Magazine article The Spectator

Live and Let Die

Magazine article The Spectator

Live and Let Die

Article excerpt

DEATH & THE AUTHOR: HOW D.H. LAWRENCE DIED AND WAS REMEMBERED by David Ellis OUP, £20, pp. 273, ISBN 9780199546657 £16 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 66555

THE COLLECTED LETTERS OF KATHERINE MANSFIELD, VOLUME 5, 1922-1923 edited by Vincent O'Sullivan and Margaret Scott OUP, £60, pp. 360, ISBN 9780198183990 £48 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

The story of a life is also the story of a death, and one of the values of biography is that it enables us to die by proxy -- a sort of rehearsal.

Biographies of writers, says David Ellis in Death and the Author, are particularly apt, since writers often explore their feelings about dying and are people of 'superactive consciousness'.

As the author of Dying Game, the final volume of the Cambridge biography of Lawrence, Professor Ellis is an authority on Lawrence's last years. His new book expands into a meditation on tuberculosis, and on changing attitudes to death. He can be contentious in a clichéd way. It is rubbish, for example, to say that nowadays we are 'accustomed to ignoring death or taking it in our stride'. More interesting is his exploration of how tuberculosis was treated before the introduction of life-saving streptomycin in the 1940s, and how writers dealt with the knowledge that they were terminally ill -- not only Lawrence, but Keats, Thomas Mann, Orwell, Mark Gertler and Chekhov, plus Proust, Kafka and many more who, even when not TB sufferers, had something striking to say about dying.

In 1930, the year Lawrence died, TB killed 60,000 people in France and 50,000 in England. Treatments included lengthy sojourns in cold mountain air, lengthy but less costly sojourns in warm Mediterranean air, patent medicines, and various horrific surgical procedures. Lawrence was 'in denial', not admitting that he had TB until his last fortnight. He saw illness as a failure, or as an expression of 'wounds of the soul'.

He admitted to chronic and crippling bronchitis, but resisted treatment other than camphor-oil injections and sickening inhalations from a radium spring in BadenBaden. TB was stigmatised. Hotels did not welcome sickly guests who coughed nonstop, and communities did not like having TB clinics in their midst. The clinic in Vence where Lawrence ended up, after exhausting peregrinations, was discreetly billed as a hotel with medical supervision. He died unconscious, after being given morphia at his own request.

The second half of the book is about how enemies, friends and family rushed into print with competitive biographies and memoirs. Frieda Lawrence relished her status as the widow, presenting herself as the 'vibrant female whose erotic power energises the male', thus claiming half the credit.

(Ellis does not like Frieda much. ) Gloomily, Ellis feels that the 'branding' of Lawrence has now run into the ground, and that he is commonly remembered today just as the author of Lady Chatterley's Lover. His reputation having sunk to its 'present low point', the collected edition of his works may 'fall into that special enclosure posterity reserves for its white elephants'. I don't actually believe this.

Frieda stressed how dignified Lawrence had been in his dying, while saying of Katherine Mansfield that she 'let herself go in her being ill'.

So she did, but only in order to find a new self. The fifth volume of The Collected Letters covers the last year of her life. She and Lawrence were close, in spite of spats.

He could be foul to her, writing in 1920 that 'you revolt me stewing in your consumption'. …

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