Alan Dent writes about D. H. Lawrence
Stand at the front door of 8a Victoria St, Eastwood and turn to your left and you can see the enfolding countryside Arthur Lawrence must have looked towards many times. Bert was under two when the family moved to The Breach House. In Sons and Lovers, it’s located in The Bottoms. Today, it’s a cultural centre. A good, three-storey house with a charming garden front, side and rear, much bigger than the Victoria St terrace. In the book, Lawrence describes it as “scrubby” and what make The Bottoms a “nasty” place are the “ash-pits”. The Lawrences didn’t own the house and had to pay an extra sixpence in rent because it was a corner plot. Lawrence lived here from just before he was two till the age of six when the family moved to Walker St, where they remained for fourteen years. He said the countryside which can be seen from the house was the country of his heart. It was a landscape he walked with his father who passed on to him his expert knowledge of the local fauna and flora.
Lawrence didn’t like Eastwood, but he loved the landscape in which it had been built. Today, it’s a small town like hundreds more, its centre blighted by chain outlets and the risibly named Wetherspoon’s: The Lady Chatterley. It’s easy to imagine how it would have been in Bert’s day: subtract the traffic, the supermarket, the petrol station, the pizza take-aways, the nail bars, the houses built after Lawrence left for good in 1908, and you can see why he felt such an affinity for nature. He was a product of working-class industrialism but he lived in a town which hadn’t obliterated the area’s extraordinary beauty. Eastwood wasn’t Manchester where the children of the working class could grow to adulthood without ever seeing a hillside, a river, a stream, a meadow of wild flowers. Bert had one foot in the industrial twentieth century and the other in the past of the “gin-pits” when Eastwood was a village and natured dominated.
The early pages of Sons and Lovers mention the fairly sudden transformation of the place when commercial mining began: The gin-pits were elbowed aside by the large mines of the financiers. The choice of language suggests bullying and also a nostalgia for what was lost. Bert didn’t identify with the industrialism of the financiers. He was a child of nature. What drew his imagination and affection was the slow world of the hills, woods, flowers, streams. This is how he was formed and it was crucial to the writer he became.
Industrial mining had begun in the area some sixty years before he was born. It was established but not commandeering. Arthur Lawrence walked across fields to and from Brinsley Colliery. He was born in the mid 1840s and began work aged seven. At the time, in the industrial towns of the North and Midlands, many workers lived close to the factory or mill and walked to work along cobbled streets. It wasn’t necessarily their everyday experience to notice wild flowers and birds on their way. For Bert there was a marked contrast between the natural world which surrounded his little town and the industrial landscape of the pits. Though he remarked as a young man that he would miss the collieries if they were removed, he experienced them as a scar and the pursuit of profit which drove them left him disdainful for the whole of his life.
Walker St. was Bert’s home for most of his twenty-three years in Eastwood. It isn’t as charming as The Breach House. Sons and Lovers is set in the latter, or at least in The Bottoms. The detail of the family move in 1891 wasn’t significant enough to be included. Bert’s home was a place of strife. Arthur had deceived Lydia. She believed he owned his house and he seems to have suggested his job at the mine was more elevated than hacking at the coal face. Lydia was a Puritan, a strict non-conformist Congregationalist. The democratic, plain-style of her religion made her contemptuous of double dealing. Arthur clearly talked himself up somewhat. He would have treated it as a joke, but she didn’t see anything funny. It was a humiliation.
Lydia and Arthur met by being related through marriage. His maternal aunt Alice married her maternal uncle John. Lydia Beardsall had lived for a few years in Kent as a girl and spoke with a somewhat southern accent. Her family had been fairly well-off until it was ruined by crisis in the lace industry. She was an intelligent and relatively educated woman with a taste for poetry.
Perhaps Lydia made the classic mistake of sacrificing herself to Arthur’s needs. Essentially sentimental, at the first touch of reality, this turns into its opposite. Offended, she became acutely aware of her needs and withdrew. In the novel, her happiness endures a few scant months. Based on a false view of both herself and her husband it was bound to collapse. Sexual relations went on long enough for her to produce five children but the nature of that intimacy we can only surmise. The novel may exaggerate for effect, but if it’s anywhere near the mark, Arthur probably experienced a fair degree of loneliness.
Lydia and Arthur stayed together till her death in 1910, in her late fifties. For much of that time, if the novel is a reasonable guide, Arthur retreated from the family to The Three Tuns and other friendly pubs. Lydia made him a stranger , drew the children to her, especially Bert (George Lawrence said she looked after his young brother “like a sick monkey”). Withholding affection from her husband she transferred it to her children and Bert got the worst of it because he was sickly and more like her than the others.
Lawrence claimed he was born hating his father. He overstated. He arrived in a family blighted by negative feeling. No doubt, but for the cruelty of the era’s divorce laws, his parents would have parted. He claimed he feared his father and hated his touch. No doubt he did experience fear: Arthur was a tough miner and the boy was witness to his rages against his mother. Yet Bert’s expertise in botany came from his father. They must have spent a fair amount of time together in the woods and fields. In spite of the derogatory picture of Arthur in Sons and Lovers, Lawrence couldn’t help himself depicting his father’s easy sensuousness. Arthur wasn’t a bad man. He wasn’t self-sacrificing like his wife, but her very strength was her weakness. She sacrificed herself too far and heaped blame on Arthur. Bert was required to side with her. Ironically, however, his adult creed became that he had no truck with “ought” and “should”: a tilt towards his father.
There seems to be little evidence of Bert Lawrence walking much through the Nottinghamshire countryside with his mother. His mother was more civic. She liked the church, the WSPU (founded by the Pankhursts in 1903, its motto was “Deeds Not Words”). Position in society, the right causes, civic life in general inspired his mother more than flowers and birds. Bert, on the other hand, found “life” (the word occurs hundreds of times in his fiction) was good, healthy. There was no dissembling, no falseness. A flower couldn’t be false. A bird couldn’t deceive. Everything lived out its nature as it was supposed to. Nature was straight. A hawk might tear a pigeon to pieces, but there was no hypocrisy.
As a writer, however, what’s interesting is how this identification with nature influenced his work. If a bird, a fox, a horse, a fish could live by its nature without complication, why not people? Lawrence was naïve. We are a problem to ourselves because it is our nature to be cultural. We have to create the culture which fulfils our nature and that is the freedom to make mistakes. Lawrence sought in nature an uncomplicated way of being which could resolve the hurtful tangle of his parents’ marriage; but it didn’t exist.
From the outset, Lawrence was trying to solve the problem of relations between men and women, as it appeared to him. The White Peacock, a poor novel full of glimpses of genius, revolves around a love triangle. Because of his misguided idea that if only we could cast off the constraints of culture, dispense with conscious thought and rely on “blood consciousness” (the concept is nonsense), he believed a simple reliance on instinctive responses would lead to happy outcomes. He was right that most of what goes in our minds is unconscious, but our feelings originate in the brain not the blood. Nor is there an impenetrable barrier between our conscious and unconscious minds (not in the Freudian sense of a sump but merely the straightforward sense that our brains whirr away without conscious impetus).
The later novels in which he tries to deal with political issues (Kangaroo, The Plumed Serpent) are inadequate. At home in Eastwood, he was an instinctive socialist. When the miners were balloting for strike action in 1912, he helped out and was angry that the women pushed the men to vote against. He perceived the women as conservative, concerned that money should keep coming in, while he was in favour of the men standing up for themselves. Yet no more than three years later he was railing against the Welsh miners for striking and had set his face against democracy. What led him astray (although by 1929 he was writing to his sister that if he were in England he would vote Labour) was his “blood consciousness” fallacy, his belief in impersonal forces: the forces of nature he’d identified with as a boy and which had given him so much solace. He saw collective action, the application of reason and democratic decision-making as a form of betrayal. He confused realms: falling in love is one thing, deciding how society should be run another.
His wayward theories marred his work, they are worth far less than the fiction. Their energy and sense of seriousness are positive, but Lawrence had no capacity for theory. In the theoretical books and his letters there is a swirl of confused ideas and at times simply lunatic assertions. In driving beyond what he was brilliant at and trying to be a messiah, he exposed his weaknesses and made himself sad and ludicrous. He was a superb novelist at his best, a supremely good short story writer, a good dramatist and a decent poet. It didn’t satisfy him because he was trying to do something literature can’t. It doesn’t change the world in short order. He needed to free himself and he sensed he couldn’t without wider social change. He was partly right: his anguish as a boy and his neurotic relation to his mother were products of a particular culture which did need reforming out of existence.
Lawrence had a poor understanding of politics. He was fifteen when the Labour Party was founded. A clearer view of political reality might have made him realise that a reforming party of the working people was the best chance for at least some of the changes he sought. A reform of the divorce laws for example, and given what we know about his relations with men, the decriminalisation of homosexuality. There was no need for mystical concepts like “blood consciousness”, rather a more down-to-earth insistence on a culture which recognises people’s sexual nature.
He was fundamentally right: Victorian sexual hypocrisy was crippling, and the manic busyness of capitalism did hide emotional, intimate and sexual impoverishment. Lawrence was right in recognising that capitalism, in its manic pursuit of material wealth, its inability to sleep or relax, keeps people remote from their emotional, spiritual and sexual needs. A person who pays more attention to their love life than their career is considered freakish. Of course, as sexual prohibitions have receded, what has arisen is emotionally detached sex: amongst the young this goes by the name of “friends with benefits”. “Friend” excludes the passion and self-transcendence of love and the “benefits” are mere sexual favours. Lawrence was alert to this and his rebellion against it was correct. His designation of himself as “the priest of love” was subversive. He wanted to destroy the self-conscious busy-ness of the go-getter, the narcissistic preoccupation with money, status, property. He wanted emotional, spiritual, intimate, sexual, parental fulfilment to be at the core of people’s lives.
Lawrence believed in marriage and wanted to find fulfilment within it. That was his quest. It was more urgent and difficult than being a writer. He wrote with great speed and fluency. He was lucky in his early publication. He made many useful contacts. He was frustrated and angry when Sons and Lovers was turned down by Heinemann and he couldn’t find a publisher for The Rainbow or Women in Love, but that was nothing compared to the murderous rages of his marriage.
He married the wrong woman. When he met Frieda she seduced him within minutes. This was the first time Lawrence had known a woman who treated her need for sex like her need for food. He mistook her lack of sexual inhibition for affection. He was searching for exclusive love, but she took a lover in no time after hooking up with him. His infatuation didn’t last long and the details of his control and physical abuse are distressing. Frieda is usually characterised as a “liberated” woman, a “sexual adventuress” but her behaviour looks like hypersexuality. As in his relationship with his mother, his affection was abused. It turned into its opposite and he deserves the criticism he has received from feminists like Kate Millett. There was nothing liberating, nothing of “the priest of love” in beating Frieda black and blue.
People close to him, including Frieda, wondered in the last years if he was going mad. He seems to have been afflicted by “consumptive rage”, but his behaviour can’t be explained by his diseased lungs. His ideas were unhinged: the majority of people should never learn to read and write; there must be no democracy. In 1922 he signed a petition against the Bursum Bill, a proposal to hand over Indian land and water rights without compensation. It seems while in Australia he was approached by those planning a right-wing coup and refused his support, guaranteeing he would say nothing (he wrote Kangaroo). Thus, he sided with democrats against the Bursum Bill and refused to throw in his lot with fascists, yet at the same time railed against democracy.
He seems to have inspired the belief he was not just a great imaginative writer, but a great man. Even such a sobersides as Bertrand Russell appear to have fallen for the myth. Something about the era must have engendered the conditions: the immaturity of democracy; the lack of education among most people; the chaos of capitalism and the widespread dissatisfaction with modern life. Yet Lawrence wasn’t a great man. He was a genius of fiction, but bar that, his life was a terrible mess and he had no sensible prescriptions for society’s ills. His assertion that the masses mustn’t be literate betrayed a failure even to understand the basic needs of capitalism: its drive for profit entailed increased productivity and its entrenched competition meant no society could afford to get left behind. A literate and numerate employee is much more productive. A worker who can operate a lathe and read a micrometer enhances profits. Lawrence’s ideas were simply out of touch.
The confusions which destroyed Lawrence’s chances of happiness were of his time. He saw himself as utterly independent, but his mind was a product of his age. What is rare about him is his ability to write, the rest is banal. He thought he was the slayer of banality, a thoroughgoing subversive; he thought Frieda a revolutionary spirit, but like Emma Bovary she chose a very conventional way of defying convention. Lawrence’s nonconformism filled him with a sense of responsibility. Catholics get off lightly: the priest is their conscience, he grants weekly absolution; but nonconformists are taught their conscience is the measure of all things.
Just before he died on 10th September 1924, a day before his famous son’s 39th birthday, Arthur Lawrence, aged seventy-seven, received ten pounds from him. He married the wrong woman, she the wrong man. It’s a common mistake. Today people can compensate for it more easily. Despite the negative portrait of his father in Sons and Lovers, later Lawrence modified his view and saw his mother as too righteous. They both had shortcomings but the culture was to blame. The task of changing it was too big for Lawrence but depicting it in fiction was his achievement. From the beginning, however, there was a demon in his work: the nonconformist conscience pushing for solutions. When he lurched into theory, he lost the hold on reality his imagination provided.
Stand at the door of 8a Victoria St and look left. You can understand where Bert Lawrence came from. His love of nature was a love of life. That his own life descended into bitter strife and violence some of which found its way into his work, shouldn’t blind us to the fact that he began with a genuine love of the fact of being alive, in Eastwood, where the loveliness of the Nottinghamshire countryside surrounded him. He deserved a childhood without distress, as all children do. Arthur and Lydia didn’t intend to inflict pain, but they were victims of a harsh culture. Amongst the confusion and some nastiness in Lawrence’s fiction, there is a love of life trying to assert itself. The tragedy of his short spell on earth tells us just how hard that assertion can be.
Alan Dent is the founder and editor of The Penniless Press and its successor MQB.