Crossed Lines: A Celebration of Telephony in Literature

Photo by NEOSiAM 2021 from Pexels

A recent online exhibition celebrating the telephone in literature saw references from Mark Twain to Christopher Isherwood suggested 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.

www.crossedlines.co.uk/online-exhibition

Further Reading

  • Newly Discovered Letters Reveal Sylvia Pankhurst’s Wiretapping Fears (ntu.ac.uk)
  • Interview: Dr Sarah Jackson (ahrc.ukri.org)
  • Sherlock and the Smartphone (huffingtonpost.co.uk)
  • Crossed Lines – A crowdsourced exhibition capturing the history of the telephone in literature (ntu.ac.uk)
  • Milkman to Mark Twain: online exhibition celebrates telephones in literature (theguardian.com)

Review: Tolkien’s Gown and Other Great Stories of Great Authors and Rare Books.

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

Related Reading  

‘I was born in September, and love it best of all the months’

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.   

Further reading

  • If you want to know why you shouldn’t mess about with Combine Harvesters read Joe Speedboat by Tommy Wieringa
  • For information about the D.H. Lawrence festival see the dhlawrencesociety.com
  • If you want to learn how to identify wild flowers visit nhbs.com
  • Melissa Harrison’s podcast The Stubborn Light of Things is a good starting point for learning more about nature visit melissaharrison.co.uk
  • For an interesting interpretation of Lawrence’s first novel see ‘(R)evolutionary Fears and Hopes in The White Peacock‘ at Études Lawrenciennes