EVERYMAN CLASSICS D H LAWRENCE Biography
D H Lawrence, 1885–1930
David Herbert Lawrence was born the fourth child of five, of a miner in a coal-mining village some ten miles from Nottingham. His father had married above himself to a woman who had almost become a schoolteacher. Lydia Beardsall had been won over by the sheer force of his animal magnificence. Life in a miner’s cottage proved less wonderful. It was a mixed marriage and one whose mixture Lawrence would ponder throughout his short career – most lyrically in the prelude to The Rainbow: the men are clogged in the nutritious soil, the women’s eyes are fixed on the sky and the church on the horizon.
Lawrence’s father (whose potent fucking is imaginatively glorified in Mellors’s domination of Connie in Lady Chatterley’s Lover) was a collier in the pit-pony-and-butty pre-industrial era, when mining was manual and ‘dignified’. He was, as Sons and Lovers records, periodically drunken.
John Lawrence was instinctively scornful of those ‘stool-arsed jacks’, like his younger son. ‘Bert’ grew up with twin heritages, twin dialects, and radically conflicting ideas as to what life was about. He was, it was clear, too frail for the pits – even if his mother had allowed him. His brains got him to Nottingham High School. He was the first boy from his village to go there.
He left school at sixteen and got himself a clerical position with a firm in Nottingham which sold surgical goods. As recorded in Sons and Lovers, Bert was not initially his mother’s favourite. Lydia Lawrence was uninterested in her sons until they outgrew childhood and could qualify as ‘lovers’---adults, that is. Her eldest, William Ernest, had arrived at that point in life first. He (‘another stool-arsed jack’) was doing well in London when he was stricken down by erysipelas and died.
Bert also came down with pulmonary illness a few months later and also came close to dying. That attack was, with hindsight, the first touch of the TB that would later kill him. As recorded in Sons and Lovers, Mrs Lawrence transferred her radio-active affection to her second son. It was reciprocated. Paul’s last, whispered word in the novel, is the Strindbergian ejaculation, ‘mother!’
He was now writing early drafts of The White Peacock. There were, as he left his teenage years behind him, other women in his life – most importantly Jessie Chambers. A farmer’s daughter, well educated, with a fine sensibility she collaborated with him on his early writing. His poor health and his mother’s tenacious grip led to his staying close to home as a pupil-teacher in Eastwood for three years. He performed well enough to go on to Nottingham University and enrol for a teaching certificate. In 1907, he published his first short story – submitted under the name ‘Jessie Chambers’.
The qualified Lawrence left home to take up a teaching post in far-off Croydon. He was in his spare time reading widely in philosophy and religion, forming an idiosyncratic worldview. Jessie again proved her usefulness by posting some of his work to the country’s leading literary magazine, The English Review. Ford Madox Hueffer recognised its quality and, having seen the manuscript of The White Peacock, helped secure publication for the novel with Heinemann.
The years 1910–11 were a period of crisis and breakthrough. His mother fell ill with cancer. Shortly after her death, he became briefly engaged to a woman he had known at college.
In winter 1911, his lungs again collapsed – dangerously. In his convalescence he dashed off The Trespasser for a new patron, Edward Garnett at the publisher Duckworth. School teaching was now no longer an option. He would now be an author, or nothing. As an author he had, one of Duckworth’s advisers said, ‘every possible fault’ and ‘genius’. It was at this period he took on the authorial name ‘D. H. Lawrence’. He hated his birth names.
He had resolved to travel and consulted a professor of German he had known at Nottingham, Ernest Weekley. Weekly’s wife, Frieda, born von Richthofen, was ten years younger than her husband and six years older than Lawrence. There were three children to the family. At first sight, almost, Lawrence and Frieda fell in love and a few months later eloped.
In Europe, with Frieda now beside him, he wrote ‘Paul Morel’ (as Sons and Lovers was called). Duckworth accepted the novel and published it to strong reviews and modest sales. Lawrence was, at the same time, writing plays, essays and – most successfully – short stories and forming long-lasting literary friendships: most significantly with Middleton Murry and his partner, Katherine Mansfield.
Lawrence’s growth as a creative writer over these years was amazing. He was embarking on the project which would eventually see print as The Rainbow and its sequel, Women in Love. He and Frieda had married four months before the outbreak of war. Lawrence was in no immediate danger of call up. But they would be confined to England for the duration of hostilities and, given Frieda’s nationality (the flying ace, the ‘Red Baron’, Manfred von Richthofen, was a distant relative), they were very hard up.
The couple retired to coastal Cornwall where, in a comical episode, he and Frieda were accused of signalling to U-Boats with semaphoric underclothes on their washing line. Persecution as spies coincided with Lawrence’s prosecution as a pornographer when The Rainbow, his finest novel to date, was confiscated and banned in September 1915. He forged ahead with Women in Love, whose manuscript was everywhere turned down. The novel was seen as dangerously unpatriotic.
For Lawrence all this was proof that the tree of life, Ygdrassil, was dead in England. Vitality must be found elsewhere. Following the Universal Conscription Act in 1917, as the war looked very grim for the allies, Lawrence was called up for a medical. Clearly unfit to serve in any capacity he suffered the indignity of the digital-anal violation he later described, with undiminished fury, in 'The Nightmare’ section of Kangaroo.
With the war over, and as soon as their passports, arrived the Lawrences took what would be a permanent farewell from his home country. The remainder of Lawrence’s life was a pilgrimage. Health was a motive. No word, certainly not ‘fuck’ or ‘cunt’, frightened him as much as ‘tuberculosis’. Whatever his physicians said, he persisted in calling his chronic, ever worsening, condition ‘bronchials’.
The Lawrences voyaged and journeyed to and through Italy, Mexico, New Mexico, Australasia, Ceylon, and the US. He wrote feverishly. Novels, like Kangaroo, were hurled off in weeks. Lawrence was always dependent on patrons. The kindest, richest, and most useful was Mabel Dodge Luhan, who gave the Lawrences the run (and eventually the title deeds) of her Kiowa Ranch, in Taos. Lawrence’s ashes now repose there (reportedly).
In his last phase, during his travels to primitive places he largely switched from earthy men heroes to airy women heroines (it is Lady Chatterley’s Lover, not ‘The Gamekeeper’s Mistress’). In 1925, while reading aloud his long short story about a magnificent stallion and his female rider, St Mawr, he spat up a gob of blood. The dreaded word was no longer avoidable but such was his formidable vitality that he kept death at bay, defying the predictions of his doctors, for five more years.
Lawrence returned to Tuscany. His last years saw the completion, after three drafts, of Lady Chatterley’s Lover – his last English novel. Its plea for new, ‘hygienic’, sexuality was the more urgent given its author now years’-long impotence.
He died in Italy. Lady Chatterley’s Lover was a bestseller in Paris---under the imprint of various pirates, principally. It would be thirty years before it was legally published in Britain.
John Sutherland, 2012.