THE MONUMENTAL Cambridge biography of Lawrence - three volumes by three different authors, weighing in at almost 2,500 pages with enough footnotes to support a new Canary Wharf - came to a close in January with David Ellis's coverage of the final years in D H Lawrence: Dying Game 1922-1930 (CUP pounds 35). The phoenix will have his work cut out to rise again from this weight of marble, a tombstone if ever there was one, scholarly, reverential, magnificently detailed, anatomising the multitudinous writings against the backdrop of his turbulent, loving, yet adversarial life. "The real tragedy of England," he said, "is the tragedy of ugliness."
Here's Eastwood again, the Nottinghamshire colliery village he so loved and hated. Here's the genteel, aspirational mother and recidivist father, contending for his soul. (Father went up in the scales as Lawrence grew older, and mother went down.) Here's industrial and pastoral England, a marriage of heaven and hell. Here's Jessie and Louie and the psychosexual Big Bang of Frieda, who liberated and tormented him. ("A mismatch made in heaven", says Brenda Maddox in The Married Man (Sinclair-Stevenson 1994).)
Here's literary London, the flush of success, the hell of his Cornish exile during the Great War, the extraordinary, encyclopaedic knowledge he carried around inside that flaming head, the martyrology, the intuition, the compulsive urge to make instant diagnoses of every person he met and every country he ever set foot in. Here finally is the flight across continents, the desperate ill- health, the love-affair with dark gods and "phallic consciousness", the search for a place in the sun, where "being" takes over from manners and mentalism. As a recent critic puts it: "How do you 'gather up again the savage mysteries' without abandoning your advanced, white, Western consciousness?" His ability to live and write on the hoof never ceases to amaze. Novels, stories, poems, travel books, essays, introductions, prose cantatas of every description flowed from his peripatetic pen, even as he camped out in some villa or ranch house which needed running repairs, and which was constantly invaded by a stream of friends, relations, and disciples. Famously, "Lorenzo" cooked, swept, chopped wood and made bread, in between being a genius, while Frieda laid on the bed smoking, or cast an appraising eye over the male company. This often led to ructions. "There you sit," he burst out once, "with that thing (cigarette) in your mouth and your legs open to every man in the room! And you wonder why no decent woman in England would have anything to do with you!" This from the man who had flayed English "decency" to within an inch of its life. On another occasion, horse riding in New Mexico, when Frieda waxed lyrical about the, power of the animal between her legs, the exasperated oracle cried out "Rubbish, Frieda! Don't talk like that. You have been reading my books!" His intense love of the natural world, and miraculous sense of place, made him an "ecological visionary" (Brenda Maddox) decades before Rachel Carson and others started greening our politics. He preferred wooden architecture to marble or stone, hymns and folk songs to symphonies, flowers to philosophers, frost on the edges of grass blades and oak leaves to the pomp of city culture. When Birkin gets out of the train at London, in Women in Love, he says to Gerald: "Don't you feel like one of the damned?" - this four or five years before Eliot's "unreal city" loomed out of The Waste Land. Long before Bruce Chatwin unearthed good copy in faraway places, James Fenton faxed himself off to war-zones, and travel editors hunted down the great good place, Lawrence was doing all this and more in his brilliant impromptus, as well as in the big set-piece novels, offering up dithyrambs on everything from the "stupendousness" of New World vistas to "Flowery Tuscany" or Cezanne's amazing apples, while engaged in a never-ending round of intense friendships and daily chores, such as keeping house, Frieda and the Zeitgeist up to the mark. …