D.H.Lawrence’s Australian Climacteric

Aug 30, 2020

The Obscene Publications Act was promulgated in England and Wales on August 29, 1959. It paved the way for the Lady Chatterley’s Lover trial in October 1960 that cleared Penguin Books of publishing an obscene article without literary merit even though the plot revolved around a sexual act that was felonious for heterosexual couples. Reading D.H.Lawrence’s Australian novel Kangaroo shows us the origins of Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

In May 1922 DH Lawrence and his wife Frieda rented a bungalow called Wyewurk in the mining village of Thirroul, thirty miles south of Sydney. But Lawrence did work during their six week stay. Before they left for New Mexico in further pursuit of the dry air they hoped would cure Lawrence’s tuberculosis, he had written a 150,000 word novel, Kangaroo.

When it was published in 1923 it received a favourable review in the Australian Worker (August 6, 1924). Despite the central drama of the novel being the clash between ‘black’ fascists and ‘red’ unionists, in which neither side comes out looking pretty, the reviewer finds this new modernism ‘wonderful, wild, weird, elusive, bewildering, crazy, startling.’

And that’s just the politics. ‘In a sort of prolonged d.t.’s [delirium tremens] Lawrence seems to make a philosophy of the Hatred of Love’, R.S. Ross wrote. The combination means that ‘As for brilliant interpretation of less obvious Australian soil and soul, the novel is possibly at the peak.’

This was the novel of which David Ellis wrote ‘More thoroughly than in any of his other fictions, Lawrence explores in Kangaroo the homoerotic and also frankly alternatives to relationships with women. Early in the novel Jack Callcott [a red] has offered Somers ‘mateship’: a distinctively Australian version of Whitman’s ‘love of comrades’ ‘

But Somers, an English writer visiting Australia in the early 1920s, can’t come at mateship or the homosexual overtures of Kangaroo, leader of the proto-fascists. And this is a statement by Lawrence, virtually on his 37th birthday, less than a decade before his death in 1930. It’s as if three months spent in Australia has allowed, perhaps forced, him to contemplate his own inclinations and to resolve them into the celebration of heterosexual sodomy that is central to his last novelLady Chatterley’s Lover. Which would be the first test of the UK’s newly minted Obscene Publications Act promulgated on August 29,1959.

In 1931 John Middleton Murry, who admired Lawrence’s genius but not enough to respond to his homosexual overtures, published the first biography a year after Lawrence died of tuberculosis (as had Murry’s wife Katherine Mansfield in early 1923, and indeed his second wife).

Murry wrote that Kangaroo was ‘the last of Lawrence’s novels in which he himself appears as the chief character. The internal chaos of Kangaroo is the internal chaos of Richard Lovat Somers, who is Lawrence. It is impossible that he should be a character any more. He is exploded in fragments.’

Somers has a wife who after ten years of marriage has settled down to mothering her husband. Now she has to see him through his tentative flirtations with Australian masculinity. And his rejection of it. As Lawrence wrote ‘It took Lovat Somers some time before he would really admit and accept this new fact… And then, when forced to admit it, it was a revolution in his mind.’ He wanted a woman, which he had. And a male friend. ‘And now at last, when it really offered… he didn’t want it, and he realised that in his innermost soul he had never wanted it.’

Murry points out that in earlier novels ‘it was precisely the ‘mingling’ and ‘intimacy’ with a man which he craved – the physical contact, the absolute of naked touch, the blood-brotherhood: it could never be intimate enough.’ But now offered it, he ‘shrinks away from the man’. He was not willing to ‘once truly submit to the dark mystery, break open his doors to this fearful god who is master, and enters us from below, the lower doors.’ He cannot submit to ‘the first dark ithyphallic God.’ Otherwise known as the penis.

Lawrence offered to ‘re-cast’ a manuscript he’d been shown in Western Australia by an Australian nurse, Mollie Skinner. This became The Boy in the Bush, which Lawrence rewrote in Los Angeles and Guadalajara, Mexico and was published in 1924. Murry writes of Jack Grant, the Boy, that ‘He has Somers’ inordinate craving for intimacy; and Somers’ inordinate revulsion from his own craving.’ But with women – Jack grows into a determinedly polyamorous man.

But still, but still.

Murry wrote that Kangaroo was the last of Lawrence’s books in which he appeared as the chief character. But in discussing Lady Chatterley’s Lover a few chapters on he pointed out extensively where Mellor’s sexual experience mirrors Lawrence’s, from the struggle with the puritanism of Nottingham girlfriends to the distaste for the clitoris in sexually avid women who make the male feel ‘used’. And eventually to the anal penetration of the woman by the man. Richard Aldington tells us that Frieda Lawrence was an anal sex enthusiast and that Lawrence frequently called her ‘Shitbag’ in public, not always fondly.

By 1926 Lawrence, as announced by Frieda, was impotent at the age of forty, entering the penultimate phase of his tuberculosis. He was being cuckolded by his wife – born a baroness, cousin of German air ace ‘Red Baron’ von Richthofen – with an undistinguished Italian military officer. Her son has said of her that she was a great cake eater and cake haver. The aphrodisiac that drew her to and kept her with Lawrence was his genius.

It has been suggested that the perceived social mesalliance between Lady Chatterley and her husband’s gamekeeper Mellors owes a lot to Lawrence’s marital situation. And indeed that much of the increasingly anally erotic writing that went into the third draft of Lady Chatterley’s Lover came from his marital experience. Even that Frieda supplied much of the descriptions of Connie Chatterley’s satisfaction of the ‘night of sensual passion.’

Lawrence was also painting erotically in his last years and Craig Munro traces out his relationship with two Australians, Jack Lindsay and P.R. ‘Inky’ Stephensen, who were publishing as the short-lived Fanfrolico and then Mandrake Press in London.

Stephensen visited Lawrence and Frieda several times in France in the late 1920s and agreed to publish The Paintings of D.H. Lawrence to be sold on subscription even though the likelihood of the London exhibition being closed down for pornography was realised. That turned a nice profit. And they had few advertising costs to bear.

In his biography of Stephensen in 1985 Munro reported that Lawrence and Frieda authorised a secret London edition of the unexpurgated Lady Chatterley’s Lover which was being pirated around the world. This and other ventures into ‘private printing’ could be lucrative and an effective counterploy to the pirated editions of the book in several countries. Lawrence’s association with Pino Orioli in Florence had grossed £1629 by March 1929 or around £100,000 today. Munro reports that the secret London edition bore a Florence imprint and wasn’t published until after Lawrence’s death. Frieda never formally acknowledged it as authorised.

Patrick White was only ten years old when Lawrence visited Australia, but in his early teens his godmother ‘introduced me, book by book, at birthdays and Christmas, to Aldous Huxley and D.H. Lawrence, starting me off on whatever intellectual life I have had.’

White spent a week of his Christmas holiday from Cambridge at the end of 1933 near Zennor in Cornwall where the Lawrences had tried to live with Katherine Mansfield and Murry in 1916. Six years later he went to Taos in New Mexico where they had formed another literary menage after leaving Australia.

Dorothy Brett took him to see Frieda but he hardly mentions her in his letters because he developed a relationship with Spud Johnson, who ‘who edits and prints the local weekly and was for a time secretary to Lawrence’.

That only lasted three weeks before White met someone else, an American doctor, back in New York. He was meeting with Lawrence’s American publisher Ben Huebsch who accepted Happy Valley for Viking in early 1940 and became ‘the rock on which White’s career was built’ as David Marr put it. White gave Manoly Lascaris a copy of Happy Valley when they met in Alexandria in 1941. Marr writes, ‘Lascaris thought he had found another DHL.’ They both agreed they had found their life partner, for better or for worse.

White told his Nobel prize promoter Ingmar Borksten ‘I don’t know about influences: Joyce and Lawrence, yes, at the time when I began to write.’ He told Joseph Losey in 1976 that he had worried about the proposed film of Voss, fretting that the American ‘should know so little about the look and feel of Australia, unless, like D.H. Lawrence, you can get it all from the drive between the station (airport) and hotel…’

A decade after their victory in the case of Lady Chatterley’s Lover in the UK, Penguin Books fought the ban on importation of Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint – masturbationto Australia by printing 75,000 copies in several states and offering them for sale.

Patrick White agreed to appear for the defence and rehearsed his evidence before going to Melbourne for the trial. Peter Beatson recalled him pantomiming ‘Your Honour, similar charges of pornography were laid against Lady Chatterley’s Lover. I felt that Lawrence’s novel might well be considered pornographic since when I read it I developed a cockstand. Judged by this criterion, Portnoy’s Complaint cannot be considered pornographic since I read it from start to finish without once developing a cockstand.’

David Game has detailed DH Lawrence’s Australian references throughout his twenty year opus and reminds us that Frieda put mimosa into his coffin when he died aged 44 in 1930. There were Australian characters in Aaron’s Rod and St Mawr, written before and after Kangaroo signalled Lawrence’s personal climacteric. But it was Kangaroo that cleared the way for his celebration of heterosexual sodomy in Lady Chatterley’s Lover.###

Sue Rabbitt Roff’s articles on the Lady Chatterley trial of 1960 have been published in Meanjin, The Independent and The Conversation. Her recent writings on Australian-European transmissions in settler cultural history are collated on her website http://www.rabbittreview.com She also writes on British nuclear testing in Australia.

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