When it comes to literary spats, Catherine Carswell and John Middleton Murry’s squabble over D.H. Lawrence takes some beating. So incensed was Carswell at Murry’s misrepresentation of Lawrence that she quickly responded with The Savage Pilgrimage (1932). At first glance it looks like a biography, an intimate portrait fleshed out from personal letters and experiences, but its primary function is as a corrective to everything Murry stood for.
They began bickering in private shortly after Lawrence’s death in 1930. This became public when Carswell wrote letters to the Adelphi magazine in response to Murry’s Reminiscences of D.H. Lawrence which would eventually materialise into the hagiography Son of Woman (1931).
Murry founded The Adelphi magazine in 1923. It was modernist in outlook and originally aimed to promote Lawrence’s work but it ended up as the mouthpiece for Murry’s own literary and aesthetic values. Murry was establishing himself as a radical Christian literary critic and had already gained editorial experience on Rhythm, Athenaeum and The Signature – the latter a short lived magazine produced in collaboration with Lawrence.
In The Savage Pilgrimage (1932), Carswell takes Murry to task about his reminiscences to such an extent that he served her with a writ on account of ‘slurs’ contained in the final 10 pages of her biography. These were eventually toned down and the book was reissued in 1933 by Secker. But, as is perhaps befitting of Murry’s vanity, he would go on to publish most of the ‘slurs’ he’d complained about so that he could respond to them in detail in the book publication of Reminiscences of D.H Lawrence (1933).
Carswell’s attacks on Murry come as early as page 19 when it becomes clear her dislike of him had been simmering way before Lawrence’s death. She recalls the story of Murry telling Lawrence his agent had received an advance of £300 for a new novel, The Rainbow (1915), based on the reception of Sons and Lovers (1913). The money was in fact to be paid on publication which could be a very slow process. Neither would this be the full amount once other factors had been taken into consideration (proof corrections, agent fees, etc). This lack of attention to detail infuriated Carswell as she was well aware that Lawrence was fastidious about money and lived a large part of his life in poverty. Fortunately Lawrence’s agent Pinker, a kind man who supported young experimental writers, was on hand to advance £45 out of his own pocket. Shortly afterwards the Royal Literary Fund made a grant of £50.
Murry and his wife Katherine Mansfield were witnesses at the Lawrence’s marriage in 1914. But the two men really began to bond at Greatham, Sussex where Lawrence was living during the first six months of 1915. Katherine Mansfield had gone to Paris and wasn’t well due to influenza and things were tense with Frieda on account of her restricted access to her three children. Murry’s timing was perfect as Lawrence had someone with whom he could share his philosophy of life with which involved a ‘withdrawal from the world’. The bromance was born and Carswell states Lawrence saw in Murry “a colleague and successor who would build up the temple when he, Lawrence, had cut out the ground.”
The Hebrew idea of Rananim had been raised by Koteliansky at a gathering in 1914 and Lawrence was struck by this utopian idea of sharing space with like-minded people. The Murry’s became the first to test this out when they moved in with the Lawrence’s at Zennor, Cornwall, but it didn’t work out. The Lawrence’s were eventually evicted from their cottage on 12 October 1917 after a visit from the military. A series of bizarre events – which included the sinking of a coal boat on the nearby rocks below Tregerthen and the fact that Frieda Lawrence was German – created suspicion that they may be spies. Although they weren’t formally charged they were clearly undesirables. The incident would sharpen Lawrence’s need to leave England and the desire to take his nearest and dearest with him.
The Lawrence’s were forced to live a nomadic existence, being put up by various friends. Money was incredibly tight and Carswell suggests that Murry, then the editor of Athenaeum, could have done more to help him out by commissioning work. He did accept Lawrence’s first contribution, The Whistling of Birds (written under the pseudonym of Grantorto) but rejected his next. Murry claimed he never got sent any more articles, which is contradicted by both Frieda and Koteliansky.
I find this criticism of Murry hard to accept. As an editor he has to select what is right for his readership and Lawrence is certainly not someone who would abide nepotism. But Carswell suggests that his lack of support may have been more malevolent. She argues Murry had already slithered out of reviewing The Rainbow (Carswell review of The Rainbow cost her her job of ten years on the Glasgow Herald) and that “now that he had some standing, we find not only that he could risk nothing to give Lawrence a hand, but that as time went on he lost no opportunity of disparaging Lawrence in public. Murry believed that Lawrence was finished, and he had his own growing reputation as a critic to safeguard. Carswell argues this is why every book by Lawrence that was reviewed was persistently slighted or attacked in the Athenaeum.
Carswell takes exception to various aspects of Murry’s reviews, not least his dismissing of Lawrence’s career as over by 1921. She cities Murry’s ‘The Decay of Mr. D.H Lawrence’ (Dec 17 1920 Athenaeum) as applying the terms ‘tortured’ and ‘neurotic’ to Lawrence’s work for the first time and his review of The Lost Girl (1920) pushing this further through dismissive language such as ‘sub human’, ‘quack terminology’ and ‘corrupt mysticism’. Carswell sees this as a malicious attempt to further his own reputation, declaring: “It was a carefully executed attempt of the very kind which best demonstrated the horror Lawrence believed to be inveterate in ‘Christian love.’ Under the pretence of ‘intellectual sincerity’ it was an effort to annihilate.” Ouch!
Given her intense personal relationship with Lawrence, it is fair to presume that Carswell knew him better than most. Her biggest gripe with Murry is his failure to recognise Lawrence as an experimental artist, for whom “a careless joie de vivre…was as native to him as his anger” and it was stuffy England that deprived him of the joy while feeding the anger.
To illustrate this Carswell analyses the play Touch and Go (1920) where Lawrence “makes the sculptress Anabel incapable of modelling more birds and animals, though she possesses genius, simply because she has lost that joy of life which had once enabled her to render in stone the thistledown lightness of a kitten. Until her joy returns, she will produce nothing lively. Lawrence knew so well what it was to feel inspired, that he could not fail to recognise the lack of inspiration in himself or in others.”
Escaping England became synonymous with survival. Rather than being “a morbid restlessness” Carswell suggests “may it not with quite as much justice be called sanity and courage? Lawrence’s savage pilgrimage was savage on account of his poor health and his determination, via self-medication, to find a climate that would temper his tuberculosis.”
But for Murry, the only savageness was Lawrence’s rebuke to return back to England and help support his new venture, the literary journal the Adelphi. The first issue was published in June 1923, five months after the death of his wife Katherine Mansfield, who too succumbed to tuberculosis. To make matters worse, Lawrence’s letters were critical of the opening issues. What perplexed Murry further was he saw in Aaron’s Rod (1922) and Fantasia of the Unconscious (1922) a cry for another man to help Lawrence create a new world. This world, for Murry, was contained within the pages of the Adelphi. He was obsessed by it, leaving Lawrence to compare him “like a moth, determined to whirl round and round the candle till he had either burnt his wings or understood the nature of light.”
Although extracts from Fantasia were published in the Adelphi, they only served to outrage the readership, with one reader questioning why Murry should want to publish an author who “spat in the face of Jesus”. This of course was the perfect reaction to Lawrence who believed the Adelphi “should attack everything, everything; and explode in one blaze of denunciation.”
Their already strained relationship was not helped when a homesick Frieda returned to England in August 1923 and Lawrence decided at the last minute to stay in Mexico and work on The Plumed Serpent (1926). When he finally made it over he was quick to notice the ‘chumminess’ that had developed between Frieda and Murry. There are numerous reasons for the development of this ‘chumminess’. Frieda was an independent spirit and required no encouragement when it came to developing friendships with men, whereas Murry may very well have seen her as a means of convincing Lawrence to return to England and support his own artistic endeavours. Whatever the reason, Lawrence was furious and Carswell states the attitude of the husband in the short story Jimmy and the Desperate Woman is expressive of his feelings at the time.
In 1926, after his trip around Mexico and back again, Lawrence gave Murry an ultimatum. He either had to stand by him or the Adelphi. Naturally Murry chose the latter. Lawrence’s last contribution to the Adelphi would be Said the Fisherman, printed in January 1927. Carswell believes that this story was a ‘hold-over’ as Lawrence wanted nothing to do with Murry’s vanity project any more.
According to Carswell Murry presents a distorted picture of Lawrence as a man with “a long thin chain round his ankle” unable to fully run away. But in this ‘cheap’ analysis she argues that Murry has omitted two fundamentally important reasons for Lawrence’s need to travel: art and his illness. Lawrence was the first to admit his first trip around the world was a form of running away. “But he needed absolutely to run from the world he knew and to see the world he did not know” most importantly with his own eyes. Carswell believed that Lawrence would eventually have settled down. If this had have been the case, one thing is for certain. She would not have been able to share this space with Murry.
See our previous blog review of Carswell’s The Savage Pilgrimage for more of this feuding.
- D .H. Lawrence (1930) John Middleton Murry
- Son of Woman: The Story of D. H. Lawrence (1931) John Middleton Murry
- Reminiscences of D.H. Lawrence (1933) John Middleton Murry
- The Savage Pilgrimage (1932) Catherine Carswell