The New Compass: A Critical Review



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“I still have a little photograph of him in one of my studies”:

Two Recent Books on D.H. Lawrence


Richard Lansdown



J. C. F. Littlewood. D. H. Lawrence: The Major Phase. Studies in Tradition and Renewal. Ed. William Shearman. Denton Harleston, Norfolk: Brynmill, 2002. xxvi; 299 pages. £25.00.


Gary Adelman. Reclaiming D. H. Lawrence: Contemporary Writers Speak Out. Lewisburg: Bucknell UP, 2002. 181 pages. $34.50 U.S.


The appreciation of a major writer always involves making a claim of some kind or another: claiming him or her for oneself, first of all; and claiming a space for him or her in the attention of other readers, later on. As Kant saw two centuries ago, these ultimately unarbitrable claims are at the core of aesthetic experience. Frequently, too, these acts of appreciation will be acts of reclamation: claiming your admired object from the claims of others you believe to be more ignorant or undiscerning than yourself. Not all great writers are equal in this regard. Shakespeare, Austen, and Dickens seem to be churches broad enough to contain multitudes of critical responses and differences of opinion. D. H. Lawrence, by contrast, has been a site of vigorous contestation practically from the moment he appeared on the English literary scene a little before World War I. Is that why so many claims on and for him have been made in the course of the twentieth century? And is that why—if Gary Adelman’s book is to be believed—we’ve recently begun to grow weary of making and responding to them?


These two books could hardly be more different in their approach to this issue. The first was drafted at various times and in various forms from the early 1960s until the author’s death (aged 55) in 1984. The writer was a lecturer in English at the University of Bristol, a contributor to Scrutiny in its latter days, and one of F. R. Leavis’s most cherished students-cum-lieutenants at Downing College. For Littlewood, it follows, the acts of claiming and reclamation I’ve described take place in a particular context. For him, Lawrence “is part of our glorious national heritage” (215); what is required in his case, therefore, is an act of literary-critical glasnost, clearing away the compound follies of (say) Stephen Spender, Frank Kermode, John Carey, Clive James, e tutti quanti. (Where James is concerned, Littlewood reveals a genuine line of Leavisian wit: “effortlessly au fait with everything under the sun and in the mind of man … cheaply ironic about Lawrence’s thought and confidently obtuse in his expositions of the thought,” he writes (237): “interested not in his subject but in his own sparkling act, tremendously impressed by some of Lawrence’s phrases and utterly untouched by any of Lawrence’s meanings.”) Gary Adelman looks out on an entirely different landscape: a post-diluvian America, where the tectonic intellectual redistributions brought about by post-structuralism have left Lawrence a living concern and enthusiasm among imaginative writers, but high and dry in academic circles. (Adelman speaks about readings of Lawrence “defaulting to gender studies,” for example: imagine how horrified, but also how ultimately unsurprised, Lawrence, Leavis, and Littlewood would be to see this term from operating software leaching into the realm of literary experience.)


Littlewood’s study is emphatically a work of literary-critical evaluation; Adelman’s greatest value lies in the material he has collected and collated, not only from the forty novelists and sixty poets he has corresponded with (American and British), but also from his earnest and praiseworthy efforts in offering a semester-long course on Lawrence to American students. Teachers reading about this course will admire Adelman’s pluck or commiserate with his foolhardiness: he set (in this order, with the aim it seems of dispatching the grossest offenders early on) not only Studies in Classic American Literature but some of the early versions of those essays published as The Symbolic Meaning, Fantasia of the Unconscious, Women in Love, “The Princess,” “The Woman Who Rode Away,” St Mawr, The Man Who Died, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, The Rainbow, and Look, We Have Come Through! Anyone, you’d have to say, would need a cup of tea and a long lie-down after that. Students were asked to keep a reading-diary of their experiences, and not suprisingly these veer from outright rejection to disbelief, and from intermittent excitement to long stretches of boredom. (“Lawrence is such a one-noter,” as one of Adelman’s novelists economically puts it; 42.) Worse was to come: Adelman’s students gave the course a grudging pass in evaluations, and wrote comments that would make the most placidly complacent lecturer blench:


angry, angry, an inflamed irritation—complaining about the syllabus, rudeness (my shouting and interrupting), unclear objectives; there was too much to read; they had no idea how to study for an exam; I should try to remember that they were only twenty-one years old. One called me “creepy.” (114-5)


Who was being evaluated here, one might ask: teacher or subject? No wonder Adelman compares himself (77) to “a stage villain soliloquizing myself into a motive for some dastardly deed.”


As I say, it is the commentary Adelman reproduces by these means that gives his book its value. In one chapter he pitches in manfully to a discussion of Lawrence’s American novellas, and he also comments at length on Women in Love (as, of course, does Littlewood). Adelman says (24) that “students were bothered by Lawrence’s preoccupation with incest and anal sex” in that novel, and he, too, discusses Birkin’s requirements of Ursula in this regard. Many readers will remember Birkin’s desire for “a strange connection” with Ursula in the chapter called “Mino,” but if anal sex was what Birkin had in mind it’s news to me; either I’m naïve, or the teacher was making a rod for his own back on this occasion. His novelists and poets, as one might expect, make critical comments of all kinds of value and uselessness. Lynne Sharon Schwartz, for example, makes the thoughtful suggestion that “Lawrence is a ‘hot’ writer,” whereas “our tastes are ‘cool’”:


After the political and social upheavals of the century, we live by irony, skepticism, disillusion, a distrust of earnestness that is expressed as scorn. I am not fond of the extreme “coolness” of some of our younger writers, but I do think Lawrence’s heat has earned our distrust. (42)


Margaret Drabble makes much the same point: that “the mood of the 80s and 90s has been so hard-edged, so determinist-defeatist in some ways, so merciless, in others, and above all so cynical” as to produce “a world in which DHL does not fit” (44). At the other extreme, Richard Ford makes the airy remark about one of his studies quoted in my title.


More than a whiff of cordite from old battles hangs about J. C. F. Littlewood’s study. I have already mentioned his waspish dismissal of Clive James, and his editor, too, takes us back to the era of Leavis agonistes. What we have here is a most loving effort of retrieval, not only by William Shearman and his publisher, but also by one of Littlewood’s Bristol students, who first sought (in “peculiarly difficult personal circumstances,” apparently; x) to make sense of Littlewood’s various drafts after his untimely death. (There is material here previously published in the Cambridge Quarterly and Essays in Criticism, but also written-up lectures and final drafts. So the reader must put up with a certain amount of repetition, and some variance in authorial register.) The publisher, Shearman tells us (vi) “well knew that the … venture would be extremely hazardous,” which makes us think he was in danger of being placed under a fatwa or something of the kind. Similarly, one of the book’s dramatic sub-plots is the nefarious attempt to “supplant or bury the real criticism” (xiii) made by certain Lawrence scholars of bygone ages who overlooked the originality of Littlewood’s contribution to our understanding of the Prussian Officer stories in relation to The Rainbow. (Interested readers can consult an essay from the same publisher on this subject: Brian Crick’s The Story of the “Prussian Officer” Revisions: Littlewood among the Lawrence Scholars.) When the editor wonders whether “there still exists at least a small remnant of the reading public to whom Littlewood was always concerned to address his work” (xxvi), readers may have cause to fear they are in for large amounts of Downing rechauffée.


They should be encouraged to read on, however. It is true that the reprinted material about “Lawrence scholarship” and the migraine-inducing appendices relating to it might with advantage have been left on the cutting-room floor; but the life and soul of the book—about what Littlewood calls “The Lawrence who Matters”—is very well worth the reader’s time. Nor are the arguments delivered there of the clenched and adversarial kind made out in D. H. Lawrence: Novelist. (More Leavis-without-tears, then, than Leavis-and-soda.) For Littlewood the Lawrence who matters involves Sons and Lovers, certainly, but most of all the artist who got beyond the impasse that novel represented in personal and artistic terms alike: its inablity to resolve the web of issues relating to his parents and to Mrs. Morel and Miriam, and its dependence on Victorian realism as practised (in differing ways and degrees, to be sure) by George Eliot and Thomas Hardy. Thus Littlewood’s theme is “the interrelations of life-learning and book-learning and of originality and tradition” (5) in the phase that takes us from Sons and Lovers to Women in Love, and he has many interesting things to say about Lydia and Walter Lawrence, and about Jessie Chambers and Frieda Weekley; still more interesting things to say about Dickens, Hardy, the Brontës, and George Eliot. (Lawrence, he says, had “a more magically re-creative touch, and a more urgent creative end” than Eliot, which is a typically thought-provoking comparison.)


            Strong cases are made, therefore, on Sons and Lovers, and on key tales from the Prussian Officer collection; and the discussion of The Rainbow (which with the short stories constitutes Lawrence’s “first breakthrough”) is similarly to the point. As Littlewood sees Women in Love very much as Lawrence”s second breakthrough and climactic fictional effort, however, his treatment of its prequel shows some signs of neglect. “In the last few chapters of The Rainbow,” he writes, “while seeming to be offering us there a critique of the modern industrial world … Lawrence actually gives us little more than a protest against it” (161). This seems to me a half-truth generated by admiration for the later novel. I am by no means convinced that anywhere Lawrence intended in The Rainbow the kind of generalized analysis undertaken in Women in Love: rather he wanted eventually to outline the choices available to Ursula as a representative modern young woman, by comparison with her mother and grandmother. In so far as she is free to make her own life, well and good; in so far as she has had obscured for her the kinds of noumenal intuitions her predecessors received from their sexual partners, the prospect darkens. So to say that her boyfriend Anton Skrebensky is “another weakling in the Will Brangwen mould” (132) seems to me greatly erroneous, as Ursula’s father re-implants in Ursula an idealism that is a crucial Brangwen characteristic and a vital counterpoint to her mother’s lapse into domesticity.


            It is Women in Love, therefore, that is Littlewood’s favourite child, and readers must consult his discussion to make up their own minds about it. With all its strengths—and it has many—it in part re-presents the very problems the novel itself does. Certainly Lawrence’s book gets much better as it goes along, but for a lengthy period at the beginning the preponderance of discussion over what Leavis would have called “dramatic presentment” is profoundly wearisome. (Compare “Class-room” in the later novel with “The Man’s World” in the earlier one, for example: see how the children quite disappear from authorial view when Birkin and Hermione enter the classroom to inaugurate one of their tedious rounds of bickering.) And Birkin’s role as semi-annointed, self-appointed Jeremiah, which is irksome enough to be sure in the novel’s first half, simply crumples once he establishes himself in the once-derided state of domesticity with Ursula. (Littlewood makes a lengthy comparison of Birkin with Hamlet, as men who have both “seen death” and criticize society accordingly: a comparison that, starting with a false premise—what “death” has Birkin seen, exactly?—ends up in the idea that Hamlet supposes “corruption is something occurs only in other people” (205), which is demonstrably untrue.) These things make us wonder about Littlewood’s loyalty to Lawrence’s belief that “in a novel there’s always a tom-cat, a black tom-cat that pounces on the white dove of the word … there is a banana-skin to trip on: and you know there is a water-closet on the premises” (164). Arguably one of the things that makes Sons and Lovers (with all its faults) so prodigious, and The Rainbow so majestic, is that in these novels the water-closet on the premises really has to be confronted and incorporated within the analytic project the novelist undertakes. In them there are things you “damn well have to see,” as Joyce would say; in the later book there are things you damn well have to talk about—repeatedly. Women in Love “is the seeing of a seer,” perhaps (170); it may be that “there has never been a more vivid representation of the human being’s self-encasement” (206) than that novel offers us—though I doubt it: but I am sure there has rarely been a more vivid representation of individuals’ capacity to escape that condition than in certain parts of The Rainbow.


Meaningful response to literature always involves intensity. That intensity originates in works of literature themselves, no matter how apparently indifferent to their readers, and is channelled by readers and teachers alike. There is no substitute for the force and beauty of its process, as Henry James would say. In Leavisism in particular, intensity was, as often as not, both an enabling and a disabling condition: it underwrote the social, intellectual, and pedagogical project, but it also made that project hard to deliver to any but the chosen few; and when members of the flock turned away, that intensity turned on them with redoubled intransigence. What we see in these two books is an odd and unexpected congruence, despite the intellectual acreage which divides them. In his way, Gary Adelman is as earnest a proselyte for Lawrence as one of FRL’s “hearties” at Downing. He might agree with Littlewood, for example, that “It’s the disturbing depth, subtlety and power of Lawrence’s presentment of human nature that is the main obstacle to the comprehension of Women in Love” (185), whereas some of us will feel this to be an egregious case of special pleading. Being scornful about earnestness, in the style described by Lynne Sharon Schwartz, is no solution, however. A better avenue of exploration where Lawrence is concerned might be a book that Adelman fails to mention, though it was published five years before his own: Geoff Dyer’s incendiary and unapologetically anti-academic Out of Sheer Rage. There, the world of Lawrence studies is simply turned upside-down; for Dyer it is in the letters, ultimately, that “the essence of Lawrence’s art is most nakedly revealed.” “The fact that Lawrence wrote Lady Chatterley’s Lover”, he concludes, “means next to nothing to me; what matters it that he paid his debts, made nice jam and marmalade, and put up shelves.”






Lansdown, Richard.  “‘I still have a little photograph of him in one of my studies’: Two Recent Books on D. H. Lawrence.” Rev. of D. H. Lawrence: The Major Phase, by J. C. F. Littlewood, and Reclaiming D. H. Lawrence: Contemporary Writers Speak Out, by Gary Adelman. The New Compass: A Critical Review 1 (June 2003) <>