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
This summer I visited a couple of literary heritage sites to try and gain inspiration and ideas for the D.H. Lawrence Memory Theatre. This article was published this month in the Journal of D.H. Lawrence Studies.
This summer I’ve been on various literary pilgrimages. My first stop was Rochester which is very much a shrine to Charles Dickens in the same way that Eastwood is to Lawrence. Various landmarks have featured in his novels, enabling shops to allude to the Victorian scribe through punning names that vary in nuance. My favourite was the confectionary ‘Sweet Expectations’. There is always the danger of turning a town into a literary theme park. Getting the balance right is tricky. But the most important literary artefact in Rochester is Dickens’s Swiss chalet, where he penned five of his novels. Unfortunately, it’s a rotting carcass in desperate need of restoration.
Next up was Margate to find the shelter where T. S. Eliot penned part of The Waste Land (1922). He was suffering from a nervous breakdown at the time, and I suspect Thanet council were trying to replicate this condition in tourists by making it impossible to find. I took the lack of information and contempt for iconic modernist locations as a challenge and was rewarded when I spotted a blue plaque on the side of an adjacent toilet – rather than the actual shelter!
I sat down and slurped on a Mr. Whippy, wondering what Geoff Dyer would have to say about such things, remembering his apathy on finally finding Lawrence’s home in Florence:
We stood silently. I knew this moment well from previous literary pilgrimages: you look and look and try to summon up feelings which don’t exist … You say, ‘I am standing in the place he stood, seeing the things he saw . . .’, but nothing changes, everything remains exactly the same.
I specialise in digital literary heritage projects and have been contemplating how best to drag Lawrence kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century. What’s more, how do you represent someone as complex and contradictory as Lawrence given that his reputation and influence waxes and wanes each decade? It’s worth taking a brief potted history of the problem of defining him to understand the approach I’ve decided to take.
When F. R Leavis declared D. H. Lawrence “novelist” in 1955 his intention was to restore Lawrence back to the Canon. Kate Millet wasn’t convinced, accusing Lawrence of misogyny and sexism. Her three main criticisms were of his heroines and villainesses who had congenital and submissive personalities, the domineering and bullying male counterparts, exemplified by the phallocentric Mellors, Birkin and Paul Morel, and, lastly, a condemnation of Lawrence’s message.
“I shall always be a priest of love” wrote Lawrence on Christmas Day, 1912, after completing an early draft of Sons and Lovers (1L 493). Harry. T. Moore agreed and republished his 1955 book The Intelligent Heart as The Priest of Love (1974) in recognition of Lawrence’s sensual message, taking a distinctly different view to Millet.
In the latest biography, Frances Wilson presents three versions of Lawrence via Dante’s Inferno. Focusing “on the decade of superhuman energy and productivity between 1915 when The Rainbow was prosecuted, and 1925 when he was diagnosed with tuberculosis”, she identifies these as Inferno (England) Purgatory (Italy) and Paradise (American Southwest), explaining that “Lawrence, who was a different man in every place, was never in the same place for more than a few months”. Rather than viewing him as a “novelist”, like Leavis, Wilson credits him for his autofiction and his lesser-known work, such as his introduction to Maurice Magnus’s Memoirs of the Foreign Legion (1924). “His subject in the Memoir is, among other things, conflict, and Lawrence’s response to Magnus was, as ever, conflicted” writes Wilson. “He liked Magnus, he hated Magnus, he was attracted to Magnus, he was repelled by Magnus…”.
So, there are multiple versions of Lawrence, literary critics can only agree to disagree on his value, and within his own writing, Lawrence is full of contradictions. Pinning him down, then, is a difficult, perhaps impossible task, and may explain why Aldous Huxley observed it’s “remarkable how everyone who knew Lawrence felt compelled to write about him? Why, he’s had more books written about him than any writer since Byron”. Huxley himself was a willing testifier to Lawrence’s magnetism, writing:
To be with Lawrence was a kind of adventure, a voyage of discovery into newness and otherness … He looked at things with the eyes … of a man who had been at the brink of death and to whom, as he emerges from the darkness, the world reveals itself as unfathomably beautiful and mysterious. For Lawrence, existence was one continuous convalescence; it was as though he were newly reborn from a mortal illness every day of his life.
Clearly Lawrence means many things to many people and, as culture does not exist in a vacuum, these meanings will continue to grow, transform and change as the world around us changes, which is why a literary heritage project attempting to explain his influence needs to be reflexive and fluid.
This is partly the reason why Paul Fillingham and I decided to celebrate Lawrence through a travelling “memory theatre” or a “cabinet of curiosities”. Cabinets of curiosities (also known as Kunstkabinett, Wunderkammer; Cabinets of Wonder, and wonder-rooms) allowed collectors to accumulate objects and then define and classify them. One such collector was John Tradescant whose broad assortment of oddities provided a microcosm of the world. It was aptly named the Ark (1634). When he opened up his home to the public, Britain’s first public museum was born.
In the D. H. Lawrence Memory Theatre we are piecing Lawrence’s life together through artefacts rather than oddities. We want to do this via themes rather than chronologically. We have an open submissions policy whereby anyone can submit ideas. Our hope is that we will then be able to develop a broad and diverse appraisal of his work that captures the good, the bad and the ugly – those wonderful contradictions that Frances Wilson notes. Whereas memory theatres of the 15th to 17th century were very much about reinforcing the social capital of the owner, ours is more open and about creating a space for different writers to provide their own definitions and categories.
For example, our first artefact is ‘Mr. Muscles’ because Lawrence “loved to do the jobs you hate” and was always prepared to get his hands dirty. As Mabel Dodge Luhan observed in her memoir:
I don’t believe I ever saw Lawrence just sit. He was forever doing something … He always did the baking, and at least half of the cooking and dish washing … Lawrence really had very little sense of leisure.
Knud Merrild, who would later join Lawrence for one winter up in the mountains of New Mexico, observed that Lawrence’s work ethic was born out of connecting to his immediate environment. He recalls Lawrence warning that “The more machinery intervenes between us and the naked forces, the more we numb and atrophy our own senses. Every time we turn on a tap to have water, every time we turn a handle to have fire or light, we deny ourselves and annul our being”. Being busy is about being alive, sentiments which are understandable in a man for whom death was always lurking around the corner.
Frieda Lawrence explains this work ethic through a more spiritual connection. “To me his relationship, his bond with everything in creation was so amazing, no preconceived ideas, just a meeting between him and a creature, a tree, a cloud, anything. I called it love, but it was something else – Bejahung in German, ‘saying yes’”.
Currently, the memory theatre lives a digital existence and is dispersed across the social media platforms Twitter, YouTube and Instagram as well as having presence through a project website and blog. This is partly a result of Covid-19 but also in recognition of the way in which are reading habits are changing. If Lawrence is to engage with modern audiences then our project needs to be accessible across different platforms as well as in different formats and lengths. But it has always been our intention to build a physical memory theatre, inspired by Lawrence’s personalised travel trunk (that can be viewed at the Birthplace Museum), and set it on route to retrace Lawrence’s steps.
Lawrence was a notorious fidget who Dyer describes as “nomadic to the point of frenzy”. Catherine Carswell observed he “disliked an air of everlastingness about a home. For him it must have something of the tent about it”. Therefore, he never owned property. Or a tent. Earl Brewster witnessed this restlessness in Ceylon when Lawrence became infuriated by Buddha statues, complaining “Oh I wish he would stand up!”. It’s for these reasons that I’m so against statues of Lawrence. To see him rendered static in bronze is antithetical to his nature. If we truly want to capture the essence of his personality, the fluidity with which he lived, then the form must reflect the content and so our memory theatre will retrace his “savage pilgrimage” rather than gather dust.
Lawrence meant different things to different people at different times. He was in a constant state of flux. He produced work in each place he lived, and this seems to have been the trigger to propel him onto the next destination. It is important to try to capture these sentiments in a literary heritage project and so it is not good enough to simply fill our memory theatre with artefacts. Like Lawrence, these need to grow in provenance as they move along and transform in meaning as they encounter different people.
An example of how this will work is through audience interaction with the memory theatre. For example, one of our forthcoming artefacts is a book of pressed flowers to represent Lawrence’s connection with nature. This is based on a letter he sent to Catherine Carswell who recorded it in her memoir:
With my box of Derbyshire flowers there was a small floral guide, written by Lawrence, describing each plant and making me see how they had been before he picked them for me, in what sorts of places and manner and profusion they had grown, and even how they varied in the different countrysides.
We will collect flowers from Eastwood with a local naturalist and place them in a book. When the memory theatre arrives at each new location around the globe, we will commission locals to collect flowers and add them to our book so that it continues to change and transform as it moves.
And movement is the most important factor when celebrating Lawrence. He opens Sea and Sardinia (1921) with “COMES over one an absolute necessity to move. And what is more, to move in some particular direction”. We hope that our project helps propel him into the 21st century and provoke more questions, arguments and uncertainties.
Bernard Malamud (April 26, 1914 – March 18, 1986) was an American Jewish author who published eight novels and four collections of short stories. His writing often explores the immigrant experience – his parents fled Tsarist Russia. In 1967 he won the Pulitzer Prize for The Fixer. But it is Dubin’s Lives, his seventh novel, that will interest readers of this blog. Started in February 1973, it was completed by August 1978. Early extracts appeared in The New Yorker and Playboy.
56-year-old William Dubin is a prize-winning biographer who lives in upstate New York with his wife Kitty. He is obsessive and meticulous with each of his biographical subjects as biography offers him a way of experiencing situations denied him by his own life. ‘One writes lives he can’t live’ he explains, ‘to live forever is a human hunger.’ Through a biography of Thoreau, he has experienced the joy of nature. The later years of Mark Twain offer a ‘schmalzy misery’. While writing Short Lives he learns ‘how intensely and creatively life can be lived’ even when that life is cut short. His latest topic is D.H. Lawrence, specifically, ‘The Passion of D.H. Lawrence’. This is unfinished, suggesting he still has much to learn…
The opening epigraphs to the book give us a clue as to what his latest subject will teach him. The first is from Thoreau and warns, ‘What demon possessed me that I behaved so well?’ The second, ‘Give me continence and chastity, but not yet’ is from Augustine. This sets the tone for the various moral dilemmas Dubin will face during his research of Lawrence, ‘a complex type with tormented inner life’.
Early on we see Dubin observing his wife in the garden. He is taken by her free-spiritedness, dancing around the garden. Then she bursts into the house and asks why he hasn’t helped her; a bee has made its way into her blouse! After helping her undress, the bee escapes and then stings him. It’s a wonderful scene, not just in terms of the comedy, but the subtle nod to Lawrence who nicknamed his wife Frieda, the Queen Bee.
While researching Lawrence, Dubin encounters a pretty drop-out, the aptly named Fanny. They embark on an affair that sees them travel to Venice, but it is not the romantic interlude Dubin had envisaged and soon Fanny is enamoured with a singing gondolier. She feels let down by Dubin, confessing, ‘I wanted somebody other than a shrink to advise me about my life’.
There are parallels here with the Lawrence’s. Frieda was notoriously liberal and had numerous affairs during their marriage; they eloped abroad during the early stages of their affair and Italy would become a future home. Lawrence explored sensual connections with the world through his notion of blood consciousness, though this was not a manifesto for promiscuity. Indeed, marriage was a sacred connection for Lawrence:
“When I take a woman, then the blood-percept is supreme, my blood-knowing is overwhelming. There is a transmission, I don’t know of what, between her blood and mine, in the act of connection. So that afterwards, even if she goes away, the blood-consciousness persists between us, when the mental consciousness is suspended; and I am formed by my blood-consciousness, not by my mind or nerves at all.” (2L 470)
Dubin is aware of this and later explains to a barman – who has no choice but to listen to his drunk customer – that ‘sex to (Lawrence), you understand, despite his ideology of blood-being, was a metaphor for a flowing life’.
Various themes from Lawrence’s life and works are cleverly woven into the story. Lawrence suffered from impotency towards the end of his life and when Dubin experiences this condition he wonders ‘if lying, or the habit of lying, could make a man impotent’. Whereas Lawrence refused to accept he was ever ill, Kitty is constantly convinced she has cancer. Nature is also ever present. Whereas Lawrence’s knowledge of flora and fauna was encyclopaedic, ‘Dubin, after a decade and a half in Center Campobello, could recognise and name about twenty trees, a half dozen bushes, fifteen wild flowers, a handful of birds’.
Lawrence travelled the globe in search of Rananim and never lived anywhere for more than two years. Dubin does his travelling via the page. So, what kind of impact has this choice of living had upon his perception of reality?
Kitty’s psychotherapist suggests Dubin’s research into Lawrence might be doing him in. ‘I’m no literary critic’ he declares ‘but I could never figure out why a man of your disposition and temperament would want to get so many years of his life involved with a tormented semi-narcissistic figure like D.H. Lawrence’. But there is also a hidden compliment here in that ‘what a ball-breaking strain it must be to have to identify with someone whose nature is so radically different from yours’.
Bookseller Rick Gekoski makes a similar observation in Tolkien’s Gown when he warns against meeting collectors of T.E. Lawrence and Winston Churchill as ‘their sense of self is fuelled by their association with a hero through whom they feel enlarged’. In Jungian terms this is known as ‘psychic inflation’.
Dubin is not after psychic inflation. Studying authors helps him view life from a different perspective, to see the good and bad in people. Lawrence may have been ‘engorged with the rage of a failed prophet’ but ‘I can’t say I’m much upset by his hatred of capitalism and outraged sense of the perversions of human life by technology’. In the end, ‘he lived in a vast consciousness of life’ and this is what attracts Dubin to biography, ‘you want to write about people who will make you strain to understand them’.
Halperin, Irving. The Theme of Responsibility in Bernard Malamud’s ‘The Mourners’. Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought 36 (Fall), 1987. 460–465
Smith, Janna Malamud. My Father Is a Book: A Memoir of Bernard Malamud. (2006)
Davis, Philip. Bernard Malamud: A Writer’s Life. (2007)
A recent online exhibition celebrating the telephone in literature saw references from Mark Twain to Christopher Isherwoodsuggested by the public. We submitted a letter from Lawrence in 1928 concerning his fears over the publication of Lady Chatterley.
‘Hallo, hallo, hallo… I’m afraid not, we have a crossed line, please hang up… Hallo… You have a wrong number… Oh! Hallo…’ – Jean Cocteau, The Human Voice (1930)
‘From the receiver’s ‘black mouth’ in Virginia Woolf’s The Waves (1931) to the ‘five hundred-quid worry bead’ in Will Self’s Phone (2017), telephones repeatedly ring, buzz and ping in modern and contemporary literature’ writes Sarah Jackson, in her introduction to Crossed Lines, which explores the ways that the telephone has been conceived by writers from the 19th century onwards. The exhibition was launched in November 2020 when the telephone took on added importance as one of the main ways of communicating while the government enforced a national lockdown.
Crossed Lines explores the positive and negative possibilities of the telephone within contemporary cultures and communities. Engaging writers, artists, musicians, scientists and members of the public, it incorporates a number of innovative activities including a mobile app, a sound installation in Nottingham, a nationwide student poetry competition, writing workshops and events at the Science Museum in London.
My favourite event was Calling Across Borders, a series of voicemail poems exploring community, loss, resilience, and hope. For this, young refugees left messages for friends and family they would most like to speak to again which was then turned into a short animation which you can watch by clicking this link. This had particular resonance for me as I’ve spent the last two years interviewing Syrian refuges for Whatever People Say I Am and witnessed how What’s App has become integral to families trying to stay connected, functioning as a virtual home.
Crossed Lines explores the implications of telephony from a range of global contexts, considering how literary telecommunications can help us to find new ways of talking and listening across cultures. The exhibition features eighty works spread over 130 years with submissions selected from an open callout.
The earliest example submitted is the aptly named The Telephone (1877) by the American transcendentalist poet Jones Very who can see the utopian possibilities of this new form of global communication: ‘Beneath the ocean soon man’s voice may reach/And a new power be given to human speech’. Less than a year before, Alexander Graham Bell had been awarded his patent. More recent uses include the humorous ‘fellytone’ reference in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (1999) to the more ominous fear of the phone as a surveillance device in Anna Burn’s Booker-winning Milkman (2018)- ‘phones weren’t trusted; indeed we only had one because it had been in the house when we moved in’.
Telephony as a form of surveillance was something Sarah Jackson uncovered at the BT Archives where she discovered two letters from Sylvia Pankhurst that revealed her concerns over ‘duplicate telephone lines’ – wiretapping – 70 years before the Government disclosed her secret surveillance by MI5 to the public.
One of my favourite entries is from Ulysses (1922) where Kinch (Stephen Dedalus) imagines the umbilicus as a telephone cord.
‘The cords of all link back, strandentwining cable of all flesh. That is why mystic monks. Will you be as gods? Gaze in your omphalos. Hello! Kinch here. Put me on to Edenville. Aleph, alpha: nought, nought, one.’
One of the most poignant entries is the poem ‘Last Letter’ (2010) by Ted Hughes which was discovered in Hughes’s archives, twelve years after his death and includes the last lines of Hughes’s final ‘letter’ to Sylvia Plath.
I wasn’t expecting to find any kind of references to telephony in Lawrence’s writing because he was such a prolific letter writer. I just couldn’t imagine him embracing something so immediate, modern and vulgar as a telephone. But to my surprise, his letters revealed otherwise. I submitted the below entry which you can also read online. The submission format involved the relevant quote and then some brief context.
‘My dear Enid
Now I’m in more trouble. A beastly firm of book-exporters ordered eighty copies of Lady Chatterley’s Lover—now it turns out that they have a Wesleyan connection—they’ve read the book—and cancelled the order hastily—after Orioli has already posted to them seventy-two copies from Florence. Now unless we’re quick they’ll send the things back to Florence—may even refuse to accept them.—But I warn you, the book is shocking—though, course, perfectly honest and decent.
[…] If you feel like risking it, telephone the Jackson people and ask them if they have copies ready for you to fetch away: say Mr. D. H. Lawrence has asked me—[…] their telephone is Holborn 5824.’
This letter from D.H. Lawrence to Enid Hilton was sent on 29 July 1928 from Kesselmatter, Gstreig b. Gstaad (Bern) Switzerland. Lawrence would be dead a few years later and Lady Chatterley would be banned until 1960. Lawrence was sceptical of technology, particularly that which placed an artificial barrier between people, but here desperation overrides these sentiments. He is almost daring Enid Hilton to call William Jackson Books Ltd, but only if she follows his explicit instructions. Lawrence experienced censorship throughout his short life. This had financial and aesthetic repercussions. Therefore, the telephone has real significance. It represents immediacy, and an opportunity to salvage copies of his novel.
Over 20 essays, Rick Gekoski provides potted histories and interesting anecdotes of the great authors and rare books he’s encountered during his time as a bookseller. The focus of this blog is on his acquisition of Sons and Lovers, the ‘jewel in the crown’ of his personal Lawrence collection.
‘Collectors are an odd lot, both obsessional and compulsive, secretive and relentless’ writes bookseller Rick Gekoski, but be wary of those who collect T.E. Lawrence and Winston Churchill as ‘their sense of self is fuelled by their association with a hero through whom they feel enlarged’. In Jungian terms this is known as ‘psychic inflation’.
So, what kind of person collects D.H. Lawrence? Well, I’ve certainly met one or two with a messiah complex during my time at the D.H. Lawrence Society and belligerence seems to be a recurring trait too. But these aren’t traits I’d associate with Rick Gekoski, author of Tolkien’s Gown.
The book opens with a scathing attack on Dennis Wheatley, ‘thriller writer, Satanist, erotomane, and bore’. But he also has a first edition of Sons and Lovers in a dust wrapper. ‘One of the striking oddities of the trade in modern books’ he explains is ‘that the dustwrapper of the book is worth ten times – sometimes much more – than the book itself. Books without their wrappers are regarded as incomplete, which seems a little silly, as if they were Chippendale chairs, without legs.’
Lawrence would certainly frown at the commodification of his work. In the essay ‘Pictures on the Wall’ he argues that having the same picture hung on the wall for years produces a ‘staleness in the home’ which ‘is stifling and oppressive to the spirit’. As we change our taste in art changes. Just because something costs a lot of money doesn’t make it irreplaceable. Similar sentiments apply to books. In the 18th century books were expensive and became a form of property that overwhelmed ‘any sense of literary delight’. It was libraries that transformed our relationship with books as they ceased ‘to be looked on as lumps of real estate, and came to be regarded as something belonging to the mind and consciousness, a spiritual instead of a gross material property’.
Gekoski is clearly not in the trade just for ‘gross material property’, though money does help. Books are an integral part of his life, and like children who eventually leave home, he misses them when they move on. Therefore, he provides a sketch of each book he purchases, as well as providing context, analysis and nuggets of literary history.
The dust wrapper on his newly acquired purchase includes a brief notice which is believed to be by Lawrence and states:
‘Mr. D.H. Lawrence’s new novel covers a wide field: life in a colliery, on a farm, in a manufacturing centre. It is concerned with the contrasted outlook of two generations. The title, Sons and Lovers, indicates the conflicting claims of a young man’s mother and sweetheart for predominance’
Gekoski explains that Sons and Lovers is one of the earliest to ‘use psychoanalysis as an organizing principle’ as well as one of the first working class novels written by someone from the inside. In it, Lawrence plays out his inner conflict of being torn between the ‘fierce ambition’ of his mother and his first love, Jessie Chambers – who had helped his revive some of the text. The mother’s perspective would win out, much to Jessie’s disappointment. The betrayal was too much, and their friendship soured.
The unfinished novel accompanied Lawrence when he eloped with Frieda von Richthofen in 1912. He wrote to Edward Garnett with great enthusiasm, explaining that Paul Morel – it’s working title then – ‘has got form…It’s a great novel.’
Edward Garnett was also a novelist, but ‘a better editor than he was a writer’ and warned that Heinemann was nervous of publication as ‘the tyranny of libraries is such that a book far less outspoken would certainly be damned’. Lawrence’s responded with his infamous ‘Jelly-Boned Swines’ letter, of which an extract features in the video below. Lawrence’s rage, observes Gekoski, ‘makes Conrad’s Mr Kurtz seem a liberal spirit, doesn’t it?’
Frieda helped Lawrence rewrite some of the passages, something that has been raised more recently in Annabel Abbs’ Frieda and Frances Wilson’s experimental biography The Burning Man. This was an unwanted emotional burden for Frieda who complained, ‘I had to go deeply into the character of Miriam and all the others; and when he wrote his mother’s death he was ill with grief and his grief made me ill too’.
Garnet trimmed the novel down by around 10% and Lawrence complimented him on his pruning, writing, ‘I hope you’ll live a long time, and barber up my novels for me before they’re published.’
Gekoski observes that ‘the finished book is a mélange of the perfectly realized and the inappropriately generalized, like so much of Lawrence’s fiction. Lawrence is never better than when he has his eye firmly fixed on an object. But when he lifts his head to consider, and to generalize, the prose is unrelentingly dead, and false’.
Perhaps Lawrence could have done with 20% of pruning…
Another Lawrence who needed editing was T.E. Lawrence. Garnett offered to abridge his Seven Pillars of Wisdom, a book of such verbosity that E.M. Forster politely concluded it ‘imparts not colour but gumminess’. Verbosity was also a deterrent to some publishers due to the time it would take a typesetter to lay out a book. Author Virginia Woolf, a semi-professional printer who ran the Hogarth Press with her husband Leonard, would have rejected publishing Ulysses not because of the content of the final chapter, but because she ‘estimated that it would have taken a professional typesetter two years just to set it’.
Editing out ‘gumminess’ is a vital part of publishing and entails many unsung heroes who have helped books become masterpieces. ‘Would Lord of the Flies have been so successful’ argues Gekoski ‘if editor Charles Monteith had not cut the first 12 pages describing a nuclear war and insisted deposited the boys directly on the island or the story?’
Sons and Lovers was published in 1913 by Duckworth. For Lawrence, ‘a novel was done when it went to the publishers’. But it was Garnett who requested Lawrence design the dust wrapper. These utilitarian objects were usually disposed of by bookshops on purchase and why dust wrappers before 1919 are so rare. Gekoski explains that Lawrence refused on the ground that it was difficult to illustrate a coalmine when he was living on a lakeside in Italy ‘with no coal mines within miles and miles’. Hence the typographic wrapper with Lawrence’s blurb on the front cover.
In ‘The Bad Side of Books’ Lawrence writes, ‘Books to me are incorporate things, voices in the air…What do I care for first or last editions? I have never reread one of my own published works. To me, no book has a date, no work has a binding’. In a later introduction to a bibliography of his work he wrote ‘A book that is a book flowers once, and seeds, and is gone. First editions or forty-first are only the husks of it.’
Gesoki confesses he is a man who loves the husks and laments selling his copy of Sons and Lovers in his first catalogue in 1982 for £1,850.
Rick Gekoski. 2004. Tolkien’s Gown and Other Great Stories of Great Authors and Rare Books. Constable. Hachette
I first read Lawrence’s debut novel The White Peacock (1911) about five years ago. I remember being struck by the vivid descriptions of landscape and what felt like a reference to a flower, plant or tree on every page. Flowers will feature in some capacity as an artefact in the Memory Theatre and so I recently reread the book, but this time with a highlighter. As Cyril Beardsall drags you across the fields of Nethermere, you’re presented with a sensory overload that at times felt like it may induce hay fever. Here’s one such example:
“The evening scents began to awake, and wander unseen through the still air. An occasional yellow sunbeam would slant through the thick roof of leaves and cling passionately to the orange clusters of mountain-ash berries. The trees were silent, drawing together to sleep. Only a few pink orchids stood palely by the path, looking wistfully out at the ranks of red-purple bugle, whose last flowers, glowing from the top of the bronze column, yearned darkly for the sun.”
My intention is to create a YouTube video to capture the breadth of such references but given that there are so many, they need to be categorised and ordered first. This is going to take a while and so it’s another project on the backburner. In the meantime, I came across this description of September in the novel which was begging to be made into a short video:
“I was born in September, and love it best of all the months. There is no heat, no hurry, no thirst and weariness in corn harvest as there is in the hay. If the season is late, as is usual with us, then mid-September sees the corn still standing in stook. The mornings come slowly. The earth is like a woman married and fading; she does not leap up with a laugh for the first fresh kiss of dawn, but slowly, quietly, unexpectantly lies watching the waking of each new day. The blue mist, like memory in the eyes of a neglected wife, never goes from the wooded hill, and only at noon creeps from the near hedges.”
John McCarthy, who previously created our Suez Canal video, was up for making another and so eagerly got to work on it, spending a day in a forest to capture the necessary shots. My brief was to create slow lingering shots so that Lawrence’s evocative descriptions took precedence; to not be on the nail when matching images to text but rather to capture the mood and feeling of the season. I find myself swaying as I type this. Once more he’s done a smashing job.
Lawrence was born on 11 September 1885 and each September sees a variety of events hosted as part of the D.H. Lawrence Festival – of which I am a council member. This year this includes a Lawrence/Leavis Day of talks followed by a birthday lecture by Keith Cushman entitled: ‘Affirmation and Anxiety in Lady Chatterley’s Lover’. As with any work you produce, being time specific is one way of generating interest.
The quote also means a lot to me because of the references to ‘the corn still standing in stook’. I grew up in a mining village south east of Nottingham and our street backed right out onto corn fields. My childhood was spent getting scratches from corn and dodging Combine Harvesters whereas my fiancé would help her father erect stooks when he worked seasonally as a farm labourer.
One of our favourite activities in summer is to laze about in fields listening to birdsong and watching the farmers cut the hay when they know there’s a few days of sunshine and it can be safely left out to dry. On such occasions we’ve witnessed an owl meandering low through the fields on the hunt for field mice and counted the vast array of plants and flowers growing in the hedgerow. All of which helps transport us momentarily from the 24/7 thrust of technocratic culture into a simpler and calmer world where it’s ok to pause and observe. And because of Lawrence, I now want to know the name of every plant and flower I’m looking at. This is what good literature does. It broadens your horizons, it makes you restless and inquisitive, it helps you see the world in a different light.
If you want to know why you shouldn’t mess about with Combine Harvesters read Joe Speedboat by Tommy Wieringa
Rick Gekoski’s Guarded by Dragons: Encounters with Rare Books and Rare Peopleis an illuminating insight into his fifty years of experience buying and selling rare books.The opening chapter reveals how D.H. Lawrence kickstarted his habit…
Rick Gekoski published his first novel, Darke, at the age of 72. But he is perhaps best known for his half a century selling rare books. As the title of his memoir suggests, the treasure he seeks is scarce, carefully buried, and ferociously guarded. But is he himself a dragon, guarding rare books he’s accumulated, or a heroic slayer? It would seem the latter, because once you’ve got the treasure, you want to trade it in for more. His is a life very much focused on the journey rather than the destination.
A rare book dealer requires two basic skills: to know when a book is buyable and when to sell it for a higher price. The best way to accumulate this knowledge is to serve an apprenticeship in a bookshop. He didn’t. He entered the rare book world as an academic and a collector. Thus, he becomes frustrated at conferences when young collectors demand he pass down trade secrets. But there is no elixir. Knowledge can’t be passed down. All you can do is go slay your own dragons and see what happens.
This ethos of experience shapes his memoir. Over thirteen chapters we see him play ping pong with Salmon Rushdie, upset a Poet Laureate, and get dragged through the law courts on more than one occasion. But our interest at The Digital Pilgrimage is the opening chapter ‘On Sabbatical with D.H. Lawrence’.
It’s late 1974 and the Gekoski’s and their newborn baby are on a first-class plane to New York to see his ferocious mother who is dying of cancer. He’s taken a much-needed sabbatical and ‘wangled’ a contract with Methuen for a critical book on Lawrence. The problem is, he doesn’t have the energy for sustained academic research. What he enjoys more is collecting the first editions he’s been accumulating for the research he has no intention of finishing. It’s all very Dyeresque – something he alludes to.
Research, however, provides him with the excuse to leave his pickle-eating baby with his wife while he visits a secondhand bookseller called William Hauser. ‘Bill’ is nearing retirement and flogging off his books at bargain prices. He visits him five times and the books get cheaper on each visit. We learn that price is not just determined by the value of the object, there are other variables at play. He pays £41 for 12 books and sells most of them, over the coming years, for £333. This would make him a dealer. But as he invests this in more acquisitions, he is also a collector. The fact that he has the books shipped over to Blighty – so that his wife doesn’t find out what he’s been up to – suggests he is either a shrewd businessman or a bit deceitful.
In 1975 books were cheap but hard to find. For example, unable to procure his own copy of Warren Roberts’ Bibliography of D.H. Lawrence, he photocopies it from his university library and then annotates it with his acquisitions – who he bought from, who he sold on to. He explains that ‘unlike work on the putative critical book, which was glacially slow and unenthusiastic over these years, my collecting was focused, passionate and highly organized.’
He becomes obsessed with Lawrence, detailing all his books sold at auction. Later, he convinces his bank manager to allow his to go further into the red so that he can acquire a collection of Lawrence books from an antiques dealer in Wales that include some rarities, such as signed first editions of Lady Chatterley. The dealer insists on being paid in cash.
Allow me a quick digression. During lockdown, I went a year and a half without drawing out cash. Everything went on my card. Then I went to Yorkshire to visit some relatives. First a pizza take-away in Pateley Bridge refused to accept card and pointed to ‘machine across the road, mate’. Then the following evening, a Thai takeaway would only deliver if we had £42.32 in cash. As a sweetener, they threw in two free bottles of Singha beer and would deliver in 25 minutes.
Back to the dodgy dealer.
The dealer gives firm instructions to meet him at a train station at 12. He hangs up before checking if this is convenient. ‘He knew I was keen’ explains Gekoski ‘and may well have known that university lecturers have a lot of free time’. Of course, he can’t resist. But takes a friend along with him just in case. The meeting is fraught with danger, but it’s worth it as the dealer’s collection includes some proper treasure, such as Bay – A Book of Poems, published by The Beaumont Press in 1921 and sold in three issues: 500 copies, 50 signed copies, 25 signed copies bound in vellum.
It’s at this point, after he’s been bundled into the back of a car, that he confesses that writers, collectors, raconteurs make ‘our stories smoother, funnier, more revealing’ because it makes for a better story. He is guilty of ‘unconsciously constructing a faux narrative in which I braved dragons, confronted a dragon, returned safely from the hunt with my treasure: a hero, of a modest sort’.
Gekoski may be an unreliable narrator but he’s certainly a compelling one. I only intended to read the opening chapter to get my Lawrence fix but ended up devouring the entire book in one sitting. In doing this I’ve gone on to discover that John Fowles was anti-Semitic and that John Updike had to explain what a blowjob was to Victor Gollancz. All of which, to use an Alan Sillitoe quote, is ‘cheap gossip for retail later’. Wonderful stuff.
This book was kindly leant to me by David Belbin, Chair of Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature. David is also a writer and a collector of first edition books.
Guarded by Dragons is available in HB for £18.99 from Constable at hachette.co.uk
D.H. Lawrence was more than a prolific writer. He was also fiercely obsessive over every aspect of the publication process as correspondence with Jan Juta and others testifies during the publication of Sea and Sardinia in 1921.
Born in Cape Town, Jan Carel Juta (1897 – 1990) was a South African painter who illustrated Lawrence’s travel book Sea and Sardinia which celebrates its centenary this year. He also specialised as a muralist, designing work in fresco, glass, metal and wood. His commissions varied from book illustrations, such as those produced for his sister Rene’s travel books Concerning Corsica and Cannes and the Hills to murals created for the Cunard liners RMS Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth. He also authored the short story collection Look out for the Ostriches, and the memoirs Background in Sunshine and Tilting with the Stars.
Son of Sir Henry Juta, Judge President of the Union of South Africa, Juta was a former student of the Slade School of Art, London who met Lawrence in 1920 when studying at the British School in Rome where he would go on to produce the oil painting of Lawrence that currently hangs in the National Gallery. He was also a keen traveller himself, with his art taking him to France, Italy and South Africa before he settled in New Jersey, America.
Juta would take on a series of prestigious roles during his career including president emeritus of the National Society of Mural Painters, America and chief of visual information at the United Nations Department of Public Information. He also found time to be a lay preacher and reader for Episcopal churches. He covered a lot during his 95 years of life, but it is the 24-year-old Juta that is of interest here as his correspondence with Lawrence reveals a lot about Lawrence’s guardianship of his work.
After sending Juta a copy of Sea and Sardinia and discovering that he liked it, Lawrence wrote to him on 7 June 1921 expressing his desire to see his portraits of Sardinian life with the intention of including them in his travel book. Although he warned that London publishers were ‘jumping for fright at the thought of colour expense!’ it is clear that Lawrence had every intention of ensuring they were included and what follows is a remarkable series of letters to various people to make that happen.
Firstly, Lawrence wrote to Curtis Brown – his new UK agent – stating he did not want Thomas Secker to publish the book because ‘it would fall dead flat’ and was keen to stress it was ‘an exact and real travel book: no stunt’ and, perceptive as ever, that ‘time will come when people will want such: when they’re sick of stunts and showing off’. Lawrence goes on to recommend publishers who will make it a colour book ‘and not funk it’. Such was his willingness to have a professionally produced book he was willing to take a ‘very small royalty if cost of production is so alarming to the poor souls’.
By the 12 June Lawrence was more buoyant towards Secker – he had just received the remaining advance for Women in Love from him – and began pleading the case for Sea and Sardinia and Juta’s illustrations. Like a naughty child offsetting the affection of duelling parents, he warns ‘for the Lord’s Sake, don’t let Curtis Brown imagine I write you any business. It is high treason in his eyes’.
Lawrence wrote to Juta on the 23 June informing him the pictures had arrived and that he liked them ‘very much’ and that Frieda was ‘enraptured’. Why he was not ‘enraptured’ is anyone’s guess, but either way the message of approval was delivered.
His next task was to contact the printer Max Schreiber about costs. Frugal as ever, he suggests ‘smuggling’ them out the country to avoid import duty. This is all very fitting as Sea and Sardinia, among other things, is very much about the cost of living and reads in places like a balance sheet. This is understandable given Lawrence lived large bouts of his life in poverty. Writing was not just about sharing his thoughts; it was the thing that put bread and butter on the plate. Hence his prolific output. It’s no surprise, then, that he wanted to be involved in the production of the book and not leave anything to chance. This is evident in his letter to Juta the following day when he begins to consider different formats and costs for the book: ‘12/6 for book and folio together, and book 7/6, pictures 7/6 apart’.
He was also unhappy with the titles used under the pictures such as ‘Path of the Righteous’ and instead preferred to be ‘exact and local’ and ‘real’ suggesting alternatives such as ‘Sunday Morning’ or ‘Church-Goers’. The final titles were even more pared back, consisting of place names: Orosei, Isili, Tonara, Sorgono, Fonni, Gavoi, Nuoro, Terranova.
Lawrence’s letter to Juta on the 29 June reads like a printing brochure, with precise detail of costs, exchange rates, sizes, plate engravings, and his determination to ’force the hands of the publishers’ and not ‘let them off’. He then relays similar details to Curtis Brown on 2 July, adding that the prints could also be used in a magazine spread. On 30 July he suggests to Seltzer that Schofield Thayer, editor of The Dial, may opt for a couple of pictures or articles from Sea and Sardinia and that this might ‘help pay for the pictures’ to be printed. He then immediately writes to Thayer suggesting Seltzer or Mountsier will send him a copy of Sea and Sardinia even though ‘you won’t like it’ and then ends with a playful prod suggesting The Dial is a ‘cross, irritable paper’.
In the introduction to Volume IV of The Letters of D.H. Lawrence, the editors quote Samuel Johnson: ‘In a man’s letters his soul lies naked’. Lawrence’s letters to Juta and those involved in the publication of Sea and Sardinia reveal a writer very much involved in every aspect of the publication process. He is fastidious with detail, pre-empts problems, and is happy to go behind people’s backs to get what he wants. He is pragmatic, informative and deceptive. He fights for Juta’s work to be included because he knows it will enhance his text but he also fights for Juta to be paid because he knows what it is to go without.
Modern writers today may bemoan the fact that they are expected to have a strong social media presence and promote their own work across platforms, but it is unlikely any are quite so committed as Lawrence was.