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The Quest for D.H. Lawrence


ISSUE:  Spring 1990

A witty English reviewer of my life of Hemingway called me the Mother Theresa of biographers, constantly attempting to resurrect literary lepers like Wyndham Lewis and Hemingway, and make them palatable to the public. I planned to continue my nun-like devotion with D.H. Lawrence.

There were serious problems with Harper & Row when my Hemingway was going through the press—the editor seemed comatose, the lawyer constantly broke his word and delayed publication for five months—so I canceled my option clause and was free to place my life of Lawrence with a different publisher. I had always been impressed by the quality and appearance of Knopf’s books, and several of my literary friends (Phillip Knightley, J.F. Powers, Denis Donoghue) published with them. I sent Gordon Lish a two-page proposal, discussing the need for a new biography, my qualifications, and specific ideas about the book. He replied that he was not personally interested in Lawrence (a strange response) and suggested three alternate editors. I chose Carol Janeway because she was English and therefore, in my experience, less inclined than Americans to interfere with an author’s manuscript. She read my Hemingway immediately, offered an advance five times higher than I had received from Harper & Row and, when I asked for more, handsomely topped it up by one third.

With Lawrence, as with Hemingway, there were many memoirs but only one scholarly biography. Between 1951 and 1974 the late Harry Moore published four revised and enlarged versions (none of them with footnotes) of his biography of Lawrence: D. H. Lawrence: His Life and Works (1951), The Intelligent Heart: The Story of D.H. Lawrence (1954, revised 1962) and The Priest of Love: A Life of D.H. Lawrence (1974). Though these works were turgid, graceless, and dull, and their faults magnified with each successive edition, they have dominated Lawrence biography for the last 40 years. Like Carlos Baker’s Hemingway and Joseph Blotner’s Faulkner, Moore’s books are encyclopedic rather than analytic. His pedantic approach was unsuitable to Lawrence, and he never abandoned his inappropriately defensive attitude toward his subject. The inadequacy of Moore’s biography has long been recognized, and the need for a new life of one of the most influential novelists of the 20th century was obvious. Attempting to remedy this situation, Cambridge University Press commissioned an English academic troika to construct a life of Lawrence in three volumes. I believed I could write a livelier and more coherent complete life of Lawrence before their first volume appeared.

Instead of composing a day-by-day factual chronology, as Moore had reliably done, I wanted to write an analytical and interpretive narrative, to concentrate on the larger patterns and main events of his life. I wanted to use new information to illuminate his friendship with Jessie Chambers, the death of his mother, his marriage to Frieda von Richthofen Weekley, the suppression of The Rainbow, his expulsion from Cornwall, his hemorrhage in Mexico, and the publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. I also wanted to vindicate Lawrence’s earthy father from the self-righteous criticism of his overbearing mother, to reveal Lawrence’s essential sympathy for him in Sons and Lovers, and to show that Mrs. Morel—who destroys the lives of her husband, her two sons, and Miriam Leivers—is the real villain of the novel.

I felt well prepared to undertake this ambitious project. I had been teaching and writing about Lawrence for 25 years; had published 30 articles and reviews on him since 1970; contributed to Stephen Spender’s D. H. Lawrence: Novelist, Poet, Prophet; included chapters about him in three of my own books; and had recently written and edited three books about him: D.H. Lawrence and the Experience of Italy (1982), D. H. Lawrence and Tradition (1985), and The Legacy of D.H. Lawrence (1987). I had published three books on biography as well as three literary lives. Lawrence had reviewed Hemingway, met Lewis, and been a close friend of Katherine Mansfield.

During the last decade I interviewed a number of people, no longer living, who had known Lawrence: Dorothy Brett, A.S. Frere, David Garnett, Sir Julian Huxley, Richard Murry, Montague Weekley, and Rebecca West. I also had extensive experience in the Lawrence milieu. I spent many years in the American West and lived an expatriate and itinerant life while working for four years as a professional writer in England and Spain. I followed Lawrence’s footsteps around the world and could give firsthand accounts of every place he had ever lived in or visited: Eastwood and Cornwall, Gargnano and Fiascherino, Picinisco and Capri, Sicily and Sardinia, Spotorno and Scandicci, Kandy and Sydney, Tahiti and Taos, Chapala and Oaxaca, Bandol and Venice.

Lawrence disliked cities and had the gift of finding attractive places to live, and he led me to several interesting towns. It is still possible to find the Villa Mirenda by following the directions in his letters, taking the seven-mile tram ride from the Duomo in Florence to Scandicci, walking past the church of San Polo Mosciano and up the hill to the house. Lawrence’s Etruscan Places remains the best guide to those towns; and it is exciting to enter the underground tombs in Tarquinia and see the lively rust-colored frescoes (a strong influence on Lawrence’s paintings) suddenly illuminated by the flick of an electric switch. And Fontana Vecchia, his house in Taormina, still stands at the edge of that lovely town, strung along the spine of a hill and overlooking the glittering sea. I found an old neighbor who had lived there in Lawrence’s time, but she could not recall the red-bearded writer with the stout German wife. Instead, she kept repeating anecdotes about a Signer Eccli—until I realized that the tall, thin man with thick spectacles was Lawrence’s friend, Aldous Huxley.

I signed the contract with Knopf in January 1988 and spent the next four months rereading Lawrence’s books and biographical works about him, tracing the development of his ideas, looking for dominant themes, and seeking the essential characteristics in each phase of his life. In April, driving through snowstorms in southern Colorado, I revisited Taos and saw Mabel Luhan’s grand house, Lawrence’s vivid nude paintings in the La Fonda Hotel (the only place in the world where they are exhibited), and the cubist, multi-tiered, flat-roofed, brown adobe Pueblo (just outside of town).

There is a great deal of information about Mabel Luhan but very little about her fourth husband Tony, and I was eager to find out more about him. I sought his relative, Bernadette Luhan, at the Pueblo, but the governor’s office was closed. Though I later phoned and wrote her, and tried to reach informants through intermediaries in Colorado and New Mexico, I never received a reply to any inquiry. The Indians, extremely suspicious and hostile, are difficult to deal with and have no more interest in scholarly research than the inhabitants of Mongolia or Tibet.

Lawrence’s ranch (now owned by the University of New Mexico and used for writers-in-residence) is 17 miles above Taos. It is surrounded by the silver gray of the sagebrush, the quick, clear water of the irrigation ditches, the heavy green of the alfalfa, and the high trails where the shy deer jump. The old log cabin was built at the turn of the century among pine trees at the foot of the Rockies, about 8,500 feet high, and has spectacular views of the desert and the distant range of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. Lawrence said New Mexico gave him “the greatest experience from the outside world that I have ever had.”

Thinking that William and Rachel Hawk’s children (born in the early 1920’s) might still be in the area, I phoned New Mexico telephone information and was delighted to discover that the 90-year-old Rachel Hawk, Lawrence’s neighbor at the Del Monte ranch during the winter of 1922—23, was, 66 years later, still living in the same cabin. Laconic but friendly, Rachel emphasized Lawrence’s self-reliance and capability on the ranch, but she disapproved of his abusive quarrels with Frieda.

A research grant from the University of Colorado enabled me to visit libraries in America and England. In May I read Lawrence’s unpublished letters and manuscripts at Berkeley, Stanford, and the Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas. The most valuable material in Austin was the papers of Edward Nehls, author of D.H. Lawrence: A Composite Biography (1957—59), which included important unpublished letters from David Garnett and Richard Aldington. (I also found in private collections unknown and unpublished Lawrence letters of 1914 and 1927.)

In Ukiah, California, I revisited the 92-year-old Enid Hilton, whose father, Willie Hopkin, had been Lawrence’s friend and mentor in Eastwood. She clearly remembered (after 90 years) lying in bed at the cold dawn, listening to the shuffle of the miners’ clogs on the cobblestones and to the hymns they sang on the way to work.

In suburban Washington I interviewed Harwood Picard, the only child of Earl and Achsah Brewster, who were among Lawrence’s closest friends during the 1920’s. Her directions were rather vague, and, lacking transportation from the end of the subway line, I had to walk for 45 minutes, with the temperature more than 100 degrees, to reach her house. I arrived late and soaked in sweat; but she gave me cold drinks, showed me her parents’ paintings, and told me about their background, precarious economic existence, early interest in Buddhism, and magnanimous response to Lawrence’s satiric story, “Things.”

Jan Juta, the 91-year-old South African artist, had met Lawrence in Sicily in 1921, traveled with him on the island, did the woodcuts for Sea and Sardinia, and painted his striking portrait (now in the National Portrait Gallery, London). Though his stepdaughter warned me, on our drive to his tiny town in New Jersey, that his memory was very poor, I hoped I might be able to prompt a few recollections. She told me about his luxurious childhood (his father had been attorney-general in the cabinet of Cecil Rhodes) and showed me his work. But, unlike the nonagenarian Rachel Hawk and Enid Hilton, Juta could remember almost nothing. Tall, bald, blue-eyed, white-haired, toothless, drooling, and enfeebled, he looked like an aged baby. He would smile, strain his mind, begin to speak and then whisper: “that was such a long time ago, a thousand years ago.” He had called Lawrence “D.H.,” said Fontana Vecchia was “stark,” and thought that Lawrence “didn’t really belong anywhere.”

In the summer I went to England to complete the interviews and research. The most dramatic event was a descent to a coal mine near Doncaster in north Nottinghamshire (the first time a Lawrence scholar had ever done so), which was arranged by the British Coal Corporation. Dressed in boots and overalls, wearing a battery lamp and carrying a gas mask, I went 964 meters down the mine in a rattling iron cage, then walked, rode a conveyor belt, walked, rode an open tram car and—getting hotter as I went lower and deeper—walked a final 300 meters to the coal face.

The mine—cluttered with power lines, rails, tools, and equipment—resembles the dark and dirty sections of a subway, glimpsed between stations. The roof becomes lower as you progress to the coal face and it becomes increasingly difficult to walk while trying at once to point your lamp down to look for obstacles and straight ahead to see where you are going. The roof and walls were covered with wide strips of protective corrugated iron, but the ceiling at the coal face was unprotected and subject to sudden falls of heavy chunks of coal. Only 12 percent of the workers actually mine coal. All cutting is now done by a monstrous machine that slowly moves forward as the coal face is cut away. One engine, like a gigantic dentist’s drill, gouges directly into the coal face while the other, like a huge Catherine wheel, claws across the face with great metal talons.

The winding gear at the pithead still resembles Lawrence’s drawing for the dust wrapper of The Rainbow, the miners, stripped to their shorts, still use a modern form of the Davy lamp; and—though the butty system has been abolished and the pit ponies are gone—it is still an extremely dank, dusty, and dangerous place to work. There are now showers at the pitheads so the miners can go home clean, but a stern sign warned the men not to piss in the baths.

I read Lawrence’s papers at the Nottingham County Library and the University of Nottingham Library. I found in the National Sound Archives on Exhibition Road in London precious taped and transcribed interviews with many old friends and members of his family, especially with his perceptive nephew, William Ernest Lawrence, who lived with Lawrence’s family when the future writer was a pupil in Nottingham High School. In the Greater London Record Office I read—amidst cases of assault, drunkenness and urinating in public—the clerk’s brief account of the proceedings against The Rainbow in the Bow Street Police Court on Nov. 13, 1915. And in the vast Public Record Office in Kew, south London, I discovered, with surprising ease and rapidity, unpublished Home Office papers about the trial of The Rainbow (under the heading “Publications, including indecent”) and about the police raid on the exhibition of Lawrence’s paintings in July 1929. These papers revealed that the novel had been suppressed partly because of Lawrence’s public opposition to the war and that the raid on the paintings had been provoked by a letter of complaint from the publisher Grant Richards to the police commissioner.

In Derbyshire Lawrence’s niece, Margaret King Needham, described his family and his accent and said his sisters worshipped him: “Anything “our Bert” said was taken as Gospel.” She also gave a fascinating account of his scholarly uncle, Fritz Krenkow. The Cambridge edition of Lawrence’s letters stated that Lady Cynthia Asquith’s son Michael had died in 1960. But I had a hunch he might still be alive and obtained his address from his cousin, the Earl of Oxford and Asquith. Michael informed me about his family’s financial problems and his autistic brother John, who had fascinated Lawrence and died in a mental institution at the age of 26. This information enabled me to show that in “The Rocking-Horse Winner” the boy’s frenzied rocking-horse ride for money was Lawrence’s metaphor for a disturbed child’s pathetic attempt to win the love of the mother who had rejected him.

I was especially eager to find Dr. Mary Saleeby Fisher. In the spring and summer of 1915, when she was ten years old, Lawrence had privately tutored her, three hours a day for three-and-a-half months, while living in Viola Meynell’s borrowed cottage at Greatham in Sussex. I was unable to trace her through the British Medical Council, but a friend in Oxford sent me her address in the local telephone directory. I wrote to her in May, giving my American and English addresses, had no reply, and assumed she was no longer alive. Then one morning in London she rang me up and invited me to visit her in Greatham. In the same room and at the same table where Lawrence had tutored her 73 years earlier, Dr. Fisher explained the origins of “England, My England” and told me that a weekend guest—rather than the father (as in the story)—had left hidden in the grass the sharp sickle that had seriously injured the child.

The most mysterious figure in Lawrence’s life was undoubtedly the American journalist, Esther Andrews. She visited Lawrence in Cornwall in December 1916 with her lover, the newsman Robert Mountsier, and, after quarreling with Mountsier, returned alone to the Lawrences in April-May 1917. I was convinced that if her heirs or descendents could be traced and her papers found, there would be letters from Lawrence (which Esther certainly would have saved) that would clarify the nature of their relationship.

I traced Mountsier’s great-nephews (one of them lived in Boulder), and through them his friend, Emily Martin, by writing to the Manhattan nursing home that was mentioned in his New York Times obituary of Nov. 25, 1972. Silas Mountsier III sent me a complete biographical file about Mountsier. But by the time I reached Miss Martin, she had had a stroke and was unable to remember anything about either Mountsier or Andrews.

I tried to discover some information about Andrews by consulting every possible reference book, but she was not listed in any of them. Browsing through my own library, I found a reference to her in Edmund Wilson’s The Thirties, which led to a long description of her in John Dos Passos’ autobiography, The Best Times. Following this information, I attempted to trace her connection with the playwright, John Howard Lawson, who had graduated from Williams College and whose papers are at Southern Illinois University, and with the editor of Seven Arts, Waldo Frank. I sent advertisements to the New York Review of Books and Notes & Queries. I wrote to the Radcliffe College Library and the American Jewish Archives; to the Yale University Library, which owns the Mabel Luhan papers; the University of Virginia Library, which owns the Dos Passos papers; and to the archivist of Lake Erie College, where her close friend, Dawn Powell, had been a student. I searched in London for Stanley Hocking’s daughter, Rita McCullock. I wrote to the poet Norman Levine and the scholar C.J. Stevens, who had lived near the Hockings in Lawrence’s village in Cornwall; to Lois Rudnick, the biographer of Mabel Luhan; to Elizabeth and Lucy Dos Passos; to Townsend Ludington and Virginia Spencer Carr, the biographers of Dos Passos, and to his bibliographer, David Sanders; to Leon Edel, Daniel Aaron, and Lewis Dabney, the Edmund Wilson scholars; to Mary McCarthy, Wilson’s former wife; to Dawn Powell’s past and present literary agents; to the historical records office of the Society of Friends in Haverford; to Esther’s newspaper, Women’s Wear Daily, to the Newspaper Guild and the Society of Professional Journalists; and to Hemingway’s friend, Betty Bruce, in Key West. And I had phone conversations with two longtime employees on Women’s Wear Daily. 1 managed to find two other Esther Andrews. One Esther (1861—1938) was a graduate of Radcliffe, president of the Boston Council of Jewish Women, and a prominent civic worker in Massachusetts. The other was a city councilwoman in St. Michael, Alaska. But all these extensive inquiries did not even produce the dates and places of my Esther’s birth and death, let alone a photograph, personal information, or anyone who actually knew her.

My advertisement in the London Review of Books had brought in a letter from Yvonne Kapp about her unrecorded meeting with Lawrence in Buckinghamshire in 1925; and my “Information, Please” request in the New York Times Book Review elicited a letter from Carlo Carlucci of Managua, giving a detailed description of his 1973 interview with Signora Mirenda, Lawrence’s landlady in Scandicci. (Alluding to the civil war in Nicaragua, Carlucci nervously concluded: “Maybe in a month I would have moved to another country.”)

Finally, after the New York Review of Books had published my ad, Esther’s great-niece, Betsey Harries, a professor of English at Smith College, answered my query. She sent me some essential information about Esther and put me in touch with her uncle, Andrews Wanning, who was named after Esther and had taught at Bard College. In an eight-page letter, he gave me the history of Esther’s life and sent the addresses of his brother and a friend in Key West. (I immediately wrote to them as well as to the Yale Drama School, where Esther had been a pupil.) Wanning also included a tantalizing paragraph that very nearly fulfilled the biographer’s dream: “My brother Henry, who died in 1977, insisted that he had quite definitely seen a large bundle of letters from D.H. Lawrence to Esther in the Key West home. But when we cleaned out the house after the break-up of her household, we could find only one longish letter typewritten.” Betsey Harries promised to look for this letter when she opened her summer house in Maine, and to send me photographs of Esther and copies of her sketches.

The letters from Esther’s family enabled me to reconstruct her career. Though the precise nature of Lawrence’s relationship with Esther remains unclear, she and Mountsier undoubtedly had a significant impact on his life. They encouraged Lawrence’s interest in American literature which led, through Melville, to his curiosity about the South Seas and to his seminal work, Studies in Classic American Literature (1923). Mountsier, acting as Lawrence’s literary agent, placed his work, negotiated with the publisher Thomas Seltzer, and helped to attract an American audience. Esther read the manuscript of Women in Love, became a candidate for Lawrence’s idealistic community, Rananim, visited his friends, S.S. Koteliansky and Catherine Carswell, in London, and introduced Lawrence’s work to Seven Arts magazine. The Lawrences hoped to go to America with Esther in the spring of 1917; but they could not leave the country, except for some purpose in the national interest and were refused passports in February of that year. Nevertheless, when Esther returned to New York, she aroused Mabel Luhan’s interest in Lawrence and was partly responsible for Lawrence’s invitation to Taos in 1922.

I began the biography in late September 1988, wrote three pages a day, and completed the 520 pages in mid-April 1989. By writing rapidly, I sought to give the book a consistent tone and dramatic energy. I continued to seek information while completing the biography. Ross Parmenter, author of Lawrence in Oaxaca, generously sent me many valuable pages about Lawrence’s visits to Mexico, notes of his interview in January 1974 with Frieda’s nephew Friedel Jaffe, and (when the editor of the Cambridge edition of Lawrence’s letters refused to cooperate) proofs of the fifth volume of the Letters.

Though Lawrence’s life and works have been subject to intensive scrutiny, I am hopeful that my own research has revealed significant new information. I emphasized the influence of coal mining and Congregationalism on Lawrence’s life. I traced his network of friendships and the clinical history of his tuberculosis. I showed that his mother did not (as she claimed) come from a higher social and economic class than his father and that Lawrence (like Paul Morel in Sons and Lovers) put his mother out of her misery with an overdose of morphine when she was dying of cancer. (When my mother, having read my work, Manic Power: Robert Lowell and His Circle, said she was glad that I was not going to write another book about men who hated their mothers, I replied: “Mom, Lawrence killed his mother!”)

I revealed that Lawrence wanted to have children with Frieda but was physically sterile, that he had a homosexual relationship with the Cornish farmer William Henry Hocking, that Ford Madox Ford wrote a treacherous report about Lawrence’s disloyal opposition to the war that led directly to the suppression of The Rainbow and to his expulsion from Cornwall in October 1917. I also found in Crockford’s Clerical Directory of 1917 the name of the Vicar of Zennor— David Rechab Vaughan—who reported Lawrence’s suspicious behavior to the local police. I showed the close connection between the sexual theme in his first two novels, The White Peacock and The Trespasser, disproved Dorothy Brett’s fantasy that Lawrence attempted to have sex with her in Ravello in May 1926, and revealed that “The Princess” was based on Brett’s love affair with the Pueblo Indian, Trinidad.

I also illuminated the recurrent patterns in Lawrence’s life: his bouts of pneumonia in late 1901 and late 1911, which enabled him to escape first from Heywood’s surgical appliance factory in Nottingham and then from the bondage of teaching in Croydon; his lifelong invalidism and increasingly dangerous series of hemorrhages from 1925 to 1929; the constant threat of dominating or possessive women: his mother, his sister Ada, Jessie Chambers, Alice Dax, Frieda, Ottoline Morrell, Dorothy Brett and Mabel Luhan; his enjoyment of the physical pleasures of farmwork in Eastwood, Cornwall, and Taos; his major marital crises with Frieda in Metz in 1912, New York in 1923, and Spotorno in 1926; the similar prosecution against The Rainbow in 1915 and the paintings in 1929; his initial delight and inevitable disillusionment with new places; his frenetic nomadism during the last five years of his life to repair his lungs and regain his nerve. There were also recurrent themes in his fiction: the sensual and passionate lower-class man who rescues and sexually redeems the high-born woman; the poignant, compensatory theme of resurrection in his late works: “Sun,” The Man Who Died, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and “The Ship of Death.”

I tried in my biography to emulate Lawrence’s great gift of perceiving and revealing the inner life of people, to illustrate his complex method of mingling autobiography and fiction, and to show that there was no separation between the artist who wrote and the man who lived. As Jessie Chambers observed: “Life went straight into his work.” With Lawrence, as with Wyndham Lewis and Hemingway, my admiration grew as I learned and understood more about him. His greatest quality was personal courage that “knows how to face facts and live beyond them.” Frieda characterized his enthusiasm, freedom, integrity, and honesty when she wrote: “He died unbroken; he never lost his own wonder of life. He never did a thing he did not want to do and nothing and nobody could make him. He never wrote a word he did not mean at the time he wrote it. He never compromised with the little powers that be; if ever there lived a free, proud man, Lawrence was that man.”

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