15 June, 2006Issue 5.2EuropeLiteratureWriters

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The Liberty of an Outsider

Katherine Hurst

John Worthen
D.H. Lawrence: The Life of an Outsider
Allen Lane, 2005
518 pages
ISBN 0713996137

‘My hope,’ states John Worthen in what he describes as his valedictory book on Lawrence, ‘is that readers … will find new ways of understanding a writer whose obituary has been written so many times since 1930 but who, “infinitely an outsider,” continues to trouble and delight us.’ As a man who has devoted his life to the study of Lawrence, Worthen is well aware of this unquestionable capacity to stimulate and unsettle: one need only look at the furore caused by the publication of The Rainbow in 1915, or the notorious Lady Chatterley trial of November 1960 for evidence. While Lawrence has faded from view in recent times—a target of ferocious feminist assaults in the 1970s, and discredited by those who labelled his work dogmatic, even proto-fascist—he continues to arouse interest. Our forebears talk of closet readings of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, their copies sheathed from disapproving eyes by protective brown paper. Even in today’s more sexually adventurous society, reading Lawrence remains, to an extent, risqué.

It is Lawrence’s marginal position which fascinates Worthen—his ‘difference from most other English writers’ which enables him to look askance at the world. Born on 11 September 1885 into a Midlands mining community, his birthplace a ‘grimy, two-up two-down’, Lawrence’s lowly origins set him apart. In contrast to the coteries which dominate literary discussions of the Modernist period—Virginia Woolf’s Bloomsbury set, or Lady Ottoline Morrell’s gatherings at Garsington Manor in Oxfordshire—he came from a world where boys left school at the age of twelve to work at the pit, ‘burrowing down,’ as their fathers had done before them, ‘like ants into the earth.’ As a collier’s son, Lawrence’s upbringing was a constant source of humiliation; when he won a scholarship to Nottingham High School, he ‘turned out to be even more of a fish out of water, in this almost completely middle-class school, than he had been in Eastwood.’ Education, Worthen argues, proved a divisive influence. Not only was Lawrence, by dint of his background, distanced from his contemporaries, but his schooling also meant that he ‘lost a good deal of the sense of where he came from or to where he might belong.’ It was a pivotal factor in rendering ‘the role of the outsider … natural to him.’

Worthen argues that Lawrence’s peripheral status as an artist, his continuing isolation, was ostensibly self-imposed. The narrative in his book opens with Lawrence’s assertion that his failure to establish ‘a thousand friends, and a place in England among the esteemed, is entirely my own fault.’ In an intellectual climate characterised by groupings, clusters, and attempts to cultivate shared aesthetics, Lawrence is an artist who remains aloof, detached. His cherished red beard ‘implied difference and separateness’ and, while his letters of 1915 and beyond fester with anxiety at publishers’ increasingly resistant reactions to his work, the prospect of alienation from reading audiences was far from crippling. His ability to write was not conditional upon any connection with the public. As he comments to Barbara Low, the English Freudian analyst, ‘one goes on writing, to the unseen witnesses.’ Indeed, he can even be seen to have manufactured situations whereby he could remove himself from negative judgement at home, from the ‘sewer rats’ intent on tarnishing his reputation. Craving the serenity that is borne of seclusion, he roamed from Florence and Sicily to Ceylon and New South Wales, from Santa Fe to Taos searching for that place—‘somewhere above, looking out and over’—where writing would become possible. Lawrence may profess a desire to establish a ‘connection with some sort of public,’ but, Worthen argues, it was through physical detachment, in often foreign territories, that he was able to flourish.

Where Worthen appears out of kilter with current thinking about Lawrence is in his contention that the ‘stubborn, solitary opposition’ which the writer cultivated through this detachment had unhappy consequences for the quality of his work. He suggests that his reserve—‘a kind of holding back, contained and judgemental’—resulted in novels which, from the early 1920s, ‘would at times be strained, univocal and liable to preach: and sometimes all three.’ Within the past decade, critics such as Robert Burden and Joyce Wexler have forced a revision of these lesser-known works—The Lost Girl (1920), Aaron’s Rod (1922), Kangaroo (1923), The Plumed Serpent (1926) and the posthumously published Mr Noon (Part I, 1934; Parts I and II, 1984)—which, as at their first appearances, tend to be treated with suspicion. The self-conscious, self-critical strain of many of these texts, which flaunt their own fictional status and highlight the role of the reader in the interpretative process, renders them less dogmatic than is generally conceived. Certainly, as Wexler suggests, once his expatriate novels ‘are reconsidered in the context of postmodernism, they begin to look less like bad fiction and more like metafiction.’

Whilst Worthen is sceptical about the success of the later fiction, he implies that, in positioning himself at the periphery, Lawrence was able to probe the changing cultural climate of the early twentieth century: a climate in which norms of sexual conduct were being interrogated and undermined; and in which class and gender boundaries were becoming increasingly unstable. His role as an outsider permitted him a licence untenable for a writer with a more clearly defined reading audience—a public with more specific expectations. As late as 1929, bedridden and terminally ill, he continued to write ‘against the grain of actual experience, as he had always done.’ As Worthen points out, what made Lawrence’s output ‘exceptional in his time—and notorious, to the extent of bringing about his “erotic reputation” and causing trouble with publishers and printers in book after book—was the way it centred on articulating the experiences of the body.’ Lawrence’s work was seen to be startlingly, even disquietingly, fresh. Hence, in 1923, John Middleton Murry sought for his recently established magazine, the Adelphi, the services of ‘the only writer of modern England who has something profoundly new to say.’

Worthen’s title—The Life of an Outsider—implies the loneliness, sadness, and disenchantment of a man who endured unstinting and aggressive criticism. After the scandal of The Rainbow, his fictions were, at best, treated with suspicion, and, at worst, contempt; his relations with publishers in both England and the United States became increasingly fraught; and, throughout his life, he was acutely aware of his own difference—aesthetic, social and sexual. The Life of an Outsider’s dust-jacket, with its image of a fragile figure peering guardedly towards the camera, taps into these anxieties. It shows a man who eyes the world with distrust, who feels himself to be on the edge. However, one of the real strengths of this biography is the way Worthen forces us to reconsider the negative connotations associated with being at the margins. In 1935, five years after the writer’s death, Frieda Lawrence charged Angelo Ravagli—the Italian captain with whom she had an adulterous affair and whom she later married—with the task of bringing her husband’s ashes from Vence in the south of France to her Kiowa ranch. It seems that Ravagli failed to carry out his task. Instead of returning the ashes in the ‘beautiful vase’ as Frieda had stipulated, he filled the empty casket with cinders on his arrival in New York. Crucially, Worthen interprets this not as defamation of the Lawrence name, but as a release. ‘Lawrence,’ he argues, ‘may finally have managed to evade her again, and to finish his career solitary, free, unhoused, with no lid sealing him or block containing him: scattered, perhaps into the estranging sea he had so often contemplated.’ The role of the outsider is not as pitiful as we might imagine: in Lawrence’s death, as in his life, Worthen implies, it endowed him with not inconsequential freedoms.

Katherine Hurst is a DPhil student in English Literature at St Anne’s College. Her thesis focuses on the novels of D. H. Lawrence and representations of his work on film.