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  • A Lawrence Biography
  • Howard J. Booth
John Worthen. D. H. Lawrence: The Life of an Outsider. New York: Centerpoint, 2005. xxvi + 518 pp. $29.95

John Worthen tells us in the acknowledgments that this is his "valedictory" work on Lawrence. The critic, editor and biographer of Lawrence—Worthen contributed the first volume to the three-volume Cambridge biography of the author—bows out with what will be the standard one-volume biography of Lawrence for decades to come. That said, among the future projects trailed is a biography of Frieda Lawrence. Not another book on Lawrence, but …

Though a narrative of 420 pages, this text is an achievement of concision, distilling the huge amount that is known about Lawrence's life and career; its major success is how natural and right the resulting book feels. There were many potential dangers, but Worthen clearly thought carefully, providing it with a focused argument and making choices about how he used the vast amount of evidence available to him. The effect is not only to make the topic comprehensible to first-time readers but also to make those well versed in Lawrence studies see the life in a different and fresh light.

Worthen's structuring thesis has Lawrence as an "outsider," someone who never belonged. There is much evidence that Worthen can draw on here, and it has the benefits of being a thesis that can be complicated as the book develops. For example, as Worthen points out, Lawrence never fully lost his wish to be an "insider," and in particular to convince the English of their need to change. While Worthen was absolutely [End Page 240] right to give the book a clear line of argument, and this is one that fits much of the material and the way the modern genre of biography operates, there are problems with the "outsider" argument. As with ego psychology, being different and other can all too easily look like an issue of personal adjustment, with the surrounding society and culture made to seem natural and unchangeable. Worthen is careful to present us with the force of Lawrence's critique of the modern West, but that is not his central thesis.

The text has been viewed as an opportunity to see how Lawrence's life and career look if new insights of scholarship and criticism are applied. The book is carefully structured. There has been a strong interest in recent decades in Lawrence in the 1920s, and this biography reflects that. Worthen has Lawrence leaving England for Italy in 1919 at the halfway mark, whereas in Harry T. Moore's one-volume biography (itself long superseded by the Sagar) the same point is reached at page 400 of a 650-page book.

Insights also result from the very pacing of the text. The effects of the war on Lawrence individually and on his career are powerfully documented, and one gets a strong sense of what a hard, extended period it was for Lawrence, who was implacably opposed to the conflict, with personal consequences that lasted beyond the armistice. Other chapters in the biography make clear how quickly Lawrence's life moved at times, and how he was capable of an intensity of living and bursts of creativity that cannot fail to impress. The "sick year" (1911–1912) that followed his mother's death—and which saw his engagement to Louie Burrows, encounters with a number of other women, illness, and the end of his teaching career and the start of his life as a full-time writer—is handled with an extraordinary grasp of detail. The chapter ends with Lawrence walking to the house of his former modern languages professor at Nottingham, Ernest Weekley, and his first meeting with Frieda Weekley. It emerges both as one of those extraordinary chance moments in a life and as if everything had led up to it; this chapter is a real tour de force of the biographer's art. Worthen recognises that it is hard to like the Lawrence of this period, but it is difficult not to see how he was opening himself to a rapid personal and creative development. The other such period is Lawrence's outpouring...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 240-243
Launched on MUSE
2007-01-30
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Archived
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