It was finally time to say goodbye to Thirroul and the anonymous lifestyle that had served Lawrence well. He liked the simplicity of life in Australia, with the ‘wood and tin’[i] houses where life was ‘nice’ ‘so easy, and sunny’[ii]. His next stop is America where he suspects he will stay for ‘a month or two’[iii] with a detour via the South Sea Islands.
Katherine Pritchard provided Lawrence with a set of novels, poems and plays from the likes of Louis Esson (1879 – 1943) and Furnley Maurice (1881 – 1942) but he was unimpressed as ‘they all make me feel desperately miserable. My, how hopelessly miserable one can feel in Australia’[iv]. On a more positive note, Pritchard had sent him a copy of The Black Opal – the first of her mining novels – which he kept to read on the voyage.
His correspondence during August is relatively slim, with Katherine Mansfield receiving a one-word card from her birthplace Wellington that read ‘Ricordi’[v] which means remembrances. ‘How like him’ she informed her husband John Middleton Murry.
The Lawrence’s left on the RMS Tahiti on 10 August, a ship he described as ‘like a big boarding-house staggering over the sea’[vi]. And stagger it did, sinking in 1930 after propeller failure. He visits Rarotonga on the Cook Islands for the day and finds it to be a ‘lovely island’ that is ‘tropical almost but not sweltering’ and full of ‘great red hibiscus’[vii]. And although he is gushing about the flowers, the tropics and their ‘reptile nausea’[viii] aren’t for him. ‘These are supposed to be earthly paradises: these South Sea Isles. You can have ‘em.[ix]’
Then it’s off to Tahiti for two days. The island may be beautiful but he’s disappointed with the town. Papeete is a ‘poor, dull, modernish place’[x] and angers him so much he fires off a series of xenophobic and racist rants. Compton Mackenzie is warned, ‘if you are thinking of coming here don’t. The people are brown and soft’[xi] whereas Mary Cannan is told ‘Papeete is a poor sort of place, mostly Chinese, natives in European clothes, and fat.’[xii]
Lawrence was a pigeon-chested workaholic who loved hard graft. Presumably, ‘soft’ ‘fat’ people offended his work ethic which may explain why he starts longing for Taormina, so he can once more admire the local peasants working bare chested in the garden, though they inevitably annoyed him too.
At Tahiti he has the misfortune to bump into a ‘Crowd of cinema people who have been making a film.’[xiii] This was Lost and Found on a South Sea Island (1923 dir. R.A. Walsh) and involves Captain Blackbird rescuing his daughter from warring natives on Pago Pago. Nice.
Lawrence described the cinema people as ‘undistinguished’ and ‘common.’[xiv] This may be because he saw cinema as an emotional barrier that disconnected people from their feelings. ‘The pictures are cheap, and they are easy, and they cost the audience nothing, no feeling of the heart, no appreciation of the spirit[xv]’ he wrote a few years earlier in The Lost Girl (1920). Raymond Williams he was not.
But when we dig a little bit deeper beneath the moaning and insults, we get to the heart of the real problem. For 25 days he has been confined on a boat, albeit in first class, with 60 passengers and ‘one simply aches to be alone, away from them all’ as he had been in Australia. ‘To be alone, and to be still, is always one of the greatest blessings. The more one sees of people, the more one feels it isn’t worth while[xvi]’.
He would soon have his wish. A tiny cabin 8,600 feet above sea level awaited him in high up in New Mexico.
Katharine Susannah Prichard/ nee Throssell (1883 –1969) was a founding member of the Communist Party of Australia and a key figure in Australian literary history although Lawrence was not aware of the three novels she’d had published when they corresponded on 3 July 1922. Lawrence was living in self imposed exile after he and his German wife experienced harassment in Cornwall during WWI – all of which provided material for the Nightmare chapter of his Australian novel, Kangaroo. Prichard would also experience persecution due to her political beliefs, with official surveillance files opened in 1919 and not closed until her death in 1969.
Prichard’s debut novel The Pioneers (1915) won the Hodder & Stoughton ‘All Empire Literature Prize’ for Australasia and is now part of the canon of Australian literature. It’s a 19th-century family saga following the lives, loves and losses of one pioneering family and two escaped convicts as they take possession of some land in Victoria, Australia. Like Lawrence’s earlier novels, its value is as a form of social history. In the forward to the 1963 edition, Pritchard writes: “Notes for The Pioneers were made in 1903 when I was twenty and living in South Gippsland. But it was not until 1913, in London, that I was able to take six months off earning my living as a journalist to write the story. It grew from the yarns and gossip I heard at Port Albert, Yarram, Taraville, and my wanderings in the lovely ranges beyond them. The Wirree river referred to may be recognised as the Tara, which was an escape route for convicts from Van Dieman’s Land [Tasmania] in the early days.”
Pritchard provided Lawrence with a set of novels, poems and plays during his brief sojourn in Australia which included the likes of Louis Esson (1879 – 1943) and Furnley Maurice (1881 – 1942) but Lawrence was unimpressed, complaining ‘they all make me feel desperately miserable’. But he was happy to accept a copy of The Black Opal which accompanied him on the Tahiti which set sail on 10 August 1922.
The Black Opal – the first of Prichard’s mining novels – is set in Fallen Star Ridge, a fictitious location in New South Wales and features the trials and tribulations of a mining community whose fortunes are dictated by how much opal they uncover. The promise of financial reward can lead to obsessive behaviour which has varying negative effects on individuals, and by implication, the community, all of which would have resonated with Lawrence given his Eastwood roots.
“Ridge miners find happiness in the sense of being free men. They are satisfied in their own minds that it is not good for a man to work all day at any mechanical toil; to use himself, or allow anyone else to use him, like a working bullock. A man must have to time to think, leisure to enjoy being alive, they say.”
The novel begins and ends with a funeral and features two main protagonists, Sophie Rouminof and Michael Brady.
“It was natural enough that Michael should have taken charge of Sophie Rouminof, and that he should have made all the arrangements for Mrs Rouminof’s funeral. If it had been left to Paul to bury his wife, people agreed, she would not have been buried at all; or, at least, not until the community insisted. And Michael would have done as much for any shiftless man. He was next-of-kin to all lonely and helpless men and women on the Ridge, Michael Brady.”
Michael Brady is an elder who is respected for his knowledge and ethics. Sophie Rouminof is a teenager who flees to America after being disappointed in love. Lawrence was on his way to America when he read the book, though he was not fleeing love. He was fleeing, among other things, his own race whose idea of progress had led to consumerism, industrialism and war: ‘I do hope I shall get from your Indians something that this wearily external white world can’t give’ he wrote to Mabel Dodge Sterne on 3 June 1922.
He’s got no money, Ulysses is getting rave reviews, and Australia makes him feel like he’s fallen out of a picture and found himself on the floor staring back at the gods and men left behind in the picture. Welcome to Locating Lawrence, a monthly video based on Lawrence’s letters 100 years ago.
Katharine Susannah Prichard (nee Throssell) was a key figure in Australian literary history although Lawrence was not aware of the three novels she’d written when they corresponded on 3rd of July. She was also a founding member of the Communist Party in Australia, created in 1920, earning her the disparaging nickname of ‘The Red Witch’. Married to Hugo Throssell, a war hero awarded the Victoria Cross at Gallipoli, she proudly shared a newspaper clipping detailing the birth of their son, Ric. Lawrence observed ‘you are up and about wearing your little V.C like a medal at your breast’[i] Ric would also grow to become a writer as well as a diplomat, but his life would be marred by an unproven allegation that he was a Russian spy.
Lawrence confides to Prichard that there’s plenty to love about Australia and the fact he’s stayed for ‘three months in one place isn’t so bad’[ii]. But it’s a place he can never truly grasp as ‘I feel I slither on the edge of a gulf, reaching to grasp its atmosphere and spirit. It eludes me, and always would’.[iii] Once more he compares it to a Puvis de Chavannes painting, specifically ‘Winter’. But of most interest is Prichard’s rural life in Greenmount: ‘What do you grow on your land? My wife wants a little farm more than anything else, she says. But how should I sit still so long?’[iv]
He uses painting as a metaphor to S.S. Koteliansky to describe the peculiar impact Australia has had on him: ‘It is rather like falling out of a picture and finding oneself on the floor, with all the gods and men left behind in the picture’.[v]
Robert Mountsier is reminded twice in one paragraph that ‘I am now expecting your cable with the money’ as he is only able to get the Tahiti ‘if your cable money arrives’[vi] and that when he arrives in America ‘we will really sit still and spend nothing’[vii]. But he is aware of ‘the depressing accounts of sales’ with Sea and Sardinia selling 685 copies[viii] and Aaron’s Rod 3,000 copies[ix] – though he is keen to emphasise that this has nothing to do with Thomas Seltzer who ‘may be dodgy’ but ‘I believe he does his best.’[x]
Seltzer was Lawrence’s literary agent and helped bring him to an American audience, publishing his work between 1920 to 1923. Fighting censorship in the courts would eventually see his publishing company go bankrupt in 1923.
Lawrence reassures Mountsier that he only has two chapters left to complete Kangaroo and already his mind is focussing on the next location for inspiration (‘I should like, if I could, to write a New Mexico novel with Indians in it’[xi]). No wonder he is so averse to sitting still – his novels are born of perpetual momentum. It’s for this reason he must never get too settled. Thus, he confesses to Koteliansky, ‘If I stayed here for six months I should have to stay here forever.’[xii]
Mabel Dodge Sterne is updated with his desired living requests: ‘I wish we could settle down at – or near – Taos – and have a little place of our own, and a horse to ride. I do wish it might be like that.’[xiii]
Reading Lawrence’s letters, you can’t help but admire his incredible attention to detail. He is constantly wheeling, dealing and instructing. Robert Mountsier is informed that Kangaroo will be sent via the Makura on the 20th July and that he should have it typed up ready for him when he arrives in America so that he can go through it again.[xiv]
In a letter to Mountsier on 17 July he enquires about a train strike in the USA (he is referring to the Great Railroad Strike that ran from 2 July to 14 September) and predicts ‘you will have bad Labour troubles in the next few years, amounting almost to revolution’. Seems not much has changed in 100 years. But Lawrence isn’t one for democratic solidarity, not when the unrest helps articulate his own frustrations with the public who have committed the cardinal sin of not buying enough of his books. ‘The ‘public’ that now is would never like me any more than I like it. And I hate it – the public – the monster with a million worm-like heads. No, gradually I shall call together a choice minority, more fierce and aristocratic in spirit.’[xv] Oh dear.
He strikes a calmer tone with the Brewsters, his Buddhist friends. Achsah is informed that the name of their property in Thirroul – Wyewurk – ‘was as Australian humourism Why Work?’[xvi] and that Frieda has finished a Buddha embroidery and has now moved onto a vase of flowers. It sounds like domestic bliss. But these were difficult times. He was aware that he would arrive in Taos penniless and that this was all too familiar. But this would not stop him embracing a new experience and adding another language to his repertoire: ‘I am now going to start learning Spanish, ready for the Mexicans.’[xvii]
When he arrives in America, he will have time to read ‘this famous Ulysses’.[xviii] James Joyce’s modernist masterpiece had been published in Paris in February 1922 by Sylvia Beach of Shakespeare and Company and was receiving rave reviews. But Lawrence suspects his own novel, Kangaroo, will not receive the same adulation. If anything, ‘even the Ulysseans will spit at it’.[xix]
It’s June 1922. Adolf Hitler begins serving a prison sentence for assault. Judy Garland is born. And Leopold Bloom wanders around Dublin for the day in a book that many readers will never finish. Meanwhile, Lawrence is in Australia.
He kicks off June with a letter to Mabel Dodge Sterne, informing her that he’s started a new novel and can’t visit until it’s finished. He estimates the end of August. He’s fed up with his current predicament and craves a change of scenery: ‘I do hope I shall get from your Indians something that this wearily external white world can’t give’[i].
He’s living in Thirroul, New South Wales, which has a pit nearby. Consequently, ‘it is rather like the Midlands, the life very familiar and rough’[ii]. Frieda ‘is very happy with her house’[iii] and enjoying the rare pleasure of being settled. Albeit temporarily. As always, he politely reassures his dear Schwiegermutter that they’ll be back in Europe soon: ‘I tell you again, the world is round, and brings the rolling stone home again. And I must go till I find something that brings me peace.[iv]’ By peace he means somewhere he is able to knock out a couple of books, as he was able to do the previous year in Ebersteinburg where he wrote Aaron’s Rod and Fantasia of the Unconscious[v].
Lawrence is enamored with the cost of meat in Thirroul, eagerly informing: ‘Two good sheep’s tongues, 60 pfennigs – and a great piece of beef, enough for twelve people, two marks’[vi] However, everything else is ‘exorbitantly expensive’[vii]. With only £31 to live off, he gives his literary agent Robert Mountsier a comprehensive breakdown of his living costs and requests a loan of at least £160 for when they set off to America as he can’t travel second class as ‘these boats are so small there is practically no deck accommodation’. All of which means he needs to get Kangaroo[viii] finished as soon as he can.
Lawrence is insistent that nobody is informed of his plans to visit America[ix] and revels in the splendid isolation of Australia. ‘We live mostly with the sea – not much with the land – and not at all with people…we don’t know a soul on this side of the continent…for the first time in my life I feel how lovely it is to know nobody in the whole country…One nice thing about these countries is that nobody asks questions. I suppose there have been too many questionable people here in the past.[x]
Lawrence is highly critical of democracy throughout his letters in Australia. And ‘the more I see of democracy the more I dislike it. It just brings everything down to the mere vulgar level of wages and prices, electric lights and water closets and nothing else’.[xi] He identifies a frenetic aspect to the culture where people ‘are always vaguely and meaninglessly on the go’ in ‘smart boots’, ‘silk stockings’ – don’t get Lawrence started on stockings – and ‘motor cars’[xii]. Although it’s easy to dismiss Lawrence as a killjoy, things are always more complex and nuanced. ‘That’s what life in a new country does to you: it makes you so material, so outward, that your real inner life and your inner self dies out, and you clatter round like so many mechanical animals’.[xiii] Lawrence doesn’t need anyone or anything as ‘the sea is extraordinary good company’[xiv].
Despite these reservations, he’s intrigued by the place. The landscape reminds him of a Puvis de Chavannes (1824 – 98) painting as it is ‘so apparently monotonous, yet when you look into it, such subtly different distances, in layers, and such exquisite forms – trees, flat hills, – strange, standing as it were at the back of the vision.’[xv] Much has been written about the duality of Lawrence’s personality and so it’s no surprise that he should feel so conflicted about his current abode. ‘Often I hate it like poison,’ he writes to Catherine Carswell, ‘then again it fascinates me, and the spell of its indifference gets me. I can’t quite explain it: as if one resolved back almost to the plant kingdom, before souls, spirits and minds were grown at all: only quite a live, energetic body with a weird face.’[xvi]
Living in such a vast open country which ‘tempts one to disappear’[xvii] both the Lawrence’s are aware that cabin fever awaits them in New Mexico. In a joint letter to Mabel Dodge Sterne, Frieda warns ‘don’t give us too little a place to live in, we are much too quarrelsome – it’s quite fatal’ whereas Lawrence, channeling Basil Fawlty, advises ‘we both like to keep sufficiently clear of one another’.[xviii]
On 4 May 1922, Lawrence and Frieda disembarked from the Orsova in Western Australia. They stayed briefly in the east of Perth with Mollie Skinner for whom Lawrence would later collaborate on The Boy in the Bush (1924). A few weeks later they would head to Western Australia on the Malwa. Would Lawrence find happiness in Australia? Hmm.
His initial observation of Darlington, in a letter to Robert Mountsier, is that of a ‘queer godforsaken place: not so much new as non-existent’[i]. This is followed with the obligatory doubt of how long he will stay and a warning that he may need to cable for more money. At the time he was writing from the Savoy Hotel, Perth which he claims is the most expensive hotel he’s ever stayed in, and he will thus be leaving the next day. Despite money worries, he remains determined: ‘I’ll see this damned world, if only to know I don’t want to see any more of it. – Au revoir[ii].’
Mabel Dodge Sterne is informed they’ll be in Taos ‘easily by August’[iii] but this is unlikely given he has a whole new continent to explore.
On 15 May, Lawrence writes to his dear Schwiegermutter to inform that Frieda is ‘so disappointed’ as she’d hoped to find ‘much greater space and jollier people’[iv]in Oz. Lawrence’s descriptions of the bush are of an eerie liminal space. It is ‘hoary and unending, no noise, still, and the white trunks of the gum trees all a bit burnt: a forest, a preforest: not a primeval forest: somewhat like a dream, a twilight forest that has not yet seen a day. It is too new, you see: too vast. It needs hundreds of years yet before it can live’. He goes on to describe it as a ‘fourth dimension,’ ‘nervous, neurotic’ inhabited by ghosts[v].
He is slightly more appreciative when he writes to Jan Juta a few days later on 20 May: ‘Australia has a marvellous sky and air and blue clarity and a hoary sort of land beneath it, like a Sleeping Princess on whom the dust of ages has settled. Wonder if she’ll ever get up.[vi]’
It’s not somewhere he can imagine settling, unless he ever gave up ‘the literary sponge,’ and could ‘live in the bush for next to nothing’ and with ‘a great free land’ to boot[vii].
Although Lawrence ‘hated’ a great deal of his time in Ceylon – his previous location – on reflection he’s grateful for the experience and determined to visit the South Sea Isles or go around the world again and this time visit Africa, the Himalayas, China and Japan. ‘I love trying things and discovering how I hate them,’ he tells Earl Brewster.[viii]
Thomas Seltzer was keen for Lawrence to explore more widely and suggested India as a possible location for another Sea and Sardinia type publication with Jan Juta. But Lawrence ‘didn’t feel like it’[ix]. Amy Lowell had informed Lawrence that Seltzer was ‘getting a name as a merely erotic publisher’[x] and so venturing into travelogues may help offset this.
We learn in a letter to Koteliansky on 20 May that Frieda may not share Lawrence’s addiction to momentum: ‘Frieda wants to have a little house and stay a few months. She is tired of moving on. But I like it. I like the feeling of rolling on.’[xi]
And roll on they do, to Thirroul, 50 miles or so south of Sydney, where he takes a little house on the edge of the Pacific, ‘the weirdest place you ever saw’[xii]. Here, ‘the heavy waves break with a great roar all the time…the sky is dark, and it makes me think of Cornwall’[xiii]. Fortunately, it doesn’t cost much to live there, ‘food is quite cheap’ and ‘good meat is only fivepence or sixpence a pound’[xiv].
Soon the novelty starts to wear off. ‘I like Australia less and less. The hateful newness, the democratic conceit, every man a little pope of perfection[xv]’ he informs Robert Mountsier on 25 May. All of which would make good material for a novel…
What role does D.H. Lawrence play in the life of a literary translator in Alison Moore’s novel about loss, memory and ghosts…
Following a family tragedy, Jessie Noon moved from the Fens to the Midlands and currently lives on the Scottish Borders with a cat, dog and – so she believes – a ghost. To compel matters, she hasn’t seen her son for years and is receiving mysterious messages stating, ‘I’m on my way home’. Perhaps her fortunes will change when she strikes up a relationship with Robert, a local outreach worker.
As a literary translator, Jessie is in a position of responsibility, consumed with finding the right words to ensure clear communication. She understands how structures and syntax create meaning. But her own life is harder to categorise and define – particularly when seemingly solid structures around her begin to disintegrate and crack. We learn that a child has gone missing, a boy is in a coma, and then there’s the unborn baby…
There are both implicit and explicit references to D.H. Lawrence in this short novel. Moore gives a nod to Lawrence when she used the line, ‘the wind muttered at the window and the trees shook off the last of their leaves’ which is taken from Lawrence’s poem ‘At the Window’. The most obvious reference, though, is having the main protagonist Jesse reading her third biography of Lawrence, despite knowing she will have to endure him die all over again. She informs us that Lawrence is always ‘poised between worlds’ – new and old, rural v industry and that characters from his books are always ‘torn between staying and leaving, torn between this world, this life, and another.’
Jesse Noon is also caught between places and stuck in a kind of emotional limbo given her personal circumstances. The novel is full of transient descriptions such as childhood memories of ‘crossing the invisible border between France and Germany’ and how writers are hidden behind agents and editors. We later discover that her husband Will, who walked out on her a year ago, left a goodbye message written in steam on the bathroom mirror, that would eventually disappear, like him. This is very different to a handwritten note which would give solidity to the facts and allow her to ponder the words. A recurring theme in Moore’s novel is being present yet absent.
Moore uses the biography of Lawrence as a narrative device to mirror events in Jesse Noon’s life. For example, when her husband leaves her, it’s at the point she’s reading about Lawrence eloping with Frieda. When she later has an affair with Robert she observes, ‘He had no curtains, just wooden blinds. He had no cushions. She supposed that the hard, bare surfaces were easier to keep clean’. She feels guilty because she has left her dog on its own and it needs feeding and so returns home. Later she reads her Lawrence biography: ‘She read a chapter, in which Lawrence mistreated a dog, and Jessie loved the book for its kindness, for how it tried to understand and forgive Lawrence for his flaws’.
There are implicit references to Lawrence as well. Moore is a writer of meticulous detail, much of which simmers below the surface, and so I don’t believe these are coincidental. She is too good a writer to leave anything to chance. Let’s start with Noon, the surname of the main protagonist. Is this a nod to Mr Noon, Lawrence’s unfinished novel published posthumously and if so, how does this add extra layers of meaning? Firstly, choosing to refer to an ‘unfinished’ novel fits with the uncanny and unresolved issues raised in Missing. Secondly, there are ethical questions around publishing ‘unfinished’ work. Finally, there is the issue of critics interpreting this work and imposing their own meaning on to it. Lawrence biographer Benda Maddox argues Mr Noon is a ‘factually accurate and barely fictionalized account of Lawrence and Frieda’s early sexual relations’. All of these ambiguities reinforce various themes raised in Moore’s novel, which is why I believe the title is a deliberate nod to Lawrence’s 1934 novel.
Jesse Noon is a translator, as was Lawrence. Lawrence had a superb command of language. He could speak German, French, Spanish and Italian and translated the works of Giovanni Verga. He even attempted Russian but found it too difficult and so had to collaborate with S.S. Koteliansky. Moore has made her main protagonist a translator not to echo Lawrence’s life but because of what the profession implies. Translation involves interpretation and communication (and miscommunication).
We learn that Jessie has three versions of The Outsider, each with a different translation of the opening line. Even something as solid and tangible as a book has a degree of uncertainty about it. Likewise, Ulysses was meddled with years after James Joyce’s death. There are multiple versions of books. Nothing is ever final. This allows Moore to make the sinister observation that ‘she would once have said death, death was final, but she was no longer sure about that’.
The opening to Missing sees Jesse attend a Halloween party dressed as someone who had died of TB – the disease that eventually took Lawrence’s life in 1930. It is such an odd choice of fancy dress, particularly given that TB is no longer the threat it once was, is this another intertextual reference?
Jessie grew up in the suburbs and longed to live in either the centre of London or on a farm, some kind of extreme, but she finds herself living in neither, still somewhere between. Lawrence lived a nomadic life and always seemed happiest when he was in a boat, neither here nor there, enjoying liminal space on his way to the next adventure.
Moore is clearly either a fan of Lawrence or knowledgeable about him as he is also mentioned in her 2016 novel He Wants. She is a nuanced author who ensures every sentence counts and so the implicit references, no matter how tangential, are worth considering. Readers are the ultimate interpreters – we bring our own history to the text and this, to some degree, informs how we perceive those squiggly patterns of ink on a page. The author provides structures and signposts to push us in a very particular direction so that we don’t get lost in ourselves.
Tim Hannigan is a travel writer in search of a genre. His journey takes him to various places across Europe where he interviews a broad range of travel writers who he hopes will help him define what exactly is travel writing. On the surface, this might seem pretty obvious – you head off somewhere and pen a picture for the reader. But it’s a bit more complicated than that. What about the writers who conveniently muddle up conversations to pepper up their journey? Why are so many of these books authored by white middle class Etonians? And why are the voices of locals or the ‘travellees’ either caricatured or completely missing from the narrative?
Hannigan’s is a principled journey that values both people and place. He is keen to make a distinction between fiction and nonfiction and wonders how and why this line gets blurred so often. He approaches this question as both a travel writer and academic – the book is based on his PhD. To help him, he visits the likes of Dervla Murphy (she of bicycle fame) as well as digging deep into the archives of deceased writers such as Wilfred Thesiger where he observes, “In Arabia and beyond, his preferred society seems always to have been a small group of young men and boys, possessed of some elite and initiated status, perfectly isolated from the great plurality of town and village.”
So, what has this got to do with D.H. Lawrence? Lawrence wrote four ‘travel’ books; Twilight in Italy (1916), Sea and Sardinia (1921), Mornings in Mexico (1927) with Sketches of Etruscan Places (1932) published posthumously. However, Lawrence only gets two mentions in Hannigan’s book, the most significant of which appears on pages 178-9 when Hannigan invites a group of readers to reflect on travel books they’ve read – this is important to Hannigan as he believes readers have been left out of debates about what constitutes travel writing.
One reader, Adam, cites Sea and Sardinia as appealing because ‘a lot of books that were written at the time were by wealthy people going on a European tour, and they didn’t bother about how much it cost’ whereas Lawrence is meticulous in his quotidian observations, detailing the costs of everything. Adam also found value in the book as a form of social history and found ‘out loads about unemployment, about politics, about what’s going on with jobs and people’. He would later revisit Sardinia with Lawrence’s book as a guide although Hannigan is cautious of ‘falling back on a text’.
Lawrence wrote Sea and Sardinia after a brief excursion to Sardinia in January 1921. There are clear issues with claiming to know a nation after spending just over a week in the country. Likewise, although Lawrence does give voice to the locals and includes them in the narrative – as Adam alludes to – they are never given equal weighting. They are observed and recorded rather than invited into the narrative.
One writer who does this very well is Samanth Subramanian who approaches his craft from a journalistic perspective. ‘Journalists’ he explains ‘talk to people about their lives and about their problems and about their views on the world’ thereby ensuring the travellee has a voice. Indeed, he illustrates this when he is challenged by a local in Sri Lanka who asks, ‘What good will this conversation do for me?’ Reversing this power balance is one way in which the genre can escape the exotic gaze and accusations of Orientalism.
Hannigan is from Cornwall and so has experienced many people representing his home in literature and film. He is currently working on a book about this called The Granite Kingdom – so expect Lawrence to be taken down a peg or two given his observations that Cornwall ‘belongs still to the days before Christianity, the days of Druids, or of desolate Celtic magic and conjuring’.
It’s too hot, he doesn’t like the food, and don’t get him started on the temples. Join literature’s hardest to please traveller in Ceylon…
It’s the 3rd April 1922 and Lawrence is in Ceylon. As usual, he’s worrying about money. He informs Robert Mountsier, ‘Travelling itself is hellishly costly, but while we sit here we spend little.’ Lawrence is not someone used to sitting still, but in the heat it’s a necessity: ‘Here it is monstrous hot, like being in a hot bell-glass. I don’t like it a bit. I don’t like the East. It makes me feel sick in my stomach’. The real problem, of course, is it is too hot for him to write: ‘I’m not working and feel I never should work in the east’. As we know, Lawrence needs to convert his experiences into a novel of some sort for a place to have value.
On the same day he writes to Mary Cannan. The letter comes with an explicit warning: ‘never travel round the world to look at it – it will only make you sick… Take my advice and don’t take far flights to exotic countries. Europe is, I fancy, the most satisfactory place in the end.’ That is, unless Lawrence is in Europe, in which case, he will hate it.
It doesn’t take long for his frustration to manifest into spiteful comments, ‘The east, the bit I’ve seen, seems silly. I don’t like it one bit. I don’t like their…hideous little buddha temples, like decked up pigsties…it’s better to see it on the cinema: you get there the whole effect, without the effort and the sense of nausea.’ Given Lawrence’s disdain for cinema and other forms of mass distraction, this is a backhanded compliment.
Next up is Catherine Carswell ‘Tropics not really my line…not active enough’ whereas Mabel Dodge Sterne is informed, ‘Ceylon is an experience – but heavens, not a permanence.’ To be fair, nowhere was a permanence for Lawrence. As Catherine Carswell would later observe in her memoir, Lawrence “disliked an air of everlastingness about a home. For him it must have something of the tent about it”.
In addition to being unbearably hot, he doesn’t like the food either. ‘Something about it all just makes me sick… I loathe the tropical fruits, except pineapples, and those I can’t digest: because my inside has never hurt me so much in all my 36 years as in these three weeks’ Mary Cannan, 5 April.
He then lists various alternative places he might visit (Sydney, California, England) before a bit of self reflection. ‘I need this bitterness, apparently, to cure me of the illusion of other places’.
Given Lawrence’s love of the natural environment, surely the vibrancy of the jungle would provide solace. Wrong (uh, uh. Wrong answer noise). Mabel Dodge Sterne is informed on 10 April that it’s a colourful racket due to ‘the thick, choky feel of tropical forest, and the metallic sense of palms and the horrid noises of the birds and creatures, who hammer and clang and rattle and cackle and explode all the livelong day’. As for the fruits, the scents make him feel sick and have an ‘undertaste of blood and sweat’.
But there is one positive to his visit. ‘I shall be fulfilling my real desire to approach America from the west, over the Pacific.’
Lawrence then calms down a tad, perhaps because he was planning to book tickets for West Australia at the end of the month and so could see a way out. ‘I’ve been in Ceylon a month and nearly sweated myself into a shadow’ he informs Austin Harrison, ‘Still it’s a wonderful place to see and experience.’
It strikes me that Lawrence always feels happiest when he is in transition between places. It’s the journey rather than the destination that matters. ‘One may as well move on, once one has started’ he informs S.S. Koteliansky. But as the next destination draws closer, he becomes anxious and fearful once more, perhaps because it signifies no longer being in limbo: ‘I am not at all sure we shall like Australia either’. (Letter, 17 April to S.S. Koteliansky).
Lawrence found the East draining. He wasn’t wired to sit still and contemplate. He was programmed to move, ‘and what’s more with haste’.
‘It seems to me the life drains away from one here’ he writes to S.S. Koteliansky on 17 April ‘One could quite easily sink into a kind of apathy, like a lotus on a muddy pond indifferent to anything. And that apparently is the lure of the east: this peculiar stagnant apathy where one doesn’t bother about a thing, but drifts on from minute to minute.’
So eager is he to escape the Buddha, he even contemplates settling down permanently in England or Italy if none of this works out.
At the end of April, he once more finds himself on the next adventure, this time to Australia. Nothing makes Lawrence happier than the liminal space of the sea: ‘Here we are on a ship again – somewhere in a very big blue choppy sea with flying fishes sprinting out of the waves like winged drops’ and although the East is not for him, his head once more fills with fantastical images and Ceylon gets the ultimate Lawrentian compliment, they are rendered pre-history: ‘the tropics have something of the world before the flood…’
On this day in 1922, Lawrence set off for New Mexico via a massive detour. He would travel up the Suez at 5mph and imagine himself as a sea-bird, as all connections with land dissolved his sense of time. I, on the other hand, find myself sat in the same room, staring at the same screen, googling epic tattoo fails – all in the name of research…
On 26 February 1922 Lawrence sailed from Naples aboard the R.M.S Osterley heading towards Ceylon to meet a friend ‘who is taking Buddhism terribly seriously’. As Lawrence was wont to do, he had to convince himself he was doing the right thing in leaving the comfort of his home in Sicily. He does this in typically dismissive fashion in a letter to Norman Douglas on 4 March 1922: ‘Thank the Lord I am away from Taormina, that place would have been the death of me after a little while longer’.
His latest sojourn would see him travel at 5mph along the Suez where he would observe palm trees and Arabic men plodding by on camels. This tranquillity contrasted with Mount Sinai which he described in a letter to S.S. Koteliansky on 7 March as ‘like a vengeful dagger that was dipped in blood many years ago, so sharp and defined’.
Lawrence was acutely aware of his immediate environment and had the wonderful ability of being able to see the world from all perspectives. ‘Being at sea is so queer’ he wrote to Rosalind Baynes on 8 March ‘it sort of dissolves for the time being all the connections with the land, and one feels like a sea-bird must feel’.
When the land beckons him to Ceylon, everything appears to be fine in his temporary accommodation at Kandy. On the 24 March he sends his sister Emily a bit of hand-made lace and describes sitting high up on a verandah watching chipmunks and chameleons and lizards. But despite the lovely view, it is so hot he has to wear a sun helmet and white suit. ‘If one moves one sweats’. Lawrence is not very good at sitting still – he will later chastise the buddha for not getting up – and by the 28th March he has confessed to Anna Jenkins that ‘I don’t feel at all myself. Don’t think I care for the east’. By the 30th Robert Pratt Barlow is informed ‘I do think. still more now I am out here, that we make a mistake forsaking England and moving out into the periphery of life. After all, Taormina, Ceylon, Africa, America – as far as we go, they are only the negation of what we ourselves stand for and are: and we’re rather like Jonahs running away from the place we belong’.
Despite this temporary fondness for his country of birth, Lawrence never stopped running. Since his self-imposed exile of 1919 he would continue to big places up, get irritated by them, then move on. How short his life may have been and how little he would have written had he found lasting contentment anywhere.
The D.H. Lawrence Memory Theatre, as well as my editorship of the Lawrence Society bulletin, has led me to reading Lawrence’s letters in chronological order so that I can map out what he was doing on each day exactly one century ago. If you would like to join me in this pursuit you need to pick up a copy of the Cambridge edition Volume IV (1921-24). As he dies in 1930, I only have eight years of this pleasure to go.
The contrast of our respective fates has not been lost on me. Lawrence is constantly on the move while I am constantly stationary. Whereas he is on the deck of a ship observing flying fish and black porpoises ‘that run about like frolicsome little black pigs’ I am googling phalluses for artefact three in the memory theatre and scrolling through Instagram wondering why one person got a Gregg’s tattoo on their bum during lockdown and another person had Lawrence’s poem Self Pity tattooed on their arm.
The D.H. Lawrence Memory Theatre was launched in 2019 to coincide with Lawrence’s self-imposed exile. Currently, we are on a ‘digital pilgrimage’ but we hope to make a physical journey soon and retrace Lawrence’s steps. To submit an artefact to the memory theatre, see our project website.
D.H. Lawrence was a man on the run. But what was he looking for and where was he heading? Malcolm Gray, former Chair of the D.H. Lawrence Society, offers some suggestions in this guest blog.
Those of you who know anything about D.H. Lawrence will probably accept that his greatest moment of fame was almost certainly in an English court. Wednesday, 2 Nov 1960 the newspaper headline read “The Innocence of Lady Chatterley”. Penguin Books had won its case against the novel being considered unsuitable for publication and it could now be read by all including ‘wives and servants’.
But, of course, Lawrence was the writer of more than just the ‘mucky book’. Many critics, including F.R. Leavis, have described him as the greatest novelist in the English Language. So why do I see him as a man on the run, and what was he running from and what did he seek?
Katherine Mansfield, writer and friend of Lawrence, wrote in one of her letters: “The desire to travel is a great, real temptation. But does it do any good?”So, what is it that Lawrence runs away from, and what does he seek? And why is it that his search for contentment is so significant when in our own individual and specific ways we all make the same search? I believe that the answer to that question lies in the nature and character of his art. Lawrence records all aspects of his search, and he does so with a keen sense of perception and an extra-ordinary command of language and imagery.
My view is that Lawrence reacted to a number of factors, some specific to his own situation and some common features of all human existence:
He moved away from what he felt was a fragmented, dysfunctional family life at home.
He turned his back on the strict non-conformist theology that his mother tried to impose on him.
Partly for reasons of health he moved geographically to areas where he felt the climate, or the air, might be more conducive to good health. And, of course, he observed the landscape, and the people, in all these places. One sees something of his power of observation in his essay The Crucifix Acrossthe Mountainsin the way that he moves from a comment on the form of the ‘wayside crucifixions’ to an analysis of how this reflects the nature of the people in each country.
He disliked what he felt was the sinister decay caused by a ‘new’ mechanised, materialist culture that was creeping across England and Europe. In one sense he pre-dated David Attenborough. He felt men no longer lived ‘with nature’ but increasingly exploited it.
Lawrence loved the concept of man working together with the natural elements, and with his own skills, to produce items that were beautiful in that they contained part of the individual’s creative character. While his mother Lydia went some way towards poisoning Lawrence in his attitude to his father, he later saw the gift his father had for making and mending things and the love his father had for nature. Lawrence wrote a series of poems in which he suggests that ‘We are Transmitters’ and that things made by hands have intrinsic worth. Ironically, he probably would have supported the ‘Arts and Crafts’ movement of William Morris, the Omega Workshop of the Bloomsbury group or Habitat or Dartington Glass. For Lawrence it was a case of ‘Let us Be Men/ not monkeys minding machines’.
It was very much the case that Lawrence disliked the new emphasis given to the commercial profit motivated culture that he saw encroaching on the traditional values of work undertaken with dignity. Other writers had recognised this change and wrote in protest against it. Thomas Carlyle spoke of ‘mechanical dehumanisation’ and went on ‘Men are grown mechanical in head and in heart as well as in hand. They have lost faith in individual endeavour’.
Ruskin would voice the same point in his criticism of what he saw as ‘the rampant triumph of industrial profit and the consequential degradation of the craftsman’.
Lawrence was born in Eastwood, Nottinghamshire on 11 September 1885. His father Arthur had worked in the mines since he was seven. His mother Lydia had aspirations to be a teacher. She believed herself superior to her husband in terms of her ambitions. Lawrence describes this conflict in poems such as Discord in Childhood. Lydia was a snob and disliked her husband’s miners’ way of life. In their early courtship she had been captivated by his physical vitality and energy, but this quickly turned sour after their marriage in December 1875. Lawrence’s novel Sons and Lovers is very much autobiographical and at least one of his sisters acknowledged it as being a fairly accurate account of the family life at home.
Lydia’s strong non-conformist religious fervour had a profound influence on Lawrence throughout his life. His relationship with his mother left him seeking a deeper relationship with other women, but his relationship with his mother was strange, and in some ways an unhealthy one. He would admit to Jessie Chambers that he loved his mother not as a son might be expected to love his mother but more as he might love a ‘lover’. In all his relationships with women the shadow of his love for his mother hung over them. He was on the run from what we might call an ‘Oedipus’ type of relationship but I do not believe he ever truly broke that ‘bond’ even when he met, eloped and finally married Frieda Weekley. In writing about her friendship with Lawrence Helen Corke, a fellow teacher in Croydon, and the woman who became the subject (and victim) of Lawrence’s novel The Trespasser would write of how she felt Lawrence viewed their relationship:
‘I feel that his desire at the moment is toward me, and I am glad that he loves me. Yet there is no rest, no assurance in this love of David’s because there comes with it an impossible demand. A demand not merely for passion given and returned, but for the absorption of my being in his.’
Perhaps this absorption of one’s being into his was always at the root of his problems with relationships with women. It was an impossible ask especially from the strong, confident women whose company he seemed to favour. It seems to me that this search for the ‘ideal’ relationship was another example of Lawrence’s searching.
The circumstances surrounding Lawrence’s first meeting with Frieda is interesting. He first met Frieda when he went to see her husband concerning a possible opportunity to live and work in Germany for a while. The Weekleys lived in a very ‘posh’ house in a rather ‘posh’ road in a rather ‘posh’ area of Notts. Frieda was fascinated by the young Lawrence and entertained him while her husband was out on 3 March 1912. By 4 May they were together in Metz after a hasty eloping. Their early days in Metz and Trier were hectic and uncertain but both were keen to be together, though Frieda already had concerns about her three children and missed them.
The nature of their relationship could be passionate and stormy. Frieda felt needed by Lawrence but still felt able to share some physical sexual relationships with other men after their elopement, as she had done with three men while married to Ernest Weekley. Towards the end of Lawrence’s life Frieda again found herself drawn to another man, Angelo Ravagli. He certainly caught Frieda’s eye in his uniform. Andrew Harrison suggests Lawrence might have described Frieda’s need for sexual experience with other men as ‘her necessary dose of morphia in her struggle away from the old life in England’.
The intense and passionate relationship with his mother might be explained by the fact that D.H. Lawrence was from birth a sickly child. A schoolboy friend of Lawrence J.E. Hobbs described him as ‘delicate’. As he grew up his mother acknowledged that she was unlikely to see him reach manhood and in her fear of his health she over protected him. As a child he preferred the company of girls and rarely mixed in the hard physical games the other boys played. He was described as a ‘girlie boy’, weak and puny. He missed many months at school because of his illnesses.
Despite this sickly nature Lawrence was in many ways energetic—he walked across the Alps with Frieda, he walked regularly from Eastwood to Brinsley and he enjoyed helping on the farm at Haggs Farm with the Chambers family. What he lacked in physical energy he more than made up for in the range of his sensitivity and in his intellectual capacity.
As Lawrence moved into adolescence, he met a number of girls and women, but it is interesting in terms of his attitude to women in his own life, and in his fiction, how he often found relationships with the opposite sex confusing and unsatisfactory. He admired strong, intelligent women but he often could not cope with the demands of a commitment to a ‘giving’ relationship, though in some ways he did with Frieda. He ‘ditched’ Jessie Chambers because, as he told her, ‘he could not love you as I feel I should love a wife’. But he was also something of a pig because he had used her intellectually, he had persuaded her to attempt a sexual experience…which failed…and then he exposed everything they had shared as adolescents in Sons and Lovers, and he made little attempt in that text to disguise people or place names. Lawrence used some of the women that he met in his novels, and he was sometimes cruel in how he caricatured them. He could also be very insensitive in his use of material. He took the tragic events of Helen Cork’s trip to the Isle of Wight with her music teacher, his resulting suicide, her guilt, and turned it into the novel The Trespasser.
As the young Lawrence sought to establish himself in terms of making his own relationships so he also sought to work out his own theology. His mother tried hard to impose her strict non-conformist faith in the Congregation church in Eastwood – which has since been knocked down and replaced with an Iceland. He rejected this despite Lydia sending him to church and Sunday School three times each Sunday. Initially Lawrence loved the raucous tub-thumping call to God and later spoke of the old hymns and poetry of the Bible as meaning more to him than much of the secular canon of English poetry.The evidence of his own writing would suggest that Lawrence read his Bible carefully, knew parts of it off by heart and later brought a critical, discerning eye to much of the Bible teaching he had got as a young man. His play David covers the early years of King David’s life and David’s time as a fugitive from a jealous and angry King Saul.
In subtle ways Lawrence knowledge and familiarity with the Bible influenced the narrative style of his two best novels The Rainbow and Women in Love. They are almost generational narratives, a ‘he begat’ form. What Lawrence could not accept as a young man was the whole Christian emphasis on the divinity of Christ, the sacrifice of the Cross and the hope of a ‘second coming’, though in his final poems he comes back to the idea of a life (or something) after death. Lawrence seems to have felt that traditional theology, and the accepted code of social behaviour, imposed restraints. In a letter to Rev Reid he explained that he could not accept the notion of the divinity of Christ though he would always acknowledge a Creator God. He expresses something of the theology which he struggled with in the poems Only Man can fall from God, God is a great urge that has not found a body, and The Hands of God.
With early friends including Jessie Chambers and Louis Burrow, and with the support of a local council member and local J.P Willie Hopkin, Lawrence read widely from Darwin to Nietzsche. They formed something of an informal group later known as ‘The Pagans’ to discuss the books. The chapel provided Lydia and her family with a spiritual centre but it was also very much the centre of her social life…as the pubs were for her miner husband. The minister, Rev Robert Reid, was no strict evangelical. He encouraged his congregation to read widely and to respond to what they read with an intellectual curiosity. He founded the Eastwood Literary Society. As Lawrence developed his own reading so he honed his religious and political ideas but he felt frustrated by Reid’s teaching, as he later felt frustrated by what he experienced in the teaching at Nottingham University College.
To Lawrence the real energy of the universe was as much in the human body as it was concerned with the soul and hence the emphasis on the physical aspect of human relationships, the intimacy of the body as a tactile form and the significance of human sexual relationships. For Lawrence the core emotion was in the blood and was the emotion of feeling rather than a reaction to the objective thinking of the mind. It is certainly this that we see in the juxtaposition of his responses to the naked body—-he adored the brazen exhibition of Frieda’s bosom in some of his poems in Look we Have Come Through but he was repulsed by some of the promiscuous sexuality he felt existed among some in the Bloomsbury Group and, much later, in Mexico he was forthright in his criticism of the group around Mabel Dodge. He emphasised the beauty of the human body (male and female) but he could be prudish and was certainly angered by the way Frieda flouted her body, and by her promiscuity even after their marriage. One of the tragedies of Lawrence’s own life, and one which is often reflected in his novels is, I feel, the sense of the absence of the mutual satisfaction which the sexual act was supposed to create. I believe that one of the areas that Lawrence was moving away from and constantly seeking to find a fuller meaning was a fulfilling intimacy in sexual experience and in human relationships. One example of this we can see in Aaron’s Rod and in the episode of Aaron’s sexual encounter with the Marchesa: ‘Shall we be lovers?’ ‘Yes, she said….if you wish’.
It is a strange episode. Aaron can be tender, but he also feels brutality and the affair ends with an element of dissatisfaction. Aaron had originally left his wife and family because he felt trapped, but this new world of freedom also proves frustrating and empty. His friendship with Lilly serves to emphasise this sense of being unfulfilled. Lilly says: ‘What is the use of running after life, when we have got it in us, if nobody prevents us or obstructs us.’ For Lilly Europe is becoming a cage, and certainly Lawrence felt this of the European culture that he knew and had read about.
What we see of Lawrence’s uncertainties and exploration in terms of sex, sexual relations and moral behaviour we also see in terms of his descriptions of the physical environment of England, and the morality and ethos of the culture that he felt was sweeping England and northern Europe. On his last visit to his home town in 1926 he wrote ‘when I was a boy the people lived very much more with the country now they rush….they never seem to touch the reality of the countryside’.
In ‘Nottingham and the Mining Country’ he wrote: ‘The real tragedy of England as I see it, is the tragedy of ugliness. The country is so lovely, the man-made England is so vile’. Lawrence blames the moneyed classes and the promoters of industry. He cites their greed as the cause of ‘ugliness, ugliness’ which has resulted in ‘ugly ideals, ugly religion, ugly hope, ugly love’ as well as ugly relationships between workers and employers. What would he have said of 21st century Britain?
Lawrence sometimes puts the blame for this restlessness with the old rural rustic way of life on the women. The opening of The Rainbow, set on the Brangwen’s farm, sees the men content to live with and enjoy the routine fertility of the earth’s natural cycles. It is the women who look away from the church clock and want more. In his early novel The White Peacock he has George and the farmers working close to the land and with nature while Lettie (the woman that George assumed he would marry) seeks new status and worldly trappings. At the end of the novel both are broken. George is ‘downcast’ and ‘like a condemned man’, Lettie gains prosperity in the gloves and furs she seeks but loses her vitality and became a bored mother. Finally, her husband becomes immersed in his business, and politics. When George comes to see her surrounded by the trappings of her new ‘elevated status’ she reflects a sadness and melancholy. It is not the physical landscape that has caused this ugliness, the landscape may be marred by pits and smoke, but it can still be beautiful if it is not polluted by human greed.
We can see something of Lawrence’s disillusionment with the coming of more mechanisation and the cult of materialism in the story ‘The Woman Who Rode Away’. Here Lawrence draws on the landscape of Mexico and New Mexico which is beautiful and far less spoilt than the Eastwood he had left behind. But even here there is a sense that a conflict exists:
The beauty of the landscape
The vitality and energy Lawrence found in the primitive religious rituals.
The breakdown in the relationship between the woman and her husband.
The villain of the story is the husband. I believe that he epitomises everything that Lawrence despises in the creeping onset of materialism. The woman leaves to explore the world beyond her home. She is bored, she feels her husband is careless of her. He lacks humanity and denies her the passion and vitality that she feels they might have shared. He is successful, a ‘good husband’ and she has a ‘comfortable’ life. But it’s not enough. She has to ride away.
The husband shares characteristics with Clifford Chatterley in Lady C. Both are commercially successful, obsessed with the need for material success, to own things, to control people. Clifford returns from the war in a wheelchair, sexually incapable, but so concerned that his business should continue under his ownership and patronage that he is willing to let Connie take another man – a man he approves of – to produce a son and heir for him. She does take another man, but not the one he would have selected.
So, what is it that Lawrence despises when he speaks of the ugliness of new materialism? It is the emphasis on profit and on the potential power that it gives to the ‘magnates’ and the ‘captains of industry’. It is a complex concept and Lawrence seeks to explore what he holds as the ideal, the harmony of men enjoying the landscape and working with the environment and the natural order. Modern man has become ‘a mechanical being’ mired in thought, regulation, order and structure and racked with the inhibitions of social expectations and restraints.
I have called my talk ‘A Man on the Run’. In one respect Lawrence is like all of us. He is constantly seeking what is better, what might make life more pleasurable, and he is constantly moving on from what frustrates him and what he finds inadequate. He is looking for ‘the perfect’ and in that sense his search is inevitably bound to fall short.
This is an abridged version of a talk by Malcolm Gray to the Lunar Society on Wednesday 19 Jan 2022.
In January 1921, D.H. Lawrence and the ‘Q-B’ left Sicily for Sardinia. Six weeks later Lawrence penned his infamous travel book in which he puts forward a series of fanciful claims about the country he spent a total of nine days in. Lawrence is literature’s number one mard arse, raging against everyone and everything. He has made moaning an art form. The late Kevin Jackson described him as ‘the John Cleese of literary modernism’ in an essay I commissioned for Dawn of the Unread and Geoff Dyer applied what can only be described as ‘method writing’ when he imitated Lawrence’s restlessness in Out of Sheer Rage. Lawrence, however, is also incredibly perceptive, intelligent, and poetic, a writer quite like no other – though not for everyone.
Having read Sea and Sardinia numerous times, not least to mark the centenary of its publication, I created the above video which references Lawrence’s comical raging. There are eleven references to rage in the book, most of which are triggered by impudence – which gets fourteen references.
The video was created in Canva, a graphic design template programme which has a simple drag and drop interface. It uses a fremium model, and so you might want to subscribe to unlock some of the special features, but so far, I’ve managed to cobble stuff together via the basic subscription. The animations are really useful, and you can upload your own images if you can’t find what they have in their database.
In terms of identifying patterns in literary texts, this has become a lot easier with digitisation. The book is out of copyright and available online so you can copy and paste it into Word to find key words. To think that once upon a time, I used to go through a book with a highlighter pen…
In Outline, Rachel Cusk sketches the life of a divorced creative writing tutor via her conversations with students and strangers. But what happens when D.H. Lawrence is mentioned in chapter nine….
Outline is the first in Rachel Cusk’s autofictional trilogy that feature the largely hidden narrator, Faye, who meets people and then listens to them. Her seemingly innocuous interactions with strangers – who speak volubly about their own fears, fantasies and anxieties – serves to create a portrait of the narrator by contrast whereby ‘she began to see herself as a shape, an outline, with all the detail filled in around it while the shape itself remained blank’.
There are numerous reasons why Cusk has opted for a reticent narrator who ‘did not, any longer, want to persuade anyone of anything’. Not least because it allows her to write monologues – a literary device she excels in. In Outline, a novel in ten conversations, Faye is on a plane to Athens to teach a creative writing course. We find her swimming in the Ionian Sea, out to dinner, and, of course, listening to her aspiring writers discuss the inspiration behind their work. But what will interest readers of this blog is chapter nine.
The chapter opens with students asked to write a story involving animals, but not all of them complete it after spending the previous evening Lindy Hop dancing. Christos believes intellectuals have a duty to scrutinise powerful figures and intends to do this in his story whereas Maria disagrees as ‘it sometimes did more harm than good, she said, to try to force people to recognise unpleasant truths. One had to stay close to the line of things, close but separate, like a swallow swooping over the lineaments of the landscape, describing but never landing’.
Like Lawrence, Cusk’s autofiction has got her into trouble. First editions of her second memoir, The Last Supper, were pulped – at cost to Cusk – after someone threatened to sue. The case was settled out of court and the offending passage was removed. Cusk is also a bastion of ‘unpleasant truths’ – no matter what damage her observations may cause – leading her to claim, ‘society organises itself very efficiently to punish, silence or disown truth-tellers’ – sentiments Lawrence would no doubt approve of given the level of censorship he faced, though thepeople caricatured in their novels would understandably see such fiction as an abuse of trust. Not that this bothered Lawrence much: ‘away with anyone’s feelings – they won’t recognise themselves when they read it, so why worry?’
Lawrence’s biographer, John Worthen, believes that there was another reason for ‘remaking people in a new language’ and that ‘he seems to have experienced them and their needs and feelings more fully than he had previously been able to do’ once in self-imposed exile. Writing helps makes such absences present. For Cusk, who has shared details about her own marriage and motherhood, it could be a means of coping with grief and separation. In Outline, Faye tells us she has recently moved from the countryside to London with her two children.
One of the writing students in Outline, Sylvia, teaches English literature at a school in the suburbs of Athens. We learn she’s a big fan of Lawrence – as is Cusk – and sets her students an essay on Sons and Lovers, ‘the book that has inspired me more than anything else in my life’ but when she checks her emails she discovers ‘none of them had a single word to say about it’.
Sylvia, herself, is undergoing a bit of writer’s block and is unable to start the short story she’s been assigned. To find inspiration, she turns to her bookshelf and takes down a copy of short stories by Lawrence. She confides to Faye and the rest of the writing group that ‘even though he’s dead, in a way I think he is the person I love most in all the world’ and that she fantasises about being a character in one of his novels.
Things start to get more meta when she begins to read ‘The Wintery Peacock,’ an autobiographical story where Lawrence, when out on a walk, discovers a peacock trapped in the hillside and returns it to its owner, who is waiting for her husband to return from the war. But Sylvia is unable to finish the story because ‘I felt that Lawrence was going to fail to transport me out of my own life’. Whether it is the weather or the war, she is unable to pinpoint the exact reason why the story is not working for her other than ‘it had nothing to do with me, here in my modern flat in the heat of Athens’ and that she was no longer willing to be ‘the helpless passenger of his vision’.
The writing group discuss their respective animal stories until we are returned once more to the image of a peacock, when Marielle readies herself to share a traumatic story. The effect ‘was of a peacock bestirring its stiff feathers as it prepared to move the great fan of its tail’. She explains that she bought her son a puppy, but it was run over in front of him and that ‘his character was completely ruined by that experience’. Consequently, he is ‘now a cold and calculating man, concerned only with what he can get out of life’ and she has now put her trust in cats. Nobody is a helpless passenger in this visceral extract which subtly links themes from Lawrence’s story to the present – the cold, trauma and loss, returning of an animal/bird to the owner, parental anxiety.
Cusk’s latest novel, Second Place, is a more explicit nod to Lawrence as she transports aspects of his time in New Mexico with Mabel Dodge Luhan to a guesthouse on the English coast. Outline, to some extent, is a blueprint for this Booker-longlisted novel, continuing her exploration of the function of art forms and the role of the artist.
If this article interest you then you might want to join the D.H. Lawrence Society on Wednesday 9 February 2022 at 7pm to listen to Sean Matthews’s talk “Contemporary Fiction after Lawrence: Rachel Cusk, Alison MacLeod and the Lawrentian Imperative.” dhlawrencesociety.com