeeper-lover of Constance Chatterley. How maddening the repressiveness of the times was for a writer so sensually alive and committed to "the facts": Worthen cites a quarrel that erupted between the young schoolmaster and a friend who maintained that women have pubic hair, Lawrence insisting that they do not. In detailing Lawrence's increasingly desperate"dumb, aching, bitter, helpless"need for a relationship that could be both sexual and free from lies, Worthen is at his fair-minded best, carefully pointing out the tremendous difficulties sex posed for Lawrence's various lovers and almost-lovers, who variously risked reputation, marriageability, jobs, and unwanted pregnancy. But of course the woman who risked the most for Lawrence was Frieda: forthright, headstrong, the descendant of German nobility married to an English academic but repeatedly unfaithful, and already, by the time Lawrence visited the household hoping for advice from her husband, the mother of three children she adored. Distinctive-looking, with wide cheekbones, deepset eyes, and a definite chin, she had led a life so insulated by wealth and servants that she proved unable, when the young visitor wanted a cup of tea, to turn on the gas under the kettle on her own stove, yet she gave an impression of splendid vitality unfettered by convention-this last of immediate appeal to Lawrence. He was to write, "I lost at last the fierceness that fears it will starve, / my body's body was appeased, / there was peace, and richness, / fulfilment."
Biographies of the larger-than-life often devolve into dictatorships, but Worthen's is a democracy, its figures each quietly given their say pretty amazing, considering that for any given incident Lawrence will always have uttered, or written, the indelible phrase. One thing he loved-and-hated in Frieda was that she would not be subsumed into his version of her; though he was constantly advocating better (sometimes more submissive) ways of being female, Frieda remained in ornery possession of her intractable, flamboyant self. Because she had run off with Lawrence, her husband, his vindictiveness supported by English law, refused to permit her ever to see her children again, and this loss is the consuming tragedy of her life. Lawrence was infuriated by her grief, believing it meant their love was not enough for her, and answered her tears with abuse. A photo in this biography shows a stout, frowsy-haired Frieda seated on the porch of their house near Taos, New Mexico, well after Lawrence's death in Italy. Betraying my inner feminist, I think great broad for her wised-up squint, cigarette dangling from the corner of her wide mouth, knees spread with the nonchalance Lawrence used to rail against. Not only would she outlive his grueling death by tuberculosis, she had to out-live him during life, living large and selfishly in order to come through intact to that New Mexico porch, and naturally she has been much vilified.
Yet, in dealing with Frieda, Worthen's usual even-handedness turns gently exculpatory. He makes a good case for her value to Lawrence as his first reader. As she observed, "he quotes me and often what he quotes from me is attacking what he himself says and in the book he lets me have the best of it...He knows that I'm useful. He likes to have me oppose him in ideas, even as he scolds me for it." Worthen downplays the histrionics in which other biographies have reveled, and links their marital furies to the violence in Lawrence's parents' marriage, but cautiously. No blithe Freudian trespass here, and the most notorious abuseslike Lawrence's beating his dog or assaulting Friedaare contextualized, if not excused. The writer who wrote "I hate 'understanding' people, and I hate still more to be understood" is fortunate that one of his biographers practices such thoughtful advocacy.
But Worthen is no storyteller, and the reality of the Lawrence-Frieda marriage kindles mostly when Worthen quotes one or the other. I miss, here, certain small, enlivening details found in other sources: for instance, finding Frieda's French lace underwear too haughty, Lawrence stitches up several pairs of calico and cambric bloomers, and in his sickbed in Italy he wears a small straw African hat because "it keeps my brains warm." In Worthen's telling, in his last days Lawrence is pleased by the bowl of gentians placed near his bed, but they seem simply to have appeared there. In other accounts, Frieda brings them. The tenderness is important.
"He could feel his manhood in him rising, rising"yet, at the time, it was not possible to publish the word penis. Lawrence wanted the red little spiky stigmas, the dangling yellow catkin, drawn in clearly, and his brief against censorship is witty and reasonable: "It is the mind that is the Augean stables, not language. The word arse is clean enough. Even the part of the body it refers to is just as much me as my hand and my brain are me...But the impudent and dirty mind won't have it. It hates certain parts of the body, and makes the words representing those parts scapegoats." Right alongside the technical problem posed by censorship is the problem of representation, because Lawrence is interested in experience that is inarticulate or, more exactly, pre-articulate: nobody needs the word "penis" in order to experience an erection. Lawrence was clear about the terrainthe body's premonitions, aversions, affinitiesthat he was working: "This struggle for verbal consciousness should not be left out in art. It is a very great part of life. It is not superimposition of a theory. It is the passionate struggle into conscious being." If you appreciate this ambition, you can revel in Lawrence's tremendous freshness of attack, buying into his private language of "soul" and "flame" and "quivering" and "love" and "hate" as if you've been transported to a foreign country and have only an emergency vocabulary and an urgent need to understand. Without Lawrence, young readers and writers are left to assume that the struggle for verbal consciousness is purely the writer's business, not the characters'.
A sexist, a racist: is there an argument? Though his protest falters into jargon, Worthen thinks so: "in fact his two greatest novels, The Rainbow and Women in Love, were about the independence of women; while his writings about Native Americans...demonstrate the decolonialization of his originally colonialist imagination." If Lawrence is a sexist, he may be the only sexist to have written a long, sympathetic poem about menopause. The charge of racism stems in part from a scene in Lady Chatterley when the gamekeeper Mellors says, "I thought there was no real sex left" except with black women, "and somehow, well, we're white men, and they're a bit like mud." To pretend this is Lawrence's own view is to violate the novelist's right not to be identified with the things his characters say, and to ignore not only the character's personality and class, but also the fact that he's recounting his sexual history to a "lady" he likes to shock. Earlier on the same page Mellors says, "When I'm with a woman who's really Lesbian, I fairly howl in my soul, wanting to kill her," but nobody has accused Lawrence of wanting to strangle lesbians. For that matter, Mellors also advocates the wearing of scarlet trousers as a solution to the oppression of the working class: "...if they could dance and hop and skip, and swing and swagger and be handsome, they could do with very little cash."
In interrogating writers' lives and work for proof of political awareness and tolerance anticipating our own, we're seeking more than likableness, because for a writer to transcend the bigotries of his or her own time seems to us a necessary aspect of great-mindedness, of the largeness of empathy that breathes through masterpieces and seems to enlarge us, too, as we read. But this assumption cuts Lawrencetoo anarchically, restlessly self-contradictory to hold any acceptable notion for long from the secret and not-so-secret lists of writers that writers must read in order to write seriously. Provocation was ethic as much as pleasure for him, and as soon as he's allowed into the room his will be a needling, discomfiting presence. "Lawrence would have been savagely pleased," Worthen notes sadly, "to be condemned in all the contexts where we, as modern readers, are most sensitive." What's lost in a century that refuses to take Lawrence to heart?
For one thing, a willingness on the writer's part to seem strenuous in fiction, to scramble after the truth, or jab at it. Lawrence, for whom nakedness is an inexhaustible metaphor, is the most nakedly effortful of writers, and something gets into his work that can only get there because of his indifference to defenses (style is always defense). Lawrence just doesn't care where his metaphors come from, and their oddity can be electrifying: in the poem "A Baby Running Barefoot," infant feet in a man's hands are "firm and silken like young peony flowers," and his "Sicilian Cyclamens" have "long, slim, slim-muzzled grayhound buds." He is a very great noticer. His little black dog comes through the snow with "a pinch of snow in the groove of your silly snub nose." Who'd seen that before? When, in the self-published Lady Chatterley, he can at last call a stigma a stigma, Lawrence's relish in the wit of sexual slang and colloquial effrontery figures in the work's playfulness. His instinct for mischief seems completely gratified only in Lady Chatterley, and that may be why, despite being three times revised by a dying man and containing the usual Lawrentian passages of vexed social commentary, the novel's overall impression is of hard-won celebration. Though his reputation is quite otherwise, Lawrence can be as charming as Chekhov, especially when writing of children. When writing of adults, he is every bit as good a psychologist, though his people suffer from much more violent internal weather.
As for form, his seems intuitive, searchingly redundant, destinationless. This is disinterested form, and Lawrence ends when emotion has been exhausted, just stops, without ringing epiphany's little bell. He is a great story writer partly because he didn't believe insight came in lightning-strokes. He thought that if insight came, it was likely to be lost again at once, and in trying to change their lives his characters go through the dogged work of retrieval. In "Daughters of the Vicar" we get three different marriages, a mother slowly dying of cancer and a just-bathed baby basking before the coal fire, scenes in a mineshaft where lantern light sparkles in falling rain, in cottages, lanes, and a vicarage more claustrophobic than the mine. Years pass. (If his stories have an inheritor, it is Alice Munro.) "Flushed, frenzied, relentless me," Lawrence wrote: what amplitude he can teach, what quickness of empathy, what anti-carefulness. With Flaubert, whose "Simple Heart" famously "contains everything there is to know about writing," style acquired a killing charisma, but Lawrence, though he was a brilliant, diligent reviser, rewrote not for impeccability but in the direction of reality as it leaped to his nerve-endings, explaining that there was no point in "playing word-games around the camp fire. Somebody has to jump like a desperate clown through the vast blue hoop of the upper air."
For another thingto sound a little Lawrentian for a momentthe old intimacy between people and the natural world has essentially disappeared from fiction, the line between human and nonhuman sometimes literally drawn in red ink: when William Maxwell wrote a (great) scene from a dog's point of view in So Long, See You Tomorrow, his editors at The New Yorker wanted it cut on the grounds of sentimentality. The sentimental is a category like the pornographic, but more subtly enforced. Where did this new censorship originate, and how did it insinuate itself so deeply into literary practice? It is post-Lawrentian, and may be connected to his fall from grace. Unlike pornography, the sentimental seems not a consciously constructed and enforced social category, but a sort of fact, just as the ridiculous seems self-evidently ridiculous: it's actually quite hard to explain why something is ridiculous. But someone writing a scene like that in Women in Love when a distraught Birkin shucks his clothes off and walks into the woods"the soft sharp boughs beat upon him, as he moved in keen pangs against them, threw little cold showers of drops on his belly, and beat his loins with their clusters of soft sharp needles"would likely come in for ridicule, because solace comes to fictional characters now in many ways, but not through contact with living things, unless they're human. Yet: why? Losing Lawrence, we relegate his list of necessary relationshipswith "stone, earth, trees, flower, water, insects, fishes, birds, creatures"to outworn modes of fiction. If young writers can rarely name more than a dozen plants within a ten-mile radius of their writing desks, this isn't seen as detrimental to their work's verisimilitude, since the nonhuman world plays almost no part in contemporary fiction. It's as if this silence in fiction anticipates a hundred thousand species' extinction in the actual world. Lawrence would be enraged.
Elizabeth Tallent teaches in Stanford's Creative Writing Program.