It was the foible of the heroes of Italo Svevo’s novels to wake up each morning believing that, through their own striving, some splendid vita nuova might have begun and they might at last have become a quite different person; and it was the theme of their cheerfully Schopenhauerian creator that this was the most unchanging thing about them. (As it was, one might add, the most unchanging thing about poor James Boswell, another great vita nuova man, ever inclined to exhort himself: ‘Be Samuel Johnson! Be the rock of Gibraltar!’) All the same, despite Svevo’s rule, there have been a few people – Tolstoy, Wittgenstein and D.H. Lawrence come to mind – who not only went on expecting to be transformed, but managed to be so – and this without much reference to age. I come fresh from reading Ray Monk’s enthralling biography of Wittgenstein, a man who lived for change and through change and put all his genius into it.
The matter is very much on the minds of the authors of the new three-volume biography of D.H. Lawrence, of which John Worthen’s D.H. Lawrence: The Early Years 1885-1912 is the first instalment. The theory, as Worthen explains it, is that having three different people write the life will be ‘an explicit (even dramatic) acknowledgment that, however, important the continuities, the Lawrence of the last years (for example) is so different from the 19-year-old who visited the Haggs Farm, that it sometimes seems only by accident that they share the same name’. This is to be ‘a new kind of biography’, avoiding ‘deterministic’ hindsight and the ‘genetic fallacy’ (or explanation by origins) – a plurality of authors preventing a rigging of the story-line to serve a single interpretation. Evidently what comes in here is that Lawrence himself explicitly denounced ‘the old stable ego of the character’. These three biographers are not the first to have felt that Lawrence needed some special, multivalent, non-prescriptive approach: for it must have been what inspired the ‘composite’ biography by Edward Nehls of thirty years ago, in which the biographer stood aside and allowed the torch of narrative to be handed on from one to another of a relay of competing voices.
This seems to raise some fundamental questions about biography, or at least literary biography, and what it should hope to achieve. One has to begin with an ungrateful query: why, with all its great virtue of sympathy, historical imagination and resourceful marshalling of a huge mass of documents (many only recently available), should Worthen’s book strike one as an exhausting slog to read? Of course it is a long book (about 260,000 words by my rough count), and one has the prospect of two more long books (the David Ellis and Mark Kinkead-Weekes ones) looming up awesomely over the first crest: but Richard Ellmann’s James Joyce was a very long book indeed, and it gripped one from start to finish.
I think the answer may be, partly, that a biography simply has to have a narrative, and a non-prescriptive approach tends to sap the narrative. What will constitute a ‘happening’ in the narrative, and how one happening will be represented as leading to another, must vary according to a biography’s subject, but the invisible connecting cord, which is narrative’s way of supplying significance, has got to be there: and it may be that one cannot have this cord without resort to the ‘genetic’ or ‘deterministic’ fallacies. Once the reader comfortably has hold of this cord, the biographer can, if he wants, allow himself all sorts of telescopings or expansions, reflections, analyses, and puttings-in-historical-perspective. But the trouble with Worthen’s book is that one cannot always distinguish the cord from loose ends; to vary the metaphor, there is a Ganges-delta effect, or a sort of running into the sand.
Two features – two ‘leaks’ – help cause this phenomenon. First, in a biography of Lawrence, it seems to be a mistake to let the stories tempt one into psychologising. To explicate the stories is perfectly proper and may be necessary, but not to make use of them as biographical fodder. For, after all, the invention and creative rendering of psychologies was Lawrence’s métier and central concern as an artist, and for a biographer to compete with him here is to violate his terms of employment. In Worthen’s commentaries on Lawrence’s stories one observes a fatal slide from explication to biography and to thoroughly ‘genetic’ theories about his life and development. It is a matter of narrative being introduced at the wrong point. I am thinking, for instance, of his discussions of the story ‘A Blot’ (later revised as ‘The Fly in the Ointment’) and the sketch ‘A Lesson on a Tortoise’. In both, a schoolmaster narrator, teaching in a school in a poor district, is hurt in his idealism by a piece of petty thieving and reacts with a rush of bullying moral anger – three-quarters of which is really obscure self-hatred. Worthen’s exposition is finely done till, by such a slide as I mentioned, it crosses the borderline into biographical speculation.
Such experiences were, we can guess, among the painful discoveries which Croydon brought Lawrence, as he endeavoured to chart in his writing what was happening to him. He came into close contact with poverty; but also into experiences which rocked his confidence in himself. Who and what was he? What should his attitude be to those around him? Superiority? Artistic distance?. Intimacy? His social situation, his very language (like the narrator’s) cuts him off from ordinary people. He is actually better at portraying his inner trouble than at judging others. Deep down, he needs to exercise another Kind of judgment than the easy moral superiority with which his early experience has equipped him. He wants, too, to find a language in which to write about what people really are.
We have moved into narrative and biographical plot-construction here, and with unexpected consequences. ‘He wants ... to find a language in which to write about what people really are’: but has he not already found such a language, to be able to write these very stories? A biographical plot, suggested by the stories, serves to devalue the stories themselves.
The commentary continues: ‘His awareness of class divisions had at one stage driven him towards socialism; it might have pushed him towards entrenched superiority, of the kind the story’s [‘A Blot’s’] narrator demonstrates and which he was certainly capable of himself; but it actually drew him to think of other people according to how far they were individual, independent, proud and capable of fulfilling themselves. Such a pattern of thinking, as was natural for one of his background, tended to be religious rather than moral or social. He was drawn to insist on the primacy of inner qualities, and developed a violent distrust of status and respectability.’ By now we are deep into biographical ‘plot’ and causality. ‘Necessity’ has been introduced into Lawrence’s intellectual development. Given his particular background, it is suggested, the development had to take this direction rather than that. Thus the authority of his thought is being quietly eroded and explained as the product of circumstances. At first sight it might seen a case of the art being brought in to illuminate the life, but in fact things are the other way round: in circular fashion, a hypothesis founded upon a work of art has been drawn upon to explain (frame a causal theory about) the art itself.
The second kind of leakage is closely related: it comes from too much drawing on Lawrence’s fiction for purposes of biography. When we think about Lawrence’s early years, the novel Sons and Lovers keeps tuggging at our mind, but there might be something to be said for resisting this. One sometimes dreams of forming a clear-cut, free-standing picture of Lawrence’s family life, uncontaminated by Sons and Lovers, and only when we have it firmly lodged in our imagination, of confronting it with the novel. Indeed this would not be impossible, given the amount of evidence now available, which is richer than ever in Worthen’s volume. What would come of the confrontation is not clear, but it might perhaps be something valuable. It would at least be a way of experiencing the novel, and its greatness, from a new vantage-point.
This, however, is not at all the approach of Worthen’s book, which continually interweaves the story of Lawrence’s youth with the novel Sons and Lovers and with other of his fictions. Worthen lays down a rule for this cross-referring: the novel should be drawn on only very sparingly when it comes to actual ‘events’ in the Lawrence household – indeed only when there is real-life evidence to support the fictional account. ‘Many things in the novel are not true of real life,’ runs a footnote: ‘many things from real life do not appear in the novel: and a novel – even an autobiographical novel – is not an appropriate source for the events of real life.’ One tends at first to misread this: what it really implies is that the novel may, and should, be drawn on more liberally and unanxiously for things other than ‘events’. The principle indeed seems to be that, where the fictional account is confirmed by real-life evidence, the biographer has a positive duty to cite this fictional version and incorporate it into his narrative. A later footnote is explicit: ‘I shall quote a good deal from Mr Noon – a biography of DHL which did not draw from it would be absurd.’ The idea seems to be to use Sons and Lovers and Mr Noon as what bibliographers would call a ‘copy-text’ and carefully to record all variants indicated by real-life evidence. Thus: ‘When the young Paul Morel goes out, it is with his younger brother Arthur; they are “the lads”. When Lawrence went out to play, it would have been with [his sister] Ada.’ Or: ‘Lydia Lawrence’s reaction to her husband probably had far more in common with the revulsions of Mrs Morel than with the sexual theories of Paul.’ And: ‘Yet another of Sons and Lovers’s divergences from the realities of the Lawrences’ family life in Eastwood is that it hardly mentions the part played by religion or chapel in the Morel family.’ When, however, there is only the fictional copy-text to go by, it is to be given the benefit of the doubt. So, apropos of Lawrence’s father’s emotions at the death of his eldest son (the much-loved Ernest), we read: ‘In the absence of any knowledge of Arthur Lawrence’s feelings, it is appropriate to cite the reaction of Mr Morel in Sons and Lovers after the death of his son William; it may even be authentically Arthur Lawrence’s.’ But what if Mr Morel’s reactions were not ‘authentically Arthur Lawrence’s’? – and there is no particular reason why they should be.
Unlike some biographers, Worthen has at least been explicit about his working principles in this matter, but I cannot help thinking the whole approach is vicious. What good use can we make in a biographical narrative of a detail (for instance, Morel’s ‘terrified’ reaction at William’s death) which, for all we know, may have no right to be there. Notice, too, that the detail of Paul Morel being more ‘one of the lads’ than the real-life Lawrence, when it is taken in isolation in this way, tends to be derogatory towards the novel, making it out as a kind of wish-fulfilment. It would only make proper sense as part of a whole, and – ideally – a whole (a portrait and story) formed without reference to Sons and Lovers. There is a ‘truth’ proper to biographical narrative, and a ‘truth’ proper to fiction, but I am inclined to think there is no truth to be found in the no-man’s-land between the two.
It occurs to one that it would be easier, and perhaps in some way better, to write Lawrence’s life not as a ‘psychological’ biography but as an intellectual one. The story would be much more clear-cut, not being confused by the innumerable veerings, momentary revelations and abortive fresh starts of his day-today intellectual existence; and it would reach its climax in ‘The Crown’, the work which Lawrence wrote in the early months of 1915, after completing The Rainbow, and in which he set out his ‘philosophy’, putting into order the chaotic insights of The Rainbow and the ‘Study of Thomas Hardy’. There is a tendency among literary critics to use Lawrence’s art as a stick with which to beat his ‘philosophy’ – for which his own maxim ‘Do not trust the teller, trust the tale’ comes in as handy support. What this ignores is that ‘The Crown’ is at once a coherent and thoroughly original philosophical statement and a magnificent work of art, cunningly exploiting a wide range of differing tones. Lawrence himself attached great importance to it, and with good reason. It is here, for one thing, that he expounded the doctrine – very fitting to come from a novelist – that ‘God’ or the absolute is only revealed in a relationship. I have in mind the brilliant page or two on the lion, the unicorn and the Crown and the nature or grammar of the relationship between these three.
The lion and the unicorn are not fighting for the Crown. They are fighting beneath it. And the Crown is upon their fight. If they made friends and lay down side by side, the Crown would fall on them both and kill them. If the lion really beat the unicorn, then the Crown pressing on the head of the king of beasts alone would destroy him. Which it has done and is doing.
It is here also that we find his profound critique of ‘cyclical’ cosmologies and their absurd pentagrams and gyres, which he replaces by a truly human version of ‘eternal recurrence’. It is right to believe in recurrence, he argues, but shorn of the regularity and repetitiousness beloved of theosophy. ‘God is gone, until the next time. But the next time will come. And then again we shall see God, and once more, it will be different. It is always different.’ Here is precisely the philosophical justification for those endless swervings and vite nuove which entangle the story-line of his career and make life difficult for the biographer.
A fascinating strand in Worthen’s volume concerns Lawrence’s attitude towards dialect. He is, like George Eliot, Kipling and Conrad, a devotee of ‘phonetic spelling’ in the rendering of dialect speech; and it is worth reminding ourselves that ‘phonetic spelling’, as used by Lawrence in Lady Chatterley’s Lover and elsewhere (‘Appen yer’d better ’ave this key, an’ Ah min fend for t’bods some other road,’ etc) is a thoroughly dubious, and basically quite illogical device. For, whether or not it is correct to call such spelling phonetic, it is indubitably a spelling – and, as we all know, spelling is only indirectly a guide to pronunciation; it is a system of symbols which we interpret according to our own training. Thus readers from Nottingham, Dublin or Trinidad, encountering a phonetic spelling in a novel, can be expected to pronounce it in their head quite differently one from the other, every bit as much as if it had been an orthodox spelling. The concern of phonetic spelling is not just how people from different regions sound to one another, but how this can be conveyed to a third party: it is a triangular affair, and, if taken literally, would lead to mind-baffling complications (how to convey to an Irish or Trinidadian reader what a Nottinghamshire dialect-speaker sounds like to a West-Country one). The lesson is clear. The real message of phonetic spelling is: ‘This is how, as one educated speaker of “standard” (or Home Counties) English addressing another, I shall try to convey to you how (the queer way) these characters sounded.’
This suggests that Lawrence was unwittingly entrapped by a deceptive literary convention; and in a certain degree I think this is true (and of course he is not the only writer to have been so). But Worthen records a most arresting fact: that not just Lawrence and his mother, but also his father Arthur, could move between dialect and standard English at will. The mother refused on principle to speak dialect but would occasionally resort to it mockingly, as the ultimate put-down to her husband. As for Lawrence’s father, so George Neville relates: ‘Only when confronted by his son (with whom he sometimes dropped his vernacular speech) or with his son’s educated friends was he known to talk in the most perfect King’s English, with an affected voice and accent, entirely forsaking the local dialect he usually employed. But before he had proceeded far in this strain, he was generally interrupted by a shriek of laughter, led by D.H., well seconded by the Little Woman [Lydia Lawrence].’ It is a touching detail in their family life; and it is crucial to Lady Chatterley’s Lover that the gamekeeper Mellors, like his prototype Annable in The White Peacock, should be bilingual in much the same way. Bilingualism is an aspect or symbol of the thing that was the great inspiration for Lawrence in his early years as a writer: the joyful sense that one could, and should, live in more than one world. One recalls the appealing exchange between Paul Morel and his mother in Sons and Lovers, about Paul’s ‘class’ position. Paul says to his mother:
‘I don’t want to belong to the well-to-do middle class. I like my common people best. I belong to the common people.’
‘But if anybody else said so, my son, wouldn’t you be in a tear. You know you consider yourself equal to any gentleman.’
‘In myself,’ he answered, ‘not in my class or my education or my manners. But in myself I am.’
‘Very well, then. Then why talk about the common people?’
‘Because – the difference between people isn’t in their class, but in themselves. Only from the middle classes one gets ideas, and from the common people – life itself, warmth. You feel their hates and loves.’
‘It’s all very well, my boy. But then, why don’t you go and talk to you father’s pals.’
‘But they’re rather different.’
For the later Lawrence – it makes for a sadness in our sense of him – things have turned round the other way. He has come to feel he belongs nowhere – neither in a class (‘one can belong absolutely to no class’), nor in a place or country. The latest (the sixth) volume of his Letters, admirably edited by James and Margaret Boulton with Gerald Lacy, covers the months from March 1927 to November 1928. It is the Lady Chatterley period; Lawrence is a sick man, with a persistent tubercular cough, and feels isolated and embattled. The letters have plenty of fire and gaiety still, but he is dispirited and somewhat diminished. His oscillations sometimes become madly impatient, or downright rabid and silly, and especially over this question of belonging. In one letter, to Mabel Dodge Luhan (28 May 1927), he is half in a mood to glorify America. ‘My God, it makes me want to come back there, to get away from these European pap-drivelling little boys. They see nothing in America at all: not even the real menace: and none of the grim Yankee dauntlessness, which has not got its bottom swathed in a napkin. Anything, anything for a bit of dauntless courage.’ A week or so later, enraged by some visitors from the USA, he is writing to Earl Brewster that ‘really, nothing is worse than these Americans ... I feel I’d rather go and live in a hyaena house than go to live in America.’
We need not exaggerate the falling-away. The letters to Lawrence’s new-found American psychologist friend Trigant Burrow are dazzling, a making new of old positions and a Phoenix-like repetition-with-a-difference which is neither mere oscillation nor a hardening into set attitudes; also they are endearingly courageous.
Now is the time between Good Friday and Easter. We’re absolutely in the tomb. If only one saw a chink of light in the tomb door. – But your book too is a chink ... As for myself, I’m in despair. I’ve been in bed this last month with bronchial hemorrhages – due, radically to chagrin – though I was born bronchial – born in chagrin too. But I’m better – shaky – shaky – and we’re going to Austria tomorrow D.V. – whoever D. may be – to the mountains.