Frances Wilson’s biography of D H Lawrence, Burning Man (Bloomsbury 2021), is a provocative and enthralling read. However, her account of Richard Aldington’s role both in Lawrence’s life and in writing about him is one that those who know Aldington will find not merely controversial but just plain wrong! Early on in the book, Wilson refers to him as Lawrence’s ‘so-called friend’ so the reader is prepared for the adverse assessment that follows – very shortly afterwards!
Aldington, we are told, resembled Middleton Murry, as both were ‘handsome and priapic intellectual opportunists who would make a career out of knowing Lawrence.’ The difference between them, however, is that ‘Murry and Lawrence had at least been friends, but Aldington, who met Lawrence on no more than a handful of occasions and never liked him, became the self-appointed guide to his life and work.’ (The comment is perhaps a dangerous one for any biographer to make. What are we but self-appointed guides?) Wilson continues: ‘While Lawrence had nothing much to say about Aldington, Aldington was incontinent on the subject of Lawrence.’ (The italics are mine.)
Let’s address these assertions:
… met Lawrence on no more than a handful of occasions:
Aldington and Lawrence in fact had a close relationship. Here are the occasions of their meetings:
- 30 July 1914: Amy Lowell’s dinner at the Berkeley to introduce Lawrence to Aldington and H.D. Subsequently (27 August) Lowell took H.D. and Aldington with her to visit Lawrence and Frieda in Chesham.
- Hampstead August – December 1915: there was much closer contact between the two couples when they were living only five minutes’ walk away from each other, between August and December of 1915. This was the period in which Lawrence and H.D. became close. Julia in Bid Me To Live says: ‘He was the only one who seemed remotely to understand what I felt when I was so ill’ (the ‘illness’ being the still birth of her child in May and the consequences of that trauma). In 1933 Aldington told a correspondent that Lawrence was the only person who had understood what was wrong between himself and H.D. at the time, but added,’ I couldn’t talk of it to him – it was too painful.’ He and H.D. also supported Lawrence through the aftermath of the Rainbow trial. (Aldington’s accounts of this in both Life for Life’s Sake and Portrait of a Genius, But … are hugely sympathetic.) When Lowell – in her New England puritanism (and also her snobbery: she wrote to Aldington: ‘I think perhaps the peasant type of mind is not at its happiest in speaking of erotic subjects.’) – wanted to remove Lawrence from the projected 1916 Imagist Anthology because of the Rainbow scandal, it was Aldington who opposed her.
- Autumn 1916: Aldington was in training and Lawrence was in Cornwall, but there was a regular correspondence between H.D. and Lawrence. This is when she revealed to John Cournos how frightened she was by Lawrence: ‘For the spiritual vision, his thoughts, his distant passion has given me, I thank God…But … there is yet another side – if he comes too near I am afraid for myself … I do not want [him] to die. He has a great gift. He is ill! – But I must be protected.’ She was one of the few people whom Lawrence trusted to read the manuscripts of Look, We Have Come Through and Women in Love – although, as he told Catherine Carswell, he wasn’t happy with her responses!
- October 1917: when the Lawrences had to leave Cornwall, H.D. – then living in Lichfield near Aldington’s officer training camp – offered them her large bedsit in Mecklenburgh Square. She had previously lent it to Dorothy Yorke, but the latter was able to move upstairs to Cournos’s small room, because he had gone to Russia. The incident between ‘Julia’ and ‘Rico’ that is related in Bid Me To Live would have taken place in mid-November when H.D. had to visit London for a week-end on business. When Aldington began his post-training leave at the end of the month the Lawrences moved into an apartment in Earls Court owned by Cecil Gray’s mother, but – until just before Christmas when they moved to Dollie Radford’s cottage in Berkshire – there was a hectic and complicated social life at Mecklenburgh Square involving the Lawrences, H.D, Aldington, Yorke – with whom Aldington was now having an affair – Gray and Brigit Patmore and her current lover. (Wilson tells us that H.D. and Gray shared a bed at Mecklenburgh Square, a supposition for which there is no evidence; her relationship with him was quite tentative on her side and almost certainly not consummated until sometime after she moved to Bosigran. Bid Me To Live would seem to confirm this.)
- November 1918: Lawrence and Aldington met in London when Aldington was briefly on leave after the Armistice. Lawrence’s reported to Lowell: ‘He [R.A.] is very fit – looking forward to peace and freedom. Hilda is also in town – not so very well. She is going to have another child it appears. I hope she will be all right. Perhaps she can get more settled, for her nerves are very shaken and perhaps the child will soothe her and steady her. I hope it will.’ This sympathetic stance seems to contradict H.D.’s report in Advent that Lawrence had written to her: ‘I hope never to see you again’, but then Lawrence was writing to Lowell, who was very fond of the Aldingtons. Wilson quotes his comment in December: ‘Feeling sorry for her, one almost melts. But I don’t trust her.’ What she doesn’t tell us is that this comment was in a letter to Selina Yorke, Dorothy’s mother: the Lawrences were fond of Dorothy and played a part in bringing her and Aldington together, so here he was warning her mother to be on guard lest H.D. win Aldington back!
- Autumn 1919: the two men met in Koteliansky’s flat at a time when Lawrence and Frieda were living apart. In Life for Life’s Sake Aldington conflates this meeting with the one they had in the same setting in November when Lawrence was meeting him to ‘hand over’ the cottage in Hermitage and was about to leave the country – which explains why he talks of Lawrence’s ‘peculiar mood’ and of his not caring whether he ever saw Frieda again. He corrects this in Portrait of a Genius, But … where Lawrence in the later meeting ‘was his friendly and unaffected self, without any bitterness or bravado about going away.’
- 1926: for Aldington two life-changing meetings with Lawrence took place: the Lawrences’ visit to Malthouse Cottage over a long week-end in early August and the return five-day visit of Aldington and Yorke to the Villa Mirenda in October. In preparation for the Lawrences’ visit, Aldington re-read his work and realised how much he had under-rated him. His admiration for both the man (although he was well aware of Lawrence’s less appealing qualities!) and the work (and again it is not unqualified admiration) really begins there. As importantly for Aldington, the contact with Lawrence made him look at his own life and realise that it had to change. From then until his own departure from England two years later he was restless. There is an unpublished poem addressed to Lawrence in which he writes about this revelation. Lawrence reinforced this in May 1927 when he wrote to Aldington, on receiving a copy of D.H. Lawrence: An Indiscretion, ‘What ails thee lad? Why do you write on the one hand as if you were my grandmother – about sixty years old and forced to apologise for the enfant terrible in the family … And on the other hand why do you write as if you were on hot bricks? … I never knew a man who seemed more to me to be living from a character not his own.’ (Of course, we might think predictably, Aldington’s moves to change his life were – initially at least – destructive for himself and several other people, notably Yorke and Jessie Capper.)
- 1928: Aldington was involved in the summer in distributing copies of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and then spent a month – it was to have been longer, but Lawrence became too ill to stay – from mid-October until mid-November on the Mediterranean island of Port Cros with the Lawrences, Yorke and Brigit Patmore. There are accounts of this holiday in Lawrence’s and Aldington’s letters, in Patmore’s memoirs and in Life for Life’s Sake and it was again a very intense and complicated time! It was Lawrence’s stern disapproval of Aldington’s conduct there that drove the latter to create the savage portrait of Lawrence in Death of a Hero, which he began to write on the island (and to write to H.D: ‘[Lawrence] is really malevolent and evil and I hope I never see him again.’) But his The Eaten Heart was an attempt to challenge Lawrence’s view – which was expressed by the latter in a letter to Huxley and in ‘I Know a Noble Englishman’ (one of the only two poems that were removed for obscenity reasons from Pansies).
- 1941: the final connection between the two men took place after Lawrence’s death! The Aldington family spent two months living at Kiowa Ranch and there is a moving unpublished essay by Aldington about the connection he felt there with Lawrence.
[Aldington] never liked [Lawrence]:
Aldington – like most other people who knew Lawrence (and his biographers, Frances Wilson included) – recognised the two sides of his personality. Hence Portrait of a Genius, But …! . In Portrait … Aldington writes: ‘Long ago I wrote that being with him was like moving from an ordinary atmosphere into one of oxygen. Everything became more exciting and vivid. But he – and we – paid for this unique self of his by the existence of his antithetical self, perverse, destructive, hating, hateful, conceited as a gutter Lucifer.’ For Aldington Lawrence would always be the most exciting person he had ever met and his writings finer – despite the faults he identified – than any other writer of the day. It was the view also of Aldous Huxley, expressed in his introduction to the Penguin edition of Lawrence’s Selected Letters (edited by Aldington).
[Aldington] would make a career out of knowing Lawrence [and] became the self-appointed guide to his life and work … While Lawrence had nothing much to say about Aldington, Aldington was incontinent on the subject of Lawrence.
The argument that Lawrence had nothing much to say about Aldington we can easily dismiss: apart from his Studies in Classic American Literature, Lawrence did not produce literary criticism. He had plenty to say about Aldington the man in his correspondence (and caricatures him in Aaron’s Rod). Being incontinent on the subject is a gross misunderstanding of Aldington’s output – and of the motivation behind his editions of Apocalypse, Last Poems (both at the request of Frieda) and The Spirit of Place, and the two monographs (the second to accompany the new editions of Lawrence’s works in 1950). The biography and the seventeen twentieth anniversary introductions were written at the behest of Alexander Frere of Heinemann and Allen Lane of Penguin Books. What his publishers realised in 1949, as I indicate in my biography of Aldington, was that he was the best-placed person to do this work because of his clear-eyed awareness of the complexities of Lawrence’s personality and because he was a discerning literary critic with a thorough familiarity with the totality of Lawrence’s output. (The only other writer they might have approached would have been Huxley.) Portrait of a Genius, But … is not an offhand biography, as Wilson opines, but a measured, searching – and profoundly touching – portrait. For so many people that I know it is their favourite work by Aldington and it was well received at the time. As for the opinionated introductions – well, that is a matter of opinion! They are certainly short by modern standards but I find each one (as I say in the Aldington biography) beautifully crafted to inform the reader of the personal context out of which each text emerged, to convey an understanding of the writing process behind the work and to provide an insight into the uniqueness of Lawrence’s vision, particularly his ‘perception of beauty’. Weaknesses are identified but the emphasis is on the originality, freshness and vitality of Lawrence’s writing.
There are other minor errors or misunderstandings in Burning Man:
Wilson tells us that Aldington destroyed the correspondence between H.D. and Lawrence and rebukes him for not mentioning in Portrait of a Genius, But … the fact that the Lawrences stayed at Mecklenburgh Square in 1917. Much is made of these facts: It is the biographer’s remit to edit those facts that don’t fit (Is it? Is Wilson being ironic here?), but what are we to make of this sudden silence in the unstoppable flow of Aldington’s authority? The irony is heavy. In fact the Lawrence’s stay at Mecklenburgh Square at the invitation of H.D. is mentioned in both Life for Life’s Sake (page 232) and Portrait of a Genius, But … (page 199) What is not mentioned is the crisis reached in the relationship between H.D. and Lawrence. This omission is easy to explain. I do not think Aldington knew anything of it until the publication of Bid Me To Live in 1960 (and he still felt that she had misread the situation, as we all do!) I don’t find any evidence that he clearly agreed with H.D. that Lawrence was in love with her – although this statement allows Wilson some further irony: After all, why would Lawrence want a fat German Christmas pudding who was always mocking him when he could have a thin American goddess who took him entirely seriously? (Aldington’s own respect for the Lawrence marriage and his affection for Frieda make this comment seem particularly tasteless.)
As for the destruction of the correspondence: the letters were in a trunk containing all the correspondence between Aldington and H.D. (he sent her own letters back for her to keep) until her departure for Cornwall in March 1918, as well as her letters from others, including Cournos and Lawrence. She had left the trunk at Mecklenburgh Square and Aldington took it with him to Hermitage, as he had been asked to clear out their possessions. I don’t think he opened it: he couldn’t bear to read the correspondence between himself and H.D. When he moved again, he asked the woman who lived next-door at Hermitage to burn the contents of the trunk. (I find it significant that he couldn’t do it himself.)
Wilson does not distinguish between actions and comments by fictional characters (chiefly in Aaron’s Rod and Bid Me To Live) and the actions and comments of real people. Like her, I drew extensively on these novels in writing my Aldington biography (and attempted to justify the practice in the introduction to the first volume). However, in quoting from the novels, Wilson always uses the ‘real’ names never the character names (H.D, never ‘Julia’, Lawrence, never ‘Rico); it is only by consulting the notes that one discovers when the source is a novel rather than a letter, memoir or journal. Nor does she always indicate, when quoting from a letter, to whom the letter was written. Since letter writers tailor information, comment and tone according to their audience (as in the example I give above of Lawrence’s letter to Selina Yorke) this seems to me an important omission.
Burning Man is an exhilarating and absorbing read and an illuminating and challenging study of Lawrence – the man and his work. However, it is a pity that it fails to represent Richard Aldington justly and accurately.