Burning Man: The Ascent of DH Lawrence, by Frances Wilson, Bloomsbury, 512 pp, £25, ISBN: 978-1408893623
Burning Man, a new biography of Lawrence stuffed with fascinating research – his battleground of a childhood, his “raid” on literary London, life in Cornwall with Katherine Mansfield and John Middleton Murry, lifelong denials of, and battles with, tuberculosis, referred to by him as “the bronchials”, his first meeting with Frieda von Richthofen, his “destiny” and life partner, fights between them, their penniless travels on foot, donkey and ferry throughout Europe, in Florence with Norman Douglas, the pilgrimage to New Mexico and Mabel Dodge, her quest to “save” the Pueblo Indians, his novels, poems and literary criticisms ‑ is wonderful in many ways; but here’s my caveat: can a new biography of Lawrence really ignore Kate Millet’s critique of his work, declaring him one of the subtlest propagators of sexist, patriarchal propaganda? Can his novels, seen by Millet as laying the groundwork for today’s pornography, really stand unquestioned?
Of course it can’t have been fun toppling from the apex of fame to brutal exclusion, even worse, to becoming a laughing stock, even if you’re dead. DH Lawrence was very dead when Penguin Books published the unexpurgated version of his most famous novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, but the subsequent obscenity trial became the cause célèbre of the Sixties and Lawrence and his normalisation of matters sexy from the fellow in the dirty raincoat to the drawing rooms of the bourgeoisie elevated him to the status of superhero of the “sexual revolution”, “The Priest of Love”, the sexual liberator ‑ especially for women. But was he really?
In 1969, ten years after Lady Chatterley’s Lover had won the obscenity debates, Kate Millet published Sexual Politics, in which she skewered Sigmund Freud, Lawrence, Henry Miller and Norman Mailer. Not for their alleged obscenity, but Freud for his “penis envy” nonsense, Mailer for being a misogynist and sexual bully, Miller for being a sadist, and Lawrence for pretending to write from a female’s point of view when in fact he was vigorously promoting the male. All of them proclaiming one way or another that women did not need to be emancipated: they just needed a good fuck, the more brutal the better. Miller, Mailer and Freud more or less survived Millet’s skewering but Lawrence’s reputation crashed, he became “a figure of fun”, the great sexual hero of Lady Chatterley just another apologist for the patriarchy.
Author Frances Wilson attempts a rescue.
First though the man and his background. Born into savagely harsh beginnings, a neighbour described him as a “snuffly-nosed little beggar, seldom without a cold” ‑ his father, a miner, dropped down a thousand-foot shaft every day from the age of seven to crawl on his belly digging out coal, emerging in the evening to a scrubbing in the tin bath followed by the pub, his wife irremediably bitter against him for tricking her into marriage by claiming to be a contractor, turning all his children against him, was first villain then hero. The ferocious quarrelling between parents plus the sheer awfulness of mining life gave Lawrence a lifelong hatred of ‘machinery’, a passionate desire to return to nature, innocence, pre-machine existence, and a skewed notion of love.
Convinced she was cut from finer cloth than her husband, Lawrence’s mother resolved her frustrations within the marriage by involving both her sons in deeply incestuous relationships. When her older son died, a young Lawrence was “chosen as lover”. His health collapsed, a spot was discovered on his lung, most likely the start of tuberculosis and lifelong susceptibility to crippling chest infections often lasting an entire winter; it was feared he wouldn’t live. Ever after, he believed tuberculosis was a disease attributable to “an excess of love”.
Lawrence spent his convalescence reading everything he could find, and once recovered, his mother’s projected ambitions “urged him on and on”, to teaching, to university, and to ruthlessly climb the social ladder until he landed in college dining halls and the drawing rooms of the literary upper classes. Not everyone was impressed. One Cambridge scholar described him as “a mongrel terrier among a crowd of Pomeranians and Alsatians”. But when Ford Maddox Ford, author, then editor of The English Review, first met him he was surprised not to encounter “a forelock-tugging ingenue, but a fox going to make a raid on the hen coop before him”.
Lawrence didn’t just raid the literary hen coop; he also raided the marriage of his then professor, Ernest Weekley, and carried off Frieda, his wife. German, beautiful, aristocratic, green-eyed, Lawrence described her as “a cat in the sunshine that looks around and finds it good”. She described him: “a long thin figure, quick straight legs, sure movements … We talked about Oedipus and understanding leapt through our words.” He expounded and despaired and she laughed. Emotionally and sexually liberated, Frieda was everything a buttoned-up Lawrence ever dreamed of. “You are the most wonderful woman in England,” he wrote to her.
Frieda was also mother to three children. The enamoured Lawrence, her enraged husband, and the laws that then obtained, forced her to relinquish them. There is no record here of what the children suffered as a result of losing their mother, though Frieda definitely went a bit mad. Lawrence suffered his own rendezvous with madness when his novel The Rainbow was declared “utter filth” and publicly burned by the hangman. The couple were shunned in “polite society” and moved from one gruesome dwelling place to another, often watched by the Ministry of Defence. That Frieda was the cousin of German ace pilot Baron Manfred Albrecht von Richthofen didn’t help. England and Germany were at war.
Their marriage was notoriously tempestuous. Katherine Mansfield describes one row:
She (Frieda) went out of the kitchen and began to walk round and round the house in the dark. Suddenly Lawrence appeared and made a kind of horrible blind rush at her … He beat her ‑ he beat her to death ‑ her head and face and breast and pulled out her hair. Finally they dashed into the kitchen and round and round the table. I shall never forget how L., looked. He was so white ‑ almost green, and he just hit, thumped the big soft woman. Then he fell into one chair and she into another. No one said a word … Suddenly after a long time L., looked up and asked Murry a question about French literature … Frieda and Lawrence then began to reminisce about a particularly rich and delicious macaroni cheese they had enjoyed.
Lawrence’s literary friends did not like Frieda. Katherine Mansfield said Lawrence was like a small gold ring lost inside a great German pudding. But meeting her years later, artist Georgia O’Keefe wrote: “Frieda was very special. I can remember very clearly the first time I ever saw her, standing in a doorway, with her hair all frizzed out, wearing a cheap red calico dress that looked as though she’d just wiped out the frying pan with it. She was not thin, and not young, but there was something radiant and wonderful about her.”
Liberated in her own way by birth and temperament, Frieda said what she thought, and did what she wanted, including sleeping with whomever she wished to. It makes the contrast between Lawrence’s real life women and the “ideal woman” of his novels all the starker. Lawrence, Millet argued in Sexual Politics, was forever idealising the phallus into a priestly cult, a religion at whose “lordly” altar a few chosen women would be allowed worship. It was the patriarchy, but presented this time with an apparently modern four-letter-word vocabulary. His ideal woman was a supplicant at the mighty phallic altar, reduced to almost inchoate “cunt”, reborn, even born as he would have it, by a man penetrating her; orgasm for woman was not considered necessary in the Lawrence code.
The “new woman”, the woman then emerging thanks to the suffragette and feminist struggles, Millet argues, was “a creature reacted to with almost hysterical hatred” by Lawrence’s characters: “Something macabre, repulsive, a terrible void, a lack, a deficiency of being within”. In Sons and Lovers, the narrator, Paul, aka Lawrence, “lectures his mistresses that, as women, they are incapable of the sort of wholehearted attention to task or achievement that is the province of the male and the cause of his superiority”. Women, Lawrentian men proclaimed, “must offer up their authentic souls to compensate for their less authentic intellects”.
With Freud thundering away on how women wanting to go into the professions were exhibiting “penis envy”, how little girls were permanently scarred by catching a glimpse of their little brothers’ pee-pees, and how primitive women apparently knitted their pubic hair as a way to make up for their lack of same, you get a glimpse of just how hysterical and fiercely anti-woman male propaganda of the time was.
But it was Lawrence’s, Mailer’s and Miller’s misogyny hiding beneath “high literary style” that was the great disaster. Repurposed in full Technicolor and dropped into mainstream culture, it became porn: that is male violence masquerading as sexual prowess. Far from being liberating for women, these “literary” works, Millet believed, laid the groundwork for modern pornography. The “values” put forward ‑ woman as cunt, woman as supplicant, woman as inferior, woman as “other”, as a “thing” to be overcome, penetrated, violated ‑ formed the blueprint for today’s pornography, a multi-billion-dollar industry devoted to the eroticisation of violence against women and poured into male ears and eyes 24/7. The effects for women, of ever-rising cycles of violence against them, have been catastrophic. In today’s porn-saturated Britain two women are murdered every week. Two a week. As Kate Millet once poignantly said: “What we wanted was eroticism. What we got was pornography.”
DH Lawrence had many extraordinary qualities. In spite of desperately poor beginnings, poverty and disease, he and Frieda traversed the world from England to Germany to Italy to Switzerland to Sicily to Ceylon/Sri Lanka, to Australia, to America, to New Mexico, to France. Travelling, always with Frieda, always writing ‑ books, poems, reviews, critiques, pouring out regardless of illnesses, psychological and physical. Angry, unwell, destitute, forever attacked by the censors, he described himself early on as “a walking phenomenon of suspended fury”. His output was astonishing. Twelve novels, thirteen collections of short stories, four travel books, seven translations, eighteen poetry collections, five plays, fourteen works of non-fiction. He certainly gave everything. When Aldous and Maria Huxley and Frieda buried him in France, “very simply, like a bird”, he was only forty-four and weighed just eighty-five pounds.
For a visionary, he could of course be extraordinarily blind. As Max Beerbohm tartly remarked: “Poor DH Lawrence (…) he never suspected that to be stark staring raving mad is somewhat of a handicap for a writer.” He believed he had two selves ‑ one quiet, the other raving. They seldom seem to have communicated. Passionately certain of his version of things, he often denied reality. His denial of his own illness certainly facilitated passing it on, this author claiming writer Katherine Mansfield was definitely infected, and killed, by contact with him. Later, with Mabel Dodge suffering from syphilis in New Mexico, in those pre-antibiotic days could between them have wiped out thousands.
Life for Lawrence was usually headlong flight. Writer Witter Brynner said “he searches for Edens. And in all the lost gardens he finds on the way he adds to the damage already done.” And, in denial of his latent, and sometimes not so latent, homosexuality, his anti-woman/sacred phallus shtick certainly thrived.
The author has somewhat awkwardly I think modelled Burning Man on Dante’s journey; thus Lawrence goes from Inferno (England), Purgatory (Italy), to Paradise (America), though it’s hard to see the American sojourn, 1922-1925, with Lawrence now raddled with TB and angrier than ever (“I’m always angry when I’m dying”), hating the Pueblo Indians, and their supposed saviour, Mabel Dodge, as Paradise.
There is much to enjoy in Burning Man and its extensive and fascinating research into Lawrence’s extraordinary life, but it seems strange that in 2021 the author, a woman, bypasses the charges lodged by Kate Millet over fifty years ago. For all his faults, maddening, mad, foolish in so many ways, I think modern pornography would have appalled Lawrence. That he had helped usher it in would have appalled him even more.
Rosita Sweetman is a writer and journalist. Her books include On Our Knees, a look at Ireland in the 1970s, Fathers Come First, a novel, and On Our Backs, a look at sexual attitudes in 1980s Ireland. Her Latest work is Feminism Backwards, published by Mercier in 2020.