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Superb Analysis of a Great and Unique Writer
on 27 May 2012
Being D.H. Lawrence's close friend or lover must have been a mixed blessing. While Lawrence was wonderfully engaging, with a huge number of interests and - a rare blessing - marvellously attentive to others, he had his darker sides. He introduced his first girlfriend, Jessie Chambers, to a wonderful world of literature, art and music, and enriched her life hugely, but he later selfishly exploited her devotion for him (including getting her to sleep with him before marriage; a massive step for a girl from Jessie's background) and later selfishly portrayed her as the clinging Miriam in 'Sons and Lovers' (an acts of self-justification that may have rebounded as Miriam may seem more sympathetic to the reader than Paul!). While his mother was dying, he became engaged to an intelligent college friend, Louise Burrows - he later broke off their engagement with little explanation, and Louie was so upset that she didn't marry until her fifties. He used his friend Helen Corke's tormented love affair with her music master as the basis for his second novel with, again, barely an explanation, and did not portray Helen with much sympathy in the book. Even his marriage to Frieda Weekley (born Von Richthofen), who he described in their early days as 'the most wonderful woman in England' was stormy, with Lawrence in bleak periods believing that any relationship between man and woman must be one of strife, with each partner striving to dominate the other. Lawrence was ruthless in using his friends' lives for material in his fiction, sometimes to their fury, and could turn on people violently, at one point telling the writer Katherine Mansfield (who he felt had betrayed him) that he wished her dead. But at the same time, most of the people who knew him - even Jessie Chambers, who had much cause to feel aggrieved at Lawrence's behaviour - were very glad they had, and thought there were truly wonderful sides to him, particularly his love of life and interest in people.
Worthen's biography is exceptional because he shows us clearly exactly why Lawrence was lovable, and why so many people were drawn to him. He never idealizes or sentimentalizes Lawrence, noting, for example, that as Lawrence grew more dogmatic so did the quality of his novels (particularly the post-war ones such as 'Kangaroo' and 'The Plumed Serpent') deteriorate, with a hectoring tone developing. But he does show us, by description and by small quotes, quite what a wonderful writer Lawrence could be. And the accounts that he quotes of what it was like to be in Lawrence's company bring the man wonderfully to life: I particularly liked the descriptions of the young Lawrence helping out on the Chambers' farm, of Lawrence's experiences schoolteaching, of his love of animals and children and, most movingly, how when Lawrence was dying of tuberculosis he still insisted on having the local peasants in the Italian village where he and Frieda were living in for wine, food and an exchange of presents. Lawrence's courage, particularly in the face of illlness, is very impressively depicted. I have tended to skip over descriptions of Lawrence's life in New Mexico in the past, and felt distinctly dubious about his friendships (both to a degree slightly exploitative) with the wealthy and rather silly American heiress Mabel Dodge Luhan and with Dorothy Brett (an aristocrat turned painter; a courageous woman in certain ways, but also, to quote Claire Tomalin, with 'a streak of pure silliness', and someone who tended to hero-worship rather tediously). My feelings about this remain, but Worthen does give a wonderful picture of how enterprising Lawrence was while out in the wilds of New Mexico, making a home out of virtually nothing and maintaining a good life, denying his illness until he absolutely couldn't any more. There have been so many biographies that portray Lawrence in a bad light that this one, which didn't flinch from the writer's more dubious qualities but also concentrated on his good ones, was a truly welcome read.
Of course, Worthen being a leading Lawrence expert, it's also brilliantly researched and immaculately edited. My one feeling of disappointment was that we didn't learn a bit more about the novels (their plots, for one thing) and that some of the people in Lawrence's life were only mentioned briefly. But, this is a shorter biography attempting to deal with the whole of Lawrence's very rich life, so couldn't cover everything, and for those very interested in Lawrence, there is the magnificent CUP three-volume biography (I heartily recommend Volume 1, on Lawrence's early years, by Worthen again, the only volume I've read yet!) to use to find out more.
A superb achievement and a real joy to read.