Stephen Gill

The Youthful Lawrence

The Letters of D H Lawrence Volume 1 1901–13

By

Cambridge University Press 579pp £15 order from our bookshop

At last – the Lawrence book we have been waiting for. Since Lawrence’s death in 1930 hundreds of critical studies of his work have been published and innumerable copies of his novels sold, yet there is still no reliable edition of his writings or comprehensive collection of his letters. It is, of course, much harder work to edit a text or transcribe and annotate a letter than to put out yet another ‘reading’ of Lawrence and no doubt unprofitable for publishers to take note of academic quibbles over the state of a novel’s text. But, at last, thanks to goodness, copyright laws and the Cambridge University Press, a start has been made on a scholarly edition, with Professor Boulton’s edition of this first of seven volumes of Lawrence’s letters. Harry T Moore’s edition of 1962 (excellent and indispensable in its day) contains 197 entries between 1903 and May 1913, Boulton’s has 579 for the same period. Moore annotated lightly, but supplied a useful Who’s Who to the letters; Soulton annotates heavily and adds a Lawrence genealogy, a chronology for the years 1885-1913, seven maps; a clutch of excellent photographs and a 20-page introduction, which forcefully directs us away from the mysteries of Lawrence’s emotional life towards his development as an intellectual and an artist.

Some great writers, George Eliot for example, do not give of themselves very freely in letters. Others, like Keats and Dickens, are at their very best in telling their news to an intimate or arguing some point of aesthetics or morals to a new acquaintance. Lawrence is certainly of this company. He was continually responsive to new experience and even when tired after a day’s teaching found the imaginative energy to convey to people back home just what it felt like to direct a class of boys in As You Like It, or to be singing songs to a boisterous child reluctant to go to bed, or to be mixing with such people as Hueffer, Pound, Garnett, or, later, to be thawing out in the sunshine of an Italian spring. This description of a day in the fields is typical of Lawrence’s tone in his letters to Louie Burrows: ‘We began to cut the corn on Monday. The crop is thin and wretched; the knife cottered and clogged vilely; it rained; I am sure Hell is a cold wet place; they invented the fiery business somewhere in Arabia, by the bright Sahara’s sunny strand; my hell has a N.E. wind and rain varying from drizzle to pelting sleet. On Monday I expiated all the sins I ever committed, and all that I ever inherited…’. What a pleasure it must have been to receive such a letter, which pitches you at once into another’s experience, or such a one as this: ‘I liked Hueffer’s sister: she was straight, frank, jolly – I liked her. But I wish Hueffer wouldn’t introduce me as a genius. When a fellow hasn’t enough money to buy a decent pair of boots, and not enough sense to borrow or steal a pair, he’s ticketed “genius” as a last resource: just as they call things “very desirable” when nobody on earth wants them.’

The Lawrence who is revealed in this volume is a man avid for big experiences. He reads continually and it is as if each book is a personal encounter. Dostoievsky, no good – spit him out. Balzac, marvellous: ‘Balzac can lay bare the living body of the great life better than anybody in the world.’ Bastien Lepage’s ‘grey pictures of French peasant life – not one gleam, not one glimmer of sunshine’ torment him and have to be exorcised by the beauty of English scenery on Wimbledon Common. Again and again we have a glimpse of the later Lawrence who insisted on the living relationship of art and life – ’the novel can help us live’. At the end of the volume, too, we just see the emergence of Lawrence the outcast, as Heinemann turns down Sons and Lovers as unfit for publication because of its ‘want of reticence’ and provokes this premonitory outburst: ‘Curse the blasted, jelly-boned swines, the slimy, the belly-wriggling invertebrates, the miserable sodding rotters, the flaming sods, the snivelling, dribbling, dithering palsied pulse-less lot that make up England today. They’ve got white of egg in their veins, and their spunk is that watery it’s a marvel they can breed.’

For many readers, of course, this volume will be of interest primarily as the story of Lawrence in love. The letters to his mother and to one Agnes Holt, whom Lawrence almost decided to marry, are all lost, but enough to Jessie Chambers (the Miriam of Sons and Lovers). Louie Burrows and Helen Corke have survived to substantiate Lawrence’s remark as early as 1910: ‘I have muddled my love affairs most ridiculously.’ The climax of it all is well known. In March 1912 Lawrence met Frieda Weekley, the wife of one of his professors. Within two months they left England together, she abandoning children, husband and financial security and he the support and to some extent the esteem of a growing circle of influential admirers. The letters of the last year 1912–13 record personal loss, anguish, uncertainty, but also strengthening artistic self-confidence. The volume ends with the publication of Sons and Lovers and Lawrence’s declaration: ‘It’s the end of my youthful period.’

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter