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T. E. Lawrence, 'D. H. Lawrence's Novels'

Women in Love , The Lost Girl, The Plumed Serpent
By D. H. Lawrence (Secker. 3s. 6d.)

The Spectator, 6 August 1927


Martin Secker has been too careful in producing his cheap edition of D. H. Lawrence's novels. In its clumsy type-panel the type looks too big, and the reverse looms shadowly through the thin paper: also the margins have been pared to the quick. This is a pity, for D. H. Lawrence is a prodigious novelist, whose works need to be studied in series (to learn their significance of growth) as well as to be re-read frequently, each for itself, because of the rich depth and strangeness and fine artistry of the author. These little volumes are likely to crack up under the work book-lovers will give them.

D.H. Lawrence has had a wonderful career, since the distant day when The White Peacock took the breath of literary England with its sudden independence and wealth of form. A young man's work this, obviously, with its cadenced prose, beautiful in sound and mannered in pattern. He was writing, then as now, for ear and eye together: but he seemed to over-value the classical tradition, to check his powers, in too strict obedience to architectonic law. So with his next book, and his next, Sons and Lovers being perhaps the prose culmination of his first phase, which found itself, more transparently, in the poems:>

'The sea in the stones is singing,
A woman binds her hair,

With yellow, frail sea-poppies
That shine as her fingers stir.

While a naked man comes swiftly
Like a spurt of white foam, rent

From the crest of a fallen breaker
Over the poppies sent.'

Do you see the doubled 's' in each first and last line? There is the young Lawrence, his imagination playing lead to his mind. Appetite and self-education rushed him into growth. Ideas leaped in flocks, full-grown, into his work, too quickly to be always clear, too grown to be always good company, one to the other. The Rainbow and Women in Love and Aaron's Rod stutter and stammer with the heat of the teacher who has felt something so exciting that he cannot delay to think it into its fitting words. Words upon words, he pours them out in a river.

Slowly the passion checked. It crystallized into conviction. In Kangaroo and the short stories we can see the molten stuff cooling, to grow hard and solid, yet plastic in the master's burning hands. Finally there came to us The Plumed Serpent, the 'magic' as the Spectator called it, a perfect achievement, the balance of mind and strength and spirit, a vivified independent creation of art.

What pains before The Plumed Serpent can be created! Book after book, each of them the hardest and honestest and best work of which his wits are capable, for nearly twenty years; and all the time growth, growth, growth. He never tries to please another judgment than his own, never walks in a made road, never re-treads the easy track of an earlier success. Every time he gives us, in both hands, all he can hold of himself. It is a pageant: novels, poems, scientific work - not good, this last. His pseudonymous Oxford history-book and his psychological treatise are unhappy; as though a maker, who could make live men and women, was bothering to model clay images of men and women. Twilight in Italy, too, was hard to read. It clung to the roof of the mouth, like an over-kneaded suet pudding. But at his best he is an impeccable prose writer (which is not to say that he has all the virtues.) Compare him with Brahms in music; and when the landscape painter in him feels the setting of a story, miracles follow. The Italian hill-villages in The Lost Girl are dizzy with their sense of height, and the supreme success of The Plumed Serpent is the lake, which becomes a major character in the book. However, there's no need to discuss The Plumed Serpent. It has arrived. It is more curious to see by what road it came.

In those early days, before the War, readers' hopes lay in Lawrence and Forster. These two heirs, through the Victorians, of the great tradition of the English novel were fortunate to have made good their footing before war came. Its bursting jarred them off their stride, indeed. Lawrence glances at the War twice of thrice, and wrote a haunting poem of a train-journey in uniform, but no more. Each man had tired of politics and action, and plunged into the dim forest of character in time to save himself from chaos. In imagination we used to make Forster and Lawrence joust with one another, on behalf of their different practices of novel-writing, as our fathers set Thackeray and Dickens at odds. Forster's world seemed a comedy, neatly layered and staged in a garden whose trim privet hedges were delicate with gossamer conventions. About its lawns he rolled thunderstorms in teacups, most lightly, beautifully. Lawrence painted hussies and bounders, unconscious of class, with the unabashed surety of genius, whether they were in their slippered kitchens or others' drawing-rooms, Forster's characters were typical. Lawrence's were individual. 'There have been enough stories about ordinary people,' said he, in self-defence: but it was easy for him to say that. Everybody in the world would be remarkable, if we used all our eyes to see them. Lawrence will call one eloquent, because his body curves interestingly when he stands still. Another is rich, because his dark silence means something. A third may thrill, once in the book, in voice. Some have interesting minds. Not many.

Forster may love a character, in a gently, aloof irony of love, like a collector uncovering his pieces of pride for a moment to a doubtful audience, as if he feared that an untaught eye might soil, by not comprehending, their fineness. Lawrence is a showman, trumpeting his stock, eager for us to make them ours - at a price. There is no comedy in him. He prods their ribs, prises open their jaws to show the false teeth. It is not very comfortable, on first reading. To be impassive spectators of the slave-market takes a training.

Forster is clever and subtle. Lawrence is not subtle, though he tries, sometimes, to convey emotional subtlety. In the big things his simplicity is shattering. His women browbeat us, as Juno browbeat the Gods at Jupiter's at-homes: but in the privacy of their dressing-rooms they jabber helplessly. Pages and pages are wasted in the effort to make the solar plexus talk English prose.

Both Lawrence and Forster give their main parts to women whenever possible. This is their deliberate choice, for each can draw an admirable man. Look at the youths in the Longest Journey: or read what Lawrence has written about Maurice Magnus, or Cipriano, or that splendid Canadian soldier in The Fox (was it the 'Fox,' or had the story one name in England and another in America?) But Lawrence never draws an average man or an average woman. He gets excited always over our strangenesses, and is the first thrall of his own puppets.

'If one could get over the feeling that one was looking at him through the glass of an aquarium,' he says in The Lost Girl. So he himself feels the queerness of his creations. We see the poor fishy things writhing across his whirl of words, in the grip of emotion belonging to some other element than the everyday. They are not hard and strong. He is poet, and thinker, a man exquisitely a-tingle to every throb of blood, flexure of sinew, plane-modulation of the envelope of flesh. He feels, sees and sings us instant and endless improvizations: and there is weakness somewhere in it all. The excitements are sometimes febrile: nor does he always play fair. Look at him dodging round his crowded characters, sniping at their back-parts (gutter-sniping almost) when they are most off-guard or most distracted. What about the portrait of M.M., or of Hermione? Compare the shameless spite of Look! We Have Come Through with the lambent raillery of the Queen Bee which dignifies Sea and Sardinia into happiness. Then, after the long journey through all his works, return, in The Plumed Serpent, to Mexico and the accepted creed of a man who is at last sure of himself.

C.D.

Source: MIP
Checked: jw/
Last revised: 6 January 2006




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