Thursday, August 23, 2007

The past is another country; they do things differently there.

Thanks to Geoff Dyer, today I kept vaguely turning over the idea of someday rereading D. H. Lawrence, despite being fairly confident that the specifics of his personal philosophy--on which the whole of his work is hung--are likely to seem, on being re-encountered in adulthood, rather unconvincing. Then, while I was reading David Kynaston's Austerity Britain: 1945-1951 (2007) on the train, I came across the following description of one of the Labour Party's most prominent thinkers of the war years, Evan Durbin:
[Durbin] once remarked that his three greatest pleasures were "food, sleep and sex" but accused D. H. Lawrence of "shallow abstractions" in relation to "freedom in sexual relations."

That is more or less how I remember Lawrence's position, too: a vague positing of sex itself as a primary liberating experience, a crucial step towards a truly free life. Heady stuff at the time, presumably, but quickly sounding silly these days unless taken in small doses.

Ultimately, the problem with Lawrence's novels, from what I remember, is the problem that plagues any writer who knows the way people ought to live: the novel--which as a form thrives on growth, discovery, and above all openness--is warped by the character (or narrative voice) who doesn't need to change, doesn't need to learn, because he already sees through the illusions that bind those around him. Speech and incident become didactic demonstration, drama becomes melodrama, and despite some very powerful passages, the whole is rendered false. In his journal for 1987, Anthony Powell (who, incidentally, agrees with Dyer that Lawrence's letters are great reading) puts it more succinctly:
The reader [is] always, so to speak, tripping over the Lawrence self-image, which at once reduces conviction, much of novel being in any case ludicrously melodramatic.

Powell, who had recently re-read Women in Love, also notes,
Red-hot emotions as usual much overdone, tho' I suppose could be argued people to some extent behave like that nowadays, breaking up marriages because sexual relations not for the moment absolutely ideal. That would, in fact, have greatly disturbed Lawrence himself.
Powell's letting his grouchy conservative side show, but Lawrence isn't the only person who would have been disturbed--and here I return to where I started this post, Austerity Britain, from which learned today that even in 1948, two decades after Lawrence's death, a Gallup poll revealed that only 27 percent of British citizens thought that divorce by simple mutual consent should be allowed. To broaden the picture, Kynaston, as he does throughout the book, turns straight to the actual words of the people, revealing a batch of their responses to related survey question, "How do you feel about divorce?"
It depends on the people. If either is to blame they should have a divorce.

Well, I mean to say, it's a good thing if the couple are unhappy.

No. A man takes a wife for better or worse, doesn't he?

I wouldn't grant divorce. They should get on with it.

I feel very sorry for the kiddies. It's very hard on them but if Mother and Father can't agree it only makes the children suffer worse--they suffer inwardly.

I think it's an awful thing to happen to anyone--everyone turns away from a divorced woman.

Better to divorce than live unhappily.

I don't like the idea of a divorce--all the publicity and scandal.

In some cases, yes. Marriage is a gamble anyway.
Austerity Britain is rich with moments like that, phrases that give such direct, authentic access to the past that they pull you up short. A gamble . . . scandal . . . everyone turns away. Even though at points 1947 can feel very familiar, it was a very different time; a well-crafted work of history, like Kynaston's, works to make sure we never forget that.

And though Powell's probably right that Lawrence would have disapproved of free-and-easy divorce, he surely would have approved of the context in which public opinion was changed and the stigma lost--a gradual but dramatic expansion of an individual's right to freely make decisions about his or her life. That's the side Lawrence was fighting for, after all, and despite his occasional silliness, like everyone who plays a part in shifting the terms of the debate, he deserves to be remembered well for it.

So maybe I will reread The Rainbow someday after all.

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