D. H. Lawrence: Triumph to Exile, 1912-1922 is the central panel in what will eventually be an enormous biographical triptych. The first volume, D. H. Lawrence: The Early Years, 1885-1912, by John Worthen, was favorably received upon its publication in 1991. The third volume, written by David Ellis, will concentrate on the last eight years of Lawrence’s relatively brief but productive life. In volume 2, spanning ten pivotal years in the middle of the novelist’s career, Mark Kinkead-Weekes mines the wealth of information recently made available by the publication of new and authoritative editions of Lawrence’s complete letters and works by Cambridge University Press. (Indeed, Kinkead-Weekes is the editor of the Cambridge edition of one of Lawrence’s major novels, The Rainbow.) The result is an exhaustively detailed account that, in its methodical recording of virtually all Lawrence’s known actions—almost a week-by-week log of his whereabouts, the company he kept, the words he uttered, the debts he owed and paid—aims to convey “some sense at least of what it may have been like to live as Lawrence did.”
This immersion in detail is not the only way in which the Cambridge Biography differs from previous lives of Lawrence written by Richard Aldington, Harry T. Moore, and Jeffrey Meyers. In a jointly penned authors’ preface, Worthen, Kinkead-Weekes, and Ellis lay claim to attempting not just a new biography of Lawrence but “a new kind of biography” altogether. The division of the project into three parts each produced by a different author is only the first departure from custom. Although the three biographers have shared materials and “collaborated very closely” on their work, each has his own interpretation of the subject, his own style and emphasis. That three somewhat different Lawrences may emerge from these volumes is not a cause for apology. Rather, the cobiographers see their approach as well suited to an age that remains skeptical about “the idea of a personal core or centre, an ‘essential self.’” Avoiding “the genetic fallacy” by which one explains a complex phenomenon—in this case, a remarkable character—after the fact, as a direct result of its origins, the biographers disavow any attempt to impose a single “definitive” pattern onto their subject. They further justify this poststructuralist approach, as it may be called, by invoking Lawrence’s own vitalist aesthetic, which preferred open-ended, improvisational narratives, tales responding readily to fluctuating currents of feeling and impulse rather than to a preconceived formal design.
An immediate consequence of this particular biographical experiment is the deliberate sacrifice of narrative speed and economy. If it is the biographical analogue to a relay race, the course followed here is like that of a marathon or a steeple chase. Kinkead-Weekes, for his part, asserts that biographical “summary and generalisation should go to the . . . devil; since the life of things tends to be found in detail, variation and change through time; though that story takes longer to tell.” As if to demonstrate his premise, Kinkead-Weekes devotes his first hundred pages to a complete reprise of events already fully presented in the preceding volume. At first glance, there does not seem to be a compelling reason to go over this ground again, except that doing so enables the biographer to include one of the most dramatic events in all of Lawrence’s life: his “elopement” in the spring of 1912 with Frieda Weekley, a married woman and mother of three, and their flight from home in Nottinghamshire to the Continent. Beginning with the image of Lawrence and Frieda on the ferry from Dover to Ostend, Kinkead-Weekes sets the stage for his concluding set piece which finds the Lawrences again setting forth, a decade later, for foreign parts, this time en route to Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka) and Australia. The dual images of Lawrence in transit effectively frame the period in which most of Kinkead-Weekes’ volume takes place, the years when Lawrence’s movements were most often confined to his native land.
The primary focus of this volume is the transformation brought about in Lawrence by a disastrous series of events that he endured during World War I. (A more streamlined account of this experience appeared in Paul Delaney’s 1978 biography, D. H. Lawrence’s Nightmare.) One of...
(The entire section is 1804 words.)