It’s been a very long time since I last read a novel by DH Lawrence. Years, maybe even a decade, longer later, further, further ago.
I recently read the Geoff Dyer-selected 2019 Penguin edition of some of Lawrence’s essays, Life with a Capital L, so I know that Lawrence didn’t really hit his his prose stride (imo) until he was almost 40. (The last section of that book was a profound pleasure, akin to – and more potent than – the (some say) overwritten orgasms that Lawrence’s characters sometimes enjoy in the throes of exclusively p-in-v sex.
That book led me on to scour the small selection of my books that are currently not boxed up (I’m not technically unhoused at the moment but I am not living my best life – this is very much life with a non-capitalised l) for some more unread David Herbert.
I found this chic Penguin paperback of The Trespasser in the same edition as the copy of Lawrence’s Apocalypse which I read in Quebec City about 18 months ago. I could have looked more, I could have unboxed some books (I know I have buried somewhere a “doorstopper” of an edition of Lawrence’s Collected Poems) but The Trespasser had something very significant on that other volume and the other ones I know I have but couldn’t visualise: The Trespasser is only 200ish pages long, the perfect size for a novel.
The Trespasser was Lawrence’s second novel (following The White Peacock (1911), which I have also never read) and was published in 1912. This was Lawrence writing before he had started his Dylanesque “neverending tour”, and as such is much less international than the majority of his later writing, though very much still uses place and physical movement as synonyms and symbols (I’m using synonym there as a symbol, which is very, very clever) to reflect the internal passions and problems of his protagonists.
This time, though, the setting that is “Home” for the characters is good ol’ London town (which Lawrence writes about here with an uncharacteristic (i.e. youthful) pleasure – he is not leaning into the “proud provincial” schtick here) and the place they journey to in order to fuck and find themselves is not distant New Mexico, faraway Australia or even the Alps or Italy, it is instead the Isle of Wight, a place described by Lawrence as an edenic wonderland where one can swim in warm seas, bathe in rich sunlight and fuck in peaceful forest glades like a woodland spirit and a horned up maenad (I read this outside sex as implied, though the young Lawrence may have truly meant to convey that a walk is just a walk (in my defence, there’s lots of al fresco fucking in Lady Chatterley’s Lover and – my own biases on the table and in Lawrence’s defence (if you’re the kinda prude who thinks this needs defending) – hiking is an activity best done alone so I would always presume an invitation to a walk through secluded countryside is an explicit invitation to sex in secluded countryside; maybe this is a provincial English thing, where I’m from “I enjoy long walks in the countryside” is considered a provocative invitation.)
Siegmund – a made-up character in this novel – is a violinist approaching 40 who plays in the orchestras of second rate West End shows. He married very young and he and Beatrice, his wife – who he hates – live miserably with their many children, the two oldest of which are basically adults already. They both yearn for a life without the other, but only Siegmund is horny enough to actually make that happen.
Helena is his lover – about a decade younger than him, she was at some point his violin pupil, but how long ago that was and how that relationship metastasised (I’m using that word as if it’s an synonym for “transformed”; if it’s not, I’m using it as a symbol for “transformed”, which is very, very clever) into a relationship where they’d book a week long sex holiday in an Isle of Wight B&B run by a nosy yet disinterested old lady.
Because this is a novel published in England in 1912 and because this is a novel written by a DH Lawrence who wants to have books published (rather than a DH Lawrence who wants to have the books DH Lawrence wants to (needs to?) write published), the sex is all off screen, it is implied, it is undescribed, it is vague.
There’s definitely fucking, yes (they’re on a sex holiday) but the positions used, what foreplay is involved, whether or not the woman cums, how this sex compares to any and all sex the people having sex have had before – all essential details in a literary sex scene in the true Lawrentian tradition – is a mystery.
Had these people fucked before this sex holiday?
And if yes, where, when and how?
Was Helena – who’s a nice middle class girl who still lives with her parents (tho in 1912 would a woman over 25 who still lives with her parents be considered too old to be desirable by anyone other than a second-rate violinist?) – still a virgin?
Had Siegmund fucked other women since he married?
Was Beatrice the only woman he’d ever fucked prior to Helena?
I don’t know the answers to any of these questions.
I don’t know if Lawrence knew. Yet, I still bloody loved it.
More than anything, The Trespasser felt like one of EM Forster’s early novels, and I mean that as a not negative comparison.
This is a novel about middle class people going on holiday and having a great time and then feeling devastated when the holiday is over. We’ve all been there, right? (And I’ve never even had an affair on holiday, I’ve just had like normal holidays and sometimes coming back from those – sometimes pretty boring normal holidays where the only difference was literally place – has been almost too much to bear!)
The Trespasser is about the sad misery of normalcy, the danger of acquiescence to mediocrity and the importance of new places and new moments. Lawrence’s pro-living philosophy is already here (though with a very typical youthful, post-Victorian fear of pleasure), and it is “living too much” that causes the inevitable post-fun death at the end of the novel.
Lawrence shows, though, that those around Siegmund (whose death is mentioned in the first chapter so that isn’t a “spoiler”) who are less optimistic, less exciting, less excitable, less pleasure seeking than him (i.e. his bereaved wife and lover) have a stable – if boring – life ahead of them once their varying-degrees-of-romances with the violinist are terminated (when he dies). It’s very English, I suppose: all animals are miserable, but some are more miserable than others.
Is The Trespasser a brilliant novel? No.
Does it rewrite and remould and reshape an entire literary form? No.
Is it a solid and – again, key – shortish novel that’s very typical of the style, form and content of the early 20th century English novel? Yes.
Does it have touches of Lawrentian brilliance? Yes.
Does it make love and lust and travel seem essential and unignorable? Yes, though I have to say it makes the Isle of Wight seem a lot more exotic – and warm – than my own experience visiting there last Summer, but I think, perhaps, the young DH Lawrence, who – like me – was a ratty little provincial nobody, may well have been impressed by comparison. (Maybe if I’d never seen the beautiful places I’d seen before visiting the Isle of Wight, maybe I’d’ve adored it, too? Maybe if the weather had been better that week the same thing would’ve happened.)
The Trespasser is a minor Lawrence, a minor novel, and though I can’t imagine rereading it, I certainly did enjoy its 200 pages and can definitely say that if it sounds like you’d like it, you probably will.
Its lack of ambition and complexity means, yes, it isn’t ambitious or complex, but it does mean that The Trespasser is comprehensively a success on its own terms.
More sex next time, please, DH!!!