D. H. Lawrence's Nightmare by Paul Delany

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D. H. Lawrence's Nightmare

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

Recently, a veritable industry has arisen chronicling the life of literary England at the beginning of the twentieth century. The number of books about the Bloomsbury circle—its members and their interlocking relationships—has reached epidemic proportions. In the last year or so, the focus has shifted to the years of World War I, that nightmare which so clearly marks the emergence of a distinctively modern consciousness in the arts. The acknowledged masterpiece in this field is Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory, a splendid piece of literary and social history. Fussell’s concern in that book is with the impact of the war on the imaginations of English writers, especially those who participated in the war and who, if they survived, found their perceptions of history and mankind irrevocably altered. Paul Delany’s painstaking account of D. H. Lawrence’s experiences during the war years, as its title suggests, is intended to be another chapter in that story. His starting point is the fact that Lawrence, whose feelings toward his native country were mixed at best, came to England in 1914 only intending to stay for a brief time. Instead, while he was there, the war began, and Lawrence was effectively trapped, finding himself unable to leave the country until the cessation of hostilities. As a result, he was plunged into a profound personal crisis, one which he almost did not survive.

Delany’s chief undertaking in this book, therefore, is to chronicle Lawrence’s wartime experiences in England. These included the banning of his recently completed novel, The Rainbow, an event which meant, among other things, that Lawrence would face financial difficulties as well as public suspicion and scorn throughout the war years. The fact that he was married to a woman of German extraction and opposed the English war effort added little to his welcome among his own countrymen. As a result, Lawrence spent the majority of the war years living in a succession of small cottages in rural England which appealed to him primarily because they were cheap to rent and kept him out of the public eye. Delany’s account of Lawrence’s wanderings, heightened by the inclusion of photographs of each cottage and refuge, makes for a vivid and moving story.

Delany’s second objective in this book, which he also achieves admirably, is to chronicle Lawrence’s psychological ups and downs during his years of entrapment throughout the war. His skillful interweaving of excerpts from letters and diaries, coupled with quotations from Lawrence’s works which transformed many of these events into fiction or philosophical reflection, presents a graphic picture of a deeply troubled, lonely, yet angry and embittered man who was systematically denied the one thing he wanted most: to leave the country. As a result, Lawrence clung to friends and sought to involve them in schemes for utopian communities; he railed against the war and against English efforts at winning it. When his friends found they could not follow him in all his schemes nor share in his feelings about the war, he turned on them bitterly, thus making his sense of loneliness all the greater. At the fringes of this story is precisely that same Bloomsbury group with which so many other writers have dealt, although Lawrence was never close to it. Upset by its sexual irregularities and disturbed by its tolerance of homosexuality, Lawrence nevertheless had to deal with it because it held much of the power in English literary circles tied up in its intricate and interlocking patterns of relationships. Readers of this book will perhaps find reported here a slightly different picture of the Bloomsbury set than they have received from other sources.

Delany has a third item on his agenda, but one which does not find in this book as satisfactory a treatment as his other concerns. Just as the war began, Lawrence was putting the finishing touches on The Rainbow, his first major work after Sons and Lovers. At...

(The entire section is 1,130 words.)