Looking over Lawrence's Shoulder: Lawrence in Australia and the Creation of Kangaroo

By Darroch, Robert | D.H. Lawrence Review, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

Looking over Lawrence's Shoulder: Lawrence in Australia and the Creation of Kangaroo


Darroch, Robert, D.H. Lawrence Review


For Lawrence scholars--and anyone interested in literature, Kangaroo, Lawrence's eighth major novel, presents us with a unique opportunity to see in detail the way a work of art is created. As Richard Aldington so perceptively observed in his Introduction to the Phoenix edition of the novel:

   Although some characters and episodes in the book are imaginary or
   transferred to Australia from elsewhere, much of the writing deals
   with Lawrence's experiences in Australia--with the unique result
   that he was remembering and setting down with extreme accuracy and
   vividness one set of experiences while actually undergoing others,
   themselves designed to be remembered and written as he found new
   ones. [vii]

In other words, what is ostensibly a work of fiction might also be interpreted as a day-to-day account of what Lawrence did in Sydney and Thirroul after he arrived on SS Malwa early Saturday morning, May 27, 1922. It also provides insight into the way the novel he was to write over the next six weeks or so was put together.

Published in the United States and then in the United Kingdom almost eighteen months later, Kangaroo tells the story of an English writer, Richard Lovatt Somers, who arrives in Sydney with his wife Harriett, travels down the coast to a seaside resort (Mullumbimby), and sets up house in a bungalow called Coo-ee, before departing to New Zealand and then America (his voyage across the Pacific to San Francisco is told in an unpublished addendum to the novel). Lawrence makes little effort to disguise the fact that Somers and Harriett are portrayals of himself and Frieda; that Mullumbimby is Thirroul; and that Coo-ee is a cottage by the sea called Wyewurk. Interestingly, however, nowhere in the novel does Lawrence mention what he was actually doing at Thirroul and Wyewurk: writing a novel about Australia. The closest he gets to this, fictionally, is his description of Somers as "a writer of essays," whom he depicts as being offered a writing job while in Australia. It is likely that Lawrence was in fact himself carrying out the advice he had given some weeks earlier to his erstwhile landlady in Perth, Mollie Skinner, who harboured ambitions to be a novelist. "Splash down reality," he advised her. "Write and build up from day to day. ... When you have done 80,000 words, throw down your pen" (qtd. in Pritchard 24).

A day or so before he arrived in Sydney, Lawrence wrote to his literary agent in the United States, Robert Mountsier, telling him that he intended to stay and try to write "a romance" while in Sydney (4L 247). It is now clear, however, that the work he did undertake while in Sydney and Thirroul was some form of fictionalised diary. When he was halfway through writing Kangaroo, he told his fellow writer Catherine Carswell: "Myself I like that letter-diary form" (4L 270). His most recent travel book, Sea and Sardinia (1921), was also written in the form of a diary. So the first ingredient of an attempt to reconstruct the twelve or so weeks, May 31-July 15, that he spent writing Kangaroo is the novel itself, his fictionalised diary.

Any attempt to untangle fact and fiction, however, to say what is autobiographical and what invented, is dogged by our not being certain which is which, a task made all the more difficult in that Lawrence makes no distinction between what is real (the diary aspect) with what might be fiction. Yet some attempt at a reconstruction can now be made by correlating the holograph text and its subsequent revisions with other information derived from a variety of independent, non-fiction sources. For example, in the novel Lawrence mentions such things as the weather, the tides, the state of the sea, phases of the moon, topographical descriptions, train and ferry trips, and so on. It is possible to check these against the actual weather, tides, travel timetables, local geography, etc., and thus begin to attempt to deduce what in the novel actually occurred with Lawrence and what Lawrence made up as part of the novel's fiction. …

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