Familiar estrangement

D. H. Lawrence - D. H. Lawrence
April 24, 1998

D. H. Lawrence, the fourth son of a coal miner, was born in Eastwood, Nottinghamshire in 1885, in both the heart and the margins of industrial, imperial England. It was not until 1912, when he eloped with Frieda Weekley, the German wife of his modern languages tutor, that he really began to travel, and that his relationship with England and home became a more complex, fraught, and shifting one. It is this time in Lawrence's life that Mark Kinkead-Weekes's excellent biography takes as its starting-point; and it is in Kinkead-Weekes's book and in David Ellis's equally valuable and commendable final instalment that we see Lawrence's increasing estrangement from his own past and society (which anyway had been bitterly on the margins of urban upper-middle-class England) and begin to discern the shape of the placelessness that would be his condition until his death.

Much of Lawrence's reputation rests on three novels from the first phase of his career, the novels set in the England of his childhood and youth, Sons and Lovers, The Rainbow, and Women in Love; on the latter, especially, Leavis based his claim that Lawrence was writing in the 'great tradition' of the English novel. Indeed, there is nothing obviously Modernist about these works. But even Sons and Lovers, the earliest of these, was written after the elopement with Frieda, and its final draft discussed with her and revised, as Kinkead-Weekes's biography reveals, as they were travelling towards Germany.

Sons and Lovers is, thus, not just an English novel in the tradition of Hardy. By recapturing the particularities of a dying locality and world, it raises implicitly a question that has preoccupied much of the 20th century and modern writing and which was beginning to preoccupy Lawrence as he found his voice as a writer: what, and where, is home? It was also during that time, when he was rewriting Sons and Lovers, that Lawrence travelled to Italy for the first time, and, dining with a peasant family, said: "It reminds me so of home when I was a boy". The comment tells us that the question of belonging and origins was beginning to become fundamental to Lawrence, and that it was somehow, paradoxically, linked to his later fascination with the non-English, sometimes non-European cultures of Italy, Asia and Mexico. Many years later, as he gazed upon a Ceylonese workman, he would confide in the American painter Earl Brewster that the man resembled his father.

These two biographies chronicle Lawrence's increasing homelessness and his declining health as he and Frieda wandered restlessly through Europe, Ceylon, America, Mexico, until his death in Vence, near Antibes, in 1930 at the age of 45. The cover photographs tell their own story; the one on the earlier biography still has some of the radiance of youth, while the one on Ellis's book shows a face wasted but alive, something like Jan Juta's strange red-haired portrait, a tubercular Lawrence who was "dying game".

One thing we realise as we read Ellis's book is that Lawrence was not only a great, if controversial, explorer in his fiction of the man-woman relationship (the background for that well-worn Lawrentian theme is given in the portrait of his marriage with Frieda in Kinkead-Weekes's book), but one of the great and early writers of the diasporas of the 20th century - of people on the move who end up belonging nowhere. We read how, in his journeys, he was always mingling with, and sometimes benefiting from the hospitality of, people who had removed themselves from the centre of metropolitan societies to some obscure outpost on a remote continent. One such in Mexico was the American sophisticate Mabel Sterne. Lawrence's relations with Sterne turned out to be ambivalent, first warm and then tense; but elements in her, unsurprisingly, probably formed the basis for the main character in the story "The Woman Who Rode Away" and for the irascible Mrs Witt in St Mawr. These works are not only about failed marriages, nor only are they records of a quest for truth in "primitive" societies; they are also studies in the dislocation that would come to be so much a part of colonial and post-colonial existence. As he describes Lou Witt on the first page of St Mawr, Lawrence reminds us that he is a great writer of exile and the modern ambivalence about identity and belonging: She, with her odd little museau, not exactly pretty, but very attractive; and her quaint air of playing at being well bred in a sort of charade game; and her queer familiarity with foreign cities and foreign languages; and the lurking sense of being an outsider everywhere, like a sort of gipsy, who is at home anywhere and nowhere: all this made up her charm and her failure. She didn't quite belong.

This is a strain one associates more with Henry James than with Lawrence, but in works such as St Mawr James has been crossed with Blake and Dante.

Ellis's book, with its lucid but painstaking chronicling of the minutiae of Lawrence's journeys and its portraits of the kind of people he came into contact with, helps us to understand how a religious vision and a wondrous regard for the autochthonous came to be enriched and complicated by a profound sense of the social displacement that characterises the modern world.

Amit Chaudhuri is a novelist and research fellow, St John's College, Cambridge. His next novel will be published in September.

D. H. Lawrence: Triumph to Exile 1912-22

ISBN - 0 521 25420 5
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - 29.95
Pages - 924

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