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A new D.H. Lawrence biography sharpens the focus

A bronze bust of author D.H. Lawrence outside Nottingham Castle in England.Adobe.stock.com/Fabrice - stock.adobe.com

In a 1969 essay, Elizabeth Hardwick described the worst kind of literary biography: the overstuffed, underthought tome whose claim to authority rests solely upon the accumulation of facts. In such books, everything is “sorted, labeled, and dated”; “nothing is weighed or judged or pondered.” It’s true: when it comes to the lives of writers, bigger isn’t always better. Poems and novels work as much by excision as they do by inclusion — that is to say, they work through the exigencies of form — and biographies do, too. Facts and dates aren’t enough; they have to be given compelling shape.

Frances Wilson’s “Burning Man: The Trials of D.H. Lawrence” is a remarkable and idiosyncratic work of biographical criticism, in part because of how intentionally shaped it is. Lawrence’s life has never been in want of treatment. As Wilson writes, “Everyone who knew him told tales about D.H. Lawrence, and D.H. Lawrence told tales about everyone he knew.” (The critic Geoff Dyer has even written a book about not being able to write a book about Lawrence.) Wilson’s approach distinguishes itself by its contained scope. She doesn’t offer a life of Lawrence but a reading of a portion of Lawrence’s life: “his middle years, the decade of superhuman energy and productivity between 1915 when ‘The Rainbow’ was prosecuted [for obscenity], and 1925 when he was diagnosed with tuberculosis.”


As with any stretch of Lawrence’s life, this period contained plenty of drama: ostentatious fights with his wife, Frieda (“What was increasingly apparent about the Lawrences’ marriage,” Wilson writes, “is that it was a piece of theatre, performed before an audience”); acts of savagery (Lawrence wrote to a dying Katherine Mansfield, “I loathe you. You revolt me stewing in your consumption”) and acts of moral complication (he gave money that he didn’t really have to a frenemy fleeing the Italian authorities, partly to help and partly to put him forever in his debt).

Wilson notes that “it is often the case in Lawrence that the passages he considered his finest are those most vulnerable to mockery.” (Many sections of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” now only scandalize in their silliness.) But the flip to this is that Lawrence was often at his best in what appears to be his least consequential work, and Wilson aims “to reveal a lesser-known Lawrence through introducing his lesser-known works.” She persuasively argues that Lawrence’s travel essays are every bit as good as, maybe better than, his fiction. She considers at length “Memoir of Maurice Magnus,” Lawrence’s totally bizarre memoir/tribute/castigation of the aforementioned frenemy. The profile is a comic masterpiece and a document of profound ambivalence. As Wilson writes, “He liked Magnus, he hated Magnus, he was attracted to Magnus, he was repelled by Magnus, he pursued Magnus and was pursued by Magnus.”


“Burning Man”'s temporal constraint isn’t absolute. “Sons and Lovers” was published before 1915, yet Wilson has smart things to say about this “merciless killing machine” of a novel. (Wilson is as good a critic as she is a biographer, and she’s as sharp a stylist as she is a reader.) The final few pages take us beyond 1925 — beyond Lawrence’s death, in fact — with the 1935 journey of the writer’s remains from southern France to New Mexico. (An urn, which may have contained Lawrence’s ashes or may have only held cigarette ashes picked up en route, first got left outside a photography exhibit on 49th Street then was forgotten at a train station in Lamy Junction, N.M., before ending up either scattered over the desert landscape, stirred into an altar stone, or consumed by Lawrence’s wife, Frieda; his patron, Mabel Dodge Luhan; and the painter Dorothy Brett.)


Still, by focusing her attention largely on 10 years in the middle of Lawrence’s career, Wilson is able to identify patterns, styles of being and writing, that might get lost in a more sprawling cradle-to-wherever-Lawrence’s-body-ended-up account. Wilson identifies the “tensions, or rather lesions, in his character.” He rhapsodized about sex but didn’t have much of it; he was terrified of homosexual desire and felt it himself; his life was a nonstop performance even while he praised authenticity.

Wilson argues that Lawrence’s life was itself self-consciously shaped. More specifically, she claims that Lawrence patterned his life on Dante’s “Divine Comedy.” Lawrence hated Christianity — he hated a lot of things; hating was probably his greatest love — but he found in Dante’s Christian poem a model for both life and art. (Lawrence didn’t see these two as distinct or distinguishable.) Lawrence moved from the coal mines of Nottinghamshire to heights of Capri to the even greater heights of tao: “Follow his footsteps and you see that every house Lawrence lived in, from birth to burial, was positioned at a higher spot than the last; he rose from underworld to empyrean.”


Lawrence lived with what Wilson calls an “absolute necessity to move.” From 1915 to 1925, this drive manifested itself in journeys to Sardinia and Monte Cassino and Ceylon and Australia and Taos, N.M.; it produced essays and poems and novels and letters and plays. Lawrence moved restlessly; he fell in love fast and into hate even faster; he wrote constantly and at great speed. Wilson, with her compressed time frame and swift intelligence, has given Lawrence the biography he deserves.

BURNING MAN: The Trials of D.H. Lawrence

By Frances Wilson

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 512 pages, $35

Anthony Domestico is an associate professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY, and the author of “Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period.’’