D. H. Lawrence: The Early Years, 1885-1912 by John Worthen

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D. H. Lawrence

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Many will approach John Worthen’s massive study of D. H. Lawrence’s early life believing that they already know a great deal about its subject. After all, Sons and Lovers (1913) is the Lawrence novel one probably reads first, and everybody realizes that its fictive location, Bestwood, is Lawrence’s Eastwood and that the Morel family is Lawrence’s own. Like his contemporary Thomas Mann, Lawrence used his life to create his art; yet Sons and Lovers resembles Mann’s Buddenbrooks (1901) only insofar as they are both autobiographical novels. Though both novels represent the same chronological period, Mann surveys his early life from the relatively comfortable vantage point of the German burgher middle class; Lawrence, on the other hand, has a solidly working-class perspective. Judged by its original point of view alone, as a novel about a coal miner’s family by the son of a collier, Sons and Lovers emerges as distinctively more original, though considerably more uneven and less learned, than its German counterpart.

This comparison made, it is important to note that Worthen does not indulge in similar speculations. He is concerned, however, with Lawrence’s formation as an artist, and he perceives that Lawrence’s background is essential to that formation. Learning to find the nonintellectual stance that characterizes all Lawrence’s best-known works was a major obstacle Lawrence had to overcome, and Worthen succeeds in demonstrating that the aesthetic distance between Lawrence’s first novel, The White Peacock (1910), and third, Sons and Lovers, lay primarily in the decision to drop the middle-class veneer that had characterized virtually all Edwardian fiction published before it. The American expatriate Ford Madox Ford, author of the similarly pioneering novel The Good Soldier (1915), counseled Lawrence to approach fiction in this way and in so doing hastened Lawrence’s development as a recognized author.

It is likely, too, that Ford’s bohemian relationship with Viola Hunt hastened development of the Lawrence persona as high priest of love. Unlike Mann, who also had read Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche but who never had abandoned his class or its standards, Lawrence was virtually forced into his credo that humanity was all of a piece and by nature nonintellectual. He felt that he could never marry Jessie Chambers, a woman of his own social class and his intellectual equal; that he could marry Louisa (“Louie”) Burrows, who was of his own class but his intellectual inferior; but that he had to marry Frieda von Richthofen Weekley, of German nobility and already married with three children. What made the situation even less socially acceptable was the fact that Frieda’s husband, Professor Ernest Weekley, had been Lawrence’s languages tutor at Nottingham University and had become Lawrence’s trusted friend.

Leaving one’s children for a man six years her junior, following him through France, Switzerland, and Italy, and living the life of exiles from Edwardian England would be daring and socially unacceptable even by the standards of the late twentieth century; in 1912, it was virtually inconceivable for a wife and mother to have done such things. This bold action forced Lawrence even more deeply into his mythic persona. In his painting, an avocation he had begun in childhood but continued throughout his life, he portrays himself as Pan crucified, combining the ascetic associations of Christ with the sensuality of the Greek goat-man deity. His most famous poem of his years in Italy, “Snake” (1923), similarly indicates his preference for the sensual and his simultaneous awareness of what the civilized world demands. Mann used myth as a metaphor for his aesthetics; fifteen years after Lawrence’s death, the American playwright Tennessee Williams would use it as a vehicle to obscure family history and personal details he was reluctant to reveal explicitly. All three authors represent an important matrix of...

(The entire section is 1,961 words.)