A review of Son of Woman: The Story of D. H. Lawrence, by J. Middleton Murry
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[ 313 A review of Son of Woman: The Story of D. H. Lawrence, by J. Middleton Murry London: Jonathan Cape, 1931. Pp. 400. The Criterion: A Literary Review, 10 (July 1931) 769-74 Mr. Murry has written a brilliant book.1 It seems to me the best piece of sustained writing that Mr. Murry has done. At any rate, I think that I understand it better than most of his recent writings. It is a definitive work of critical biography, or biographical criticism. It is so well done that it gives me the creeps: probably these matters matter no longer to Lawrence himself ; but any author still living might shudder to think of the possibility of such a book of destructive criticism being written about him after he is dead. But no one but Mr. Murry could have done it; and I doubt whether Mr. Murry himself could do it about anyone but Lawrence. The victim and the sacrificial knife are perfectly adapted to each other. Near the beginning Mr. Murry says: If Lawrence is to be judged as the “pure artist,” then it is true that he never surpassed, and barely equalled, this rich and moving record of a life (Sons and Lovers). But Lawrence is not to be judged as a pure artist; if ever a writer had “an axe to grind” it was he. Set in the perspective – the only relevant perspective – of his own revealed intentions, Sons and Lovers appears as the gesture of a man who makes the heroic effort to liberate himself from the matrix of his own past. [23] This is true. But I am doubtful what the term “pure artist” means to Mr. Murry; and I am doubtful whether this criticism is praise or condemnation . I agree that Lawrence was not a “pure artist,” in that he never succeeded in making a work of art; but then, that is just relative failure, that is all. And if he was not trying to make a work of art, then he should have been: the less artist, the less prophet; Isaiah succeeded in being both. And to be a “pure artist” is by no means incompatible with having “an axe to grind”; Virgil and Dante had plenty of axes on the grindstone; Dickens and George Eliot are often at their best as artists when they are grinding axes; and Flaubert is no exception. Unless there was grinding of axes, there Essays, Reviews, and Commentaries: 1931 314 ] would be very little to write about. Mr. Murry quotes a sentence of Gourmont which I have quoted myself: ériger en lois ses impressions personnelles , c’est le grand effort d’un homme s’il est sincère.2 Well, Lawrence tried to do that, certainly, but to my mind he failed completely, and this book is the history of his failure. Lawrence simply did not know how. He had plenty of sensations, undoubtedly; no man of his time was more sensitive; but he could neitherleavehissensationsaloneandacceptthemsimplyastheycame, nor could he generalize them correctly. The false prophet kills the true artist. Lawrence had the making of an artist, more than one might suppose from reading this book. Mr. Murry quotes with astonishing accuracy and justice – I do not believe that there is a single quotation in the book which is mutilated or unfair to the subject, and such justice is very rare in criticism – but it is not part of his intention to insist upon Lawrence’s successes as a writer at those moments when Lawrence was not occupied with the fatal task of self-justification. Not only are there magnificent descriptions here and there, everywhere, throughout Lawrence’s work, but there are marvellous passages – in nearly every book, I believe – of dialogue or narrative, in which Lawrence really gets out of himself and inside other people. There is a fine episode in the life of an elementary schoolmistress in The Rainbow; there are one or two remarkable dialogues in Aaron’s Rod; and there is a short story called “Two Blue Birds” which has no relation to Lawrence’s own emotional disease, and in which he states a situation which no one else has ever put. Mr. Murry is fully able to appreciate these achievements, but he is fairly enough not concerned with them in this book. But to me they indicate that Lawrence ought to have been a “pure artist,” but was impure. And I wonder also whether, had Lawrence been a success in this sense instead of...