“But the coal miner’s son was certainly not a half-wit; he never looked back at the past, as Woolf accuses him, for his own good.”

On a recent date, a woman asked me whom I was reading, and I said D.H. Lawrence. Her reply was, ‘I am done reading dead white men.’ Quite unfairly, I didn’t ask her, ‘Then who?’ or ‘Why?’ because the answer seemed obvious: It was a combination of someone who was either dead or alive, or non-white or non-male that would take a quantum computer to fully list. For me, a curious omission in these calculations was class, which has significantly depreciated in the posings of social justice, never mind that a dead white man born poor was closer to a poor black woman than a rich brown woman. It was amusing what we traded for virtue in our age when we hastily arranged for our new heroes. Recently I found one such new hero was Virginia Woolf. A similar critic to the one I met, also with the latest social justice persuasions, had posted a review of D.H. Lawrence’s work by Virginia Woolf, in appreciation on social media. Woolf is a fluent writer, but is it really her power that encourages this critic? I presumed it was the radical taste: a woman’s gaze upon a man for a change, never mind that Woolf’s gaze was also rank classist: ‘The middle class, Lawrence feels, possesses ideas; or something else that he wishes himself to have,’1 Woolf writes in ‘Notes on D.H. Lawrence.’

Human consciousness, philosophy’s longest preoccupation, is also a matter of a person’s leisure although it is not often given its due consideration as such. At least two of E.M. Forster’s novels (A Room with a View and Howards End) are about this aspect of consciousness. The well-heeled have the means to become fully conscious and appreciate Beethoven, or the sunlight in Joaquin Sorolla’s paintings of the Spanish coast, while the poor are twice removed from their full human potential. Poverty and gruel rob a man’s leisure and stunt his perception. Indeed this is the base of a few very cynical ideas, including Woolf’s’s, about the poor. They account well in many circumstances, except for the oddballs who ruin those conceptions. One such was D.H. Lawrence, a coal miner’s son who came into literary prominence in twentieth-century England.

Like he wrote in his poem ‘Poverty,’ Lawrence had a ‘natural abundance.’ He thought he grew like a ‘pine tree near the sea that grows out of rock.’ With the same poem, he was also the first to identify a kind of Delhi poser who puts Dalit and other wretched lives between wine glasses, as conversation pieces: ‘The only people I ever heard talk about my Lady Poverty/ Were rich people,’ he wrote. If Lawrence heard someone say ‘Can the subaltern speak?’, would he say, ‘Can you please leave the subaltern alone?’

Personally, what I read of Lawrence came short of what I expected of a great novel or a poem. Lawrence, I suspect, never cared to write a great novel; he had other obsessions. Woolf notes the following shortcomings in her essay about Sons and Lovers

‘The impatience, the need for getting on beyond the object before us, seem to contract, to shrivel up, to curtail scenes to their barest, to flash character simply and starkly in front of us. We must not look for more than a second; we must hurry on. But to what? Probably to some scene which has very little to do with character, with story, with any of the usual resting places, eminences, and consummations of the usual novel.’2

Woolf’s judgement is also a punishment for Lawrence’s convictions: ‘The only thing that we are given to rest upon, to expand upon, to feel to the limits of our powers is some rapture of physical being.’ Because Lawrence did insist on a strange spirituality, of a renunciation of self-consciousness. ‘Not I, but the wind that blows through me,’ he wrote.3

When one is not from the right literary class, one has to apply oneself all the more to not be punished for one’s convictions, let alone be heard for them. And Lawrence had a lot of peeves. One, he hated learning. ‘If men are men as much as lizards are lizards, they’d be worth looking at,’ he wrote.4

At Bertrand Russell, he shot the insult: ‘… Be a baby, and not a savant … [S]tart at the very beginning…’ All Lawrence wanted to be was a good animal, so he rarely minded the harsh words for him. Because that too was part of being a good animal. ‘A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough without ever having felt sorry for itself,’ he wrote. 5 But for Woolf, these were signs of an unsettled mind: ‘One feels that not a single word has been chosen for its beauty, or for its effect upon the architecture of the sentence.’6D.H.’s work for her is the carefree stroke of a precocious, but undeveloped, impatient mind–‘as direct as water thrown out in all directions by the impact of a stone.’ 7

Source: WikiCommons

All that Virginia Woolf unfavourably observes about Lawrence is true, even as he intended most of it. But the motivations for doing so are very different from the classist speculation Woolf advances. Woolf, it would seem, was a good woman of her time, as well as ours.

She writes, ‘Lawrence received a violent impetus from his birth’, as if Lawrence jetted out from the womb. ‘It set his gaze at an angle from which it took some of its most marked characteristics. He never looked back at the past, or at things as if they were curiosities of human psychology, nor was he interested in literature as literature. … Comparing him again with Proust, one feels that he echoes nobody, continues no tradition, is unaware of the past, of the present save as it affects the future. As a writer, this lack of tradition affects him immensely…’ 8

Lawrence may not have echoed others, which sounds like a compliment, but Woolf definitely did, the Dutch painter Adriaen Brouwer being one such figure. He painted working-class men and women in bars and brothels with a characteristic emotional abandon and lack of restraint. In his most well-known painting, a man’s face cringes on drinking a bitter potion. For him, as well as many others of his time, this coarseness of expression, lack of reserve, is what represented the working class mind. For some, there is a gentleman’s way of drinking a bitter potion. Woolf is less harsh than Brouwer; the sense of her essay is that of a tragedy: that someone as perceptive as Lawrence achieves no more than just a spontaneous brilliance, possibly because of his birth, whose talents would have been better tamed by someone with tradition. For E.M. Forster, Woolf’s colleague in the Bloomsbury Group, too, this type of man who comes into consciousness of the finer things in life was tragic. He is right, because most of these men and women end up as half-wits between the class worlds they cross. 

The Bitter Potion, by Adriaen Brouwer. Source: WikiCommons 

In Forster’s novel Howards End, a man like this, Leonard Bast, an insurance clerk who loves literature and lives in a cramped room in London, dies after a bookshelf falls on him. Leonard is self-learned, but a half-wit. He has a new consciousness but not the final power to reach his new destiny; his life is more tragic than his death. Because before he is killed, he ends up a stranger to himself and the world of art and literature he wishes to be in. This is what Woolf, our new hero, expected of D.H. Lawrence. But the coal miner’s son was certainly not a half-wit; he never looked back at the past, as Woolf accuses him, for his own good.

Her essay makes me think: Does equality as a notion exist to save some very unlikely of humans like Lawrence, or do they exist to save equality from the practical-minded cynicism like that of Woolf’s or Forster’s, or even Lawrence’s own (‘Life is more vivid in me than in the Mexican who drives the wagon for me.’)? 9

Do some read Lawrence, for this reason, because of affection more than adulation, because he is one of their own?

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are solely of the individual author. ALMA MAGAZINE seeks to bring varied discourse to its readers and has no ideological or political affiliation.

Bibliography and Citations:

  1. Notes on D.H. Lawrence’, The Moment and Other Essays, Virginia Woolf (Project Gutenberg), March 2015, https://bit.ly/3A4idSj

  2. Notes on D.H. Lawrence’, The Moment and Other Essays, Virginia Woolf (Project Gutenberg), March 2015, https://bit.ly/3A4idSj

  3. ‘Song of a Man Who Has Come Through’, Collected Poems, D.H. Lawrence (n.p.: Jonahan Cape and Harrison Smith), 1957
  4. ‘Lizard’, Selected Poems, D.H. Lawrence (London: Penguin Books), 2008, p. 150.

  5. Self-pity’, Ibid, p. 146.
  6. Notes on D.H. Lawrence’, The Moment and Other Essays, Virginia Woolf (Project Gutenberg), March 2015, https://bit.ly/3A4idSj
  7. Notes on D.H. Lawrence’, The Moment and Other Essays, Virginia Woolf (Project Gutenberg), March 2015, https://bit.ly/3A4idSj
  8. Notes on D.H. Lawrence’, The Moment and Other Essays, Virginia Woolf (Project Gutenberg), March 2015, https://bit.ly/3A4idSj
  9. ‘Reflection on the Death of a Porcupine’, Reflection on the Death of a Porcupine: And Other Essays (London: Cambridge), 1988
Joseph Antony
Joseph Antony is an investment banking professional from Mumbai. Previously, he was an editor with HarperCollins India and Penguin India. He has written on cinema and culture for various magazines and newspapers. A love of literature and a game of football in the evening make his life bearable.