D H Lawrence: The Life Of An Outsider by John Worthen

D H Lawrence

Penguin Books|2006|518 pages|5*

In April I began reading  D. H. Lawrence: the Life of an Outsider by John Worthen, a biography. It is one of my TBRs as I bought it in 2008 when I visited D H Lawrence’s birthplace at Eastwood, 8 miles from Nottingham.

He was born in 1885 in a row of miners’ houses, a two up, two down redbrick house. The adjoining end terrace house is now a museum and shop (where I bought the book).

I find writing about biographies difficult. This book, in particular, is hard to summarise. I read the book slowly in short sections, reading it most days. It’s a detailed portrait of his life from his birth in 1885 in Eastwood in Nottinghamshire to his death at the age of 44 in 1930. An ‘outsider’, he always felt he didn’t fit in or belong either with his family, or his work colleagues, or the literary elite of the times.

By 1908 writing had become a necessity to him – writing poetry, but he was too insecure to send any of it to a publisher. At that time he was working in Croydon as an elementary teacher. He began writing his first novel, which by October 1910 he was calling ‘Paul Morel‘ . It later became ‘Sons and Lovers.’  It was in 1912 that he first met Frieda Weekley, whom he later married. She was then married to Ernest Weekley, a Nottingham University professor of modern languages.

Once he had left Eastwood he travelled in search of a place where he could be himself, but despite staying in different places, with friends, in hotels and in rented accommodation he felt he was really unable to find a place of his own. The maps at the beginning of the book illustrate this with maps of Lawrence’s Eastwood, of the places he lived in England, in Italy and in America and Mexico. Part of his need to find a place of his own was purely physical – he suffered from tuberculosis and he was searching for a climate where he could breathe easily. His final months were full of pain and suffering and he died in Bandol, France on 2 March 1930.

Worthen writes in depth about Lawrence’s personal life, his relationship with his family and in particular with his mother, Lydia and then his wife, Frieda, as well as his numerous friends and acquaintances, because although he thought of himself as an outsider he needed his friends. Lawrence was prolific, writing novels, short stories, plays, poems, letters, essays, nonfiction books, travel literature, and so on, as well as producing numerous paintings (some of which were on display at his Birthplace Museum).

D H Lawrence photos

Worthen writes in great detail about his work, quoting from original sources, and tracing his development as a writer. There are 38 photographs, the first taken c.1886 of Lawrence as a baby in a pram to a photo of a clay head of him made in 1930 by Jo Davidson. I found it all fascinating, giving a portrait of a man often misunderstood by his contemporaries and criticised for being sexist, racist, a misogynist, a fascist and a colonialist. Worthen, however, writes:

He was in reality generous to women and men alike, and to all races and colours. He wrote wonderfully all his life about his experience of the natural world; he was more perceptive than almost any writer, before or since, about the effects of civilisation upon instinct and desire. He has constantly been attacked because his writing constantly thought things through in public. But it is, uncannily, as if Lawrence knew where both his contemporaries and those after him would be most sensitive and anxious, and concentrated his writing on those very subjects: sex, gender roles, the exercise of power. He intuitively worked his way into the concerns and anxieties of his contemporaries, though by doing so he also confirmed his alienation from his own age and (now) perhaps from ours. (pages xxv – xxvi)

I have read just a few of Lawrence’s novels – Women in Love, Sons and Lovers, The Virgin and the Gypsy, St Mawr, and The Man Who Died. I haven’t read Lady Chatterley’s Lover yet, but when I do I’ll look back at Worthern has to say about it.

About the author:

John Worthen  taught at universities in North America and Wales before becoming Professor of D. H. Lawrence Studies at the University of Nottingham, where he remains Emeritus Professor. His career as Lawrence’s biographer began in the 1980s, resulting in the first of a three-volume Cambridge biography – D. H. Lawrence: The Early Years 1885 – 1912. In 2001 Yale University Press brought out his group biography The Gang: Coleridge, the Wordsworth and the Hutchinsons in 1802. His newest biography is a life of the great German composer Robert Schumann, while he also plans to write a biography of Frieda von Richthofen, concentrating wholly on her life before she met D. H. Lawrence.

St Mawr by D H Lawrence

I liked  St Mawr even though there is so much philosophising and repetition (why use a word just once when you can repeat it three times) that the story is rather swamped. It’s a short novel (147 pages in my copy), first published in 1925, set in the English countryside and then in America, on a ranch in the Rocky Mountains.

This is the story of Mrs Witt, an American, Lou her daughter and Rico, her daughter’s artist husband and the influence of the stallion St Mawr on their lives. Initially desperately in love with each other Lou and Rico react badly on each other and being together makes them ill – they sap each other’s vitality.

As soon as Lou sees St Mawr she knows she just has to buy him:

She laid her hand on his side and gently stroked him. Then she stroked his shoulder, and then the hard, tense arch of his neck. And she was startled to feel the vivid heat of his life come through to her, through the lacquer of red-gold gloss. So slippery with vivid hot life.

In St Mawr Lou finds the vitality that is lacking in Rico. St Mawr represents to her freedom, and wildness as well as masculinity. He cannot be tamed. Bored with life Lou goes to America with her mother, Phoenix, her mother’s Mexican-Indian servant, St Mawr and his groom Lewis. There too she is bored; she leaves St Mawr and Lewis behind and travels to the Rocky Mountains of New Mexico with her mother and Phoenix. Here she comes across a tumbledown ranch, Las Chivas, that she immediately loves, aligning herself to the wild spirit that she says wants her. (The ranch is based on Lawrence’ s Lobo Ranch (later called Kiowa) at Questa, seventeen miles fro Taos, where Lawrence wrote the novel.)

This a richly written story, with beautiful descriptions of the landscape and the characters, full of symbolism and Lawrence’s views on male/female relationships, life and death, and the power of nature. I think I may need to re-read it to understand it better.