IT WAS D. H. Lawrence himself who crafted his frequently used moniker, “Priest of love”. “I shall always be a priest of love and a glad one,” he wrote. “Once you’ve known what love can do, there’s no disappointment any more, and no despair.”
To most people, love equates to sex when it comes to Lawrence, given his graphic explorations of intimacy between men and women which dominated novels such as The Rainbow, Women in Love, and especially Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the subject of the infamous 1963 obscenity trial when Penguin published a paperback edition.
And then there was Lawrence’s own life, dominated by his relationship with Frieda von Richthofen, who abandoned her professor husband, and children, to run away with the miner’s son, teacher, and would-be writer Lawrence, six years her junior.
But there was much more to Lawrence than sex, as Frances Wilson convincingly demonstrates in Burning Man: The ascent of D. H. Lawrence. He was a commentator on society, a writer of children’s history books, a travel writer, and a deep lover of nature, as well as a novelist who pushed the boundaries of novels’ style and content. There was also something of the priest, too: an ardent preacher of his beliefs, and someone who had a charismatic quality, attracting devoted disciples. Not that there was anything pastoral about Lawrence — he could be as vicious as he could be sensitive, often denigrating those who followed him.
Lawrence has gone out of fashion in recent years, with the priest of love often denounced as a misogynist and a homophobe. Wilson thoroughly explores Lawrence’s complex views of women, shaped by his obsessive mother and full of suspicion about their power over men. And there are countless indications that he had powerful erotic feelings for men, which he contested. All this is brought vividly to life by Wilson, who seems as entranced by Lawrence as his apostles.
A central idea of this book is Wilson’s insistence that Lawrence’s life matches that of Dante’s Divine Comedy, with his early years in England the inferno, middle years in Europe purgatory, and his final days in America a time of paradise. It is intriguing, but contrived and unconvincing. To take but one example: Lawrence’s life in Cornwall was hell, according to Wilson, and he and Frieda were indeed run out of the county in 1917, suspected of being German spies. But in a letter to Lady Ottoline Morrell, he describes his home in Zennor as “coming into the Promised Land. . . it is a new continent of the soul”.
Lawrence, raised Anglican, with a taste for Roman Catholic liturgy, railed against the Church as an institution. But his religious sensibility is clearly evident in his extraordinary poetry. He tussled with God and found him in the natural world. There is no greater paean to the Creator than Lawrence’s “God is Born” while his submission to God in one of his last verses, “Shadows”, as he was dying of tuberculosis, is full of hope at the last. Although it registers little with Wilson, the burning man burned with belief.
Catherine Pepinster is a former editor of The Tablet. Her latest book is Martyrdom (SPCK, 2020) (Books, 18 December 2020).
Burning Man: The ascent of D. H. Lawrence
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