Burning Man: The Ascent of D.H. Lawrence by Frances Wilson

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Reviewed by Harriet

I always feel as if I stood naked for the fire of Almighty God to go through me….I often think of my dear Saint Lawrence on his gridiron, when he said ‘Turn me over, brothers, I am done enough on this side’. (Letter, 25 February 1913)

‘Being loyal to Lawrence, especially as a woman, has always required some sort of explanation, so here is mine’, writes Frances Wilson in this monumental account of ten years – 1915-1925 – in the life of D.H. Lawrence. By her account, after the hatchet job of Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics (1970), Lawrence was ‘dropped off university lists and was thrown into the Inferno where he has remained ever since’. Not entirely true, in my experience, as his three major novels – Sons and Lovers, The Rainbow, and Women in Love – were studied in depth on my BA in the late seventies to early eighties. But it’s definitely the case that Millett’s accusations of misogyny have had a lasting effect on his reputation. One purpose of Wilson’s book is to prove Lawrence’s greatness, mainly by drawing attention to his remarkable output in forms other than fiction. But overall, this is a study of Lawrence the man: replete with contradictions, capable of switching allegiances to people and ideas in a flash, unable to settle in one place for any length of time, passionately attached to his terminally unfaithful wife despite their frequent public brawls during their long marriage (‘I never did imagine anyone so thrive upon a beating as Frieda’, said Katherine Mansfield). 

Wilson argues that Lawrence structured his life around Dante’s Divine Comedy – ‘he rose from underworld to empyrean’ – and her book follows Dante’s three parts: Inferno shows Lawrence struggling to free himself from his working class roots; Purgatory finds him in Italy, in company with two now forgotten figures, Maurice Magnus and Norman Douglas; and Paradise has him in New Mexico with the American socialite and lover of all things Native American Mabel Dodge. I have to say that this didn’t entirely work for me, not least because though his time in America was amazingly productive, his personal life was as insane and frequently disastrous as always and he was in total denial about his galloping tuberculosis. In terms of his writing life, however, the trajectory is clearer: from being denigrated and abused for writing The Rainbow, which was banned in England for eleven years following a notorious obscenity trial, through his decision to live away from the country of his birth and his exploration of non-fictional forms, to the final period, one in which he produced much of what Wilson considers his best work. 

It may be possible to quibble with the structure, but certainly not with the content. I believe the writing of this book took Frances Wilson five years, and it’s easy to see why. The detail is extraordinary, and the reader comes away with the feeling that nothing in those crucial ten years has been left unexplored. Through it all, though, the overriding impression is of a man with immense creative energy – he regularly wrote around 3500 words a day (‘words come out of him like a running flame’), plus numerous letters (there are eight volumes of them), household tasks (he could be found ironing, washing dishes, sweeping the floor) and explorations on foot or horseback of whatever countryside he happened to find himself in. Indeed, his energy seems to have increased as his physical health deteriorated, though this was something he was unable to face up to, convincing himself that he simply had a sore throat or a slight cough as the tuberculosis took hold. Wilson’s account ends five years before his death, though the circumstances are briefly described, as are the three suitably farcical versions of what happened to his ashes: dumped in Marseille, mixed into a concrete altar-stone in New Mexico, or ceremoniously eaten by Frieda, Mabel, and Dorothy Brett.

Wilson makes an attempt to confront Lawrence’s contradictions by dividing his personality into Self One and Self Two (‘I’m not one man but two’, he said to his first love Jessie Chambers).  This was clearly recognised by E.M. Forster, who paid a visit to the Lawrences in 1915 and wrote a thank-you letter explaining why he wouldn’t be coming again:

I like the Lawrence who talks to Hilda [the maid] and sees birds and is physically restful and wrote The White Peacock, he doesn’t know why; but I do not like the deaf, impercipient fanatic who has nosed over his own little sexual round until he believes there is no other path for others to take: he sometimes interests and sometimes frightens and angers me, but in the end he will bore [me] merely, I know.

 There are many examples of both these sides throughout Wilson’s account: the Lawrence who hated and feared homosexuality but had homosexual friends and definitely bisexual leanings; who abhorred the rise of fascism but believes socialist alternatives to be equally wicked; who longs for the pure clean air of New Mexico but is deeply disappointed by the Native Americans of Taos Pueblo (‘without any substance of reality’), who he had hoped to love and admire; the list goes on. 

I’ve always much admired Lawrence’s poetry, but I started reading this book not feeling very sure of what I thought about the rest of his work, or about his startling personality. I’m now curiously drawn to him and looking forward to exploring some his non-fictional writings: his travel books – Twilight in Italy (1916) and Sea and Sardinia (1921) in particular – sound fascinating, and his Studies in Classic American Literature (1923) is said to be one of his best books. As for Lawrence the man, I’m not sure how much I would have enjoyed his company but I can’t help thinking I’d have liked him anyway, though I’d hope to avoid getting on the wrong side of him. He wasn’t a good man to make an enemy of, as can be seen from his description of the editors at Heinemann, who had turned down Women in Love, as ’blasted, jelly-boned swines, the slimy, the belly-wriggling invertebrates, the miserable sodding rotters, the flaming sods, the snivelling, dribbling, dithering palsied pulse-less lot that make up England today’.

This is a magnificent biography and I’m delighted to have had a chance to read it.

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Harriet is one of the founders and a co-editor of Shiny New Books.

Frances Wilson, Burning Man: The Ascent of D H Lawrence (Bloomsbury, 2021). 978-1408893623, 512pp., hardback.

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