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

Over 20 essays, Rick Gekoski provides potted histories and interesting anecdotes of the great authors and rare books he’s encountered during his time as a bookseller. The focus of this blog is on his acquisition of Sons and Lovers, the ‘jewel in the crown’ of his personal Lawrence collection.

‘Collectors are an odd lot, both obsessional and compulsive, secretive and relentless’ writes bookseller Rick Gekoski, but be wary of those who collect T.E. Lawrence and Winston Churchill as ‘their sense of self is fuelled by their association with a hero through whom they feel enlarged’. In Jungian terms this is known as ‘psychic inflation’.

So, what kind of person collects D.H. Lawrence? Well, I’ve certainly met one or two with a messiah complex during my time at the D.H. Lawrence Society and belligerence seems to be a recurring trait too. But these aren’t traits I’d associate with Rick Gekoski, author of Tolkien’s Gown.

The book opens with a scathing attack on Dennis Wheatley, ‘thriller writer, Satanist, erotomane, and bore’. But he also has a first edition of Sons and Lovers in a dust wrapper. ‘One of the striking oddities of the trade in modern books’ he explains is ‘that the dustwrapper of the book is worth ten times – sometimes much more – than the book itself. Books without their wrappers are regarded as incomplete, which seems a little silly, as if they were Chippendale chairs, without legs.’

Lawrence would certainly frown at the commodification of his work. In the essay ‘Pictures on the Wall’ he argues that having the same picture hung on the wall for years produces a ‘staleness in the home’ which ‘is stifling and oppressive to the spirit’. As we change our taste in art changes. Just because something costs a lot of money doesn’t make it irreplaceable. Similar sentiments apply to books. In the 18th century books were expensive and became a form of property that overwhelmed ‘any sense of literary delight’. It was libraries that transformed our relationship with books as they ceased ‘to be looked on as lumps of real estate, and came to be regarded as something belonging to the mind and consciousness, a spiritual instead of a gross material property’.

Gekoski is clearly not in the trade just for ‘gross material property’, though money does help. Books are an integral part of his life, and like children who eventually leave home, he misses them when they move on. Therefore, he provides a sketch of each book he purchases, as well as providing context, analysis and nuggets of literary history. 

The dust wrapper on his newly acquired purchase includes a brief notice which is believed to be by Lawrence and states:

‘Mr. D.H. Lawrence’s new novel covers a wide field: life in a colliery, on a farm, in a manufacturing centre. It is concerned with the contrasted outlook of two generations. The title, Sons and Lovers, indicates the conflicting claims of a young man’s mother and sweetheart for predominance’

Gekoski explains that Sons and Lovers is one of the earliest to ‘use psychoanalysis as an organizing principle’ as well as one of the first working class novels written by someone from the inside. In it, Lawrence plays out his inner conflict of being torn between the ‘fierce ambition’ of his mother and his first love, Jessie Chambers – who had helped his revive some of the text. The mother’s perspective would win out, much to Jessie’s disappointment. The betrayal was too much, and their friendship soured. 

The unfinished novel accompanied Lawrence when he eloped with Frieda von Richthofen in 1912. He wrote to Edward Garnett with great enthusiasm, explaining that Paul Morel – it’s working title then – ‘has got form…It’s a great novel.’

Edward Garnett was also a novelist, but ‘a better editor than he was a writer’ and warned that Heinemann was nervous of publication as ‘the tyranny of libraries is such that a book far less outspoken would certainly be damned’. Lawrence’s responded with his infamous ‘Jelly-Boned Swines’ letter, of which an extract features in the video below. Lawrence’s rage, observes Gekoski, ‘makes Conrad’s Mr Kurtz seem a liberal spirit, doesn’t it?’

Frieda helped Lawrence rewrite some of the passages, something that has been raised more recently in Annabel Abbs’ Frieda and Frances Wilson’s experimental biography The Burning Man. This was an unwanted emotional burden for Frieda who complained, ‘I had to go deeply into the character of Miriam and all the others; and when he wrote his mother’s death he was ill with grief and his grief made me ill too’.

Garnet trimmed the novel down by around 10% and Lawrence complimented him on his pruning, writing, ‘I hope you’ll live a long time, and barber up my novels for me before they’re published.’

Gekoski observes that ‘the finished book is a mélange of the perfectly realized and the inappropriately generalized, like so much of Lawrence’s fiction. Lawrence is never better than when he has his eye firmly fixed on an object. But when he lifts his head to consider, and to generalize, the prose is unrelentingly dead, and false’.

Perhaps Lawrence could have done with 20% of pruning…

Another Lawrence who needed editing was T.E. Lawrence. Garnett offered to abridge his Seven Pillars of Wisdom, a book of such verbosity that E.M. Forster politely concluded it ‘imparts not colour but gumminess’. Verbosity was also a deterrent to some publishers due to the time it would take a typesetter to lay out a book. Author Virginia Woolf, a semi-professional printer who ran the Hogarth Press with her husband Leonard, would have rejected publishing Ulysses not because of the content of the final chapter, but because she ‘estimated that it would have taken a professional typesetter two years just to set it’.

Editing out ‘gumminess’ is a vital part of publishing and entails many unsung heroes who have helped books become masterpieces. ‘Would Lord of the Flies have been so successful’ argues Gekoski ‘if editor Charles Monteith had not cut the first 12 pages describing a nuclear war and insisted deposited the boys directly on the island or the story?’

Sons and Lovers was published in 1913 by Duckworth. For Lawrence, ‘a novel was done when it went to the publishers’. But it was Garnett who requested Lawrence design the dust wrapper. These utilitarian objects were usually disposed of by bookshops on purchase and why dust wrappers before 1919 are so rare. Gekoski explains that Lawrence refused on the ground that it was difficult to illustrate a coalmine when he was living on a lakeside in Italy ‘with no coal mines within miles and miles’. Hence the typographic wrapper with Lawrence’s blurb on the front cover.

In ‘The Bad Side of Books’ Lawrence writes, ‘Books to me are incorporate things, voices in the air…What do I care for first or last editions? I have never reread one of my own published works. To me, no book has a date, no work has a binding’. In a later introduction to a bibliography of his work he wrote ‘A book that is a book flowers once, and seeds, and is gone. First editions or forty-first are only the husks of it.’

Gesoki confesses he is a man who loves the husks and laments selling his copy of Sons and Lovers in his first catalogue in 1982 for £1,850.

Rick Gekoski. 2004. Tolkien’s Gown and Other Great Stories of Great Authors and Rare Books. Constable. Hachette

Related Reading  

Promo video: Jelly-boned swines

DH Lawrence was a man famed for his rage. When I was the literature editor for LeftLion magazine I created a feature called The Endless Rage of DH Lawrence, whereby we had him mouthing off about modern problems. It was great fun to write, and a weird experience as I spent a lot of my time wondering what Lawrence would say if he was asked if he wanted a carrier bag after purchasing a pack of chewing gum in Tescos. How he would loathe the incompetence of modern life.

Lawrence’s rages could consist of an irrational outburst or simply scalding someone because he disagreed with their view point. But often his rage was born out of frustration. Take June of 1912 as an example. Lawrence had fallen in love with Frieda Weekley, a married woman and mother of three children. He persuaded Frieda to run away with him but her husband, Ernest, wasn’t making things easy for them, demanding that his wife return home or else she would never see her children again. Their affair was an absolute scandal, especially given the taboos around divorce and the prevailing morality of the time. Lawrence also had the first draft of his third novel, Sons and Lovers, rejected by William Heinemann. He needed the money in order to provide for Frieda, and so these two issues culminated in an explosive volley of vitriol to Edward Garnett, his friend and literary editor, on 3 July, 1912.

“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.

I could curse for hours and hours — God help me.”

We’ve taken a few extracts from the letter and included it in the video above, which you can also find on our Instagram account. We absolutely love Lawrence when he’s in a rage. Nobody else can do spiteful and witty like him. This scathing attack on his perceived enemies suggests if Lawrence were alive today, he’d hold his own in a rap battle!

In the DH Lawrence Memory Theatre we want to think differently about literary criticism. Instead of following a traditional linear narrative, such as a biography, we want to tell Lawrence’s life through artefacts. We believe that this is the best way to represent a complex and contradictory life. But how do we capture this rage? Perhaps we will have a drawer in our memory theatre that doesn’t quite open so that audiences get frustrated trying to interact with it. Or maybe we need a rage-ometer that calculates the velocity of Lawrence’s moods at different periods in his life. And how about your own rage? Do we need some kind of recording device so that the public can vent off about Brexit, zero hour contracts, and being forced to hear about Kim Kardashian every time we switch on the TV?

The above short is our first real promotional video for the project and one that we hope will encourage you to submit an idea that captures this most entertaining element of Lawrence’s life. The video editing was by a very talented 2nd year English student called Izaak Bosman. It was originally created for our instagram account but we’ve also reformatted it to include it on our YouTube channel.

Now get angry…

dhl-trunkIn the DH Lawrence Memory Theatre we want to address various aspects of Lawrence’s life through artefacts.  Was Lawrence’s rage some kind of coping mechanism, or was he genuinely angered by those around him? Can we trace particular moments when he was at his angriest? Perhaps we could all do with being a bit angrier today instead of hiding behind our glossy online avatars and disingenuous status updates. In 2019 we will be 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.

Other short Promo videos from our YouTube channel D.H. Lawrence: A Digital Pilgrimage.