Carlton Beals, who met D. H. Lawrence in Mexico City in 1923, remembered him as “a thin man with a body that seemed about to fall to pieces; his face was pasty, expressionless.” At about the same time, a young Danish student, Knud Merrild, thought, “He did not seem frail, but gave you a feeling of sinewy strength.” The poet Witter Brynner, who met Lawrence in 1922, recalled a man with “beard and hair [that] seemed like eaves he was cuddling under—a weasel face hiding under the warm fur of its mother and peeking out.” May Gawler, who saw him in Australia that year, said he looked like “a reddish bearded able-bodied seaman” and claimed that Lawrence’s eyes were “blue, gentle and wistful,” while the Australian novelist Mollie Skinner, who collaborated with Lawrence on The Boy in the Bush (1924), remembered them as green. Memoirs appearing in the 1930’s, shortly after Lawrence’s death, include phrases such as “tidy little man” to describe him, but Lawrence was, according to a passport issued in 1921, 5 foot, 9 inches tall and almost always stands above the men around him in photographs.
The deceptive quality of individual impressions and fading memories is an element of distortion that a biographer must contend with, and, for David Ellis, the author of the final volume of Cambridge’s supremely authoritative three-book life of Lawrence, it is a prominent feature even in a study that claims that “for many of us, literary value is in the end what matters most.” Ellis readily admits to a “twinge of nostalgia” for the idea of “liberating the text from all its surrounding impedimenta” but ruefully acknowledges that, for a relatively recent artist, “no-one comes to the text without information, preconceptions” and states, as a principle of composition, that, for Lawrence, “The people he met, the places he visited and the particular human situations in which he found himself were a constant stimulus to how and why he wrote.” In his exhaustively comprehensive chronicle of Lawrence’s life from 1922, when he traveled from Italy to Ceylon to Australia to New Mexico in a typical search for a healthy home ground, to his death in Vence, France, in 1930, Ellis has followed the course set by his predecessors in the Cambridge project, John Worthen (The Early Years, 1885-1912, 1994) and Mark Kinkead-Weekes (Triumph to Exile, 1912-1922, 1996) in bringing a sympathetic and judiciously incisive intelligence to the huge mass of information that a very ambitious and painstaking enterprise has accumulated.
Worthen’s work required the detailed documentation that Cambridge had gathered to unravel the self-serving, mythologizing tendencies of many previous accounts of Lawrence’s life and to make a balanced assessment of conflicting interpretations.
Kinkead-Weekes, in what critic Ronald G. Walker calls a “methodical recording of virtually all Lawrence’s known actions,” impressed many reviewers with his “staggering depth of scholarship” but led reviewer Walter Kendrick to somewhat snidely point out that the book is “the size of a cobblestone and weighs almost four pounds” and that, while Lawrence’s death “at the early age of 44 was unfortunate for him . . . readers of literary biography will be grateful.” Although Ellis is generous with praise for the work and encouragement of his colleagues, he is also alert to the displeasure of the nonacademic reader who might not feel the need to know what Lawrence was doing on a particular Tuesday morning, which is just the kind of record that a serious scholar or a Lawrence devotee would devour with delight. His mediating approach is to include every ort, sliver, and scrap of verifiable information he has but to separate some of the data into maps, charts, appendices, indices, and more than one hundred pages of notes that run along as a commentary on the narrative. The elaborate fabric of Lawrence’s life, unfolding in chronological sequence, is presented with a clarity and directness of style that make even the more mundane matters at least moderately readable. More crucially, Ellis also offers an understanding of and (appropriately subdued for the most part) an affection for Lawrence, the man and the artist, that is likely to involve almost every reader, even those predisposed, by other biographers or by Lawrence’s own writing, to dislike the author.
Lawrence himself is, of course, at the heart of the book, but his wife Frieda is there too. There has been a tendency to regard Frieda as one of the “disadvantages” with which Lawrence had to contend. Keith Sagar, for instance, described her...
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