On March 2nd, 1930, D. H. Lawrence died. Infamous as a lewd sex novelist – though apparently impotent since 1926 – he died, slowly and painfully, of tuberculosis in Vence, France. There, close by his wife – Frieda – and his friends (including Aldous Huxley and other [less A-list] literary celebs), he shuddered his last, and with him too died his legacy. For a bit.
Written in the early 1950s but then heavily revised 15/20 years later, Harry T. Moore’s The Priest of Love is an engaging and (at times) moving biography of D. H. Lawrence. Moore had no personal connection with Lawrence, but his extensive (i.e. huge!) book drew deeply from interviews and letters with those who did know Lawrence when he was alive. As well as this first hand research, Moore also studied in detail the various – and often combative – memoirs penned by Lawrence’s friends, frenemies, enemies and peers that preceded this biography. Lawrence never stopped being famous, even if he wasn’t as respected as he now is, and anyone who was anyone was keen to grab the cash guaranteed by pumping out a Lawrentian memoir. The writing of which was made easier, of course, by the old adage that you cannot libel the dead…
Lawrence died messily and unhappily, his reputation (unfairly) on the wane, and many of his friendships ruined due to the physical toll of his tuberculosis and – alas – the unflattering, fictionalised portraits he made of everyone he knew during the course of his literary career. Moore traces these relationships and the overall trajectory of Lawrence’s social life, as well as his career, evoking a direct and unsalacious portrait of one of England’s best writers and – other than possibly myself and/or Shakespeare – the Midlands’ greatest ever confessional poet.
D. H. Lawrence, contrary to how he is often portrayed, did not live in a vacuum. He was an outsider in many ways, yes, but he wasn’t unsociable and nor – when it came to writing – was he anything other than prolific. Only a few of his novels (and some of his travel writing) may have firmed themselves deeply into the embrace of the canon, but he was also a significant essayist, poet and painter (though tbf I think the success of his paintings was more to do with his name than any “true” artistic value). His reputation, however, is hoped to be changed by a fancy-looking essay collection being released by Penguin in the New Year (introduced and selected by Geoff Dyer, of course). I’ve enjoyed most of the Lawrence I’ve read. Not all, but most, but this biography definitely primed me up to dive back into the man’s work.
Moore writes at length about Lawrence’s social life in the East Midlands and the various youthful flirtations he has, then about his life training as a teacher in Nottingham, then later working for a few years in South London. It is here that Lawrence started getting work published and found himself slithering into London’s pre-war literary scene, and becoming good friends with Katherine Mansfield and long-term rival/friend with her (then) partner, John Middleton Murry.
Quickly, Lawrence pisses off the wanky, swanky Bloomsbury set, and although in the later “battle of the banned” books they fall firmly on the side of James Joyce’s wanky, swanky Ulysses rather than Lawrence’s own far superior Lady Chatterley’s Lover,1 they did recognise the literary value of Lawrence’s work, even if they had no time to socialise with the son of a coal miner whose highest qualification was the completion of teacher training. Tired of London, but not of life, Lawrence sought advice from his old French teacher on how to get easy work on the continent teaching English, and then shagged his (already adulterous) old French teacher’s wife and they ran off together. Lawrence and Frieda travelled the world, writing, possibly each having numerous affairs, spending time in Sri Lanka, Australia, New Mexico, Mexico, San Francisco, New York, Spain, France, Germany, Switzerland and – most significantly – Italy.
D. H. Lawrence’s travel writing on Italy is some of his greatest work, and – to be honest – the Geoff Dyer introduction that accompanies the Penguin Classics edition of those collected works is a far more appropriate biography for Lawrence. In that heart-breaking essay, Dyer describes the ups and downs of Lawrence and Frieda’s marriage with far more viscerality, far more personality, than Moore does here. And though, yes, Moore gives great detail about the movements and the friendships and the writings of Lawrence, when it comes to what the writer of some of the canon’s most famous sex scenes did with his cock, we are left with vagaries and denials.
In trying to avoid salacious rumour, Moore accidentally offers a reader a subtext of potentially more excitement. Whether Lawrence is the impotent intellectual who can no longer fuck, or the horny, over-educated gamekeeper who rejects society but still loves to get it on, then the readings of Lady Chatterley are vastly different. To write a book about the importance of Lawrence’s biographical experiences to his novels without looking in a (yes) prurient detail at his sex life feels just a bit fucking repressed, and very non-Lawrentian. I think Moore sums up this disconnect in his rather striking statement that he read the ending of Lady Chatterley’s Lover as optimistic, reading Mellors’ closing letter as a list of probable and possible plans, rather than the dreary, empty, depressing statement o impossibility that it actually is. Maybe this is Moore’s American upbringing coming into play – but I don’t really think one requires a lower middle class Englishman’s sense of class to see the tragedy at the end of that beautiful novel. Sex does not win, sex cannot win, for in society we are mechanised and trapped by the rules and the robots and those who are outside us.
I want to read a sleazy biography of Lawrence, one as phallic as his writing, one as obsessed with vivacity as he was, a vivacity that he became more interested by the more ill (and thus less vivacious) he became. Lawrence was a tragic figure, but he was also a success. Moore captures the man, and he kinda captures the son, but he does not capture the lover.
A biographer of D. H. Lawrence should tell me who and how he definitely fucked. That is what would have mattered. The rest is a timeline of letters.
I wept, slightly ill and awake too early, “I don’t want D. H. Lawrence to dieeeee” as I neared the end of the book, but it was inevitable, and the positive arc that his legacy has bounced through in the near-century since allows for a somewhat happy ending to the otherwise depressing text.
A good read, but not a great one. I enjoyed it, but I didn’t love it. It made me want to return to Lawrence. Which I will, soon. Nice.
1. I’m sorry if you disagree with this, but I’m afraid that this is one of the few arguably subjective feelings I have that I would describe as objective fact. If you think Ulysses is better than Lady Chatterley’s Lover you are a) wrong and b) [probably] a twat. ↩
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