This article appeared in Bookforum
BURNING MAN: THE TRIALS OF D. H. LAWRENCE
BY FRANCES WILSON
HAS THERE EVER BEEN A WRITER more reviled or more admired than D. H. Lawrence? (His full name was David Herbert Lawrence but he had begun using the initials “DHL” or “D. H. Lawrence” as his signature already as an eighteen-year-old.) Almost from the moment he put pen to paper, this mad genius of English literature with intense blue eyes and a flaming red beard raised a ruckus, which he not only thoroughly enjoyed but did his part in fomenting. He wrote with great fluency—3,500 words in a morning was a snap for him—and he would go on to write an astonishing amount, in many genres, before he died from tuberculosis at the age of forty-four.
Lawrence had the unique quality of leaving no reader on the fence, whether about his breathless, occasionally turgid, often lyrical, and ultimately uncategorizable prose or his primordial, radical, and uneasy-making ideas. His fans were passionate (Philip Larkin declared him “England’s greatest writer”) and sometimes unlikely (Diana Trilling). Aldous Huxley, who edited Lawrence’s letters after his death, thought him “the most extraordinary and impressive being” he had come across. His detractors were equally passionate: T. S. Eliot remarked that the author of Lady Chatterley’s Lover was “a very sick man indeed,” and Virginia Woolf deemed him one of “the most overrated” English writers. Haunted by conflict and ambivalent feelings about all of the major themes he took up, from the nature of masculinity to the role of women to the meaning of sex, such was Lawrence’s overriding power and strange urgency as a writer that he seems to have elicited responses that went beyond the rational and partook of the subconscious. He was like a tuning fork, ready to vibrate with the unarticulated beliefs and dimly recognized longings in his readers.
Lawrence’s reputation bobbed up and down, having sunk to its nadir at the time of his death in 1930, at which point he was perceived as a bogus prophet and a sex-crazed megalomaniac. (No matter that as a young man Lawrence had refused to believe that women had pubic hair and had included “sex matters” on a list of things he didn’t like.) This negative view did not deter a feverish outpouring of books about the writer—seventeen in all, three of them by his frenemy John Middleton Murry—from appearing within less than four years of his death. His obituaries were mostly hostile, referring to his “pathological traits” and to the fact that he wrote “with one hand always in the slime.” The exception was E. M. Forster’s in The Listener, where he recalled the “vivid impression” that Lawrence made in person, “so quick with his fingers and alive in his spirit, so radiant and sensitive, so sure that if we all set out at once for one of the South Sea Islands we should found a perfect community there which would regenerate the world.” Forster asserted that Lawrence was “the greatest imaginative novelist of our generation,” a view that would be disseminated in the 1940s and ’50s by the influential literary critic F. R. Leavis, who went so far in his identification with Lawrence as to call his wife “Queenie” because Lawrence had referred to his wife Frieda as the “Queen Bee.”
In 1959 in America and in 1960 in Britain the obscenity trials over the unexpurgated edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover took place, followed by the publication of the full text. (The Rainbow, Lawrence’s fourth novel, published in 1915, when he was thirty, had also been prosecuted for obscenity and banned.) Originally published in 1928, Chatterley, with its high-flown gutter talk, is the novel that lends itself most readily to being ridiculed. Lawrence, in his usual bullish way, had been proud of the furor the book had produced when he first sent it into the world, commenting in a letter he wrote in August 1928: “Amusing how people disliked Lady C. I’m afraid I’ve lost 9/10 of my few remaining friends.” The publicity surrounding the case brought the writer and his work into the spotlight again, ensuring that he would be noticed and possibly even read, if only out of curiosity.
In 1970 Lawrence would be toppled in one fell swoop from his position as an exotic with special standing, the literary equivalent of an outsider artist, by the academic feminist Kate Millett in her book Sexual Politics. Millett took him on, along with Henry Miller and Norman Mailer, as a paradigmatic instance of the role patriarchy plays in the depiction of sexual relations. Her focus was Lady Chatterley, which she slashed to pieces, calling the novel a “quasi-religious tract” featuring the penis as god. Millett’s text became a lodestar of second-wave feminism and virtually “canceled” Lawrence decades before the term was coined.
In the intervening decades Lawrence has been persona non grata on college syllabi and in literary discourse in general. His canonical, even mythic status has come to be seen as risible, and his ideas are viewed as reactionary, racist, misogynistic, and homophobic—inherently and hopelessly offensive. There have been intermittent attempts to examine his life anew and in the process polish up his critical reputation as well as separate out the wheat from the chaff in his philosophical convictions. Biographies have appeared about him by Jeffrey Meyers (1990) and Brenda Maddox (1994); the best and most intuitive is by John Worthen (2005). All have been sympathetic in the main but have done little to restore Lawrence’s former luster, even granted that his brilliance was always tarnished by a touch of fanaticism if not outright craziness.
But perhaps this is about to change and Lawrence is due to rise, once again, like his beloved Phoenix, from the ashes. Certainly that is the intention of Frances Wilson’s Burning Man: The Trials of D. H. Lawrence. The book is a curiosity of sorts, not quite a full biography and not quite an interpretive work, but something in between: a hybrid, a pliable construct that bends to the author’s whim, consenting to be led every which way without regard for the conventions of chronology or context. The reader is implicitly held hostage as well, dependent on the biographer’s confidence and skill to steer one through the narrative, which is usually linked by a more or less persuasive conceit. The whole enterprise is a bet against large odds and the payoff can result in an exciting, even revelatory rereading. When the form doesn’t fully work, however, this approach can seem scattershot and contrived, with any fresh insights likely to get lost amid the welter of surrounding facts and details.
In her opening “Argument,” Wilson, the author of several books, including The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth and a well-received biography of Thomas De Quincey, throws down the gauntlet, inserting a disclaimer before the critic can enter and pin her to traditional biographical standards or point out where she may have gone off track. “I should . . . state,” she writes, “that Burning Man is a work of non-fiction which is also a work of imagination. I should further declare that I am unable to distinguish between Lawrence’s art and Lawrence’s life, which was equally a work of imagination, and nor do I distinguish Lawrence’s fiction from his non-fiction. I read his novels, stories, letters, essays, poems and plays as exercises in autofiction, which genre he pioneered in order to get around the restrictions of genre.” In other words, everything is up for grabs and everything is interchangeable. Or, as Geoff Dyer wrote in his introduction to The Bad Side of Books, a recent collection of Lawrence’s essays he edited: “The gulf between the ostensible object of enquiry and the direction taken by the investigation is frequently vast, the conclusions routinely drastic. Everything has the potential to become something else.”
Burning Man, self-proclaimed hybrid that it is, sets its sights high. Wilson aims to be innovative above all, even if it means making gnomic assertions that sound profound in a sort of Barthesian way at first reading but don’t hold up to a closer parsing: “The reason he died however is because no one, including Lawrence himself, was able to name his illness.”
Admittedly, Lawrence was a consumptive who denied he had tuberculosis—he called it, variously, “mountain fever” and “bronchitis”—and also refused to acknowledge that this was the sickness that felled Katherine Mansfield (“I loathe you,” he wrote in his last, brutal letter to a dying Mansfield. “You revolt me stewing in your consumption”). But he repeatedly sought out many of the cures, “rest, sunshine, mountain air, good food, and a positive attitude,” that were recommended for TB, and some of the people around him—including Frieda, Huxley, and his devoted admirer and short-lived patron Mabel Dodge Luhan—certainly knew what disease Lawrence suffered from.
Wilson’s primary means of positioning her book as different from (and, presumably, more far-sighted than) other accounts of Lawrence, both biographical and scholarly, is to structure it as a triptych along the lines of Dante’s Divine Comedy. To this end she focuses on the writer’s middle years, between 1915 and 1925, when he traveled through England, Italy, and America, and compares these three periods of his dizzyingly peripatetic life to Dante’s journey through the Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. According to Wilson’s overriding and repeatedly hauled-up conceit, Lawrence ascended geographically and psychologically during these years. Wilson, whose extensive research often leads her to obscure works to which she then ascribes great significance, cites a 1921 school textbook by Lawrence H. Davison titled Movements in European History to help lay the groundwork for her theory, observing that “Dante’s Comedy is the great epic of Schadenfreude, and the writing of it was an act of therapeutic revenge.” From here she goes on to note that Lawrence shared the poet’s “temerity and dual vision,” although one might argue that both these traits are true of many writers. Wilson focuses on Lawrence’s split personality, which he himself was entirely aware of—“The trouble is, you see,” he confessed to his first love Jessie Chambers, “I’m not one man, but two”—throughout the book; borrowing from Jung’s bifurcation, she refers to the writer’s two sides, somewhat simplistically, as Self One and Self Two. In short order she leaps to a triumphant conclusion:
Lawrence structured his life . . . around Dante’s great poem in the way that James Joyce shaped Ulysses around The Odyssey. This was his primal plan, the complex figure in the Persian carpet that Lawrence’s biographers—because they have been looking from a flat perspective—have failed to see. . . . Follow his footsteps and you see that every house Lawrence lived in, from birth to burial, was positioned at a higher spot than the last; he rose from underworld to empyrean.
Despite Wilson’s brisk dismissal of the “flat perspective” of prior biographers (few of whose spadework she acknowledges), I was never convinced that the triadic arc she imposes really fits. Nor was I sure it added much to an understanding of the often conflicting forces that impelled Lawrence’s movements. For one thing, Joyce was fully conscious of using The Odyssey as a model for Ulysses; for another, it is not clear to me whether Wilson means to suggest that Lawrence was similarly conscious of following along Dante’s pilgrimage or whether this is something she invents for him. In any event, I found the references to and summations of the Comedy tedious, in addition to which they interrupted the flow of a narrative that was already insistently digressive.
There are, without question, areas in which Wilson shines. She is in some ways a Lawrentian-styled explicator of Lawrence, willing and able to accept her “self-wrestling human document” of a subject in his many colors and bewildering about-faces, aware of the essential muddle that lay at his core. (After reading The White Peacock, Lawrence’s first novel, Forster confided in a letter that the writer had “not a glimmering from first to last of what he’s up to.”) Wilson doesn’t look for consistency; if anything, she revels in signs of inconsistency, regarding them as evidence of Lawrence’s feverish, bisexual genius. (Notwithstanding his lifelong fear and condemnation of homosexuality, he was physically drawn to men.) In her conviction that Lawrence cannot be understood on a purely psychological level—that he lived, as she writes, “a life of allegory”—Wilson frees herself and us from trying to put his parts together, which, paradoxically, allows us to see him in the round. “In my tissue,” Lawrence wrote in one of his essays about Florence, “I am weary of personality.”
The man who believed, as he wrote in a 1913 letter, “in the blood, the flesh, as being wiser than the intellect,” still considered the question of sex to have “the fascination of horror” even after he was married. Given to titanic rages—“no more of my tirades,” he wrote in a letter to Cynthia Asquith in one of his piercing moments of self-awareness—he was also described by his former friend Ottoline Morrell (most of Lawrence’s friendships devolved into ex-friendships) as “too timid and sensitive to face life alone.” And Rebecca West, when she and Norman Douglas paid Lawrence a visit in Florence in the spring of 1921, observed Lawrence bending over a flower and thought his face “grew nearly as tender as a mother bending over her child.”
Then, too, although Lawrence has been pilloried for his views on the innate superiority of men and the need to tame the emasculating or at the least overweening tendencies of women (“All women in their natures,” he wrote to Ernest Weekley, who was married to Frieda before Lawrence decamped with her, “are giantesses”), he can also on occasion come across as a subservient Suzy Homemaker. “Lawrence hated slovenliness,” Wilson writes, “sartorial and domestic,” and when he and Frieda briefly set up house in May 1922 in a three-bedroom bungalow in a mining township in New South Wales, it was he who did the housework and cooked the meals, going so far as to supervise his wife “over the laundry requirements (reminding her to rinse in cold water with bluing in it, to bring out the whiteness).” Later, after moving with Frieda to the ranch in Taos, New Mexico, that Mabel had invited them to, he filled in his benefactress on the finer points of keeping a proper home. “Lawrence, in turn, encouraged Mabel to do her own baking and housework: one morning she made an inedible loaf of bread, and on another she tried to wash a floor (‘You don’t know your floor,’ Lawrence explained, ‘until you have scrubbed it on your hands and knees!’).”
One can throw up one’s hands and write Lawrence off, as many did, both during his lifetime and after, as hopelessly, deludedly nuts. Max Beerbohm, the Edwardian essayist and wit, was one such: “Poor D. H. Lawrence. He never realized, don’t you know—he never suspected that to be stark, staring mad is somewhat of a handicap to a writer.” Or one can attempt to glue together his fragments into a semblance of a more cohesive whole—“the old stable ego,” as Lawrence described it. Or, perhaps, most sensibly because most illogically (thinking like Lawrence), one can go along for the ride, one labile wave after another, which is what Wilson does. And what Lawrence might have done, if he had ever written an actual memoir in addition to various kinds of autofiction.
He wrote some startlingly lovely poems, including the nostalgic “Piano” (“Softly, in the dusk, a woman is singing to me; / Taking me back down the vista of years”), as well as the poems in Birds, Beasts and Flowers, which are like nothing else, glistening, as Wilson describes, with “the quality of his noticing, the comedy of bodies and the immediacy of the encounters. His animal encounters are like quick little jokes.” There are also his singular essays, which some critics, including Edmund Wilson, consider to be his finest writing; and, of course, his idiosyncratic, febrile, “interminable” (as H. D. called them) novels, which wander this way and that, full of lyrical passages as well as cringingly florid ones (“It is often the case in Lawrence,” Wilson remarks, “that the passages he considered his finest are those most vulnerable to mockery”). Not to overlook the hyperventilating descriptions of sexual arousal or the scenes that feature the writer’s keen attunement to and skillful personification of the natural landscape. The inspiration for these novels, which eventually developed a “panoramic perspective,” was always autobiographical: “He never suffered from writer’s block,” Wilson points out; “his novels might grind to a halt while he worked out what a protagonist would do next (which depended on what Lawrence himself did next), but he was rarely stuck for words.”
Last but not least, there is his superb travel writing, which Wilson believes still hasn’t gotten its due: Who else but Lawrence would think to describe the “brown roofs” of Florence as “ruffled,” or conjure up the “slopes of white-speckled villages”? She characterizes the writer as “the first modern drifter,” someone who “‘belonged’ nowhere,” and contends that Sea and Sardinia “has the finest opening line of any travel book”: “Comes over one an absolute necessity to move.” (If Wilson is right that “all Lawrence’s novels are about the hellishness of home,” his constant impulse to flee makes eminent sense.) Because she believes that Lawrence’s Memoir of Maurice Magnus is “the finest piece of travel writing of the age” and that his introduction to Magnus’s own posthumously published book, the obscure Memoirs of the Foreign Legion, is “the best single piece of writing as writing that he had ever done,” Wilson devotes a hefty section of her book—close to a hundred pages—to this strange, off-center interlude in Lawrence’s life.
For anyone who has waded deeply into the existing literature on Lawrence, Burning Man is not quite the radically new reading of Lawrence it tries to be, especially as regards his homosexual proclivities and the ferocious, almost manic intensity of his conflicts. But it does shed an illuminating light on many parts of the writer’s life, including his marriage, about which Wilson is more even-handed than many other biographers. (Brenda Maddox’s tale of the Lawrences’ battered union laid some of the groundwork.) She succeeds in salvaging Frieda from much of the invective that has been hurled at her—Huxley considered her “incurably and incredibly stupid,” while Diana Trilling described her as “a swamp.” Her many enemies argued that Frieda had “ruined Lawrence’s writing and shortened his life.” Wilson argues convincingly that the dynamic of their relationship, eruptive and violent as it could be—“a theatre of mutual cruelty”—also moored and invigorated Lawrence. “Frieda understood,” she writes, “his need for opposition,” and she also brought an element of comic relief to her husband’s inveterate gravitas and ranting judgments. “Lawrence needed teasing, and his relationship with Frieda began as it would go on: he expounded and despaired and denounced the world and she laughed at him. In whatever form she later figured in his novels, Frieda was always mocking.”
Will Wilson’s version of Lawrence vindicate him? Or will he remain eternally on trial for his intellectual sins? We live in a culture, after all, that is as puritanical in its own way as the one that was first appalled by Lawrence’s vision. When you add to this the fact that he is—and always was—deliberately oppositional (he liked having enemies), the chances are slim that he will be embraced again. All the same, I would venture that, if the literary fates are kind, Wilson’s unusual and vividly written approach, studded with nuggets of information and riveting quotes, might succeed in bringing Lawrence back around for another look.
Daphne Merkin is a novelist, memoirist, and literary critic. Her most recent book is a novel, 22 Minutes of Unconditional Love, published in 2020 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.