Student Essay: Dialect in the work of DH Lawrence

As part of our memory theatre project, we have created space for students at Nottingham Trent University to explore their own interpretations of Lawrence’s work. Here Jonathan Lucas explores Lawrence’s use of dialect as part of his final year English dissertation.

DH Lawrence had a special relationship with his native dialect, using the local vernacular speech of the mining community in his hometown Eastwood. Dialect acts as a prominent and dynamic symbol in many of his works, infusing depictions of his childhood experience with a certain raw authenticity that transcends words on a page.

In a late poem entitled ‘Red-herring’, Lawrence describes himself and his siblings as ’in-betweens’ and ‘little nondescripts’ speaking the Received Pronunciation they learned from their mother, Lydia, inside the house and the less respectable dialect, of their father Arthur and the rest of the town, outside it.

The breach between these two forms of speech had a significant impact on Lawrence’s perception of relationships between masculine and feminine, which he expresses in his semi-autobiographical novel, Sons and Lovers. To portray the rift in his upbringing, Lawrence based the characters of Walter and his wife Gertrude on his own parents, featuring intense bi-dialectic confrontations between the two, with Walter speaking in Eastwood dialect and Gertrude speaking in Received Pronunciation.

In both Sons and Lovers and The Rainbow, there is an impulse, largely associated with women, to break out of the parochial community that they feel trapped in. In a community marked off from the wider world through distinctive ways of speaking, characters such as Gertrude provide an alternative to the mould through their speech, mirroring Lydia and her desire to secure respectability for her sons, beyond the community of Eastwood. Lydia’s efforts worked as Lawrence’s ability to code switch from dialect to Received Pronunciation assisted in his transposed success, especially when he won a prestigious Nottinghamshire County scholarship to Nottingham High School, an extraordinary achievement for the son of an Eastwood miner.

Lawrence would go on to travel the world, escaping the mining community that would become the focus of much of his work. His dialect had personal connotations of primitive, masculine energy that he associated with his father – which he makes reference to in his essay ‘Nottingham and the mining country’: “The life was a curious cross between industrialism and the old agricultural England of Shakespeare and Milton and Fielding and George Eliot. The dialect was broad Derbyshire, and always ‘thee’ and ‘thou.’ The people lived almost entirely by instinct; men of my father’s age could not really read.”

The rudimentary essence of dialect is affectionately expressed in the description of the miners in Women in Love: “Their voices sounded out in strong intonation, and the broad dialect was curiously caressing to the blood. It seemed to envelop and run in a labourer’s caress, there was in the whole atmosphere, a resonance of physical men, a glamourous thickness of labour and maleness surcharged in the air.” The physicality of the miners’ bodies is what makes their dialect speech so powerful that it ‘caresses the blood’. The thick dialect courses through the miners’ veins and evaporates in the vibrations of their voices, creating an atmosphere humid with ‘a resonance of physical men’.

The notion of dialect being embedded into one’s blood as a pulse of instinctive life is something Lawrence was vocal about early on in his career, exemplified in a letter when he tells Blanche Jennings that his “verses are tolerable-rather pretty, but not suave; there is some blood in them.” Referring to the integrity within his use of un-refined words and syntax as ‘blood’ highlights how essential Lawrence considered dialect to be in his body of work. In the same letter, Lawrence goes on to say that he prioritises “sincerity, and a quickening spontaneous emotion” in his writing, a sense of immediate passion which is represented through dialect.

Lawrence’s poem ‘The Drained Cup’ ascribes dialect to a woman to show that the raw primitive instinct of his father is not exclusive to males. By using the same deliberately unrefined and explicit language as before, but through a female persona dealing with her lover’s unfaithfulness, Lawrence criticises masculine primitive instinct: “A man like thee can’t rest till the last of his spunk goes out of ‘im into a woman”. This string of monosyllabic words leading to the disyllabic “woman” illuminates how all of the lover’s masculine energy, his “spunk”, is focused towards women, thereby being impotent in the absence of a woman to direct it to.

This is reinforced later in the poem when ‘spunk’ then yields to ‘blood’: “Tha’rt one o’ th’ men as has got to drain-an I’ve loved thee for it. Their blood in a woman, to the very last vain” – this reduces men to their material substance – ‘spunk’ and ‘blood’ are all that men are good for in this instance.

Using dialect, Lawrence expresses the unrestrainable nature of humans, articulating obsessions with immediate and physical reality, exploring the collective primitive instinct that is shared by all but repressed by some and embraced by others – regardless of gendered boundaries constructed by society.

Dialect is the second artefact in the D.H. Lawrence Memory Theatre. Visit our project website to see contextual essays by Natalie Braber

A Raight Racket

To celebrate ‘dialect,’ the second artefact in the D.H. Lawrence Memory Theatre, I’ve written this short story using dialect referenced in Lawrence’s work. It’s read out by members of Lawrence Country, providing a blend of accents from the Notts/Derbyshire border. The video is edited together by Izaak Bosman, a talented lad from Wollaton who is currently doing a PhD at Cambridge.

I heard a raight racket outside and thought to mysenwhat’s a gait now’. From mi window I gorped at a Bertie Willie arguing with a batchy gel. I decided to go out and see what wor happening and put mi coat on because it wor a bit nippy.

She looked like a raight besom to mi. The kind that would bezzle a week’s wages down her neck in one innings before blorting. But it was no wonder she turned to drink, given the chelp and bully-ragging she was getting from this young jockey.

Folk are always caffling and chuntering on our street. It’s usually summat to do with spending too much time with someone you shouldn’t be spending any time with which leads to a bit of colley-foglin’ . They should get it out their system before bobbling off down the aisle, if you ask mi.

But love makes a gaby of us all in the end, unless you’re a mean wizzen hearted stick. So, there’s no point tip callin’ on others. You can grizzle as much as you like and mard away the evening on your own, but we all know us would lief be with a lover than without. There in’t owt we can do to change it.  

Anyway, that’s my harporth on the matter. I maun skedaddle. And remember mi words. Don’t be mingy with the ones you love. Life is too short to skinch on emotions. Sometimes you’ve got to be a bit slikey other times you need a drop o’ the lashins. Just do what works for yersen. Now, stop listening to me wafflin on and ger whoam.

The references in this dialect story all appear in Lawrence’s work. See below for the full list.

  • ‘I’ll stand no more of your chelp
  • ‘He thinks himself slikey’

A Collier’s Friday Night

  • ‘What am I to wesh mysen for?’
  • ‘Tha s’lt go whoam, Willy, tha s’lt go whoam’
  • ‘Tha’rt skinchin!’
  • ‘You may back your life Lena an’ Mrs. Severn’ll be gorping, and that clat-fartin’ Mrs. Allsop’

A Sick Collier

  • ‘They’re the mingiest set of ladylike snipe ever invented’

Lady Chatterley’s Lover

  • ‘I’ll teach you, my jockey! Do you think I’m going to spend my life darning after your destructive little teeth!’

Rex

  • ‘Three haporth o’ pap’
  • ‘A mean, wizen-hearted stick’
  • ‘I’d as lief be neighbours with a vixen’
  • ‘An’ has ter eaten owt?’
  • ‘There’s money to bezzle with if there’s money for nothin’ else’

Sons and Lovers

  • ‘Eh, tha’rtamard-arsed kid’

The Collier’s Wife

  • ‘Tha wor blortin’ an’ bletherin’ down at th’ office a bit an’ a mighty fool tha made o’ thysen’
  • ‘Tha has a bit too much chelp an’ chunter
  • ‘An they would ha’ believed it, but for Hewett bully-raggin‘ Bettesworth ‘cos he knowed he was a chappil man’
  • ‘Thinks I to myself, she’s after a town johnny, a Bertie-Willie an’ a yard o’ cuffs’
  • ‘I thought tha’d bobbled off ter Manchester ter be i’ safety’
  • ‘Serve her right, for tip callin‘ wi’m all those years’
  • ‘What’s ‘er grizzlin’ about?’
  • ‘What’s a-gait now?’ 

The Daughter-in-Law

  • ‘Go then, sin’ tha maun’
  • ‘Listen, I’m tellin’ thee summat

The Drained Cup

  • ‘If ever Alvina entered a clean house on a wet day, she was sure to hear the housewife chuntering’
  • ‘If you share nivver a drop o’ the lashins’
  • ‘Seems yer doin’ yersen a bit o’ weshin’

The Lost Girl

  • ‘Swimming, like – like a puff o’ steam wafflin
  • ‘It’s not many as can find in their heart to love a gaby like that’
  • ‘To think of that brazen besom telling us to go home and go to bed’
  • ‘Soft, batchy, sawney’

The Merry-go-Round

  • ‘It’s raight for thaigh, said a fat fellow with an unwilling white moustache’
  • ‘An’ I reckon there wor a bit of a to-do between ‘em, worn’t there, Maggie?’
  • ‘No – an’ mi mower says, Dun gie ‘t ‘im’

The White Peacock

  • ‘He’d got a game on some- where- toffed himself up to the nines, and skedaddled off as brisk as a turkey- cock’

The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd

  • ‘Then what art colley- foglin’ for?’
  • ‘To think I should ‘ave ter ‘affle an’ caffle
  • ‘My gel, owt’U do for a man I’ the dark, Tha’s got it flat’

Whether or Not

  • ‘Outside in the street there was a continual racket of the colliers and their dogs and children’

You Touched Me

How to celebrate heritage when your subject is ‘nomadic to the point of frenzy’

In November 2020 I gave a talk to the London Group of the D.H. Lawrence Society about progress of the D.H. Lawrence Memory Theatre. This is a project that Paul Fillingham and I have been working on for five years or so now. But the main purpose of the talk was to discuss the best way to celebrate heritage. This is a subject I’m very passionate about. Here’s a couple of examples of how it can go horribly wrong.

Culture imposed from above

Culture that’s imposed from above can cause antagonism and resentment. An example of this would be a sculpture plonked into a community with little consultation or awareness of those left to gawp at it every day. Instead of inspiring individuals, it becomes a totem of discontent: ‘the money would have been better spent cleaning up graffiti’; ‘they could have built a playpark for kids’, etc. An example of this is Jean-Pierre Raynaud’s Dialogue with History (1987) which attempted to commemorate the arrival of French settlers to Canada through a series of white cubes but looked like a Rubik’s Cube with the colour stickers peeled off. Nicknamed the toilet, it was criticized for failing to fit in with its 18th century surroundings. It was flattened in 2015.

Vanity projects for the artist

Some heritage is so divisive that discussions focus on the artist rather than the subject. An example of this is Maggi Hambling’s naked statue of feminist pioneer Mary Wollstonecraft, author of the A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). It is appalling. Can you imagine someone commissioning a naked statue of Winston Churchill or Oliver Cromwell? Of course not. It wouldn’t happen. Hambling argued that her Silver Surfer statue wasn’t meant to represent Wollstonecraft, rather it’s for her. “Clothes define people,” she said, “As she’s Everywoman, I’m not defining her in any particular clothes.” But she’s not everywoman. She is slender, well- toned and perfectly formed. She is drawn from the male gaze, reinforcing the perfect body types that have oppressed women for decades. In terms of arousing public disgust, it is more offensive than Vasile Gorduz’s naked monument to Romania’s stray dogs, which is quite a feat…

The same old same old

Blue plaques and statues are great for selfies but rarely serve their purpose –capturing the spirit or essence of the person they claim to be celebrating. There is also a danger of over celebrating the life of a famous individual, and this is a problem I have with D.H. Lawrence’s birthplace of Eastwood.

Eastwood is in danger of becoming a Disney Park to Lawrence. Café’s, the Rainbow bus line, the Phoenix snooker hall, the local Wetherspoon, all bear some relation to his life and work. Some of this is done well, others not so. It must be suffocating for the locals to be constantly reminded of the man who couldn’t wait to get away from the place they are all stuck in during lockdown.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s great that we are celebrating our literary heritage and the Midlands should definitely aim for an equivalent of Bronte country or Hardy’s Wessex. But I just don’t think another statue will do it– the idea banded about by each new incoming Broxtowe MP. I explained why in a recent talk via Zoom to the London branch of the D.H. Lawrence Society.

Literary heritage requires imagination. D.H. Lawrence was a writer who was, according to Geoff Dyer, ‘nomadic to the point of frenzy’. He never settled in one place for more than two years and never owned any property. Despite this, heritage determines we render him static in perpetuity. If we are to celebrate Lawrence’s life, we need the form to reflect the content. We need something mobile, not static. This is the rationale behind the D.H. Lawrence Memory Theatre. It is a moveseum if you will; a travelling art exhibition modelled on Lawrence’s personal travel trunk, that curates Lawrence’s life through artefacts. It will retrace Lawrence’s steps across Europe and beyond, if and when we ever send Covid packing…

This project is not imposed from above but from within. It is a conversation. We want to create a space for many voices to think through the life of this contradictory and complex character. One artefact I want to include in the memory theatre is rage and so the talk helped generate reasons for Lawrence’s rage as well as ways that we can represent this as an artefact. You can read more about the talk in Catherine Brown’s review here.

Further Reading

Our second artefact is Dialect…

The second artefact in the D.H. Lawrence Memory Theatre is dialect. We will be posting content on our website over the next couple of months. Here’s why we think dialect is important.

During lockdown people have been doing really creative stuff, like playing the mandolin while roller-skating or learning to bake sourdough while blindfolded. We, on the other hand, have been counting how many times D.H. Lawrence uses the greeting ‘duck’ in his work.

On one level, this is the kind of futile distraction that epitomises lockdown. But it has a more serious function as well. How important was dialect in his work? What function did it serve? How successful was he in using it? Geoffrey Trease, for example, believes Lawrence’s best writing was dialogue in his plays. As his earlier plays are set in mining communities, they all use a lot of dialect.

One of the best known examples of dialect in Nottingham is duck. It’s ok to greet anyone with duck – irrespective of their age, gender or any other ism you can think of. This is something I previously explored in the BBC Radio 4 series Tongue and Talk: The Dialect poets. Across his novels, plays, poems and short stories, Lawrence references ‘duck’ 15 times in total. It appears most in his debut novel, The White Peacock, with four mentions.

In the short film above, lovingly edited together by Izaak Bosman, we’ve asked various people to read these quotes out to give you a flavour of the Notts/Derbyshire accent. These voices are drawn from different areas, including Mansfield, Wollaton, Sherwood, Southwell, Eastwood and beyond. Some are read by born and bred locals, others have moved here from different cities and countries.

We’re currently working on another dialect video and have asked members of Lawrence Country, an Alt-Country & folk band from the Bagthorpe Delta, to read it out. We love what they do and how they incorporate the sentiments and landscapes of Lawrence’s life and work into their songs, so this was an excuse to collaborate.

Dialect is the second artefact for our memory theatre and these videos will accompany contextual essays on language by Natalie Braber. We’ve also created a dialect alphabet using words directly used in Lawrence’s work. This is being used in the ‘Questioning the Canon’ module at Nottingham Trent University where students are being asked to create their own stories using words from the alphabet and to find equivalent words from their own region.

The Dialect Alphabet (which is being released on our Instagram and Twitter accounts before the website) has already caused much debate. For example, for ‘A’ we selected addle. However, some people have asked why we didn’t plump for ‘Ayup’ which is the standard greeting for hello in Notts. The reason for this is simple: No matter how ubiquitous this expression is in everyday language it doesn’t appear anywhere in Lawrence’s work.   

Dialect serves many functions. It can be used to denote a position of class, education and work. Given these influences, dialect is subject to change. For example, the last operating deep coal mine in the UK, Kellingley colliery, closed in December 2015. As industries decline, the names for tools and working practice slowly lose relevance and a whole way of life is slowly eroded.

For Jackie Greaves, a former guide at the Birthplace Museum, dialect and accent are about belonging. Hearing the Eastwood accent spoken is comforting and integral to identity. But not everyone approves of these sentiments. The philosopher, Stephen Alexander, is suspicious of whether phallic tenderness – the attempt to directly translate feelings and desire through language – can ever be truly authentic. Nor does he like the idea of ‘small groups of people – tribes – retreating into semi-private languages in order to uphold some narrow identity and exclude others’. Stephen has also submitted an artefact to our memory theatre which will be published later next year.

Whatever our thoughts on dialect, Lawrence was arguably the first author to write from the ‘inside’ about life in mining communities. He gave validity to the lives he described, paving the way for critics such as Raymond Williams to later declare that ‘culture is ordinary’. Language is political. On the most basic level, some people have the power to speak and others don’t. But a further nuance of this issue is how you speak – the tone, emphasis, choice of words.   

Please visit www.memorytheatre.co.uk to see the artefacts in our memory theatre





Return to Sea and Sardinia. Retracing D.H. Lawrence’s travels in Sardinia 100 years on

In this guest blog, the team behind Return to Sea and Sardinia explain how and when they will be celebrating the centenary of Lawrence’s iconic travelogue Sea and Sardinia.

January 2021 sees the centenary of D.H. Lawrence’s documented trip that resulted in his acclaimed book, Sea and Sardinia.

Return to Sea and Sardinia will follow in the footsteps of Lawrence’s journey exactly 100 years on from the day he set out.

Documenting the journey will be Daniele Marzeddu; a multi award-winning director experienced in documentary filmmaking. Daniele was born in Italy in 1978. He usually calls himself son of emigration, and he is a sort of stateless person. Having lived in South Austria, Venice, Portugal, Spain and several different cities in Europe, he has settled in the UK since 2015.

The centre piece of the project will be the film that records Lawrence’s retraced journey – scheduled for release at arts and cultural venues across the UK and Sardinia in April 2021.

Return to Sea and Sardinia will also curate captured material into a limited-edition photo book, featuring a commentary about the locations and scenes as they existed in Lawrence’s day and also today, 100 years on.

“… wander away from the world’s somewheres, into our own nowhere.”

The objective of Return to Sea and Sardinia is to capture an historical record that appropriately marks the centenary of D. H. Lawrence’s travel to Sardinia. In doing so, we hope to arise an interest in Lawrence’s life and works as well as in the Sardinian culture.

Supporters of the project will be given an opportunity to have themselves credited on the photo book and/or film produced as record.

A pledge of:

  • £50.00 gives you a funders credit on the photo book. (includes a copy or the limited edition photo book)
  • £100.00 gives you a funders credit on the [return to] Sea and Sardinia film. (includes a limited edition DVD of the film)
  • £125.00 gives you a funders credit on both the [return to] Sea and Sardinia film and photo book. (includes both a limited edition DVD of the film and copy of the photo book)
  • £250.00 gives you a producers credit on the [return to] Sea and Sardinia film. (includes both a limited edition DVD of the film and copy of the photo book
  • £1000.00 gives you a 4-day photography tuition class aboard the train routes Lawrence used while travelling in Sardinia (the Trenino Verde).

Support the project via GoFundMe

The project has already obtained the patronage from Regione Autonoma della Sardegna , Regione Sicilia  , Città di Palermo  , ARST   / Trenino Verde   Sardegna, Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature , DH Lawrence Memory Theatre , Cineteca Sarda Societa Umanitaria , Distretto Agrumi di Sicilia , ISLAND2ISLAND ART

Elliott Morsia on applying genetic criticism to the work of D.H. Lawrence.

Elliot Morsia specialises in Modernist and Contemporary Literature. In this interview he discusses The Many Drafts of D. H. Lawrence: Creative Flux, Genetic Dialogism, and the Dilemma of Endings, recently published by Bloomsbury.

Tell us a bit about yourself… 

I am half English (mother) and half Italian (father). I was born in London, where my family are mostly from – half having emigrated from Italy in the 60s – but I grew up in Kent on the south coast, before returning to London for university. I stayed in and around London while completing BA, MA and PhD degrees in English Literature and working for a year. I then moved to Oxfordshire to begin working for Routledge, where I have now been for a few years.

How did the book come about?

The seed of the book was an MA dissertation, which introduced ‘genetic criticism’ to Lawrence by focusing on the different versions of his little-known but enchanting short story ‘The Shades of Spring’ (itself a kind of forerunner for Lady Chatterley).

This book is the first to apply analytical methods from the field of genetic criticism to the Lawrence archives. What exactly is genetic criticism and why did you use this approach?  

Genetic criticism is a relatively new way of reading, interpreting and studying literature. To do genetic criticism you simply follow the writing process/es for a particular work across manuscript drafts and alternative versions, rather than focusing your attention exclusively on one particular, final, published text. I came to do this in an organic way. I read Lawrence very widely and found traditional critical approaches, which focus on particular static texts too limiting. This eventually led me to genetic criticism, which focuses on dynamic texts. I find the approach equally liberating for any other author who possesses an archive. For example, I have also published a ‘genetic’ essay on David Foster Wallace, a very different author from Lawrence (though they do share archives (in the Harry Ransom Centre) and forenames).

The book unearths and re-evaluates a variety of themes in Lawrence’s work. Could you briefly tell us a little about these themes and why you chose them?  

I discuss a range of well-known themes – like love, sexuality, the body, death – in a new way throughout the book by showing how these develop and morph across Lawrence’s drafts and alternative versions. I also pick up on lesser-known or completely overlooked themes, many of which are very important, like depression, or the problem of endings. However, one key theme which the book unearths is the opposition and interplay between flux and stasis, or process and product.

The book highlights how the very distinction between ‘process’ and ‘product’ became a central theme in Lawrence’s work.  Please could you tell us a bit more about this distinction?  

You can see this distinction in the very structure of Lawrence’s fiction, which so often switches between intense passages of dialogue (flux) and calm descriptive passages (stasis). This distinction, and rhythm, is also reflected in the writing processes, where the passages of dialogue are very often rewritten and revised, whereas descriptive passages are more often left intact. The theme is also reflected in the content itself. If you take Women in Love as the canonical example (and I think Women in Love is a terribly underrated novel, despite its acclaim; it is arguably the greatest novel of the 20th century!), the opposition between flux and stasis dominates much of the novel, from societal ills and relationships to the fate of individual characters, and Lawrence’s revisions and rewritings emphasize and shed light on this. The iconic episode in the chapter ‘Moony’, where Birkin stones the moon’s reflected image, is one of many examples which I discuss in the book.

Why do you think Lawrence had dilemma’s about finishing a piece of work? Is this something all writers go through (in that a book is never really finished because we constantly change as people) or was this type of dilemma distinct to him?   

Lawrence rewrote the ending of each of the works which I look at in this book multiple times and it is probably the single most heavily rewritten section in each work. While revision and rewriting is almost universal to writers, it is a distinct dilemma to Lawrence in that Lawrence so often writes about the aforementioned opposition between flux and stasis and generally sides with what he sees as creative flux over deathly stasis. Rendering his own creative life into static, finished products of literature was therefore a kind of paradox for Lawrence, and I think his often carefree or even disdainful attitude towards his own works is a result of this dilemma.  I discuss this dilemma in a few places in the book and focus on it almost exclusively in Chapter 8 (‘Writing an Ending’).

Was there one piece of work that Lawrence re-wrote more than others? 

Something I emphasize in the book is just how frequently and intensely Lawrence rewrote his work. Aside from manuscript drafts, Lawrence also published alternative versions of many poems and short stories, and attempted to get earlier versions of one or two of the novels published, too. That said, he worked on various versions of Women in Love over the best part of eight years (sadly destroying many hundreds of manuscript pages), so that is probably the one I would single out above all others.

Why is Lawrence an important writer to you?   

As I emphasize in the book, Lawrence is unique in the sheer breadth and extent of his work, which is acclaimed across almost the entire range of writing categories (letters, travel writing, psychology, history, poetry, long and short fiction, journalistic articles, literary criticism, and more), as well as his humble working-class origins, and, despite being slightly awkwardly grouped with ‘Modernist’ literature, there is a humble degree of accessibility to all of his work. And yet, despite all the reams and reams of writing, there is rarely any sense of tiredness or pessimism to be found in Lawrence (these are more likely to be subjected to rage, which is itself a kind of positive emotion in Lawrence!). To be slightly less uncouth, I also think there is a fascinating element of depth and complexity in Lawrence’s writings, a sense of impending revelation, to rival or surpass any of his great Modernist contemporaries.

You can purchase Elliott’s book from Bloomsbury for £76.50 .You can visit his website here

Lawrence and Hardy

hardy and lawrence poster

The disruption caused by coronavirus has forced the D.H. Lawrence Society to embrace the digital age and invest in a funky new website, Twitter account and YouTube channel. This means that I am able to share their first online talk here, given by Fiona Fleming. In the four clips below she discusses the respective lives, loves and literary influences of Lawrence and Thomas Hardy. Out of Sheer Joy, I have provided my own summary…

Thomas Hardy (2 June 1840 – 11 January 1928) was a Victorian realist influenced by Romanticism. Born 45 years before Lawrence, his last novel, Jude the Obscure, was published in 1895, when Lawrence was ten. Hardy died the year Lady C was originally published. Both writers confronted controversial topics during their careers, risking censorship due to their interpretations of modernity and the prevailing morality of the time.

In terms of family, Fleming states that the Hardy’s were a tight clan, mainly because they remained together in Dorset throughout their lives. Dorset would be portrayed as the semi-fictionalised region of Wessex in his novels. Lawrence remained in contact with his family, but as he lived abroad from 1919 onwards, visits to the East Midlands were more sporadic. Eastwood and the surrounding mining communities would inform much of Lawrence’s early novels and plays, though he would write, ‘I can be anywhere at home, except home’.

Both writers were subject to the oppressive love of a matriarch whose aspirations for her children exceeded her own achievements. Church was a regular feature of their childhood. In Apocalypse, Lawrence would write, ‘I was brought up on the Bible and seemed to have it in my bones’ – which was read at him rather than to him at Sunday School. The overbearing dogmatism of a non-conformist church would, Fleming argues, lead to Lawrence’s loss of faith. However, he never lost his passion for hymns, adapting their symbolism to suit him where needed.

Hardy was also ushered into church life but was intrigued by ritual rather than any form of spiritual meaning. He would later become agnostic due to his own philosophical and scientific readings. He also loved church music, seeing hymns as a form of poetry. Although they both had very different ideas on what constituted a good hymn, especially ‘Lead Kindly Light’ which Lawrence felt was too sentimental.

In terms of education, FE wasn’t really an option due to financial restrictions. Therefore, they both self-educated as much as possible, drawing influence and education from friends and family around them. I often wonder what kind of person Lawrence would have become if he hadn’t encountered the likes of the Chambers and Hopkins families.

J.M. Barrie was a big influence on Hardy’s posthumous literary success, finding him a burial spot at Poet’s Corner and helping Hardy’s second wife, Florence, publish the definitive collection, The Life and Works of Thomas Hardy. Barrie also has a Nottingham connection. He worked as a journalist at the Nottingham Daily Journal between 1883 – 4. It’s believed that while he was here, he conceived of the character of Peter Pan and based the setting of Neverland on the Arboretum – the park he would walk through each morning on his way to work. Lawrence never met J.M. Barrie, partly because he was abroad but mainly because he detested literary gatherings which tended to attract ‘smoking, steaming shits’. One friend they had in common was literary critic, John Middleton Murry – although friend might be pushing it as far as Lawrence is concerned. Their relationship was doomed after the failed attempt at Rananim in Cornwall in 1916 and Murry’s moral betrayal via his editorship of the Adelphi. But then again, Lawrence fell out with everyone in the end (except perhaps Catherine Carswell).

Another mutual friend was the writer and socialite Lady Cynthia Asquith (1887 –1960) the daughter-in-law of H. H. Asquith, the prime minister whose threat to ennoble Hardy and Barrie (alongside 498 others) so frightened the House of Lords in 1911. Lawrence wrote to her regularly, describing her as a “Pre-Raphaelite ‘dreaming woman'”. Lawrence was intrigued by the aristocracy in terms of their grand families. His wife Frieda, of course, was born to aristocracy, but like Lawrence, had little interest in social status. Lacking Lawrence’s self-confidence, Hardy was desperate to climb the social ladder that his family had so successfully slipped down the previous century. His need to be respected can be found in an amusing anecdote about his morbid self-obsession with his own death. This tale was shared with Asquith by J.M. Barrie:

“[H]e often smiled over Hardy’s preoccupation with his plans for his own burial–plans which were perpetually being changed. “One day,” said Barrie,” Hardy took me to see the place where he wants most to be buried, and the next day he took me to see the place where he would like next best to be buried. Usually he says he is to be buried exactly in between his two wives, but sometimes he is to be so many inches.”

Fleming argues that Hardy’s vulnerability and lamenting for social status can be seen in novels such as Tess of the D’Urbervilles where Tess descends into poverty and obscurity. In the novel, traditional ways of life are slowly eroded by modernity, represented by effete city folk who are only able to ingest milk that has been watered down. Lawrence too wrote about how industry and modernity places a barrier between man and nature. But instead of mopping about, he went in search of primitive cultures and the ‘religion of the blood’. However, when he describes the coastline of Cornwall as belonging “still to the days before Christianity, the days of Druids, or of desolate Celtic magic and conjuring” he could be accused of creating worlds as equal fictional as Hardy’s Wessex.

Indeed, Lawrence’s great skill as a writer was the way he would impose his own values and sense of self into any topic he chose to write about. As he wrote on 5 September 1914: “Out of sheer rage I’ve begun my book on Thomas Hardy. It will be about anything but Thomas Hardy I am afraid – queer stuff – but not bad.”

Source: Fiona Fleming (You can join the D.H. Lawrence Society here) Special thanks also to ivebeenreadinglately.blogspot.com  

dhl-trunkIn the D.H. Lawrence Memory Theatre we are exploring Lawrence life through artefacts. We officially set sail in November 2019 to mark the centenary of his self-imposed exile, but then a virus came along and everything has been put on hold.  You can submit artefacts here, or join in the conversation on Instagram or leave a comment below.

 

“The country of my heart … ” Nottinghamshire, Lawrence and me …

Lovely blog from John Harvey, who has helped keep Nottingham on the literary map through his Resnick novels.

Some Days You Do ...

DHL

When, in the early 1960s and recently graduated as trained teachers from Goldsmiths’ College, my friends and I were looking for somewhere outside London to ply our trade, and we decided, after a relatively small amount of research, that Nottingham was just the place. Rents were significantly cheaper than in the capital [nothing changes] and, according to the back pages of the TES, there were jobs. A couple of brief visits aside, however, our knowledge of the city and its environs was less than well-informed. We’d seen, and been braced by, Tony Richardson’s film of Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night & Sunday Morning; seen and just managed to stay awake through Jack Cardiff’s tame version of D. H. Lawrence’s Sons & Lovers, a novel I would have read as part of my English studies, Lawrence being more academically respectable then than I believe he is now. [Except at the…

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Writing the Australian bush: DH Lawrence’s wildflowers

David Herbert Lawrence dived deep into the psychology of the Australian landscape in Kangaroo.
Flickr/Duncan~

 

In this guest blog, originally published in The Conversation, Christopher Pollnitz of University of Newcastle explores how the Australian landscape has been described and used in Lawrence’s 1923 novel, Kangaroo. If nothing else, argues Pollnoitz, Lawrence makes “us look, and look again, at the environment. For that, he is worth a medal”.


The indifference — the fern-dark indifference of this remote golden Australia. Not to care — from the bottom of one’s soul, not to care. Overpowered in the twilight of fern-odour. Just to keep enough grip to run the machinery of the day: and beyond that, to let yourself drift, not to think or strain or make any effort to consciousness whatsoever.

D. H. Lawrence, from Kangaroo (1923)

As D. H. Lawrence circled the globe, he made a point of going to the barber’s – this despite his trademark beard – and of buying a pot of honey. The barber in Thirroul, he noted, was an unusually intelligent young man, au fait with political trends in the 1920s and able to put an English visitor in touch with social life in the NSW South Coast village. The honey he would taste to commune with the vegetative spirit of place.

Lawrence tried defining the “spirit of place” in his Studies in Classic American Literature. It was, he contended, a “great reality,” albeit one that operated via emanations or effluences. It produced a race or a nation as much as it was produced by a people seeking to establish themselves in terms of their homeland. Tied up with Lawrence’s thinking about spirit of the place was a melange of ideas about indigenousness, race theory, and occult universal wisdom. Such ideas all speak at once, and are questioned, discarded, and reformulated, in Lawrence’s Kangaroo, a novel he wrote in ten weeks – all but the last chapter – while living under the Illawarra Escarpment in Thirroul.

Morning light on the Illawarra Escarpment, which runs behind Thirroul.
Flickr/Kaptain Kobold

He sailed into Circular Quay and disembarked on 27 May 1922, close to the spot where his medallion used to be on the Writers’ Walk. It is unclear when the medallion was deleted from the Walk, but its disappearance probably had more to do with the perceived sexual politics of Lawrence’s other fiction than with any concern about the writing of place in Kangaroo.

A Scottish writer and influential academic in Australia, J.I.M. Stewart, wrote in early praise of the novel’s descriptions of nature. Poet Judith Wright took it further; comparing Kangaroo with Patrick White’s Voss, Wright commended Lawrence’s insight into what she too thought was missing from the psychology of twentieth-century white-colonial Australians – any appreciation of how the continent itself, its flora and fauna, might provide the platform for a grounded sense of national identity.

Strange, then, that in the twenty-first century some have found it desirable to expunge from Australian literary history a writer who, as well as setting a novel on the east coast, has had an impact on the finest Australian-born poets and novelists. Strange and futile. Attempts to censor Lawrence out of consciousness are counter-productive, as the Lady Chatterley trial proved fifty years ago. A better plan of action is to engage with his ideas.

Kangaroo includes a succession of quirky bush vignettes, starting with one in the Perth Hills. Lawrence stayed there a fortnight, and met and talked with Mollie Skinner. He later co-wrote The Boy in the Bush with Skinner, or rather rewrote her first draft. In the first chapter of Kangaroo the Lawrentian character, Richard Lovatt Somers, recalls night-walking in the West Australian bush, and romanticises –that’s to say, lets himself be frightened by – the “huge electric moon” and the bush “hoarily waiting.” He senses the bush “might have reached a long black arm and gripped him.” Fortunately, as this colonial fear fantasy never eventuates, Somers’s feeling for the landscape grows progressively more nuanced.

Somers-Lawrence also observes tree trunks charred by bush fires and a burn-off as he returns from his night-walk, the red sparks glowing under the southern stars.

Once Somers reaches Thirroul, renamed Mullumbimby in Kangaroo, the novel develops a plot and complication. Will Somers let himself be recruited to the Diggers, a right-wing paramilitary organisation?

Thirroul glimpsed from the Illawarra Escarpment.
Flickr/davidlkel

By now a reader, curious whether the “long black arm” of Chapter I was an over-extended Aboriginal limb, will be noticing that indigenous characters are conspicuous by their absence, while white characters are indifferent to any activism not directly reflecting northern-hemisphere political contests and wars.

In Chapter X, after a “ferocious battle” with his wife Harriett, Somers climbs the Escarpment and looks back down over a dark mass of “tree-ferns and bunchy cabbage-palms and mosses like bushes” to the narrow coastal strip. A relic of the coal age, the vegetation tempts Somers to enter into a “saurian torpor,” to succumb to “the old, old influence of the fern-world,” under which one “breathes the fern-seed and drifts back, becomes darkly half-vegetable, devoid of pre-occupations.” What would now be called the New Age rhetoric of this passage conflates geological periods with the millennia in which human societies began developing cosmogonic myths. The dodgy subtext might be that, to attune itself to the Escarpment’s spirit of place, colonial Australia needs to dumb down its Western consciousness – dumb it down until it can vibrate in indigenous accord with the spirit of place.

While the botanically trained Lawrence knew perfectly well that ferns reproduce from spores, he also knew, from J.G. Frazer’s The Golden Bough, that he who takes the mythical fern-seed between his lips has the power to become invisible and see into what is hidden in the earth. Giving Lawrence the benefit of the doubt, another subtext is that European Australians need to develop new ways of apprehending an ancient environment.

As for tree-ferns being survivors of the dinosaur age, Lawrence might have also noticed that the Escarpment was, and remains, a lively skink habitat.

Lawrence’s knowledge of the initiation rituals which showed Aranda men their spiritual identities in the Central Australian desert came from another of Frazer’s anthropological works, Totemism and Exogamy. The climax of Kangaroo, a blood-letting in the streets of Sydney, is a hideous parody of such rituals. This clash between Diggers and unionists brings neither victors nor victims a jot closer to belonging to the continent.

Disillusioned by the riot, Somers and Harriet make a last springtime excursion, to the Loddon Falls. The Loddon rises above the Escarpment and flows inland, disappearing underground into a “gruesome dark cup in the bush.” That alien spirit of place to which European consciousness must learn to accommodate is still being registered. But the passage joins others, in Twilight in Italy and “Flowery Tuscany,” as an ecstatic hymn to floral abundance and variety. It’s great fun for local readers, who have to guess at misnamed flowers (the “bottle-brushes” are banksias) or unnamed flowers from their descriptions. My guess is that the “beautiful blue flowers, with gold grains, three petalled … and blue, blue with a touch of Australian darkness,” are Commelina – common name, scurvy grass, probably because it is useless for fodder.

“ Blue, blue, with a touch of Australian darkness.‘
Flickr/Kate’s Photo Diary

Admittedly, Lawrence described the stems of this blue-flowering creeper as “thin stalks like hairs almost,” making it sound more like the Austral bluebell or even Dianella. Possibly he was conflating more than one flower in memory, for the whole wildflower paean in the last chapter was written from recollection, after he arrived in New Mexico.

There is nothing utilitarian, then, about the descriptions of the Australian bush in Kangaroo. Or perhaps there is, marginally. At least one council has begun to use Commelina as an ornamental ground cover, so helping distinguish it in the public mind from bush-suffocating infestations of the South American Tradescantia. What can be claimed for Lawrence’s brilliant botanical shorthand – “blue flowers … gold grains, three petalled” – is that even now he has the power make us look, and look again, at the environment. For that, he is worth a medal.

Christopher Pollnitz is preparing a critical edition of Lawrence’s Poems and is a member of a bush care group.The Conversation He is Conjoint Senior Lecturer, University of Newcastle This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

dhl-trunk GREENIn the DH Lawrence Memory Theatre we want to address various aspects of Lawrence’s life through artefacts to try to understand this complex writer. How do we his time in Australia? Do we have space for some prehistoric ferns? In 2019 we begin building our Memory Theatre and retracing Lawrence’s savage pilgrimage both physically and digitally. If you have an idea for an artefact, get involved and submit ideas here

Fantazius Mallare and the art of Wallace Smith

 

dedication

In this blog we explore Lawrence’s reactions to Wallace Smith’s illustrations in Fantazius Mallare, a novel which borrows its title from Fantasia of the Unconscious and pokes fun at artists who take themselves a bit too seriously…

Wallace Smith (December 30, 1888 – January 31, 1937) was an incredibly talented artist, able to apply his hand to a range of art forms, from comics, illustrations to novels. He spent a decade as a Washington correspondent. Then went to Mexico, producing illustrated reporting on the Carranza regime. Under the nickname of Vulgus, he contributed towards The Chicago Literary Times between 1923-4. The Times was a magazine set out in a tabloid format, cofounded by Ben Hecht and Maxwell Bodenheim. From here, Smith went to Hollywood, knocking out 26 screenplays, some of which were based on his own novels.

Like Lawrence, Smith felt the force of the censor during his life. Bessie Cotter (1935), the story of a street prostitute, was deemed indecent and banned in England. But it was his full page illustrations for Ben Hecht’s obscene and decadent satire Fantazius Mallare: a Mysterious Oath (1922), that caused the most hype, which was largely their intention. Hecht and Smith hoped that the ensuing obscenity trial would expose the flaws of the censor and bring about change. They planned to send review copies of the novel to the literati of the time and then have them called upon as expert witnesses. But it never got that far as only one witness was prepared to come forward. A tactic which would swerve Penguin better in the 1960 Lady Chatterley Trial.

Art by Wallace Smith for "Fantazius Mallare" by Ben Hecht (1922)

Fantazius Mallare is the story of a mad recluse at war with reason. After destroying all of his work he seeks out a woman who will devote herself to his genius. Sound familiar? It begins: “FANTAZIUS MALLARE considered himself mad because he was unable to behold in the meaningless gesturings of time, space and evolution a dramatic little pantomime adroitly centered about the routine of his existence. He was a silent looking man with black hair and an aquiline nose. His eyes were lifeless because they paid no homage to the world outside him.”

According to Witter Bynner in Journey with Genius (1953), Hecht was making a deliberate attack on authors who took themselves a bit too seriously, authors who were “making fiction a blend of sex and psychoanalysis” and apt to self-deification. Bynner gave Lawrence a copy, asking if he would review it for The Laughing Horse. Lawrence agreed because he was offended by the trivial use of smuttiness. “Such bawdiness not only irked him personally but made more difficult for writers a free expression of decent candor.”

He didn’t take kindly to the personal digs either and quickly fired off his review. It’s suggested that he knew his review would not be published on account of some choice objectionable language. But the editor decided to blank out any words that may offend and publish it with a disclaimer.

drawing1a-sml
The daimon tree that so irritated Lawrence. It is the first illustration in the novel.

In the review, Lawrence complains “there’s nothing in it but the author’s attempt to be startling. Whereas if he wanted to be really wicked he’d see that even a tree has its own daimon, and a man must lie with the daimon of a tree.” Lawrence reasons that “The word penis or testicle or vagina doesn’t shock me”. These are just naming conventions. He is quite aware of what parts constitute the human body. But then he relates this to one of his favourite antagonisms, mental consciousness. “I don’t keep my passions, or reactions, or even sensations IN MY HEAD. They stay down where they belong. And really, Fantazius, with his head full of copulation and committing MENTAL fornication and sodomy every minute, is just as much a bore as any other tedious modern individual with a dominant idea.”

Lawrence then latches onto this idea of “sex in the head” – one of his favourite bugbears – as if the mind and body are two completely different aspects, as in the Cartesian Self. “They start all their deeper reactions in their heads nowadays, and nowhere else. They start all their deeper reactions in their heads, and work themselves from the top downwards.” And then he invokes the powers of “the old, dark religions” who understood “God enters from below” which is the “original centre”. For somebody who dislikes the imbalances caused by mental consciousness, Lawrence doesn’t half like to dish it out. He’s incredibly prescriptive about what is and isn’t the right way to think and feel. Thus, Fantazius Mallare mocks the title of Fantasia of the Unconscious, Lawrence’s attempt to jump down the rabbit hole of cosmic existentialism.

drawing4a-sml

Bynner surmises that Lawrence would have been equally annoyed with Andre Gide, should he have lived to meet him, when he wrote “What we call impulses of the heart is but the unreasonable jostling of our thoughts; it is still in the head that the drama is enacted, and it is again the brain that man needs in order to love”.

Walter Smith produced illustrative reports on the Mexican revolution, raising awareness of what was happening for the wider public. Lawrence and Bynner visited Mexico in 1923, but Lawrence had no interest in the first post-revolutionary President of Mexico, Venustiano Carranza, at least according to Bynner. Instead he was more concerned with “garnering notes about unworldly, noble Indians who should become followers of a new Quetzalcoatl, a new Lawrence”.

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Lawrence, Bynner and Frieda

A good place to end this discussion is with the opening to Fantazius, the dedication to those “who achieve involved orgasms denouncing the depravities of others.. to the pedantic ones who barricade themselves heroically behind their own belchings; to the smug ones who walk with their noses ecstatically buried in their own rectums (I have nothing against them, I swear); to the righteous ones who masturbate blissfully under the blankets of their perfections.” Ouch!

Source: Witter Bynner, Journey with Genius. Bynner’s archival papers are at the University of Oregon.

dhl-trunk energyThe DH Lawrence Memory Theatre sets off in November 2019 to mark the centenary of Lawrence’s self imposed exile. Help us select artefacts to try to understand this complex writer. How do we represent his struggles against obscenity or his reactions towards Fantazius? Should there be a place on board for Witter Bynner?  If you have an idea for an artefact, get involved and submit ideas here

 

Black History Month: The influence of D.H. Lawrence on Claude McKay 

claude and DHL

“Is life strife, is it the long combat?
Yes, it is true. I fight all the time.
I am forced to”
The Battle of Life, D.H Lawrence

“If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!”
If We Must Die, Claude McKay

As a rebel writer, D.H. Lawrence spent his entire life fighting against people and systems. Ideas expressed in early novels, such as The Rainbow (1915), took on the ideologies of religion, marriage, family, sexuality, and national identity. In the subsequent Obscenity Trial, Judge Sir John Dickinson went as far as to describe the novel as anti-British, claiming that Lawrence was mocking the very principles that British soldiers were defending. Lawrence was very good at winding people up.

To compound matters, Lawrence married a German woman on the outbreak of WWI and moved to Cornwall, where he was accused of being a spy and had his passport removed. On and on the battles went throughout his short life – and not just with his novels. When he turned his hand to painting and exhibited works at the Warren Gallery in 1929, 13 were seized and placed in a prison cell! The Daily Telegraph reported the paintings were “gross and obscene” the likes of which had “never been seen in London before”.

Understandably, Lawrence came to resent intellectualisation and what he described as “mental consciousness”. This form of thinking produced “ugliness, ugliness, ugliness” and was responsible for the “iron machine” of industrialisation and the subsequent exploitation of workers in favour of profit. A world in which people lived in their heads had a dehumanising effect, further removing man from his natural connection with the environment. It is little wonder, then, that Lawrence developed a philosophy of “blood consciousness”, a more sensuous and guttural connection with the world which was incorrectly interpreted as smut by the censor.

Given that Lawrence fought the establishment throughout his life, it is perhaps not such a surprise that he was an influence on black American poets of the 1940s and 1950s, specifically Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison, or so argues Leo Hamalian in a journal article from 1990. As Langston Hughes put it, “Negro writers, just by being black, have been on the blacklist all our lives”. If it was difficult for a miner’s son with a provincial accent to be accepted by the literati, imagine how difficult it was for a black person.

Claude McKay (September 15, 1889 – May 22, 1948), one of the pioneers of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, detailed the intense racial violence against black people in poems such as ‘If We Must Die’. Originally attracted to communist ideas, he helped form the African Black Brotherhood as a means of achieving social emancipation. Like Lawrence, he travelled far afield to find peace. He lived in the UK and USA, experiencing every form of racism imaginable, had an “ecstatic welcome” in Russia due to his political beliefs, before heading to the more open-minded Parisian backstreets. However liberal Paris was, there was still a lot of work to be done. He wasted no time highlighting the stereotyping of sexualised black figures in the art world which he argued helped to reproduce social hegemonic values that legitimated (European) white supremacy over Afro-Caribbean identities.

claude and dhl quote

Like Lawrence, McKay’s novels outlined an instinctual/intellectual duality. But the two writers had very different reasons for doing this: Lawrence was desperate to escape modernity and so outlined a philosophy of spiritual individualism which he called Rananim – a search for a community of like-minded people. It could be argued, for example, one of his main objections to the war was not moral, rather resentment at being told what to do and where to go!

McKay wanted to empower black people. He implored individuals to stand up for their rights and to be accepted as equals. It goes without saying this came with real risks, most notably lynching and murder. McKay’s travels, then, were not so much about escape but rather finding acceptance within modernity. This is perhaps best exemplified in his 1928 novel Home to Harlem which gave voice to romantic homosexual relationships while forging a distinctive black identity for the “uprooted black vagabonds” – such as himself – who found themselves exploited and used in Western communities.

Writing in his autobiography, McKay states that in Lawrence “I found confusion – all of the ferment and turmoil, the hesitation and hate and alarm, the sexual inquietude and the incertitude of this age, and the psychic and romantic groping for a way out.” Lawrence’s appeal, “lay instead in his compulsive and impassioned struggle to overcome the psychological traps that threatened to imprison and destroy man’s direct appreciation of life and it’s mysteries in the modern age.”

Lawrence grew up in a mining village, McKay came from a family of peasant farmers. They both understood what it meant to struggle. They knew what it was like to have a domineering matriarch in the family. McKay expressed this in poems such as ‘December 1919’ and ‘Mother’, Lawrence addresses it in just about every novel he ever wrote. They also shared similarities in their social status as outsiders in the world of Literature, as well as being young men with strong ideas on how to forge their way in the brave new world. But the trait that McKay felt best mirrored his own was a “psychological restlessness that drove him steadily towards artistic achievement and away from marginal existence of his natal community in his own life.”

home to harlemIn 1977, McKay was posthumously awarded the Order of Jamaica for his contribution to literature. As a left wing liberal he paved the way for future generations of black writers, such as James Baldwin, who would continue his fight. His natal community was proud of what he achieved. The same can’t be said of Lawrence, despite being part of the canon, and paving the way for everyone to swear more freely. He famously wrote, “I can be anywhere at home, except home”. Eastwood has never forgiven him.

Article source: D.H. Lawrence and Black Writers Author(s): Leo Hamalian Source: Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 16, No. 4 (Spring, 1990), pp. 579-596 Published by: Indiana University Press

dhl-trunk blackIn November 2019 we will launch our D.H. Lawrence Memory Theatre. It will be comprised of artefacts that piece together Lawrence’s life, offering an alternative to the linear biography. How do we represent his influence on writers such as Claude McKay? How do we get across complex ideas like blood consciousness? Get involved and help us bu submitting an artefact here.

Why World War I cultivated an obsession with insects

Allied forces wearing gas masks at Ypres, 1917.
Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

In this guest blog, originally published in The Conversation, Rachel Murray of University of Bristol explains how a craze for popular entomology developed around World War I with films and popular insect books a source of fascination for modernist writers and thinkers, including Virginia Woolf, DH Lawrence, Ezra Pound, Katherine Mansfield, and Marianne Moore.

“The soldier is no longer a noble figure,” observed the war poet Siegfried Sassoon while serving on the Western Front. “He is merely a writhing insect among this ghastly folly of destruction.” 

It is little surprise that Sassoon turned to insects to express the plight of the World War I soldier. Many did. Bugs – both real and metaphorical – came to shape the way people thought and wrote about the experience of war, and this prompted a surge of popular interest in insects more generally.

This was the first fully industrialised, long-range conflict, in which the enemy was reduced to minute specks. On the front line, soldiers wore bug-like gas masks and camouflage uniforms for the first time, were strapped into new prototypes of military body armour, and crawled through the mud in tanks. The optics of war even caused the modernist writer Wyndham Lewis, who served as an artillery officer, to remark: “These battles are more like ant fights than anything we have done in this way up to now.”

The striking resemblance between humans and insects also stemmed from their close proximity on the battlefield. Lice, mosquitoes and flies thrived in the trenches, quickly becoming one of the main sources of illness and death among soldiers. Faced with the rapid spread of typhus, malaria, and trench fever (spread by lice), the War Office teamed up with entomologists to tackle this enemy within.

This led to a campaign of insect extermination, in which troops were regularly disinfected with chemicals designed to halt the spread of lice. Yet while this was going on, soldiers were also being subjected to poisonous gases from the enemy, some of which had previously been used as insecticides. One Dutch newspaper was quick to notice the parallel treatment of soldiers and insects.

De Groene Amsterdammer, May 9, 1915.
__De Groene Amsterdammer Archive__

In this satirical illustration from May 1915, the female embodiment of Germany, “Germania”, sprinkles insect powder over a tiny group of soldiers. At first glance, she appears to be delousing them, but she is in fact exterminating them with chlorine.

Yet if the conditions of war reduced human beings to bugs, then it was to these life forms that people turned in search of ways of understanding their predicament.

Bug mania

Jean-Henri Casimir Fabre.
_Wikimedia Commons_

Perhaps because people felt closer to insects than ever, in the period around World War I a craze for popular entomology developed.

Studies of insect life were in high demand, with more books devoted solely to bugs than ever before. Of particular interest to the British public was the work of French entomologist Jean-Henri Casimir Fabre, whose groundbreaking and often gruesome studies of the behaviour of wasps, beetles, mantises, and flies sold widely in the years surrounding the war. Fabre was a pioneering figure in the life sciences who demonstrated that more could be learnt about insects as living entities observed in their natural habitats than as dead specimens pinned in display cases.

The development of new film technologies also meant that the sophisticated behaviour of insects could be made visible to the human eye. In November 1908, nature documentary maker F. Percy Smith’s The Acrobatic Fly caused a stir when it was screened at a London cinema. Advertised on the front page of The Daily Mirror, the short film consisted of remarkable footage of a fly juggling various miniature items with its front legs.

After the war, the public appetite for bugs on screen continued to grow. From 1922, a series of nature shorts called Secrets of Nature was screened in British cinemas. Many of the films focused on the hidden lives of ants, wasps and beetles.

Modernist insects

This popular bug interest was also seen in the more canonical cultural output of the period. The films and popular insect books mentioned above were a source of fascination for modernist writers and thinkers, including Virginia Woolf, DH Lawrence, Ezra Pound, Katherine Mansfield, and Marianne Moore, who listed Fabre’s ten-volume collection, Souvenirs entomologiques (Entomological memories), in a list of “great literary works”. The poet William Carlos Williams even remarked: “Henri Fabre has been one of my Gods.”

Some writers were inspired by the remarkable ability of insects to thrive in inhospitable environments. Set during the war, DH Lawrence’s novella The Ladybird draws on Fabre’s account of the “sacred beetle” (also known as the dung beetle), which sculpts the waste products of larger animals into a home for its offspring. The text highlights the ingenuity of the dung beetle, emphasising its ability to transform death and decay into a source of new life.

Scanning electron microscope image of an ant.
Wikimedia commons

Others were drawn to Fabre’s account of the unique ways that insects perceive their surroundings. One of Wyndham Lewis’s characters remarks enviously that “the insect sees a different world to us, and possesses other means of apprehending it”, while in Virginia Woolf’s novel To The Lighthouse, artist Lily Briscoe longs to experience the compound vision of ants: “One wanted fifty pairs of eyes to see with.”

The turn to popular entomology in the years surrounding the war was no coincidence. While insects may have come to represent the degraded nature of human existence, studies of bug life helped writers and artists, as well as the public at large, to look beyond the wartime atmosphere of destruction, and to develop new ways of seeing themselves and the world around them.The Conversation

Rachel Murray, PhD Candidate, University of Bristol. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

dhl-trunk energyIn the DH Lawrence Memory Theatre we want to address various aspects of Lawrence’s life through artefacts to try to understand this complex writer. How do we capture the modernists’ fascination with entomology? What insects should be crawling through our draws? In 2019 we begin building our Memory Theatre and retracing Lawrence’s savage pilgrimage both physically and digitally. If you have an idea for an artefact, get involved and submit ideas here