Three questions were repeatedly put to Brenda Maddox while she worked on this biography: "Is there new material?" (Masses of it); "Did Lawrence really go to Australia?" (Yes, and the 1922 visit inspired his novel, "Kangaroo"); and "Do you like Lawrence?" No one, she answered, could read D. H. Lawrence's letters and not like him. Yet it is possible to read this sympathetic and intelligent portrait of the great writer and be glad he is no longer among us.
Since all of Lawrence's novels contain autobiographical elements, the facts of his life are especially relevant to an understanding of his work. His early death in 1930, just two years after the publication of his most notorious novel, "Lady Chatterley's Lover," provoked three decades of worshipful memoirs and biographies. Simone de Beauvoir was among the first critics to take aim at the Lawrence myth with her essay "Phallic Pride" in "The Second Sex" (1949). Later feminist studies, such as Kate Millett's famous polemic in "Sexual Politics" (1971), blasted his misogyny, fueling a literary battle of the sexes that almost rivaled Lawrence and his wife Frieda's.
Any balanced biography of Lawrence is thus a perilous undertaking. Maddox, who wrote the acclaimed "Nora: The Real Life of Molly Bloom" (1988), clearly admires her present subject and makes noble efforts to justify his troubling views of women, his physical and verbal assaults on Frieda, and his untimely pronouncements against democracy (Bertrand Russell argued that Lawrence's philosophy of "blood-consciousness" led straight to Auschwitz). But the small cruelties add up--somehow outnumbering the small kindnesses--and Lawrence the man never captures our affections in the way that one hour with Lawrence the poet will.
Those who knew Lawrence sometimes felt the same way. Soon after his death, Frieda wrote to a friend that what she most felt for Lawrence was compassion. As the force of his personality receded, however, she grew increasingly fond of her dead husband, and, from her new, more comfortable house on their Taos ranch, vigorously defended the "greatness" she had been unable to appreciate while Lawrence lived.
Ironically, Lawrence had hoped for his art and life to transcend mere ego. Born in Nottingham in 1885, the fourth child of unhappy parents, David Herbert Lawrence idolized his mother, who had been a schoolteacher, and took her cue in fearing and detesting his father, foreman at a coal mine. Lydia Lawrence had met her future husband at a dance in Nottingham, where he charmed her with his stories and mimicry. After the wedding, she learned that Arthur Lawrence did not own his own house and did not work in the mining office, as she had imagined, but in the mines. As Maddox notes, "the persistent theme in Lawrence's work of the well-born woman in the clutches of an earthy, low-bred man had its roots in his mother's disillusion."
"Bert" was a sensitive boy, given to tears. He stayed at home, reading and learning the domestic arts, until the age of 7. His family loved to watch him make faithful copies of famous paintings, but he did not turn his talent to writing until he was 19.
His first published story appeared under his friend Jessie Chambers' name in 1907. Hoping to win three prizes in the Nottinghamshire Guardian's Christmas competition, he had entered three stories under three different names. Again following his mother's lead, after college he took a school-teaching post in Croydon, South London. While he was at Croydon, Jessie Chambers submitted four of Lawrence's poems to Ford Madox Ford's English Review in 1909, effectively launching his writing career.
Ford invited Lawrence to meet him at his office, and "it was then that Ford realized he had caught something rarer than a new poet: a miner's son." Thrilled at his discovery, he introduced Lawrence to the London literati as a working-class prodigy, and urged him to write about industrial life.
From the beginning, remarked Lawrence's friend Richard Aldington, "an odious class snobbery came into action." Maddox suggests that "this sudden, early, and condescending fame blighted Lawrence's artistic development almost as much as lack of recognition has hurt other, greater writers. He was taken up, typecast, and caricatured." Reviewers considered Lawrence's first novel, "The White Peacock," a flawed, uneven work of genius, though its publication in January, 1911, was overshadowed for Lawrence by the illness and death of his beloved mother. His grief (and overwork, as always) precipitated his own near-fatal bout of pneumonia later that year, an illness from which he never fully recovered.