“Don’t you find it a beautiful clean thought, a world empty of people, just uninterrupted grass, and a hare sitting up.”
Women in Love
DH Lawrence 1913
My uncle’s holiday house was perched right on the tip of the North Foreland, that wedge of South East England that points directly at France, only a narrow private road and a few metres of grass separating house from cliff edge. There, lying in the warm grass, I could train binoculars on the passing shipping and, on a clear day, glimpse the outline of the French coast, while kittiwakes hovered and swooped overhead, guarding their nests in the chalk walls of the cliff. Failing that, there was pleasure, then, in the minute inspection of a blade of grass or an individual dandelion. On the grassy cliff-top, hidden by a tangle of hawthorn, was the entrance to a staircase, carved from the chalk, which spiraled down through the cliff and exited onto an otherwise inaccessible part of the rocky shoreline. Crabs scuttled into hiding as you moved warily among the rocks and pools, green algae lay drying on the stones and the ever-cold waters of the English Channel flowed and eddied in the miniature inlets. At night, every 30 seconds, my bedroom would be swept by a beam of light from the North Foreland lighthouse. In the daytime we would drive down to the nearby seaside resort of Broadstairs where my uncle kept his boat in the tiny harbour and where, in the town, was a vast warehouse of second-hand books.
It was there, and only shortly after I had finished reading ‘Women in Love’, that I unearthed “The Romance of Words”, a work on semantics by Ernest Weekley, Professor of English at Nottingham University and one time tutor to Lawrence. On the fly-page was the bold signature of a DH Lawrence. Was it THE Lawrence? Alas, I gifted the book to someone who I mistakenly assumed would be an everlasting love and would re-incorporate the book into my own library, so I will never know.
Lawrence, on a visit to his old tutor in 1912, fell in love with the professor’s German born wife, Frieda von Richthofen, a mother of three, a cousin of the famous Red Baron and, at thirty three, six years older than Lawrence. Eloping with Frieda, he set out on what his friend Catherine Carswell called his “savage pilgrimage,” an amazing odyssey that took the miner’s son and his aristocratic lady from Cornwall to Austria, to the Abruzzi, Florence and Sardinia, to Sicily and Malta, to Sri Lanka and Thirroul in New South Wales, to Taos in New Mexico and finally to Vence in the South of France.
It is almost impossible not to run into Lawrence somewhere. On the Kiowa Ranch, just outside Taos, New Mexico, once Lawrence’s and now the property of the University of New Mexico, I visited the little chapel, the author’s last resting place and in Mabel Dodge Luhan’s house, Los Gallos, I inspected Mabel’s bathroom windows that Lawrence had painted in an uncharacteristically prudish effort to protect his hostess’s privacy.
But I came closest to him in 1980 when I was offered rooms to rent in the Villa Arcipresso (often referred to as the Villa Mirenda), a house in San Polo Mosciano, near Florence, where more than sixty years previously Lawrence had written “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”. I was shown Lawrence’s rooms, apparently unchanged from his visit, a spot in the garden where I was told he sat and wrote in the shade and a large fresco in the hallway, allegedly Lawrence’s work representing the lady of the house fleeing from the author himself. My potential landlord, Signor Mirenda, was the grandchild of Lawrence’s landlady; was she, as her grandson claimed, the model for Lady Chatterley?
‘Lemon trees, like Italians, seem to be happiest when they are touching one another.’
The Sea and Sardinia
Always seeking the essence of place with his keen and poetic eye, Lawrence produced sublime descriptions of the stations of his journey.
‘The day was gone, the twilight was gone, and the snow was invisible as I came down to the side of the lake. Only the moon, white and shining, was in the sky, like a woman glorying in her own loveliness as she loiters superbly to the gaze of all the world, looking sometimes through the fringe of dark olive leaves, sometimes looking at her own superb, quivering body, wholly naked in the water of the lake.’
But Tahiti repelled him as did California, while Ceylon had failed to shift the false idealism, which had so far dogged him. Even the ‘exquisite beauty of Sicily, right among the old Greek paganism that still lives there, had not shattered the essential Christianity on which my character was established.’ His pilgrimage came to a temporary halt in New Mexico, ‘the greatest experience from the outside world’ that he had ever had. ‘It was New Mexico that liberated me from the present era of civilization, the great era of material and mechanical development.’ He felt, at last, exalted. ‘There was a certain magnificence in the high-up day, a certain eagle-like royalty. In the magnificent fierce morning of New Mexico one sprang awake, a new part of the soul woke up suddenly, and the old world gave way to a new.’
He and Frieda bought a ranch and settled down until a sudden and serious downturn in his health in 1925 sent him back to Europe, first to the Villa Mirenda and finally to the Villa Robermond in Vence where he died 2nd March 1930. Exhumed and cremated at Frieda’s request in 1935, he is now back in New Mexico for good.
‘But better die than live mechanically a life that is a repetition of repetitions.’
Women in Love
Set in the Midlands and in the years following the end of the Great War, Women in Love, follows the affairs of Brangwen sisters, Gudrun, an artist who falls for Gerald, the oafish son of a mine owner, and Ursula, a school teacher who loves Rupert, a physically weak but spirited school inspector. The book also deals with the mutual physical attraction the men share. Ursula and Rupert stagger towards a compromised but settled relationship; Gudrun’s affair ends in tragedy. Gerald, on finding she had betrayed him with a German artist, abandons an attempt to murder her and ends his own life instead. Rupert is, of course, Lawrence, and the mouthpiece for his ideas on life, which were heavily influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche’s ‘The Genealogy of Morals’. Christian morality, Lawrence argues, has limited the human instinct for creative development. ‘The delicate magic of life’ lies buried in an ‘un-replenished, mechanized’ world from which we must escape. Ursula, ‘wants to strut, to be a swan among geese’ but she ‘lived a good deal by herself, to herself, working, passing on from day to day, and always thinking, trying to lay hold on life, to grasp it in her own understanding. Her active living was suspended, but underneath, in the darkness, something was coming to pass. If only she could break through the last integuments.’
Lawrence’s vision of a society where beauty is more important than bread is so much harder to achieve than success as a wage-slave in the socio-industrial world he despised. Love can change you, Lawrence says, ‘Let yourself fall in love. If you have not done so already, you are wasting your life.’ The sexual act was ‘not for the depositing of seed’ but ‘for leaping into the unknown, as from a cliff’s edge, like Sappho into the sea.’ Love cannot be sought; ‘Those that go searching for love only manifest their own lovelessness, and the loveless never find love, only the loving find love, and they never have to seek for it.’
‘The most evil outpouring that has ever besmirched the literature of our country. The sewers of French pornography would be dragged in vain to find a parallel in beastliness.’
Press reaction to Lady Chatterley’s Lover
Periodically the English Establishment exercises its beastly and bigoted prerogative to destroy harmless individuals merely to enforce its mistaken belief it is protecting our morals. Lawrence was a victim as were Oscar Wilde and Stephen Ward. I cannot read about Lawrence without boiling over with rage at the mean-minded treatment he suffered at the hands of his own countrymen. He was turfed out of his Cornish home on suspicion of spying for the enemy (on account of his opposition to the war and marriage to a German), barred from exhibiting his paintings, subjected to hostile criticism of his work and vilified in court after his death by the Chief Prosecutor in his efforts to stop the 1960 publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. To the publisher, Penguin’s great credit the second edition of the book is dedicated to ”the twelve jurors, three women and nine men, who returned a verdict of “Not Guilty” and thus made Lawrence’s last novel available for the first time to the public of the United Kingdom.”
Catherine Carswell, Lawrence’s life-long friend, provides a more moving portrait of the writer than I could ever write.
‘In the face of formidable initial disadvantages and life-long delicacy, poverty that lasted three quarters of his life and hostility that survives his death, he did nothing that he really did not want to do, and all that he most wanted to do he did. He went all over the world, he owned a ranch, he lived in the most beautiful corners of Europe, and met whom he wanted to meet and told them that they were wrong and he was right. He painted and made things and sang, and rode. He wrote something like three dozen books, of which even the worst page dances with life that could be mistaken for no other man’s, while the best are admitted, even by those who hate him, to be unsurpassed. Without vices, with most human virtues, the husband of one wife, scrupulously honest, this estimable citizen yet managed to keep free of the shackles of civilization and the cant of literary cliques. He would have laughed lightly and cursed venomously in passing at the solemn owls – each one secretly chained by the leg – who now conduct his inquest. To do his work and lead his life in spite of them took some doing, but he did it, and long after they are forgotten, sensitive and innocent people, if any are left, will turn Lawrence’s pages and will know from them what sort of a rare man Lawrence was. ‘
I think you will understand from the above exactly what was meant by the sentence “He spent his short life living.” with which the publisher ends Lawrence’s short biography in my Penguin edition of Women in Love.