D.H. LAWRENCE: A Biography

By Jeffrey Meyers

Knopf. 445 pp. $24.95

WITH PREVIOUS biographies of Katherine Mansfield, Wyndham Lewis and the recently well received Hemingway, and with critical surveys of Painting and the Novel, Homosexuality and Literature and D.H. Lawrence and the Experience of Italy to his credit, Jeffrey Meyers of the University of Colorado would seem strongly positioned to write the major biography of Lawrence that is wanted. Unfortunately, D.H. Lawrence: A Biography isn't it. Though it covers the main ground of Lawrence's career efficiently, contains some new information and is particularly informative about his illnesses -- from bronchitis at age two weeks, through innumerable bouts of pneumonia, flu, grippe and malaria, to the five major hemorrhages from lungs being destroyed by tuberculosis -- Meyers' analysis of the life and works is often superficial and lacks a sustained vision of its challenging subject.

Mostly we follow paths well trodden as Meyers deploys the myriad facts, anecdotes, myths, conjectures and downright falsehoods that have accumulated around an arresting figure -- the poor Nottinghamshire coal miner's son, from a distinctly unhappy household, who became a great novelist, poet and essayist, and a much less assuredly great prophet who envisioned the renewal of life, feeling and relationships in an era of global wars and of spoliation by industry. This was as he wandered the world in company with his well-born yet fecklessly bohemian wife, Frieda (nee von Richtofen), who had been faithless to her first husband, Lawrence's German professor Ernest Weekley, and who would continue to indulge herself with occasional adulterous episodes, even while remaining fiercely loyal to her second husband and to his genius, sustaining him to the very end in his physical sufferings and spiritual torments.

Meyers remarks of Frieda that she was "Lawrencean before Lawrence." This could mean anything. It seems a mere formula compared even to Frieda's own try, awkward and groping, at saying what she learned from her travelling companion: "He has taught me the feel and the understanding of things and people, that is morality, I think." Was it morality? We know that Lawrence sometimes beat her in uncontrolled rage, though Frieda was older, stronger and, towards life's end, rather bigger than he was. That is one sort of feeling he gave her. My impression is that the question, and with it Lawrence's final place among the 20th century "masters," has not been settled. Disappointingly, Meyers rarely brings such central issues into view, except inadvertently, when quoting, or when rapidly summarizing and making lists.

He is addicted to the checklist in rapidly covering the biographical ground and some of his lists are passing strange. Early on, he says that Lawrence took from his mother "artistic sensitivity, intellectual curiosity, ambition, perfectionism, habits of study, a work ethic and a notion of bourgeois respectability," while from his unlettered father he acquired "intuition, vitality, zest for life, love of nature, defiance of authority, scorn for materialism and rejection of conventional values." Meyers' idea of influence here is bloodless and abstract. In a following sentence he claims that Lawrence "nourished and advocated the qualities inherited from his father, just as he rejected and suppressed those traits that came from his mother." That would have him rejecting "artistic sensitivity." As for love of nature, we remember that it was the mother who made a flower garden next to the ash pits and mineral tailings of the colliery village.

Such bizarre checklists and binarisms surface in all parts of the Meyers biography. Discussing the entanglements of Middleton Murry and his wife Katherine Mansfield with Lawrence and Frieda, especially when the two couples were neighbors in Buckinghamshire and Cornwall during World War I, Meyers opines that Katherine was the source in real life for Gudrun Brangwen in Women in Love, only "Lawrence transforms Katherine's delicate art into attenuated preciosity, her satire into corrosion, her reserve into negation, her resistance to his demands into arrogance and insolence, her insecurity and loneliness into infantile dependence, her quest for love into destructive sterility, her restless search for health into a rootless outcast life, her illness into evil." These eight "transformations' effectively annihilate the claim that Katherine is Gudrun though the intention was exactly opposite. MEYERS DISCOVERS a resemblance between Lawrence and Robert Louis Stevenson. Well yes. Both were British consumptives who ventured into the undeveloped world and settled for a time in rugged American locales, Lawrence at the mountain ranch outside Taos, N.M., and Stevenson, many years earlier, at Silverado in California. The point, a small one, is well taken but Meyers, whose King Charles's head is the exhaustive list, takes it all too far: "Both established a private and isolated life in a remote, rustic mountain cabin, near canyons and pinewoods, eagles, lions and bears. Both lived with their wives and with a painter as guest and companion, repaired and improved a dilapidated house, drew water, cut wood, practiced carpentry, fetched milk from a neighboring ranch, gave lessons in their households, bathed in medicinal springs." Where does this sort of writing come from? It seems not so much composed on a computer as by one.

Jeffrey Meyers writes well on Lawrence's early years, his time as a factory clerk, pupil-teacher, and college student in Nottingham, and as a high school science and art teacher in Croydon, South London. Raising, as is frequently done nowadays, the specter of a homosexual strain in Lawrence, he cannot really settle the question whether the author ever got down to it with the young Cornish farmer Hocking or with anybody else. Meyers may be the first reader ever to detect acts of sodomy in the "Excurse" chapter of Women in Love.

Most disappointing is the scant attention paid to Lawrence's literary art and criticism. Of Studies in Classic American Literature, a work that laid the ground for most important revaluations of American literary tradition undertaken in the past half century, Meyers has practically nothing to say. A biographer can't do everything, yet a major biographer has to do more. Julian Moynahan teaches modern English Literature at Rutgers University and is writing a sequel to his novel, "Where the Land and Water Meet."