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Lawrence and the Garnetts

“It was impossible to know Lawrence without loving him.”


Forty years ago I bought a bundle of papers for £1 at a Saturday sale in the civic hall of a seaside town. Most of the bundle consisted of torn pages from newspapers, comics and weekly magazines, all from the 1920s and ’30s. One in particular caught my eye, it was a page from the June 25th 1938 edition of The New Statesman & Nation, which featured an article by the novelist, literary critic, editor and reviewer of the day, David Garnett. The piece is a wonderfully meandering article about D. H. Lawrence and Frieda, probably written as an afterthought to Frieda’s 1934 memoir, Not I But The Wind, about her life with Lawrence, and a book that would colour everything written about the novelist thereafter. It is also, within the centre of the article, something of a review of Danish writer Knud Merrilds’ 1938 book, A Poet and Two Painters, which Garnett considers to be one of the best books he’d ever read about Lawrence.


David Garnett was a great friend of Lawrence of course, and by association, Frieda too, and a man whose father, Edward Garnett, had championed Lawrence’s work, bringing him into contact with the Bloomsbury set, which was probably Lawrence’s final break with his Nottingham mining origins.


At the outset of the article David Garnett writes:

“ D. H. Lawrence once told me that his grandfather had greatly influenced General Booth in founding the Salvation Army, but that they had quarrelled, and Booth, a practical man, had fired his grandfather…It is amusing to suppose it happening the other way — Beardsall kicking out Booth — and D. H. Lawrence being brought up by his puritan mother to inherit the generalship of the Salvationists. How magnificently his imagery would have blended with theirs, and what a religion he would have made. Blood, sex, the Risen Christ, the dark gods, and the solar plexus welded together with brass bands and tambourines by a great poet into a new apocalypse to inflame thousands of fanatics. There would have been an age of miracles, a civil war, and he might even have run away with the British Empire on the biggest wild-goose chase in history. Lawrence was always hankering after a following and planning communities. On February 1st, 1915, he wrote urging Ottoline Morrell to form the nucleus of a new community which should start a new life:


“ ‘Let us all be good together, instead of just in the privacy of our chambers…We will find an order, and we will all be princes, as the angels are…’ ”


I can imagine the initial smiles on the faces of the readers of the magazine when they read the above. I can also imagine the face of the editor of the New Statesman & Nation, Kingsley Martin, when Garnett plonked his piece on Martin’s desk: not only smiles, but much laughter too amid the tobacco smoke, followed by more serious thoughts when the above quoted piece is read with the Czech crises of February 1938 in mind. It’s Garnett at his ironic best, and perhaps something Martin may have picked up on in his editorial of that week.


Ottoline Morrell would have dismissed Lawrence’s suggestion as she already had a ‘community’ of her own at Garsington, of which Lawrence had been a part until he fled abroad after WWI.


Merrild, and another Danish born painter, Kai Gotzsche, ran into Lawrence and Frieda at Mabel Sterne’s place in Taos, New Mexico in 1922, which was full of “…old time cowboys and bad men…”, as Garnett describes in his article:


“They met Lawrence, whose books they had not read, and greatly attracted him by their honest open character.”


Lawrence and Frieda asked the two painters to drive them up to some log cabins in the mountains, one of which they were thinking of renting and, when they’d looked at them, tried persuading the Danes to stay with them over winter. They both declined at first but then gave in, and the four hunkered down together for the winter, which, as Garnett knew was the only way to get to know Lawrence, especially when he was cooking and doing the housework, and arranging all the details of everyday life, and probably helping Frieda to spread out the newly laundered sheets in the sun on the snow to dry, and then:


“Once a fortnight they all rode off to scrub themselves in the hot springs, and came back from the forty-mile ride feeling as clean as the sheets…”


But for Garnett living at close quarters with Lawrence, which he had done, were the best and the worst of times, and describes how, still in Taos with the Danes, Lawrence had repeatedly tried to kick his little dog Pips for running off while she was on heat. Pips forgave him and Lawrence never spoke of it, leaving the dog behind with Mabel when they left New Mexico.


For Garnett the thing was “…if you lived with Lawrence, [they] were the times when you felt suffocated by his ideas. He sometimes talked such half-baked rubbish and was so ignorantly cocksure. [But] It was impossible to know Lawrence without loving him. Sometimes a devil, sometimes a bore, but extraordinarily alive, the best company in the world, and, I suppose, a very great man.”



DH Lawrence, photocredit Nottingham University

David Garnett, photocredit The Standard

As I have written previously, while Lawrence was away in Croydon, Jessie had been working hard on his behalf sending his work to the editor of the English Review, Ford Madox Hueffer, who replied saying that he thought the pieces were very interesting. Jessie showed Hueffer’s letter to Lawrence when he returned to Eastwood after spending a summer holiday with his mother in the Isle of Wight. Lawrence thanked Jessie for what she had done, telling her that “… she was his luck.” He then gave the letter to his mother to read, who never returned it.


Lawrence went to see Ford Madox Hueffer (later Ford Madox Ford), on his return to Croydon, and a selection of poems were published in the November 1909 edition of Ford’s magazine, taking up the first six pages. Harry T. Moore has written:


“ Hueffer later said he never really ‘liked Lawrence much. He remained too disturbing even when I got to know him well.’ And although Lawrence didn’t whine, he continually needed solicitude, as well as moral support, to replace the influence of the mother he was away from, and about whose personality and opinions he talked ‘ in a way that is unusual in a young man out to make his fortune.’ ”


But Hueffer also sent the MSS of the poems, and of Lawrence’s novel The Trespasser, to Edward Garnett, Heinemann’s senior reader at that time, and as Lawrence wrote, Hueffer:


“… introduced me to Edward Garnett, who, somehow, introduced me to the world.” In effect, as Lawrence later wrote, Hueffer “left me to paddle my own canoe. I very nearly wrecked it and did for myself. Edward Garnett, like a good angel, fished me out.”


Helen Smith, in her 2017 biography of Edward Garnett, writes of Lawrence’s first visit to Garnett’s house, The Cearne, in 1911:


“It was his first visit and he had to keep his wits about him: the house was isolated and not visible from the road. Trees thickened the darkness as the visitor followed a sharply sloping track; The Cearne stood beneath a steep, coppiced hill and it was not until he was nearly on top of it that he realised he had arrived. He made his way to the immensely solid oak front door and raised the knocker.”

Helen Smith’s wonderfully theatrical Agatha Christieesque description of Lawrence’s dark journey to The Cearne, prepares us well for what follows:


“The guest Edward greeted was, at twenty-six, seventeen years his junior. Above average height, the young man was slight but wiry, with his hair, which had definite reddish streak, parted to one side. He sported a rather scrubby moustache, but his eyes were his most arresting feature — blue and, according to David Garnett’s later description, ‘so alive, dancing with gaiety.’ ”


It was the first of many visits that Lawrence made to The Cearne, and there can be no doubt, as Smith points out, that Garnett’s involvement with Lawrence was crucial (as it was with Joseph Conrad) in helping him to effectively give his energies and emotions some sort of style. Which he did, but like Conrad, Lawrence was strong willed and pretty much went his own way after his initial publishing success, at the same time never forgetting the help, at a crucial time, that Garnett was able to give to get Lawrence’s work before the reading public.

In Carolyn G. Heilbrun’s 1961 biography of the Garnett family, she is very critical of Lawrence biographer, Harry T. Moore’s (as she sees it) downgrading of Edward Garnett’s part in the literary life of Lawrence. Heilburn writes:


“Some of Moore’s comments on Garnett are, by implication at least, simply unjust. Speaking of Sons and Lovers, he writes: ‘Except for Garnett’s subsequent bowdlerizing — painful to Lawrence — the novel was at last finished.’ Nowhere does Lawrence himself accuse Garnett of bowdlerizing.”


What Garnett had to make clear to Lawrence was that the publisher (Duckworth, Garnett’s employer) objected to certain sexual passages in the book. They had to go or the book could not be published. Lawrence understood and asked Garnett to make the changes.


Of course, by the time of Moore’s biography, first published in 1954, and then, more importantly, in 1962, the old publishing establishment was being criticised for giving in (as Moore and others saw it) to censorship in those very different days of the early 20th century. Had Lawrence not agreed to the editing by a man he trusted, he and his work would be unknown to us.


The Garnett family had been at the heart of the British newspaper, literary and library establishment for over one hundred fifty years when Edward Garnett became a reader (an editor in reality), and eventually a partner, at the newly established publishing house of Jonathan Cape. One of his forbears an initial investor, journalist, and printer of the Manchester Guardian. Edward’s father, Richard Garnett, had been the head of Printed Books at the British Museum all of his adult life, with Edward’s son, David, as mentioned at the start, a much loved member of the Bloomsbury group, whose 1955 novel, Aspects of Love, was turned into an excellent musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Don Black and Charles Hart. And not least, Constance Garnett, the wife of Edward, who was the first to translate the Russian novelists, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, into English, which effectively introduced the Russian literary scene to the British. Her translations are still considered by many to be the best and most truthful.


Edward was a stern reviewer when it came to reading manuscripts (at least 3,000 a year), and the infant writers needed to be thick skinned and take his suggestions to heart until such times as they became accepted by the reading public, when they could walk away from Garnett without losing his friendship. Lawrence, and Joseph Conrad before him, and H.E. Bates after him, had such skin, and believed in Garnett’s judgement completely, as did T.E. Lawrence when it came to publishing the Seven Pillars of Wisdom.


After Jessie Chambers, and perhaps reluctantly, Ford Maddox Ford (Hueffer), and latterly Frieda, David Herbert Lawrence always considered Edward Garnett the man who pushed and shoved him into the literary limelight.


Steve Newman

Edward Garnett, photocredit The Times

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