Burning Man: The Ascent of DH Lawrence by Frances Wilson review

·8-min read
<p>DH Lawrence</p> (Bloomsbury Circus)

DH Lawrence

(Bloomsbury Circus)

Five years after he died, at least seventeen books were published about D.H. Lawrence.

“Everyone who knew him told tales about D.H. Lawrence”, Frances Wilson writes at the start of her new biography: “and D.H. Lawrence told tales about everyone he knew”. Wilson - a distinguished literary critic who has written biographies of Thomas De Quincey and Bruce Ismay - has now publicly outed herself as a Lawrentian: “Being loyal to Lawrence, especially as a woman”, she writes, “has always required some sort of explanation, so here is mine”.

Burning Man: The Ascent of D.H. Lawrence is “a work of non-fiction which is also a work of imagination”. Wilson uses Dante’s Divine Comedy as a scheme to focus on 10 years of Lawrence’s life - from the publication and prosecution of The Rainbow in 1915 to the formal diagnosis of his tuberculosis in 1925.

The text is broadly split into three sections. The Inferno years concern Lawrence in Hampstead and Cornwall from 1915 to 1919. The Purgatory section is about Lawrence in Italy and his encounters with two enigmatic figures: Maurice Magnus, an American memoirist and former manager of the dancer Isadora Duncan; and Norman Douglas, an aristocratic travel writer, novelist, and pederast. And the Paradise years zone in on his experiences in America and Mexico with the socialite and art-patron Mabel Dodge.

He travelled to all these places with his German wife, Frieda. She was notoriously libidinous. “Sex”, Wilson writes, “was Frieda’s favourite subject”. When she left her first husband Ernest Weekley and their three children to go to Germany with Lawrence in May 1912, two months after they first met, she thought it was just a fling; she had had those before. Lawrence insisted on a deeper relationship, and they were together until he died in 1930, getting married in 1914. But she continued to sleep with whoever she wanted. When they first travelled together, through Germany and Italy for a year, she slept with at least two other men. Lawrence didn’t mind; he accepted he was with a liberated woman. She was disliked by almost all his friends.

Their rows were often violent and stagy. He was affectionate to her in private but abusive in public. Her mocking attitude provided a balance to Lawrence’s flights of fancy. Wilson figures her as one of the three divine women who guided Lawrence through his ascent to Paradise. But she also brought him down to earth: “her opposition was essential to Lawrence”, Wilson writes, “because, as he put it, ‘In the tension of opposites all things have their being’”.

Wilson is a sympathetic but not uncritical reader of Lawrence’s texts. And her pen is exquisitely cutting. For instance, she writes that “Women in Love”, while “containing wonderful things”, is not the masterpiece Lawrence thought it was. The novel hinges on the reader accepting Rupert Birkin’s sermonising for it to qualify as the prophetic novel Lawrence conceived it to be, and “the only people who agree with Birkin are teenagers”.

She also enjoyably skewers the pretensions of Lawrence’s literary circle. On Richard Aldington and John Middleton Murry, who were respectively the husbands of the poet H.D. and the short story writer Katherine Mansfield, Wilson writes: “In each case a brilliant and bisexual expatriate woman attached herself to a handsome and priapic intellectual opportunist who made a career out of knowing Lawrence”. In analysing Aldington’s fears of a possible romance between his wife H.D. and Lawrence, Wilson ponders: “Why would Lawrence want a fat German Christmas pudding who was always mocking him when he could have a thin American goddess who took him entirely seriously?”. Why indeed.

The challenge for any biographer of Lawrence is coming to terms with his contradictions. Analysing Lawrence is like playing a game of Whac-A-Mole. When you think you’ve nailed his character, a different part pops up. When you think you’ve got him as a proponent of bodies over intellect, his disgust for promiscuity pops up. When you think you’ve got him as a defender of disembodied relationships, his hatred of asceticism pops up. Will the real Bertie Lawrence (or should that be Lorenzo?) please stand up?

This calls into question Wilson’s imposition of a medieval schema on Lawrence’s life. On one hand she argues that Lawrence structured his life around Dante’s Divine Comedy: “he rose from underworld to empyrean”. But she also mentions elsewhere Lawrence’s love for contingency: his embrace, for instance, of “altered plans, sudden and spontaneous diversions”. She adds that Lawrence “wanted the picaresque rather than the predictably shaped, pre-plotted life”. How do we resolve this tension?

To use a line that Wilson quotes from Lawrence’s Studies in American Literature: “Never trust the artist. Trust the tale. The proper function of a critic is to rescue the tale from the artist”. And the tale of Lawrence resisted the final ascent from Purgatory to Paradise. He was suspended between the desire to transcend his body and his recognition that the body is itself sacred. In Burning Man, Wilson often tries to distinguish between a Self One and a Self Two in Lawrence’s character. But this tendency to break him down risks overlooking another thing clear from Wilson’s biography: that Lawrence was a great synthesiser.

He synthesised his life and work. He viewed the Divine Comedy and the Bible as novels. Wilson wants to emphasise other parts of Lawrence apart from his novels: “he was always”, she writes, “led by poets rather than novelists”. Notably, she entirely omits Lady Chatterley’s Lover from her biography. And she gives particular praise to his travel writing and literary criticism. But she also points out that all his texts were interlinked: “his memoirs”, Wilson writes, “are travel books, his travel books are novels, his novels are sermons”.

Tension is exactly what Lawrence craved. As Wilson writes: “Lawrence believed there was no progress without contraries”. In a passage quoted by her from Movements in European History, Lawrence’s history textbook written under the pseudonym Lawrence H. Davison, we have this view on Dante: “This new Christian world was beyond Dante’s grasp. Paradise is much less vivid to him than the Inferno. What he knew best was the tumultuous, violent passion of the past, that which was punished in Hell”. This, of course, is Lawrence writing about Lawrence. If getting to Paradise was about purifying your contrary impulses, this was not for him. He resisted Paradise because he couldn’t shed or overcome his contradictions; these were generative for his art.

In other senses, though, Lawrence’s trajectory was upward. This was the coal miner’s son from the East Midlands who travelled around the world with the confidence of a gentleman, who wrote whatever he wanted, befriended the aristocracy and intelligentsia, and reinvented the American canon. In roughly twenty years, he published at least twelve novels, four short story collections, eight poetry books, four plays, and an assortment of non-fiction texts.

During that time, he also dabbled in painting and translated texts from Italian and Russian. His collected letters run up to eight chunky volumes. He never suffered from writer’s block: “words come out of him like a running flame”. He may have lived the superficial lifestyle of a bohemian littérateur; but he wrote with the work-ethic of a low-church protestant. One wonders whether this manic productivity was a sort of compensation for his frail body and infertility. The year he died, he weighed just six stone.

I would also quibble with Wilson’s assertion, near the end of her biography, that after Kate Millett’s assessment of Lawrence fifty years ago, he was “dropped off university lists and was thrown into the Inferno where he has remained ever since”. This is an overgeneralisation. Four years ago, I studied a module dedicated to Lawrence in my English undergraduate degree; a year later, I did a postgraduate degree entitled ‘Issues in Modern Culture’ at a different university which also featured Lawrence.

Moreover, apart from Wilson’s biography, there are other Lawrence-related texts either published this year or soon to be published. Rachel Cusk’s new novel, Second Place, is based on Mabel Dodge’s memoir of Lawrence’s visit to Taos. Alison MacLeod’s novel Tenderness, which will be published later this year, is about the ripple effects of Lady Chatterley’s Lover on society across decades. And the novelist and literary critic Lara Feigel is currently writing a book about the resonance of Lawrence in the twenty-first century.

It is striking that, including Wilson, all four of them are women - and Wilson emphasises in her biography that most of the people who defended Lawrence in his life were women. (The person who taught my undergraduate course on Lawrence, and made me first really interested in him, is the excellent Dr Suzanne Hobson at QMUL). Interest in Lawrence is certainly not consigned to the Inferno at the moment.

Nevertheless, Burning Man is an elegantly written, intelligent, and very witty account of one of the most consequential writers of the last century. Wilson skilfully examines Lawrence’s rage, impotence, silliness, and genius. The portrait that emerges is less a prophet than a pagan demon; the fox-haired wanderer unable to ascend to Paradise, but whose life and work has brightened the lives of many who knew or have come to know him.

Burning Man: The Ascent of DH Lawrence by Frances Wilson (Bloomsbury Circus, £25)

Buy it here

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