James is a Nottingham based writer. His previous digital works (in collaboration with Paul Fillingham) include Dawn of the Unread, the Sillitoe Trail, Being Arthur. He is a former chair of the Nottingham Writers' Studio and a former board member of Nottingham: UNESCO City of Literature. His work has been published by BBC Radio 3 & 4, Independent, Guardian. He was the literature editor of Leftlion magazine for 13 years. He loves books. www.jameskwalker.co.uk
Documenting the journey will be Daniele Marzeddu; a multi award-winning director experienced in documentary filmmaking. Daniele was born in Italy in 1978. He usually calls himself son of emigration, and he is a sort of stateless person. Having lived in South Austria, Venice, Portugal, Spain and several different cities in Europe, he has settled in the UK since 2015.
The centre piece of the project will be the film that records Lawrence’s retraced journey – scheduled for release at arts and cultural venues across the UK and Sardinia in April 2021.
Return toSea and Sardinia will also curate captured material into a limited-edition photo book, featuring a commentary about the locations and scenes as they existed in Lawrence’s day and also today, 100 years on.
“… wander away from the world’s somewheres, into our own nowhere.”
The objective of Return to Sea and Sardinia is to capture an historical record that appropriately marks the centenary of D. H. Lawrence’s travel to Sardinia. In doing so, we hope to arise an interest in Lawrence’s life and works as well as in the Sardinian culture.
Supporters of the project will be given an opportunity to have themselves credited on the photo book and/or film produced as record.
A pledge of:
£50.00 gives you a funders credit on the photo book. (includes a copy or the limited edition photo book)
£100.00 gives you a funders credit on the [return to] Sea and Sardinia film. (includes a limited edition DVD of the film)
£125.00 gives you a funders credit on both the [return to] Sea and Sardinia film and photo book. (includes both a limited edition DVD of the film and copy of the photo book)
£250.00 gives you a producers credit on the [return to] Sea and Sardinia film. (includes both a limited edition DVD of the film and copy of the photo book
£1000.00 gives you a 4-day photography tuition class aboard the train routes Lawrence used while travelling in Sardinia (the Trenino Verde).
Elliot Morsia specialises in Modernist and Contemporary Literature. In this interview he discusses The Many Drafts of D. H. Lawrence: Creative Flux, Genetic Dialogism, and the Dilemma of Endings, recently published by Bloomsbury.
Tell us a bit about yourself…
I am half English (mother) and half Italian (father). I was born in London, where my family are mostly from – half having emigrated from Italy in the 60s – but I grew up in Kent on the south coast, before returning to London for university. I stayed in and around London while completing BA, MA and PhD degrees in English Literature and working for a year. I then moved to Oxfordshire to begin working for Routledge, where I have now been for a few years.
How did the book come about?
The seed of the book was an MA dissertation, which introduced ‘genetic criticism’ to Lawrence by focusing on the different versions of his little-known but enchanting short story ‘The Shades of Spring’ (itself a kind of forerunner for Lady Chatterley).
This book is the first to apply analytical methods from the field of genetic criticism to the Lawrence archives. What exactly is genetic criticism and why did you use this approach?
Genetic criticism is a relatively new way of reading, interpreting and studying literature. To do genetic criticism you simply follow the writing process/es for a particular work across manuscript drafts and alternative versions, rather than focusing your attention exclusively on one particular, final, published text. I came to do this in an organic way. I read Lawrence very widely and found traditional critical approaches, which focus on particular static texts too limiting. This eventually led me to genetic criticism, which focuses on dynamic texts. I find the approach equally liberating for any other author who possesses an archive. For example, I have also published a ‘genetic’ essay on David Foster Wallace, a very different author from Lawrence (though they do share archives (in the Harry Ransom Centre) and forenames).
The book unearths and re-evaluates a variety of themes in Lawrence’s work. Could you briefly tell us a little about these themes and why you chose them?
I discuss a range of well-known themes – like love, sexuality, the body, death – in a new way throughout the book by showing how these develop and morph across Lawrence’s drafts and alternative versions. I also pick up on lesser-known or completely overlooked themes, many of which are very important, like depression, or the problem of endings. However, one key theme which the book unearths is the opposition and interplay between flux and stasis, or process and product.
The book highlights how the very distinction between ‘process’ and ‘product’ became a central theme in Lawrence’s work. Please could you tell us a bit more about this distinction?
You can see this distinction in the very structure of Lawrence’s fiction, which so often switches between intense passages of dialogue (flux) and calm descriptive passages (stasis). This distinction, and rhythm, is also reflected in the writing processes, where the passages of dialogue are very often rewritten and revised, whereas descriptive passages are more often left intact. The theme is also reflected in the content itself. If you take Women in Love as the canonical example (and I think Women in Love is a terribly underrated novel, despite its acclaim; it is arguably the greatest novel of the 20th century!), the opposition between flux and stasis dominates much of the novel, from societal ills and relationships to the fate of individual characters, and Lawrence’s revisions and rewritings emphasize and shed light on this. The iconic episode in the chapter ‘Moony’, where Birkin stones the moon’s reflected image, is one of many examples which I discuss in the book.
Why do you think Lawrence had dilemma’s about finishing a piece of work? Is this something all writers go through (in that a book is never really finished because we constantly change as people) or was this type of dilemma distinct to him?
Lawrence rewrote the ending of each of the works which I look at in this book multiple times and it is probably the single most heavily rewritten section in each work. While revision and rewriting is almost universal to writers, it is a distinct dilemma to Lawrence in that Lawrence so often writes about the aforementioned opposition between flux and stasis and generally sides with what he sees as creative flux over deathly stasis. Rendering his own creative life into static, finished products of literature was therefore a kind of paradox for Lawrence, and I think his often carefree or even disdainful attitude towards his own works is a result of this dilemma. I discuss this dilemma in a few places in the book and focus on it almost exclusively in Chapter 8 (‘Writing an Ending’).
Was there one piece of work that Lawrence re-wrote more than others?
Something I emphasize in the book is just how frequently and intensely Lawrence rewrote his work. Aside from manuscript drafts, Lawrence also published alternative versions of many poems and short stories, and attempted to get earlier versions of one or two of the novels published, too. That said, he worked on various versions of Women in Love over the best part of eight years (sadly destroying many hundreds of manuscript pages), so that is probably the one I would single out above all others.
Why is Lawrence an important writer to you?
As I emphasize in the book, Lawrence is unique in the sheer breadth and extent of his work, which is acclaimed across almost the entire range of writing categories (letters, travel writing, psychology, history, poetry, long and short fiction, journalistic articles, literary criticism, and more), as well as his humble working-class origins, and, despite being slightly awkwardly grouped with ‘Modernist’ literature, there is a humble degree of accessibility to all of his work. And yet, despite all the reams and reams of writing, there is rarely any sense of tiredness or pessimism to be found in Lawrence (these are more likely to be subjected to rage, which is itself a kind of positive emotion in Lawrence!). To be slightly less uncouth, I also think there is a fascinating element of depth and complexity in Lawrence’s writings, a sense of impending revelation, to rival or surpass any of his great Modernist contemporaries.
For the last five years, Paul Fillingham and I have been working on a digital project to celebrate the life of D.H. Lawrence. We’ve done this without any funding (because we haven’t had time to apply) filling up every spare second of our evenings after a hard slog through the day job. Our intention is simple, to bring Lawrence (kicking and screaming) into the 21st century. We don’t claim to be Lawrencian experts and fully expect some of our suggestions to be ripped apart. So please do tell us when and where we have got something wrong and we will consider revisions (although not biases). Our memory theatre will contain the good, the bad and the ugly: the complexities and contradictions of a human life.
It’s taken five years because this is how long we’ve needed to immerse ourselves in Lawrence’s phenomenal literary output – and we still haven’t touched the surface. Lawrence once chided Mabel Dodge Luhan that, ‘You don’t know your floor until you have scrubbed it on your hands and knee’. We’ve taken this attitude with the memory theatre. We don’t know Lawrence until we’ve read every word written by him or about him.
Representation of any author’s work is a challenge because there are so many interpretations of their work. This is particularly true for Lawrence who has been reviled and loved across the decades. We understand how important it is to get things right. This means reading, reading, reading. Lawrence is a complex beast who can easily be misinterpreted. He can be infuriating and unbearable. Then profound and evocative. One thing he is not is mediocre.
To help challenge and cement ideas, the Memory Theatre project has been a dissertation option at Nottingham Trent University for the past four years. This has given me time to select and curate various aspects of Lawrence’s work, to identify recurring themes, and, more importantly, to understand what these themes mean to younger, digitally literate audiences. His ideas on money, industrialization, rananim, and the environment seem increasingly more relevant.
Paul has been constructing the website and coding for the project, thinking about the way the Memory Theatre can be accessed via different devices, developing the logo and branding, and visualising how the artefacts will appear. Due to Coronavirus, the memory theatre will have to be digital for now and so we need this to look right. This takes time.
Our intention was to launch the memory theatre in 2019 to mark the centenary of his self-imposed exile. But instead we are doing this today, on his 135th birthday, where we have our first artefact: Mr. Muscles. This is in recognition of his incredible work ethic, and the good spirit in which he approached life. Juliette Huxley said Lawrence cooked ‘as he did most things, with a radiating creativeness which was contagious. Even washing-up had its own charm, enriched with the satisfaction of putting everything back in its chosen place, glowing with fresh cleanliness.’
Lawrence constantly reminds us that we are transmitters of life and what we transmit has an impact on the way we perceive the world as well as the way we make others feel. Paul and I have given the memory project every ounce of our being. We hope it ‘radiates creativity,’ by pushing the boundaries of digital literary criticism and as an alternative to the linear biography.
You can visit the project website here and read the opening artefact essays using the links below.
The disruption caused by coronavirus has forced the D.H. Lawrence Society to embrace the digital age and invest in a funky new website, Twitter account and YouTube channel. This means that I am able to share their first online talk here, given by Fiona Fleming. In the four clips below she discusses the respective lives, loves and literary influences of Lawrence and Thomas Hardy. Out of Sheer Joy, I have provided my own summary…
Thomas Hardy (2 June 1840 – 11 January 1928) was a Victorian realist influenced by Romanticism. Born 45 years before Lawrence, his last novel, Jude the Obscure, was published in 1895, when Lawrence was ten. Hardy died the year Lady C was originally published. Both writers confronted controversial topics during their careers, risking censorship due to their interpretations of modernity and the prevailing morality of the time.
In terms of family, Fleming states that the Hardy’s were a tight clan, mainly because they remained together in Dorset throughout their lives. Dorset would be portrayed as the semi-fictionalised region of Wessex in his novels. Lawrence remained in contact with his family, but as he lived abroad from 1919 onwards, visits to the East Midlands were more sporadic. Eastwood and the surrounding mining communities would inform much of Lawrence’s early novels and plays, though he would write, ‘I can be anywhere at home, except home’.
Both writers were subject to the oppressive love of a matriarch whose aspirations for her children exceeded her own achievements. Church was a regular feature of their childhood. In Apocalypse, Lawrence would write, ‘I was brought up on the Bible and seemed to have it in my bones’ – which was read at him rather than to him at Sunday School. The overbearing dogmatism of a non-conformist church would, Fleming argues, lead to Lawrence’s loss of faith. However, he never lost his passion for hymns, adapting their symbolism to suit him where needed.
Hardy was also ushered into church life but was intrigued by ritual rather than any form of spiritual meaning. He would later become agnostic due to his own philosophical and scientific readings. He also loved church music, seeing hymns as a form of poetry. Although they both had very different ideas on what constituted a good hymn, especially ‘Lead Kindly Light’ which Lawrence felt was too sentimental.
In terms of education, FE wasn’t really an option due to financial restrictions. Therefore, they both self-educated as much as possible, drawing influence and education from friends and family around them. I often wonder what kind of person Lawrence would have become if he hadn’t encountered the likes of the Chambers and Hopkins families.
J.M. Barrie was a big influence on Hardy’s posthumous literary success, finding him a burial spot at Poet’s Corner and helping Hardy’s second wife, Florence, publish the definitive collection, The Life and Works of Thomas Hardy. Barrie also has a Nottingham connection. He worked as a journalist at the Nottingham Daily Journal between 1883 – 4. It’s believed that while he was here, he conceived of the character of Peter Pan and based the setting of Neverland on the Arboretum – the park he would walk through each morning on his way to work. Lawrence never met J.M. Barrie, partly because he was abroad but mainly because he detested literary gatherings which tended to attract ‘smoking, steaming shits’. One friend they had in common was literary critic, John Middleton Murry – although friend might be pushing it as far as Lawrence is concerned. Their relationship was doomed after the failed attempt at Rananim in Cornwall in 1916 and Murry’s moral betrayal via his editorship of the Adelphi. But then again, Lawrence fell out with everyone in the end (except perhaps Catherine Carswell).
Another mutual friend was the writer and socialite Lady Cynthia Asquith (1887 –1960) the daughter-in-law of H. H. Asquith, the prime minister whose threat to ennoble Hardy and Barrie (alongside 498 others) so frightened the House of Lords in 1911. Lawrence wrote to her regularly, describing her as a “Pre-Raphaelite ‘dreaming woman'”. Lawrence was intrigued by the aristocracy in terms of their grand families. His wife Frieda, of course, was born to aristocracy, but like Lawrence, had little interest in social status. Lacking Lawrence’s self-confidence, Hardy was desperate to climb the social ladder that his family had so successfully slipped down the previous century. His need to be respected can be found in an amusing anecdote about his morbid self-obsession with his own death. This tale was shared with Asquith by J.M. Barrie:
“[H]e often smiled over Hardy’s preoccupation with his plans for his own burial–plans which were perpetually being changed. “One day,” said Barrie,” Hardy took me to see the place where he wants most to be buried, and the next day he took me to see the place where he would like next best to be buried. Usually he says he is to be buried exactly in between his two wives, but sometimes he is to be so many inches.”
Fleming argues that Hardy’s vulnerability and lamenting for social status can be seen in novels such as Tess of the D’Urbervilles where Tess descends into poverty and obscurity. In the novel, traditional ways of life are slowly eroded by modernity, represented by effete city folk who are only able to ingest milk that has been watered down. Lawrence too wrote about how industry and modernity places a barrier between man and nature. But instead of mopping about, he went in search of primitive cultures and the ‘religion of the blood’. However, when he describes the coastline of Cornwall as belonging “still to the days before Christianity, the days of Druids, or of desolate Celtic magic and conjuring” he could be accused of creating worlds as equal fictional as Hardy’s Wessex.
Indeed, Lawrence’s great skill as a writer was the way he would impose his own values and sense of self into any topic he chose to write about. As he wrote on 5 September 1914: “Out of sheer rage I’ve begun my book on Thomas Hardy. It will be about anything but Thomas Hardy I am afraid – queer stuff – but not bad.”
Source: Fiona Fleming (You can join the D.H. Lawrence Society here) Special thanks also to ivebeenreadinglately.blogspot.com
In the D.H. Lawrence Memory Theatre we are exploring Lawrence life through artefacts. We officially set sail in November 2019 to mark the centenary of his self-imposed exile, but then a virus came along and everything has been put on hold. You can submit artefacts here, or join in the conversation on Instagram or leave a comment below.
Frustrated with modernity and the literary establishment, D.H. Lawrence travelled the globe in search of Rananim. He believed a new way of being was possible, making this the philosophical focus of his novels. Can his ideas on community help us during these difficult times? Expect a few tantrums on the way…
Although he would have enjoyed the solitude, D.H. Lawrence wouldn’t have coped very well with lockdown. Not because he was rubbish at following rules, but because he was a proper fidget. After leaving Britain in 1919 he travelled the globe, never settling in one place for more than two years. He refused to own property, making home in disused cabins at the top of mountains or being put up by friends. There were numerous reasons for his peripatetic lifestyle, but here we’ll focus on one: Rananim.
It’s believed that Lawrence first came across the concept of Ranamim when his friend S.S. Koteliansky sung the Hebrew chant Ranani Zadikim l’Adonoi to him. The two met in 1914 and were together in Barrow-in-Furness when WWI was declared. This was a significant time to bond as it marked a very difficult period for Lawrence as he suffered from poverty, political persecution – his wife was German, and frustrations with the censor that would plague his entire career. This is best captured in a letter to Edward Garnett in June 1912, when Lawrence really let rip:
“Curse the blasted, jelly-boned swines, the slimy, the belly-wriggling invertebrates, the miserable sodding rotters, the flaming sods, the snivelling, dribbling, dithering palsied pulse-less lot that make up England today. They’ve got white of egg in their veins, and their spunk is that watery it’s a marvel they can breed. They can but frog-spawn — the gibberers! God, how I hate them! God curse them, funkers. God blast them, wish-wash. Exterminate them, slime.”
This letter was in response to publisher William Heinemann who had rejected the first draft of his third novel, Sons and Lovers. This was eventually published in 1913 but it didn’t take long for it to be banned from libraries. His next novel, The Rainbow (1915) was seized under the Obscene Publications Act and burned. Although it didn’t contain any naughty words, it was deemed anti-British for daring to question everyday fundamentals such as work, religion, and relationships.
Lawrence was as frustrated with the publishing industry as he was with modernity. Industry dehumanized community and destroyed the natural landscape, whereas war demanded blind conformity to the flag and a further loss of individuality. He felt like he was the only one who could see this ‘Ugliness. Ugliness. Ugliness’ and so began to develop a philosophy for life through his novels. To do this he had to get away from Britain sharpish, and so embarked on a ‘savage pilgrimage’ of self-imposed exile.
“I shall say goodbye to England, forever, and set off in quest of our Rananim” he wrote to Koteliansky, on 12 January 1917. Rananim was the concept of a utopian community, a place where humanity could rise from the ashes of the past and old values, and purged of evil, be reborn in peace and love. Away from modernity and consumerism, it would be possible to find “a good peace and a good silence, and a freedom to love and to create new life.” The phoenix became his personal emblem, as he too was rising out of the flames and being reborn.
It would be a mistake to interpret this as the desire to create some kind of hippy commune or scribal gathering. This is evident from Lawrence’s time in Taos, New Mexico. Mabel Dodge Luhan, a wealthy patron of the arts, invited the Lawrence’s to stay with her in 1921. She wanted him to capture the spirit of Taos in the same way that he had done with Sea and Sardinia (1921). She too was trying to escape modernity and believed that bringing the greatest thinkers and artists together in one place would help build a better world than the one currently being destroyed by war and industry.
Lawrence was apprehensive at first, asking whether he’d encounter “a colony of rather dreadful sub-arty people”. He wasn’t a fan of literary crowds who he described as “smoking, steaming shits”. He was also cautious of “meeting the awful ‘cultured’ Americans with their limited self-righteous ideals and their mechanical love-motion and their bullying, detestable negative creed of liberty and democracy.” But he eventually turned up a year later after taking a detour via Australia and Ceylon.
There was an immediate clash of personalities and they quickly fell out. He hadn’t travelled halfway across the world to further her status. So, he headed off to the hills to live in a cabin. It was here, away from the crowds, that he was truly happy, embarking on a series of DIY projects – carpentry, glazing and putting up shelves, living simply and writing under a tree.
We are being asked to self-distance at the moment and many of us our finding it difficult. But Lawrence chose to get as far away from people as he could, writing, “I only want one thing of men and that is that they should leave me alone”. What he really meant was anybody who banned his books or didn’t share his world view.
His search for kindred spirits took him to many countries, but it never quite worked out. At his most desperate he considered ploughing his savings into a boat, “I would like to buy a sailing ship and sail among the Greek islands and be free…free! Just to be free for a little while of it all…with a captain and a couple of sailors, we could do the rest.”
Lawrence teaches us to seek out Rananim in our lives. We may not have the freedom to replicate his nomadic lifestyle, but we are starting to think about what community means, or, at the very least, have introduced ourselves to the neighbours for the first time.
Rananim doesn’t exist in a single place or location, location, location – so don’t expect Kirstie Allsop to source it out for you. Rather it’s a state of mind shared with likeminded people. So, don’t expect to find it too soon. In a letter to Catherine Carswell he explains, “I think people ought to fulfil sacredly their desires. And this means fulfilling the deepest desire, which is a desire to live unhampered by things which are extraneous, a desire for pure relationships and living truth”.
Lawrence lived through the Spanish Flu outbreak of 1918 which killed 50 million people – more than died in WWI. He had terrible health throughout his life and eventually succumbed to tuberculosis at the age of 44. He was not happy with the world he was born into, or perhaps more accurately, unhappy with the way that world was being destroyed by industry, pollution and greed. Sound familiar?
It seems fitting, then, that during lockdown, where everything “extraneous” has been removed, the rainbow, the title of Lawrence’s 1915 novel, has become the symbol of hope during these difficult times. This once banned book which dared to demand a different way of being holds a message in the final paragraph that we can all relate to.
“She saw in the rainbow the earth’s new architecture, the old, brittle corruption of houses and factories swept away, the world built up in a living fabric of Truth, fitting to the over-arching heaven.”
In the D.H. Lawrence Memory Theatre we are exploring Lawrence life through artefacts. We officially set sail in November 2019 to mark the centenary of his self-imposed exile. You can submit artefacts here, or join in the conversation on Instagram or leave a comment below.
When, in the early 1960s and recently graduated as trained teachers from Goldsmiths’ College, my friends and I were looking for somewhere outside London to ply our trade, and we decided, after a relatively small amount of research, that Nottingham was just the place. Rents were significantly cheaper than in the capital [nothing changes] and, according to the back pages of the TES, there were jobs. A couple of brief visits aside, however, our knowledge of the city and its environs was less than well-informed. We’d seen, and been braced by, Tony Richardson’s film of Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night & Sunday Morning; seen and just managed to stay awake through Jack Cardiff’s tame version of D. H. Lawrence’s Sons & Lovers, a novel I would have read as part of my English studies, Lawrence being more academically respectable then than I believe he is now. [Except at the…
In this guest blog, originally published in The Conversation, Christopher Pollnitz of University of Newcastleexplores how the Australian landscape has been described and used in Lawrence’s 1923 novel, Kangaroo. If nothing else, argues Pollnoitz, Lawrence makes “us look, and look again, at the environment. For that, he is worth a medal”.
The indifference — the fern-dark indifference of this remote golden Australia. Not to care — from the bottom of one’s soul, not to care. Overpowered in the twilight of fern-odour. Just to keep enough grip to run the machinery of the day: and beyond that, to let yourself drift, not to think or strain or make any effort to consciousness whatsoever.
D. H. Lawrence, from Kangaroo (1923)
As D. H. Lawrence circled the globe, he made a point of going to the barber’s – this despite his trademark beard – and of buying a pot of honey. The barber in Thirroul, he noted, was an unusually intelligent young man, au fait with political trends in the 1920s and able to put an English visitor in touch with social life in the NSW South Coast village. The honey he would taste to commune with the vegetative spirit of place.
Lawrence tried defining the “spirit of place” in his Studies in Classic American Literature. It was, he contended, a “great reality,” albeit one that operated via emanations or effluences. It produced a race or a nation as much as it was produced by a people seeking to establish themselves in terms of their homeland. Tied up with Lawrence’s thinking about spirit of the place was a melange of ideas about indigenousness, race theory, and occult universal wisdom. Such ideas all speak at once, and are questioned, discarded, and reformulated, in Lawrence’s Kangaroo, a novel he wrote in ten weeks – all but the last chapter – while living under the Illawarra Escarpment in Thirroul.
He sailed into Circular Quay and disembarked on 27 May 1922, close to the spot where his medallion used to be on the Writers’ Walk. It is unclear when the medallion was deleted from the Walk, but its disappearance probably had more to do with the perceived sexual politics of Lawrence’s other fiction than with any concern about the writing of place in Kangaroo.
A Scottish writer and influential academic in Australia, J.I.M. Stewart, wrote in early praise of the novel’s descriptions of nature. Poet Judith Wright took it further; comparing Kangaroo with Patrick White’s Voss, Wright commended Lawrence’s insight into what she too thought was missing from the psychology of twentieth-century white-colonial Australians – any appreciation of how the continent itself, its flora and fauna, might provide the platform for a grounded sense of national identity.
Strange, then, that in the twenty-first century some have found it desirable to expunge from Australian literary history a writer who, as well as setting a novel on the east coast, has had an impact on the finest Australian-born poets and novelists. Strange and futile. Attempts to censor Lawrence out of consciousness are counter-productive, as the Lady Chatterley trial proved fifty years ago. A better plan of action is to engage with his ideas.
Kangaroo includes a succession of quirky bush vignettes, starting with one in the Perth Hills. Lawrence stayed there a fortnight, and met and talked with Mollie Skinner. He later co-wrote The Boy in the Bush with Skinner, or rather rewrote her first draft. In the first chapter of Kangaroo the Lawrentian character, Richard Lovatt Somers, recalls night-walking in the West Australian bush, and romanticises –that’s to say, lets himself be frightened by – the “huge electric moon” and the bush “hoarily waiting.” He senses the bush “might have reached a long black arm and gripped him.” Fortunately, as this colonial fear fantasy never eventuates, Somers’s feeling for the landscape grows progressively more nuanced.
Somers-Lawrence also observes tree trunks charred by bush fires and a burn-off as he returns from his night-walk, the red sparks glowing under the southern stars.
Once Somers reaches Thirroul, renamed Mullumbimby in Kangaroo, the novel develops a plot and complication. Will Somers let himself be recruited to the Diggers, a right-wing paramilitary organisation?
By now a reader, curious whether the “long black arm” of Chapter I was an over-extended Aboriginal limb, will be noticing that indigenous characters are conspicuous by their absence, while white characters are indifferent to any activism not directly reflecting northern-hemisphere political contests and wars.
In Chapter X, after a “ferocious battle” with his wife Harriett, Somers climbs the Escarpment and looks back down over a dark mass of “tree-ferns and bunchy cabbage-palms and mosses like bushes” to the narrow coastal strip. A relic of the coal age, the vegetation tempts Somers to enter into a “saurian torpor,” to succumb to “the old, old influence of the fern-world,” under which one “breathes the fern-seed and drifts back, becomes darkly half-vegetable, devoid of pre-occupations.” What would now be called the New Age rhetoric of this passage conflates geological periods with the millennia in which human societies began developing cosmogonic myths. The dodgy subtext might be that, to attune itself to the Escarpment’s spirit of place, colonial Australia needs to dumb down its Western consciousness – dumb it down until it can vibrate in indigenous accord with the spirit of place.
While the botanically trained Lawrence knew perfectly well that ferns reproduce from spores, he also knew, from J.G. Frazer’s The Golden Bough, that he who takes the mythical fern-seed between his lips has the power to become invisible and see into what is hidden in the earth. Giving Lawrence the benefit of the doubt, another subtext is that European Australians need to develop new ways of apprehending an ancient environment.
As for tree-ferns being survivors of the dinosaur age, Lawrence might have also noticed that the Escarpment was, and remains, a lively skink habitat.
Lawrence’s knowledge of the initiation rituals which showed Aranda men their spiritual identities in the Central Australian desert came from another of Frazer’s anthropological works, Totemism and Exogamy. The climax of Kangaroo, a blood-letting in the streets of Sydney, is a hideous parody of such rituals. This clash between Diggers and unionists brings neither victors nor victims a jot closer to belonging to the continent.
Disillusioned by the riot, Somers and Harriet make a last springtime excursion, to the Loddon Falls. The Loddon rises above the Escarpment and flows inland, disappearing underground into a “gruesome dark cup in the bush.” That alien spirit of place to which European consciousness must learn to accommodate is still being registered. But the passage joins others, in Twilight in Italy and “Flowery Tuscany,” as an ecstatic hymn to floral abundance and variety. It’s great fun for local readers, who have to guess at misnamed flowers (the “bottle-brushes” are banksias) or unnamed flowers from their descriptions. My guess is that the “beautiful blue flowers, with gold grains, three petalled … and blue, blue with a touch of Australian darkness,” are Commelina – common name, scurvy grass, probably because it is useless for fodder.
Admittedly, Lawrence described the stems of this blue-flowering creeper as “thin stalks like hairs almost,” making it sound more like the Austral bluebell or even Dianella. Possibly he was conflating more than one flower in memory, for the whole wildflower paean in the last chapter was written from recollection, after he arrived in New Mexico.
There is nothing utilitarian, then, about the descriptions of the Australian bush in Kangaroo. Or perhaps there is, marginally. At least one council has begun to use Commelina as an ornamental ground cover, so helping distinguish it in the public mind from bush-suffocating infestations of the South American Tradescantia. What can be claimed for Lawrence’s brilliant botanical shorthand – “blue flowers … gold grains, three petalled” – is that even now he has the power make us look, and look again, at the environment. For that, he is worth a medal.
In the DH Lawrence Memory Theatre we want to address various aspects of Lawrence’s life through artefacts to try to understand this complex writer. How do we his time in Australia? Do we have space for some prehistoric ferns? In 2019 we begin building our Memory Theatre and retracing Lawrence’s savage pilgrimage both physically and digitally. If you have an idea for an artefact, get involved and submit ideas here
In this blog we explore Lawrence’s reactions to Wallace Smith’s illustrations in Fantazius Mallare, a novel which borrows its title from Fantasia of the Unconscious and pokes fun at artists who take themselves a bit too seriously…
Wallace Smith (December 30, 1888 – January 31, 1937) was an incredibly talented artist, able to apply his hand to a range of art forms, from comics, illustrations to novels. He spent a decade as a Washington correspondent. Then went to Mexico, producing illustrated reporting on the Carranza regime. Under the nickname of Vulgus, he contributed towards The Chicago Literary Times between 1923-4. The Times was a magazine set out in a tabloid format, cofounded by Ben Hecht and Maxwell Bodenheim. From here, Smith went to Hollywood, knocking out 26 screenplays, some of which were based on his own novels.
Like Lawrence, Smith felt the force of the censor during his life. Bessie Cotter (1935), the story of a street prostitute, was deemed indecent and banned in England. But it was his full page illustrations for Ben Hecht’s obscene and decadent satire Fantazius Mallare: a Mysterious Oath(1922), that caused the most hype, which was largely their intention. Hecht and Smith hoped that the ensuing obscenity trial would expose the flaws of the censor and bring about change. They planned to send review copies of the novel to the literati of the time and then have them called upon as expert witnesses. But it never got that far as only one witness was prepared to come forward. A tactic which would swerve Penguin better in the 1960 Lady Chatterley Trial.
Fantazius Mallare is the story of a mad recluse at war with reason. After destroying all of his work he seeks out a woman who will devote herself to his genius. Sound familiar? It begins: “FANTAZIUS MALLARE considered himself mad because he was unable to behold in the meaningless gesturings of time, space and evolution a dramatic little pantomime adroitly centered about the routine of his existence. He was a silent looking man with black hair and an aquiline nose. His eyes were lifeless because they paid no homage to the world outside him.”
According to Witter Bynner in Journey with Genius (1953), Hecht was making a deliberate attack on authors who took themselves a bit too seriously, authors who were “making fiction a blend of sex and psychoanalysis” and apt to self-deification. Bynner gave Lawrence a copy, asking if he would review it for The Laughing Horse. Lawrence agreed because he was offended by the trivial use of smuttiness. “Such bawdiness not only irked him personally but made more difficult for writers a free expression of decent candor.”
He didn’t take kindly to the personal digs either and quickly fired off his review. It’s suggested that he knew his review would not be published on account of some choice objectionable language. But the editor decided to blank out any words that may offend and publish it with a disclaimer.
In the review, Lawrence complains “there’s nothing in it but the author’s attempt to be startling. Whereas if he wanted to be really wicked he’d see that even a tree has its own daimon, and a man must lie with the daimon of a tree.” Lawrence reasons that “The word penis or testicle or vagina doesn’t shock me”. These are just naming conventions. He is quite aware of what parts constitute the human body. But then he relates this to one of his favourite antagonisms, mental consciousness. “I don’t keep my passions, or reactions, or even sensations IN MY HEAD. They stay down where they belong. And really, Fantazius, with his head full of copulation and committing MENTAL fornication and sodomy every minute, is just as much a bore as any other tedious modern individual with a dominant idea.”
Lawrence then latches onto this idea of “sex in the head” – one of his favourite bugbears – as if the mind and body are two completely different aspects, as in the Cartesian Self. “They start all their deeper reactions in their heads nowadays, and nowhere else. They start all their deeper reactions in their heads, and work themselves from the top downwards.” And then he invokes the powers of “the old, dark religions” who understood “God enters from below” which is the “original centre”. For somebody who dislikes the imbalances caused by mental consciousness, Lawrence doesn’t half like to dish it out. He’s incredibly prescriptive about what is and isn’t the right way to think and feel. Thus, Fantazius Mallare mocks the title of Fantasia of the Unconscious, Lawrence’s attempt to jump down the rabbit hole of cosmic existentialism.
Bynner surmises that Lawrence would have been equally annoyed with Andre Gide, should he have lived to meet him, when he wrote “What we call impulses of the heart is but the unreasonable jostling of our thoughts; it is still in the head that the drama is enacted, and it is again the brain that man needs in order to love”.
Walter Smith produced illustrative reports on the Mexican revolution, raising awareness of what was happening for the wider public. Lawrence and Bynner visited Mexico in 1923, but Lawrence had no interest in the first post-revolutionary President of Mexico, Venustiano Carranza, at least according to Bynner. Instead he was more concerned with “garnering notes about unworldly, noble Indians who should become followers of a new Quetzalcoatl, a new Lawrence”.
A good place to end this discussion is with the opening to Fantazius, the dedication to those “who achieve involved orgasms denouncing the depravities of others.. to the pedantic ones who barricade themselves heroically behind their own belchings; to the smug ones who walk with their noses ecstatically buried in their own rectums (I have nothing against them, I swear); to the righteous ones who masturbate blissfully under the blankets of their perfections.” Ouch!
Source: Witter Bynner, Journey with Genius. Bynner’s archival papers are at the University of Oregon.
The DH Lawrence Memory Theatre sets off in November 2019 to mark the centenary of Lawrence’s self imposed exile. Help us select artefacts to try to understand this complex writer. How do we represent his struggles against obscenity or his reactions towards Fantazius? Should there be a place on board for Witter Bynner? If you have an idea for an artefact, get involved and submit ideas here
“Is life strife, is it the long combat? Yes, it is true. I fight all the time. I am forced to” The Battle of Life, D.H Lawrence
“If we must die, O let us nobly die, So that our precious blood may not be shed In vain; then even the monsters we defy Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!” If We Must Die, Claude McKay
As a rebel writer, D.H. Lawrence spent his entire life fighting against people and systems. Ideas expressed in early novels, such as The Rainbow (1915), took on the ideologies of religion, marriage, family, sexuality, and national identity. In the subsequent Obscenity Trial, Judge Sir John Dickinson went as far as to describe the novel as anti-British, claiming that Lawrence was mocking the very principles that British soldiers were defending. Lawrence was very good at winding people up.
To compound matters, Lawrence married a German woman on the outbreak of WWI and moved to Cornwall, where he was accused of being a spy and had his passport removed. On and on the battles went throughout his short life – and not just with his novels. When he turned his hand to painting and exhibited works at the Warren Gallery in 1929, 13 were seized and placed in a prison cell! The Daily Telegraph reported the paintings were “gross and obscene” the likes of which had “never been seen in London before”.
Understandably, Lawrence came to resent intellectualisation and what he described as “mental consciousness”. This form of thinking produced “ugliness, ugliness, ugliness” and was responsible for the “iron machine” of industrialisation and the subsequent exploitation of workers in favour of profit. A world in which people lived in their heads had a dehumanising effect, further removing man from his natural connection with the environment. It is little wonder, then, that Lawrence developed a philosophy of “blood consciousness”, a more sensuous and guttural connection with the world which was incorrectly interpreted as smut by the censor.
Given that Lawrence fought the establishment throughout his life, it is perhaps not such a surprise that he was an influence on black American poets of the 1940s and 1950s, specifically Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison, or so argues Leo Hamalian in a journal article from 1990. As Langston Hughes put it, “Negro writers, just by being black, have been on the blacklist all our lives”. If it was difficult for a miner’s son with a provincial accent to be accepted by the literati, imagine how difficult it was for a black person.
Claude McKay (September 15, 1889 – May 22, 1948), one of the pioneers of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, detailed the intense racial violence against black people in poems such as ‘If We Must Die’. Originally attracted to communist ideas, he helped form the African Black Brotherhood as a means of achieving social emancipation. Like Lawrence, he travelled far afield to find peace. He lived in the UK and USA, experiencing every form of racism imaginable, had an “ecstatic welcome” in Russia due to his political beliefs, before heading to the more open-minded Parisian backstreets. However liberal Paris was, there was still a lot of work to be done. He wasted no time highlighting the stereotyping of sexualised black figures in the art world which he argued helped to reproduce social hegemonic values that legitimated (European) white supremacy over Afro-Caribbean identities.
Like Lawrence, McKay’s novels outlined an instinctual/intellectual duality. But the two writers had very different reasons for doing this: Lawrence was desperate to escape modernity and so outlined a philosophy of spiritual individualism which he called Rananim – a search for a community of like-minded people. It could be argued, for example, one of his main objections to the war was not moral, rather resentment at being told what to do and where to go!
McKay wanted to empower black people. He implored individuals to stand up for their rights and to be accepted as equals. It goes without saying this came with real risks, most notably lynching and murder. McKay’s travels, then, were not so much about escape but rather finding acceptance within modernity. This is perhaps best exemplified in his 1928 novel Home to Harlem which gave voice to romantic homosexual relationships while forging a distinctive black identity for the “uprooted black vagabonds” – such as himself – who found themselves exploited and used in Western communities.
Writing in his autobiography, McKay states that in Lawrence “I found confusion – all of the ferment and turmoil, the hesitation and hate and alarm, the sexual inquietude and the incertitude of this age, and the psychic and romantic groping for a way out.” Lawrence’s appeal, “lay instead in his compulsive and impassioned struggle to overcome the psychological traps that threatened to imprison and destroy man’s direct appreciation of life and it’s mysteries in the modern age.”
Lawrence grew up in a mining village, McKay came from a family of peasant farmers. They both understood what it meant to struggle. They knew what it was like to have a domineering matriarch in the family. McKay expressed this in poems such as ‘December 1919’ and ‘Mother’, Lawrence addresses it in just about every novel he ever wrote. They also shared similarities in their social status as outsiders in the world of Literature, as well as being young men with strong ideas on how to forge their way in the brave new world. But the trait that McKay felt best mirrored his own was a “psychological restlessness that drove him steadily towards artistic achievement and away from marginal existence of his natal community in his own life.”
In 1977, McKay was posthumously awarded the Order of Jamaica for his contribution to literature. As a left wing liberal he paved the way for future generations of black writers, such as James Baldwin, who would continue his fight. His natal community was proud of what he achieved. The same can’t be said of Lawrence, despite being part of the canon, and paving the way for everyone to swear more freely. He famously wrote, “I can be anywhere at home, except home”. Eastwood has never forgiven him.
Article source: D.H. Lawrence and Black Writers Author(s): Leo Hamalian Source: Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 16, No. 4 (Spring, 1990), pp. 579-596 Published by: Indiana University Press
In November 2019 we will launch our D.H. Lawrence Memory Theatre. It will be comprised of artefacts that piece together Lawrence’s life, offering an alternative to the linear biography. How do we represent his influence on writers such as Claude McKay? How do we get across complex ideas like blood consciousness? Get involved and help us bu submitting an artefact here.
In this guest blog, originally published in The Conversation, Rachel Murray of University of Bristol explains how a craze for popular entomology developed around World War I with films and popular insect books a source of fascination for modernist writers and thinkers, including Virginia Woolf, DH Lawrence, Ezra Pound, Katherine Mansfield, and Marianne Moore.
“The soldier is no longer a noble figure,” observed the war poet Siegfried Sassoon while serving on the Western Front. “He is merely a writhing insect among this ghastly folly of destruction.”
It is little surprise that Sassoon turned to insects to express the plight of the World War I soldier. Many did. Bugs – both real and metaphorical – came to shape the way people thought and wrote about the experience of war, and this prompted a surge of popular interest in insects more generally.
This was the first fully industrialised, long-range conflict, in which the enemy was reduced to minute specks. On the front line, soldiers wore bug-like gas masks and camouflage uniforms for the first time, were strapped into new prototypes of military body armour, and crawled through the mud in tanks. The optics of war even caused the modernist writer Wyndham Lewis, who served as an artillery officer, to remark: “These battles are more like ant fights than anything we have done in this way up to now.”
The striking resemblance between humans and insects also stemmed from their close proximity on the battlefield. Lice, mosquitoes and flies thrived in the trenches, quickly becoming one of the main sources of illness and death among soldiers. Faced with the rapid spread of typhus, malaria, and trench fever (spread by lice), the War Office teamed up with entomologists to tackle this enemy within.
This led to a campaign of insect extermination, in which troops were regularly disinfected with chemicals designed to halt the spread of lice. Yet while this was going on, soldiers were also being subjected to poisonous gases from the enemy, some of which had previously been used as insecticides. One Dutch newspaper was quick to notice the parallel treatment of soldiers and insects.
In this satirical illustration from May 1915, the female embodiment of Germany, “Germania”, sprinkles insect powder over a tiny group of soldiers. At first glance, she appears to be delousing them, but she is in fact exterminating them with chlorine.
Yet if the conditions of war reduced human beings to bugs, then it was to these life forms that people turned in search of ways of understanding their predicament.
Perhaps because people felt closer to insects than ever, in the period around World War I a craze for popular entomology developed.
Studies of insect life were in high demand, with more books devoted solely to bugs than ever before. Of particular interest to the British public was the work of French entomologist Jean-Henri Casimir Fabre, whose groundbreaking and often gruesome studies of the behaviour of wasps, beetles, mantises, and flies sold widely in the years surrounding the war. Fabre was a pioneering figure in the life sciences who demonstrated that more could be learnt about insects as living entities observed in their natural habitats than as dead specimens pinned in display cases.
The development of new film technologies also meant that the sophisticated behaviour of insects could be made visible to the human eye. In November 1908, nature documentary maker F. Percy Smith’s The Acrobatic Fly caused a stir when it was screened at a London cinema. Advertised on the front page of The Daily Mirror, the short film consisted of remarkable footage of a fly juggling various miniature items with its front legs.
After the war, the public appetite for bugs on screen continued to grow. From 1922, a series of nature shorts called Secrets of Nature was screened in British cinemas. Many of the films focused on the hidden lives of ants, wasps and beetles.
This popular bug interest was also seen in the more canonical cultural output of the period. The films and popular insect books mentioned above were a source of fascination for modernist writers and thinkers, including Virginia Woolf, DH Lawrence, Ezra Pound, Katherine Mansfield, and Marianne Moore, who listed Fabre’s ten-volume collection, Souvenirs entomologiques (Entomological memories), in a list of “great literary works”. The poet William Carlos Williams even remarked: “Henri Fabre has been one of my Gods.”
Some writers were inspired by the remarkable ability of insects to thrive in inhospitable environments. Set during the war, DH Lawrence’s novella The Ladybird draws on Fabre’s account of the “sacred beetle” (also known as the dung beetle), which sculpts the waste products of larger animals into a home for its offspring. The text highlights the ingenuity of the dung beetle, emphasising its ability to transform death and decay into a source of new life.
Others were drawn to Fabre’s account of the unique ways that insects perceive their surroundings. One of Wyndham Lewis’s characters remarks enviously that “the insect sees a different world to us, and possesses other means of apprehending it”, while in Virginia Woolf’s novel To The Lighthouse, artist Lily Briscoe longs to experience the compound vision of ants: “One wanted fifty pairs of eyes to see with.”
The turn to popular entomology in the years surrounding the war was no coincidence. While insects may have come to represent the degraded nature of human existence, studies of bug life helped writers and artists, as well as the public at large, to look beyond the wartime atmosphere of destruction, and to develop new ways of seeing themselves and the world around them.
In the DH Lawrence Memory Theatre we want to address various aspects of Lawrence’s life through artefacts to try to understand this complex writer. How do we capture the modernists’ fascination with entomology? What insects should be crawling through our draws? In 2019 we begin building our Memory Theatre and retracing Lawrence’s savage pilgrimage both physically and digitally. If you have an idea for an artefact, get involved and submit ideas here
In this guest blog, originally published in The Conversation, Sue Rabbitt Roff of University of Dundee, explains how “a watershed in British obscenity law had been achieved without any discussion about the illegal sex acts central to the novel”. Skip to page 258 of Lady Chatterley’s Lover to see if you would have made the same gamble as barrister Jeremy Hutchinson…
Jeremy Hutchinson, who has died at 102, was one of England’s finest criminal barristers. He was counsel of choice for some of the most high-profile cases of his era. He defended the likes of Christine Keeler and Great Train robber Charles Wilson and also obscenity cases against novels like Fanny Hill and Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
Later known as Lord Hutchinson of Lullington, his role defending Penguin Books after it published the unexpurgated version of the DH Lawrence classic is particularly memorable. It remains the landmark case in British obscenity law.
But look at the details and something extraordinary emerges: Penguin’s decision to publish 200,000 copies on the advice of Hutchinson and joint lead counsel Gerald Gardiner was a massive gamble. It set up a case that were it not for the incompetence of the prosecution could easily have gone the other way.
Obscenity and England
Lady Chatterley’s Lover had only ever been legally published in abridged versions in the UK, starting in 1932. Though by 1960 the unexpurgated edition was sold in Europe and America and could be obtained under the counter in London if you knew where to go, Penguin co-founder Allen Lane wanted to publish a cheap paperback of the full thing.
The idea was to put it out at 3s 6d, the same price as ten cigarettes, to make it affordable for the “young and the hoi-polloi”. The excuse was the 30th anniversary of Lawrence’s death from tuberculosis at the age of 45.
When Penguin consulted Hutchinson and Gardiner, the lawyers retreated to reflect. A trial under the new Obscene Publications Act seemed inevitable. The act’s first paragraph stated that material will be deemed obscene if it contains elements that tend as a whole “to deprave and corrupt persons who are likely … to read, see or hear” it.
The act included a new defence in cases where the offending segments were “for the public good on the ground that [they are] in the interests of science, literature, art or learning”. In consultation with several literary experts, Hutchinson and Gardiner felt most of the racy scenes and bad language – including (30) “fucks” and (14) “cunts” – could fall under this defence. Lawrence, after all, was one of the most highly regarded writers of his era.
Hutchinson was concerned about page 258, however, where anal sex crops up – albeit obliquely. It has Oliver Mellors, the lover in the book’s title, trying to divorce his wife Bertha Coutts and being accused by her “of all unspeakable things”. Clifford Chatterley writes a letter to his own wife saying that Coutts has aired details about her marriage to Mellors which are “usually buried down in the deepest grave of matrimonial silence”.
But, he comments:
Humanity has always had a strange avidity for unusual sexual postures, and if a man likes to use his wife, as Benvenuto Cellini says, ‘in the Italian way’, well that is a matter of taste.
Lady Chatterley has pause for thought:
Connie remembered the last night she had spent with [Mellors], and shivered. He had known all that sensuality, even with a Bertha Coutts! It was really rather disgusting. It would be well to be rid of him, clear of him altogether.
Her friend Duncan Forbes then makes light of it:
If he’s made love to his wife all ends on, hasn’t he a right to? She ought to be proud of it.
While homosexual anal sex between consenting men was legalised 50 years ago in the UK, the heterosexual equivalent became legal only at the millennium in England and Wales and was highly illegal in 1960. (The 2001 film Bridget Jones’ Diary celebrated legalisation with a pretty explicit scene between Renée Zellweger and Hugh Grant.)
Illegal acts could still potentially use the public good defence, but Hutchinson feared it made the case much harder to win. Gardiner and the experts at the meeting dismissed his fears. In these more innocent times, they were betting that the prosecution wouldn’t grasp the point and omit it from their case. Hutchinson agreed to go ahead and advised Penguin accordingly.
The defence called 35 professors of literature, authors, journalists, editors, critics, publishers and child education experts, and four Anglican churchmen. Each declared the book had sufficient literary merit to deserve publication for the public good. (Those less convinced of Lawrence’s genius begged off – Enid Blyton declared she had never read the book and “my husband said no at once”.)
Lead prosecutor Mervyn Griffith-Jones cross-examined only 14 of the 35. He lost most of those rounds, and sometimes his temper in the process. It was only in his closing speech he said to the jury:
Would you look at page 258. It is a passage which I have not – and I do not think anybody has – referred to during the course of cross-examination, or indeed at any time during this trial. It … describes what is called the ‘night of sensual passion’.
He read out the whole passage remarking: “Not very easy, sometimes, not very easy, you know, to know what in fact he is driving at in that passage.”
It’s not clear how many jurors understood the passage; some were said to be visibly shocked. Certainly Griffith-Jones had missed the significance entirely, having referenced it only to underline the book’s general depravity. Mr Justice Byrne summed up with no reference to anal sex either. The issues were, he said, promiscuity and adultery described in words that were “normally obscene”.
The jury returned in three hours and found Penguin not guilty. Neither the clergy nor any of the other experts had been examined on anal sex and it is not clear whether they realised they were implicitly defending it or not. A watershed in British obscenity law had been achieved without any discussion about the illegal sex acts central to the novel.
In the wake of this case, publishing in Britain became considerably more liberal. Had Hutchinson not agreed to advise Penguin to take that extraordinary gamble, things could have panned out very differently.
In this blog, originally published in The Conversation, Claudine van Hensbergen, of Northumbria University, Newcastle argues that “the purpose of literature is to make us feel, and to give us new ways of experiencing and thinking about the world around us.” When D.H. Lawrence spoke openly about sexual relations he was labelled obscene. Similarly, argues van Hensbergen, the Earl of Rochester has been unfairly perceived as pornographic due to his use of language…
The judge’s copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover used in the landmark 1960 obscenity trial of DH Lawrence’s famous novel is to be sold at auction in October. The paperback copy will be sold with a fabric bag, hand-stitched by the judge’s wife Lady Dorothy Byrne so that her husband could carry the book into court each day while keeping it hidden from reporters. The lot includes the notes on significant passages that Lady Byrne had helpfully marked up on the book for her husband, and a four-page list of references she had compiled on the headed stationery of the Central Criminal Court.
After six days of evidence and only three hours of deliberations, the jury found in the favour of Penguin Books, its verdict allowing the publisher to print copies of the novel for the first time. The trial was seen as a victory for liberal ideas over the old establishment. In literary terms, it signalled the opportunity for authors to write with a new type of language and freedom.
But was Lawrence really the first writer to use obscenity in literature? And were liberal readers of the 1960s the first to appreciate the literary potential of obscene words and sex scenes? In short, the answer is no. The literary world which Lawrence and his fellow modernist writers inherited was that of the Victorian establishment. An establishment that had silenced earlier writers who, like Lawrence, used obscenity for literary ends.
One of the most important writers to be wiped from the publishing record during the 19th century was the poet John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester. Even today, we continue to find the obscene language and images found in Rochester’s poetry shocking. Take, for example, his A Satyr on Charles II a critique of the monarch as a man governed by his penis:
‘Tis sure the sauciest prick that e’er did swive,
The proudest, peremptoriest prick alive.
Though safety, law, religion, life lay on ’t,
‘Twould break through all to make its way to cunt.
Restless he rolls about from whore to whore,
A merry monarch, scandalous and poor.
Following his death in 1680 publishers scrambled to produce editions of Rochester’s poems – correctly perceiving the public appetite for his verse. An initial run of pirate editions of Rochester’s poetry was quickly supplanted with an authoritative collection, produced in 1691 by the leading literary publisher of the day, Jacob Tonson. Tonson is credited with popularising John Milton’s (up to that point, fairly unsuccessful) poem Paradise Lost and also producing the first footnoted editions of William Shakespeare’s collected plays.
So why did a respectable publisher such as Tonson take the gamble of printing Rochester’s verse? The answer lies in the recognition of Rochester’s poetry as literature rather than obscenity. Just as with Lady Chatterley’s Lover, we need to read past the obscene language and images of the work to understand what Rochester is really saying.
The animal in human skin
Rochester is a poet of the human condition. He strips man down to his barest drives and desires to see the animal lurking underneath. In this way, he was much like the contemporary philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who famously pronounced that life was “nasty, brutish and short” and that underneath it all man was a beast like any other.
For Rochester, the sexual realm is just another place where we see (and feel) this stark reality. Rochester strips away all sense of love and romance from his depicted sexual encounters. And there are many of them. His images are those of the mechanics of sex, its failures, disappointments and disease. Take his notorious poem, The Imperfect Enjoyment, a work that opens with a scene indicating the sexual promise to come:
Naked she lay, clasped in my longing arms,
I filled with love, and she all over charms …
Quickly, this promise is destroyed. The poem’s speaker prematurely ejaculates:
But whilst her busy hand would guide that part
Which should convey my soul up to her heart,
In liquid raptures I dissolve all o’er,
Melt into sperm, and spend at every pore.
A touch from any part of her had done ’t:
Her hand, her foot, her very look’s a cunt.
The speaker’s lover encourages him to try again, but to no success:
Trembling, confused, despairing, limber, dry,
A wishing, weak, unmoving lump I lie.
The obscene language Rochester employs in The Imperfect Enjoyment – and the sexual act on which it focuses – led generations of readers to view the work as pornographic. But this is to misread the poem. The clue is in the title: the poem portrays the ultimate failure of desire. The emptiness of human experience. And its cold, clinical and obscene language (sperm, spend, pore, cunt) is contrasted throughout the poem with phrases that point to the scene’s absent romance (the sexual act “should convey my soul up to her heart”, but it doesn’t).
The beast within
Rochester is often seen as a dangerous or obscene writer in the way he glamorised the licentious world of the Restoration court. But when we read his poetry more closely, we find little glamour in the language expressed. His verse exposes human feeling and behaviour, showing the superficiality of our social world with all its polite manners and codes of behaviour. And the use of obscene language is key to that project. As Rochester succinctly phrased it in his correspondence, “Expressions must descend to the Nature of Things express’d”.
The Victorians couldn’t cope with Rochester’s poetry, and there were no editions of his work published in the 19th century. It wasn’t until 1963, in the wake of the Chatterley trial, that American scholar David M. Vieth began work on a modern uncensored edition. Vieth gave us back the real Rochester and made it possible for readers to access his poems once again.
Obscenity might not make for comfortable reading, but that’s often its point. The purpose of literature is to make us feel, and to give us new ways of experiencing and thinking about the world around us. For Lawrence this involved using a new language that cut across class and gender in celebrating the sexual act – for Rochester it involved looking into the mirror and confronting the beast within.
In the DH Lawrence Memory Theatre we want to address various aspects of Lawrence’s life through artefacts to try to understand this complex writer. How do we represent his struggles against obscenity laws and censorship and the right to freely express ideas? In 2019 we begin building our Memory Theatre and retracing Lawrence’s savage pilgrimage both physically and digitally. If you have an idea for an artefact, get involved and submit ideas here