Burning Man: D.H. Lawrence and women

One of my occasional short posts on the best new biographies, along with some old favourites.

This month I’ve been enjoying reading Burning Man: The Ascent of D. H. Lawrence (Bloomsbury, 2021), a new book by Frances Wilson about ten years in the life of the writer and poet D.H. Lawrence. It has longlisted for the prestigious Baillie Gifford Prize for Nonfiction 2021.

Earlier this year Wilson appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Start The Week to discuss her book, and told Andrew Marr how wary she felt as a feminist about defending Lawrence, whose reputation as a writer has never recovered since the American Kate Millett attacked his patriarchal attitudes to women in her 1970 book, Sexual Politics. Frances Wilson is the author of award-winning biographies of Dorothy Wordsworth, Thomas de Quincey and Bruce Ismay, the surviving captain of the Titanic, but she admits that Lawrence is probably her most contentious and complex subject so far.

In her introduction to Burning Man Wilson describes how she’d been a fan of Lawrence’s novels ever since her student days, but had kept it a secret. ‘When I was growing up in the 1980s, my mother wouldn’t have his books in the house’, she writes, ‘and my (female) tutor at university wouldn’t teach him’. In the 21st century D.H. Lawrence is still seen as a writer that feminists tend to keep at arm’s length. ‘Even as I began this biography and thus outed myself as a Lawrentian, I found myself apologising for being so, especially to women’, Wilson tells us. ‘And yet, in his lifetime, it was Lawrence’s female friends and readers who defended him.’

Wilson decided that this ‘cancelled writer’ needed to be examined from a 21st-century feminist perspective. Burning Man avoids the familiar critical emphasis on what Wilson calls his ‘superbly imperfect’ novels, which do not contain his genius, she believes. She directs our attention instead to his unexplored wealth of nonfiction writing, including travel essays, literary criticism and his Memoir of Maurice Magnus, ‘the best single piece of writing, as writing as Lawrence himself put it, that he had ever done’.

Burning Man does justice to Lawrence’s nonfiction and other less well known work. It’s a picaresque, immersive exercise in biography that darts back and forth in time to paint a brilliantly colourful picture of a decade in the lives of Lawrence and his wife Frieda. Wilson sees the influence of Dante’s The Divine Comedy as influencing their peripatetic existence from 1915 to 1925: ‘Lawrence structured his life –‘that piece of supreme art’, as he called it – around Dante’s great poem in the way that James Joyce structured Ulysses around The Odyssey.’

Lawrence certainly produced some remarkable work during this time, from the 1915 publication of The Rainbow (after being banned in Bow Street for obscenity, 1,011 remaining copies of the novel were burned by a hangman) to his Studies in Classic American Literature (1923) completed during the three tumultuous years that the Lawrences spent with the writer and influential patron Mabel Dodge Luhan in Taos, New Mexico, before their return to Europe in 1925.

Wilson refers to this final version of the Studies in Classic American Literature as the ‘Mabel’ edition, ‘not least because we have Mabel Dodge to thank for the book that is itself a classic of American literature.’  This made me interested in the other professional female writers who became D.H. Lawrence’s friends and supporters during his lifetime. After Lawrence’s death in 1930 of tuberculosis at the age of 44 there was glut of books about him including Lorenzo in Taos (1932) by Dodge Luhan and Frieda Lawrence’s memoir ‘Not I, But the Wind…’ (1934), which Newsweek calculated was the 17th book to appear since his death. But the most controversial, in these early years, was a biography of DH Lawrence called The Savage Pilgrimage, published in 1932. Its author, Catharine Carswell, was accused of libel by Lawrence’s on-off friend, the writer and critic John Middleton Murry. So her book was withdrawn from bookshops, while copies of Middleton Murry’s own memoir of Lawrence continued to sell briskly.

D.H. Lawrence’s friendship with the Scottish journalist Carswell began after she wrote a glowing review of his novel The White Peacock (1911) in the Glasgow Herald. After praising The Rainbow (or rather, failing to condemn it completely), she lost her job at the Herald but their friendship continued, and they exchanged manuscripts of their works in progress. Their admiration was mutual and frank: he gave her advice on her many drafts of her first novel, Open the Door! and she told him not to steal one of her character’s names for Women in Love. ‘I think you are the only woman I have met,’ Lawrence told her, ‘who is so intrinsically detached, so essentially separate and isolated, as to be a real writer or artist or recorder.’ As back-handed a compliment as this might seem, Carswell’s novel won the Melrose prize in 1920 and became a bestseller. (There’s an excellent Paris Review article about it by Emma Garman here.)  

The American poet H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) and Lawrence had a more complicated connection. She was the groundbreaking Imagist poet whom Lawrence ‘feared and wondered over’ before they met, yet as soon as they started corresponding, he was giving her advice to ‘kick over your tiresome house of life’. In 1917 she was generous enough to lend the homeless Lawrences her rooms in Mecklenburgh Square: ‘the young woman tossed the rooms to them, and food and fuel, with a wild free hand,’ D.H. Lawrence later wrote in Kangaroo (1923).  It took many years for H.D. to shake off Lawrence’s shadow over on her writing life, a process she describes in her novel, Bid Me to Live (1960). Francesca Wade’s chapter in her book Square Haunting (2020) is excellent on H.D.’s time in London – see my review for the TLS here.

The writer and literary critic Rebecca West’s friendship with Lawrence was more straightforward. They met in Florence in 1921, and she recalled him as ‘one of the most polite people I have ever met’ who was writing ‘about the state of his own soul at that moment’. When Lawrence died in 1930, West wrote a passionate tribute to him as a counterblast to the negative obituaries, although she was not blind to his faults. Lawrence was a great writer and a genius, she maintained. ‘But every genius is apt to be pretty much of an ass at times.’

The crime writer Dorothy L. Sayers also recognized Lawrence’s (mostly) good side. In her 1938 essay ‘Are Women Human?’ (published in Unpopular Opinions, Victor Gollancz, 1946) she writes: ‘The late D.H. Lawrence, who certainly cannot be accused of underrating the importance of sex and talked a good deal of nonsense on the subject, was yet occasionally visited with shattering glimpses of the obvious.’ She goes on to quote his words in Assorted Articles (1930):  ‘Man is willing to accept woman as an equal, as a man in skirts, as an angel, a baby-face, a machine […] the one thing he won’t accept her as is a human being, a real human being of the feminine sex.’

It might be going too far to describe D.H. Lawrence as a feminist, but I think that these women writers have something in common with Frances Wilson. ‘Being loyal to Lawrence, especially as a woman, has always required some sort of explanation,’ she tells us. By revealing a lesser-known Lawrence through his lesser-known works, Burning Man provides something of that explanation.

© Ann Kennedy Smith, 8 June 2021. All rights reserved. (With thanks to Bloomsbury for my preview copy.)

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