#MondayBlogs – Lawrence Essays: ‘Getting On’ (1927)

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I am 44. The same age as Lawrence was when he died. So far I have a couple of digital projects on my CV: The Sillitoe Trail, Being Arthur and Dawn of the Unread (see image above). Lawrence wrote 12 novels, 4 travel books, 8 plays, numerous short stories and 12 poetry collections published during his life. And that’s not including the non-fiction, forays into psychoanalysis, and the eight volumes of his letters published posthumously. It will probably take me my entire life to work my way through them, let alone replicate his phenomenal output.

When I was the literature editor of LeftLion magazine I once interviewed a self-published author who proudly informed me that he had written his novel in 25 days and then pressed the publish button on Kindle. Although Lawrence may have welcomed the ease with which we are now able to get our work out into the public domain, particularly given the censorship he experienced throughout his life, I suspect he would also be suspicious of the instant gratification offered by digital technology. This is evident in the short essay Getting On, unpublished during his brief life. In this essay he reveals that he struggled for five years to get his debut novel, The White Peacock (1911), “out of the utterly unformed chaos of my consciousness, having written some of it eleven times, and all of it four times”. Lawrence didn’t just bang out books, he worked tirelessly on them, perfecting and correcting until they were ready. The self publish button on Kindle does not encourage such discipline.

Due to his work being so heavily censored, many of Lawrence’s books were either banned, burned or deemed too controversial to read by respectable society. Consequently, he lived large periods of his life in abject poverty. He could have churned out more edifying narratives in order to live a comfortable life but he wasn’t interested in comfort. He had a message to tell and nothing would detract him from this. From 1919 he lived his life in self-imposed exile, travelling the globe in what he described as his ‘savage pilgrimage’. He addresses this in the opening lines of Getting On: “They talk about home, but what is home? I find I can be at home anywhere, except at home.”

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Sun Inn, Derby Road, Eastwood, 1920s. Source: Picture the Past (AP Knighton)

On briefly returning home, Lawrence reflects on his parent’s relationship. His father, Arthur, was a collier “who drank, who never went to church, who spoke broad dialect”. He was a commoner and this annoyed Lawrence’s mother Lydia, a well-spoken city girl who enjoyed chapel and derived pleasure from temperance. Growing up, Lawrence sidled with his mother. His father would be brutally portrayed in his novels. In his latter years, Lawrence realised his mother was a snob and that her aspirations were not born out of a desire for spiritual self-improvement, rather the more mundane and obvious desire to climb social ladders. He notes this in her admiration of Henry Saxon, a “burly bullying fellow” who owned a shop and would provide the model of Paxton, the elderly paralysed tyrant in Lady Chatterley’s Lover. What seems to infuriate Lawrence the most about his mother’s admiration of Saxton, who “wore his gold watch and chain on his full stomach as it gave off royal rays”, was it represented an underselling of herself. She was better bred and better educated. She didn’t have a shop, though, and she was married to a collier.

“Now I am forty I realise that my mother deceived me. She stood for all that was lofty and noble and delicate and sensitive and pure, in my life. And all the time, she was worshipping success, because she hadn’t got it.”

As a child, Lawrence prayed that his father might be converted to the chapel or die from a bad mining accident. But “they were not my own prayers. They were a child’s prayers for his mother, who has captured him and in whom he believes implicitly”. He recognises that his mother was conflicted. That she “begrudged and hated her own love” for her husband and that this had an impact on her feelings for Lawrence and his siblings as “we were her own, therefore she loved us. But we were ‘his,’ so she despised us a little”.

Lawrence’s writing, particularly his letters, are full of contradictions and conflicts. One moment he craves the simplicity of life in Italy. The next they’re all ignorant peasants. Amit Chaudhuri picks up on this in DH Lawrence and ‘Difference’, arguing for an intertextual reading of his poetry, suggesting Lawrence’s works cannot be read in isolation. Perhaps this is why he constantly revised his work: He was constantly revising his life. He was “divided”. Andrew Harrison, in his critical biography of Lawrence, notes that Lawrence addresses these profound divisions in the family home in his poem Red Herring, where he describes himself and his siblings as being “in betweens” and “little non-descripts”.

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Lydia Lawrence had a profound effect on Lawrence. He adulated her. But he resented her snobbery as well. She was proud when he won his scholarship to the Nottingham High School because he was going to be “a little gentleman”, he would find a respectable profession above ground rather than an unrespectable life in the bowels of the earth. For a while he lived up to her expectations as a teacher, but education bored him. He quit and pursued a life as a writer which is why his debut novel went through so many drafts: “I hewed it out with infinitely more labour than my father hewed out coal.”

The great tragedy of Lawrence’s life is that he never got the recognition he deserved during his 44 years on this planet. He would enter the Canon decades after his death in 1930. The White Peacock was published when he was twenty five and his mother was dying of cancer. She held the book in her hands and then died two days later. It was probably for the best as the controversy surrounding his novels would no doubt have brought shame to the family name. He would never be a Henry Saxton, thank goodness. But at least she was able to witness “the delicate brat with a chest catarrh and an abnormal love for her” begin to carve out a career that, at the very least, meant clean fingernails.

“Perhaps she thought it spelled success. Perhaps she thought it helped to justify her life. Perhaps she only felt terribly, terribly bitter that she was dying, just as the great adventure was opening before her. Anyhow she died.”

There is no way of knowing the exact date Lawrence wrote Getting On as it was unpublished during his lifetime. James T Boulton has traced a duplicate copy of the essay being sent to Nancy Pearn in a letter dated 9 January 1927. He suggests it was probably a personal article written for the German publishing house Insel Verlag and that it most likely refers to his visit to Eastwood in September 1926.

In the DH Lawrence Memory Theatre we want to address aspects of Lawrence’s life through artefacts. If you can think of a way that we can address the “divided” conflict of his homelife or his perception of his siblings and he being “in betweens” please get involved. You can submit ideas here.

Getting on is published in The Cambridge Edition of the Works of DH Lawrence: Late Essays and Articles, edited by James T Boulton.

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#MondayBlogs #30WildBooks Lawrence, otherness and Moby Dick

30dayswild Moby Dick

Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust are hoping to increase our understanding of the value of nature and issues facing wildlife by suggesting 30 books to read throughout June (#30WildBooks). One writer not on their list is DH Lawrence. If he were to be included in a future campaign I would recommend Birds, Beasts and Flowers (1923) which, based on his experiences of the Mediterranean and the American Southwest, explores the poetry of nature and the otherness of the non-human world. But pick up any work by Lawrence and you’ll find a writer completely connected to his immediate environment. His Midlands novels explore the destruction of “the country of my heart” and the dehumanising effects of industrialisation, whereas his debut novel, The White Peacock (1911) includes references to over 140 different plants, flowers and trees.

“Under the froth of flowers were the purple vetch-clumps, yellow milk vetches, and the scattered pink of the wood-betony, and the floating stars of marguerites. There was a weight of honeysuckle on the hedges, where pink roses were waking up for their broad-spread flight through the day. Morning silvered the swaths of the far meadow, and swept in smooth, brilliant curves round the stones of the brook; morning ran in my veins; morning chased the silver, darting fish out of the depth, and I, who saw them, snapped my fingers at them, driving them back.” The White Peacock.

Lawrence’s short stories Adolf (rabbit) and Rex (dog) explore his childhood relationship with animals. In Adolf his father brings home a nearly-dead rabbit he’d found on his walk home. Through pure tenderness the rabbit is saved but goes on to cause havoc in the house, leaving droppings on saucers while helping itself to the sugar pot, much to the displeasure of his house-proud mother. Rex explores the naming of a dog donated to the family by an uncle. Like Adolf, the dog disrupts the order of the house and the mother wants him out. But he returns, “wagging his tail as if to say ‘Yes, I’ve come back. But I didn’t need to. I can carry on remarkably well by myself.'” It’s classic Lawrence, forcing us to see things from a different perspective.

One book on the Wildlife Trust’s recommended reading list is Moby Dick by Herman Melville. Lawrence helped establish Melville’s reputation after an essay published in Studies in Classical American Literature in 1923. It’s an incredible piece of literary criticism about the “tiresome New Englander of the ethical mystical- transcendentalist sort” and the #30WildBooks project gave me the opportunity to revisit it once more.

Moby Dick quote

You can feel Lawrence’s excitement reading this seminal book. It’s like it’s written in real time, becoming more frenetic as he jumps on the ship with Ahab on “the last great hunt”. He’s intrigued as to the symbolism of this “warm-blooded” and “lovable” Leviathan and suggests that the reason the whale was never worshipped by the South Sea Islanders, Polynesians, and Malays, was because “the whale is not wicked. He doesn’t bite. And their gods had to bite”.

Lawrence is fascinated by the other and how people change when placed in isolation. Here is it the wilderness of the sea that has a profound effect on Captain Ahab’s character.

“For with sheer physical vibrational sensitiveness, like a marvellous wireless-station, he registers the effects of the outer world. And he records also, almost beyond pain or pleasure, the extreme transitions of the isolated, far-driven soul, the soul which is now alone, without any real human contact.”

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Lawrence analyses the “incredible crew” on the Pequod, exploring their relationships to each other and the outer world. They make The Argonauts seem like “mild lambs in comparison” as they’re “a collection of maniacs fanatically hunting down a lonely, harmless white whale.” Never one to overplay things, he is equally irked by “the sonorous mysticism” that “gets on one’s nerves”. As much as he recognises the novel as being unequalled in terms of “esoteric symbolism” it is also one of “considerable tiresomeness”, accusations that could equally be levelled at Lawrence’s later work, particularly The Plumed Serpent (1926). Kettle black, etc.

Lawrence’s is always able to see things from the non- human perspective: “Moby Dick, the great white whale, tore off Ahab’s leg at the knee, when Ahab was attacking him. Quite right, too. Should have torn off both his legs, and a bit more besides.” Touché .

Lawrence being Lawrence, he uses Melville as a prism through which to explore his own favourite topics, most notably; blood consciousness, the spinal cord, primordial cultures, spirituality and the obligatory bromance. This was picked up by critic John Middleton Murry: “He is not concerned with Melville in and for himself, in his own quiddity. Melville exists only as a paradigm for Lawrence. But the projection of himself that Lawrence makes by means of Melville is amazing (…) It does not matter in the least whether this is a true interpretation of Moby Dick: its importance lies in the self-revelation of Lawrence.”

It’s all about me…

Damn right.

Biographer Andrew Harrison (2016) takes this further, suggesting “the attempt to understand the Americans and, through them, his own work, implied an incipient desire to imagine an audience for (Women in Love).”

One other area of controversy is Lawrence’s assumption that Ishmael does not survive the wreck of the Pequod. Research by JoEllyn Clarey (1986) suggests this was because he was using the original English edition of Moby Dick that omitted the epilogue. Things are never simple with Lawrence, are they?

RELATED READING

  • 30 Wild Books to Read in June (dawnoftheunread.wordpress.com)
  • Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust website (nottinghamshirewildlife.org)
  • DH Lawrence – Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (xroads.virginia.edu)
  • Charles Olson, Call me Ishmael (San Francisco, 1947)
  • Michael J. Colacurcio, “The Symbolic and the Symptomatic: D. H. Lawrence in Recent American Criticism,” American Quarterly 27 (1975): 488. 28/Chase, p. 24.
  • Ren Wellek, “The Literary Criticism of D. H. Lawrence,” Sewanee Review 91 (1983): 598-613
  • JoEllyn Clarey “D. H. Lawrence’s “Moby-Dick”: A Textual Note,Modern Philology Vol. 84, No. 2 (Nov., 1986), pp. 191-195