Writing the Australian bush: DH Lawrence’s wildflowers

David Herbert Lawrence dived deep into the psychology of the Australian landscape in Kangaroo.
Flickr/Duncan~

 

In this guest blog, originally published in The Conversation, Christopher Pollnitz of University of Newcastle explores 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.

Morning light on the Illawarra Escarpment, which runs behind Thirroul.
Flickr/Kaptain Kobold

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?

Thirroul glimpsed from the Illawarra Escarpment.
Flickr/davidlkel

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.

“ Blue, blue, with a touch of Australian darkness.‘
Flickr/Kate’s Photo Diary

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.

Christopher Pollnitz is preparing a critical edition of Lawrence’s Poems and is a member of a bush care group.The Conversation He is Conjoint Senior Lecturer, University of Newcastle This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

dhl-trunk GREENIn 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

A Memorial Tribute to Rosemary Howard

I’ve recently taken up the post of archivist at the DH Lawrence Society with the aim of putting the DH Lawrence Society newsletter in chronological order and digitizing it so that it’s available to the wider public. Therefore I was very interested, and saddened, to read this glowing tribute from Christopher Pollnitz for Rosemary Howard, the former Lawrence Society secretary and Newsletter editor who recently passed away. Unfortunately, I will never get to meet this inspirational woman but this testament vividly brings her to life as well as cementing her contribution towards DH Lawrence Studies.

Rosemary was always so much fun to be with.  After a meeting with her, I would come away charged with new plans and hopes.  In the decades when she was secretary of the Lawrence Society and editor of the Newsletter, she created an identity for me in the Society.  As someone who lived thirty hours by plane from where the action was, she transformed me into the Newsletter’s “Australian correspondent.”  The role played a key part in the development of my personal academic project.  At the same time Rosemary, with her energy and flair, did not lose sight of her wider goals, of building the Society and Lawrence’s reputation in the UK.  In this tribute I wish to recall how Rosemary’s work on the Newsletter, and on organising the yearly programme of talks and lectures, built bridges between academics and the wider community of Lawrence readers.  She shaped a Society which leading Lawrence scholars felt they could and should address.  A past President like John Worthen gave many of the lectures collected in his volume Experiments at the monthly meetings and annual festivals.  Rosemary had been just as instrumental in forming the Society to which the preceding President, Jim Boulton, gave his farewell address, “A Life in Letters.”

In 1989, during a circuit of the globe on which I visited Lawrence sites in the USA, England, Italy and France, I missed meeting Rosemary.  In the UK I was accessing letters not yet published in the Cambridge edition, and so spent most time in Cambridge with Lin Vasey, though I also visited Jim Boulton in Birmingham.  As I was returning to Australia, Jim Boulton put Rosemary into contact with me.  We exchanged letters about how a copy of the Hiroshige print, Mannen Bridge, came to appear on the cover of Tortoises; for the answer,  I referred Rosemary to Lawrence’s explanation and Lin Vasey’s note in the Letters (v. 175).  Rosemary was curious about every facet of Lawrence research, no matter how abstruse.  Nearby in my files I find a letter asking for a number of Ginette Katz-Roy’s Études Lawrenciennes in which Rosemary had written on Lawrence and Wittgenstein.  Towards the other end of my letter files, in 2006, I am informing Rosemary about discovering some (translated) dialogues of Plutarch that Lawrence had read, and she is setting out for a course at Madingley Park, Cambridge.  There she will be construing speeches from The Peloponnesian War, in Thucydides’ original Greek.

Before my next visit to England, in 1994, Rosemary made a pact.  She would come to hear my Work in Progress paper, on “Death-Paean of a Mother,” at the University of Nottingham, if I joined the Society excursion to Sneinton.  It was a glorious excursion, not least because I got to meet Lawrence’s nieces (and Rosemary’s dear friends), Peggy Needham and Joan King.  The three highlights in Sneinton were William Booth’s birthplace, Lydia Beardsall and Arthur Lawrence’s signatures in the St Stephen’s marriage register, and Green’s Mill.  Recently restored as a working mill, the site was both a science centre and a memorial to George Green (1793-1841).  The nineteenth-century mathematician had come out of nowhere (educationally speaking) to write an Essay in which he proposed the first unified theory of electricity and magnetism.  I wrote my first report for the Newsletter on the excursion.  It shed no light on Green as a mathematician, but it did liken his self-taught genius to that of another son of Nottinghamshire.

In 1996 I sent the Newsletter a report on the Australian Lawrence Society’s excursion to the Loddon Falls, a stream above Thirroul that runs inland from the Bulli Pass.  In the “Adieu Australia” chapter of Kangaroo Richard Lovat Somers hires a “sulky” so that he and Harriett can explore the wildflower-rich bush above the Escarpment.  In biographical fact Lawrence invited the Forresters and Marchbanks, two Nottinghamshire couples whom he and Frieda had met on the ship from Perth to Sydney, to Thirroul for the weekend.  He also hired a motor car and chauffeur for the Sunday, and the three couples were driven to the Falls.  Denis Forrester took photographs of the visit and the outing, two of which appeared in Aldous Huxley’s 1932 edition of the Letters.  The rest were published in Joseph Davis’s D. H. Lawrence at Thirroul (1989).  Using the backdrop of the Falls, Jo Davis and Paul Eggert identified the rocks on which the 1922 party sat, and new photographs were taken with modern counterparts posing on the rocks.

The Australian correspondent never again reached the heights of his first report from down under, but later accounts of a ferry trip to Manly and Narrabeen (corresponding to Chapter 2 of Kangaroo), and of another day – when we sailed on a decommissioned Sydney Harbour ferry, south past the National Park and Thirroul, before putting in at Wollongong Harbour – provided grist for the Newsletter mill.  Rosemary had Australian connections and had visited several times.  Older members of her family had settled in Adelaide, perhaps the most Scottish of Australian cities, and she travelled to the Australian east coast with her beloved Toby.  Toby was one of those heedlessly brave Australian pilots who flew with the RAF on World War II bombing raids over Germany, and one of the lucky few to survive the War.  Whether Toby was a pilot or airman, and whether he flew with the Dambusters, I cannot recall; but Rosemary told me that she still attended RAF reunions to honour his memory.

The Loddon Falls had been a renowned spot for picking wildflowers.  One of the 1922 party, Constance Marchbanks (she has become “Connie” in my mind) was rumoured to have collected and pressed wildflowers.  George Marchbanks was a Society member and there was hope that, if the collection was still in the family, it might be recoverable.  Other Society members, Jean and Tony Temple, had inherited from George Neville the copy of W. T. Gordon’s Our Country’s Flowers and How to Know Them that Lawrence was given as a prize at Nottingham High School.  Wildflowers became a new focus for Lawrence studies, Rosemary giving illustrated lectures on them.

In Cambridge in 2003 I wrote a piece for the Newsletter about the marsh marigolds one sees walking along the Cam to Grantchester.  These favourite flowers Lawrence preferred to call “kingcups” or “mollyblobs.”  When he first arrived in the Isar Valley, he wrote back to Sally Hopkin in Eastwood about the “great hosts of globe flowers, that we call bachelor’s buttons” (L, i. 413), by the river.  I wasn’t sure that “bachelor’s buttons” was another name for kingcups when I sent in a draft of my floral report.  When Rosemary sent back a French postcard of a handsome stand of globe-flowers (Europaeus trollius), I could see at once why Lawrence would compare European globe-flowers, the largest of the ranunculi, with English kingcups.  I have the card still, pinned on my noticeboard.

We shared a love of English and Australian flora.  Rosemary was proud of her cottage garden in Keyworth, and we swapped news of our English country and Australian suburban gardens.  It is a sad irony that her Australian correspondent was not always a punctual letter-writer, a failing she would twit me for; but I could make amends, when she moved to her Cambridge apartment in 2004, by sending her a calendar of Australian wildflowers.

While she was still at Keyworth, she often offered me hospitality in her cottage.  During one visit we drove past the College where she had lectured to the banks of the Trent.  We looked across the river to the further bank, where Paul Morel dug the perilous ledge on which he and Clara Dawes made love.  In a much later airletter she confided her first experiences of D. H. Lawrence.  Because her Edinburgh mentors had discouraged her opening anything by Lawrence, she had been a “late starter,” not beginning to read him until the 1950s.  She had, it struck me, made up for lost time, taking vivacious pleasure in the novels’ erotic passages.

I should mention the January night Rosemary invited me to celebrate Hogmanay at her cottage.  A Scottish tenor was singing Rabbie Burns airs on the record player; there was single malt Scotch whisky; there was haggis on the table and perhaps even some Barossa Valley grenache; there was conversation befitting friends with like minds and a singing of Auld Lang Syne.  Late that night I drove through the lanes of Nottinghamshire to the university hall of residence with great care.  I had had too much haggis, I fear.

Queensland-born P. R. (“Inky”) Stephensen is known principally for publishing The Paintings of D. H. Lawrence (1929); his papers are held in the Mitchell Library wing of the Library of New South Wales.  In his papers is an account of Lawrence’s funeral, sent by a London friend, Frank Budgen, who had chanced to be in Vence at the time of Lawrence’s death.  A self-taught painter, Budgen is known principally for his friendship with James Joyce.  When I contacted his daughter, Joan Budgen, she was pleased to allow publication of the letter and even hunted through her father’s papers for further information.  There she found a photograph of the wreath of carnations that Frank Budgen, his friend Louis Sargent and their wives had taken to the grave and propped, headstone-like, against the cemetery wall.

Rosemary advised that an article on Budgen’s description of the funeral was better suited for the Journal of the D. H. Lawrence Society than the Newsletter, and she then helped finalise arrangements for its publication with the Journal’s editor, Catherine Greensmith.  The account came out in 1997, allowing David Ellis to use it in the third volume of the Cambridge biography.

Well ahead of time, Rosemary booked me in to give a paper on “Editing Last Poems” to the February 1999 meeting of the Society.  John Worthen borrowed an overhead projector so that we could all compare images of the “Nettles and Last Poems notebooks and see how errors and omissions in the Florence edition of Last Poems had been transmitted to recent texts of the late poetry.  Bethan Jones and John asked most of the questions, but everyone seemed to follow and enjoy the presentation.  When the paper was published in 2000, I had made a first and decisive step towards the Cambridge edition of The Poems.

On 11 June 2003 – it was Rosemary’s birthday, she told me – she booked me in for another talk to the Society, this time on Kangaroo.  She was concerned how some Society members might react to my chosen themes, homosexuality and violence in the novel, but on the night I went blithely on, confident that nothing I said would shock Rosemary.  Once I’d finished, John leaned across to Bethan and said, “Ask him.”  So my paper came to be published in the 2006-2007 Society Journal, which under Bethan’s editorship had grown into a substantial publication.  Looking at the article again, I notice how much in the opening pages comes from the Australian correspondent’s reports to the Newsletter.

Earlier in 2003 I had driven from Cambridge to hear Andrew Harrison deliver a good  paper on the versions of “England, My England.”  Both Andrew and Bethan were in the audience when I presented a very detailed history of the transmission of Birds, Beasts and Flowers to the March 2006 conference at Université Paris X.  This time I didn’t carry many of my listeners with me on the difficult narrative of composition, revision and variants; but when I spoke with Andrew after the presentation, and asked if he would accept a written-up version of the paper for the first number of the Journal of D. H. Lawrence Studies, he said, “Yes, please.”

I consulted with Rosemary, by then in Cambridge, about writing up the Paris lecture, particularly about variants in “Bibbles.”  In the poem manuscript, after she has disgraced herself by devouring excrement, the master of the little dog decides to “wallop” her “with a juniper twig”; in the corrected typescript, the punishment is to “dust you a bit”; in the corrected proofs, he chooses to “skelp” her with the twig.  The transmission of Birds, Beasts and Flowers told me “skelp” was Lawrence’s preferred verb, but it was good to have this endorsed by Rosemary, who explained what a “skelping” meant in Scotland (and northern England, according to the OED).  Scuffling boys would skelp each other; naughty boys were skelped for indiscipline.

It was still fun to visit and write to Rosemary in Cambridge, and her niece Christina Marshall was sometimes able to help her travel back for Eastwood meetings.  She remained an alert and omnivorous reader.  I received an airletter about her reading up on Peter Warlock (aka Philip Heseltine) and listening to CDs of Elizabethan music.  Some unlucky falls restricted her mobility, but when she couldn’t get to a course on The Rainbow, her fellow students came to her, in Alder Court.  When Andrew Harrison sent me a copy of Molly Mahood’s Poet as Botanist for review – Mahood pronounces Lawrence the “laureate” of the wildflowers – she took a keen interest in a work that brought together two of her great loves.  She remained a feisty critic of Lawrence, denouncing his disparagement of Hamlet in Twilight in Italy.  In vain did I point out that there were at least a dozen references to this Shakespearean tragedy in The Poems, that his disrespect was a pose.  Eventually I made use of Rosemary’s strictures in a paper I gave in Lismore, New South Wales, comparing Lawrence and Joyce’s Hamlets.

My aim in this tribute to Rosemary has not only been to recall thankfully over three decades of advice, support and friendship.  It is to record how she refashioned and steered the Society to ensure that it preserved a continuity between, on the one hand, readers who admire Lawrence’s works and wish to find out more about him, and on the other, the international band of critics and editors who publish scholarly studies and have produced the Cambridge Edition of Lawrence’s Letters and Works.

The situation in the humanities is not unlike that in the physical sciences.  Astronomers and marine biologists gain much assistance from amateurs with backyard telescopes and scuba divers who daily observe the sex lives of weedy sea dragons.  Literary historians, and historians generally, benefit from having groups of willing readers, enthusiasts and data-entry volunteers.  It is healthy, too, for academics to remember that the studies they write should not only be addressed to other specialists.  As Lawrence Society secretary and Newsletter editor, Rosemary was forever taking one by the hand and saying: come this way, and you’ll find there is no moat, no ivory tower, just a group of readers eager to learn more.  We shall miss her sadly, but she has shown us the way the Society should go forward.

The above testament was sent out to members of the DH Lawrence Society. To join please see the website.

Rosemary Howard died of old age on Tuesday 25 July at Langdon House. Her funeral is at 12:15pm on Thursday August 31 in the East Chapel at Cambridge City Crematorium, Huntingdon Rd, Cambridge CB3 0JJ

Instead of flowers the family suggest making donations to Medecins Sans Frontieres c/o Richard Stebbings Funeral Service Ltd, Kendal House, Cambridge Road, Impington, Cambridge CB24 9YS. 

Read Rosemary’s visit to see Dorothy Brett here