catherine-carswell-booksCatherine Carswell first encountered DHL’s work on 18 March 1911 when she reviewed his debut novel The White Peacock for the Glasgow Herald. She began writing to him in 1913 and the two would remain in constant contact throughout his short life. Carswell met DHL in person in June 1914 when he came to England to get married. She was 35 years-old at the time and an established literary critic. From the onset she had a deep and lasting affection for Lawrence: “When I first set eyes on him, the immediately distinguishing thing was his swift and flamelike quality, which was quite unlike anything suggested by even the most fascinating type of British soldier or workman. I was sensible of a fine, rare beauty in Lawrence, with his deep-set jewel-like eyes, thick dust-coloured hair, pointed under lip of notable sweetness, fine hands, and rapid but never restless movements.”

They would see each other frequently between 1914 and 1919 before he embarked on his ‘savage pilgrimage’. On his infrequent returns to England he would stay with Catherine and her husband Donald. The last time she saw him in the flesh was in the autumn 1925. Of these many encounters she writes: “I have seen Lawrence under many circumstances but I never once saw him heavy or lounging, and he was never idle, just as a bird is never idle.”

The biography is written in a straightforward style and functions as an intimate portrait of a complex and misunderstood figure from somebody who knew him very well. The two kept in constant contact throughout DHL’s short life and so is worth reading for access to these letters. Chapters are prefaced with a list of work belonging to each period to help the reader understand an approximation of composition. Given Lawrence constantly rewrote work, this is useful in helping outline where he was ‘mentally’ at distinct periods of his life.

I want to understand Lawrence with fresh eyes and so I’ve read this biography before the many others (most of which benefit from retrospective analysis) because it was written so soon after his death. Indeed, Carswell states that DHL liked 9 hours sleep a night and was not a “Shavian ‘writing machine’” but he was aware that his life would not be as long as hers and therefore he had to crack on.

There are two things that strike me about this book. Firstly, she clearly had quite a thing for Lawrence but as a married woman was not prepared to push this further. DHL was also a firm believer in marriage and so on occasion it feels a little bit like The Remains of the Day. “Being married I had now one of the chief qualifications for inclusion in the Lawrence exodus. There were to be, if possible, no single males or females in the party – as with the denizens of the Ark.” The closest they get to any kind of affection is when DHL comments she looks ‘quite saucy’ in a small black felt hat. She describes herself as feeling ‘crushed.’

Both of them may have believed in marriage but as is well known, Frieda Lawrence was a very independent and free-spirited woman. Therefore when DHL packs her off “with a malicious grin on her face” to see her mother in Germany, the implication is what is making her smile so much. Carswell is too polite and reserved to state the obvious, whereas future biographers have been more explicit.

Secondly, and most importantly, Carswell wants to correct misleading interpretations of Lawrence’s life and motivations. She’s keen to point out that she does not have an exclusive access to his mind, but then neither does anyone. There are two major culprits in this department: John Middleton Murry and Mabel Dodge Luhan (nee Sterne).

Mabel Dodge Luhan was the wealthy patron of the Arts who invited Lawrence over to Mexico in 1922. She recorded her memories in Lorenzo in Taos, published on 1 January 1932. Carswell is keen to correct misleading and incorrect facts which she deems as innocent rather than malicious. Luhan’s book is “clearly an attempt to set down with care and honesty a personal impression” but “as an objective record, however, it must be regarded with caution.” Carswell finds her “inaccurate in her facts and wrong in her conjectures” and that she “often fails also in understanding the idiom used in talk both by Lawrence and Frieda – especially Frieda.”

Likewise Carswell takes exception to Luhan’s descriptions of Lawrence when preparing to travel as “fussy” or “inefficient.” Instead she found “he always appeared to me as a model of neatness and precision, neither wasting a movement nor permitting even a temporary disorder.” If Lawrence was being “fussy” in Luhan’s presence it was perhaps because he was eager to get away from her as “Mrs Luhan wanted of him what he had made Gudrun want of Gerald in Women in Love – to use him as an instrument for the furthering of her own ideas and purposes – spiritual, political, artistic.” Nothing was more likely to put “Balaam’s Ass in my belly” than Lawrence being moulded into someone else’s vision of himself.

Carswell has no reservations in ripping apart the traitorous accounts of John Middleton Murry whom she perceives as not only completely misrepresenting and misunderstanding Lawrence but utilising him for his own purposes. This took shape in Reminiscences of D.H Lawrence which first helped to fill the pages of the Adelphi magazine Murry was editing together and then in the hagiography Son of a Woman (1931).

There are so many instances of this that it will have to be in a separate blog, but this exchange from the infamous last supper at The Café Royal pretty much captures the feelings between the two. Murry walks over to Lawrence and plonks a smacker on his lips. He then turns to the other guests and says, “Women can’t understand this. This is an affair between men. Women can have no part or place in it.” To which Carswell replies, “Maybe. But anyhow it wasn’t a woman who betrayed Jesus with a kiss.” Ouch!

But perhaps her most prescient skill is to invert Murry’s criticisms by changing a few expressions to create “one of the most important things about Lawrence that can be said.” I’ve highlighted the main changes in red.

Murry’s criticism 

“In practice Lawrence’s belief seemed to mean pretending a harmony between impulses which were verily contradictory; to mean denying the spiritual consciousness and asserting it, to mean loving the world and hating it at the same moment, to mean nailing the flag of civilised consciousness to the mast and hauling it down in a single operation.”

Carswell’s adaption

If replaced with a few expressions, “we have In practice Lawrence’s belief established a harmony between impulses which hitherto have seemed verily contradictory; he has enabled us to deny the spiritual consciousness and to assert it in the same breath, to love the world and hate it at the same moment, to nail the flag of the civilised consciousness to the mast and to haul it down in a single operation.

If you want to save yourself from reading 292 pages then read the following letter which appeared in Time and Tide on 16 March 1930. It can be seen as not only a precursor to the book but an inherited ‘rage’ at unsympathetic and scandalous obituaries that tended to focus on controversy rather than the literary merits of her very close friend. It reads:

“The picture of D.H Lawrence suggested by the obituary notices of ‘competent critics’ is of a man morose, frustrated, tortured, even a sinister failure. Perhaps this is because any other view of him would make his critics look rather silly…Lawrence was as little morose as an open clematis flower, as little tortured or sinister, or hysterical as a humming bird. Gay, skilful, clever at everything, furious when he felt like it but never grieved or upset, intensely amusing, without sentimentality or affection, almost always right in his touch for the content of things or persons, he was at once the most harmonious and the most vital person I ever saw.

As to frustration, consider his achievement. In the face of formidable initial disadvantages and lifelong delicacy, poverty that lasted for three quarters of his life and hostility that survives his death, he did nothing that he did not really want to do, and all that he most wanted to do he did. He went all over the world, he owned a ranch, he lived in the most beautiful corners of Europe, and met whom he wanted to meet and told them that they were wrong and he was right.

He painted and made things, and sang, and rode. He wrote something like three dozen books, of which even the worst page dances with life that could be mistaken for no other man’s, while the best are admitted, even by those who hate him, to be unsurpassed.

Without vices, with most human virtues, the husband of one wife, scrupulously honest, this estimable citizen yet managed to keep free from the shackles of civilisation and the cant of literary cliques. He would have laughed lightly and cursed venomously in passing at the solemn owls – each one secretly chained by the leg – who now conduct the inquest. To do his work and lead his life in spite of them took some doing, but he did it, and long after they are forgotten, sensitive and innocent people – if any are left – will turn Lawrence’s pages and will know from them what sort of a rare man Lawrence was.”

Catherine Carswell (1932) The Savage Pilgrimage. Chatto and Windus. Reissued in 1981 with a memoir by John Carswell (1981) by Cambridge University Press.

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