A Guide to D.H. Lawrence's Midland Roots
Stephen Bailey & Chris Nottingham
London: Troubador Publishing, 2013
Paperback. xii + 168 p. ISBN: 978-1783060573. £ 9.75
Reviewed by Ginette Katz-Roy
Université Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense
There is more to this short book than what its title announces. In its own way, it adds a fairly modest but interesting contribution to a long list of more or less bulky Lawrence biographies and biographical writings. It focuses on the writer’s early life in his native Midlands, an area that he called “the country of my heart”. This semi-rural semi-industrial region was the backdrop for his early works and remained for him a lasting source of inspiration. The authors, Stephen Bailey and Chris Nottingham, who, in their youth, attended Nottingham High School like Lawrence, argue that “the further Lawrence exiled himself from his ‘Country’ the less satisfactory his writing became”, wondering at the same time that he managed to build “so much from so little”.
The first part of the book deals with Lawrence’s controversial reputation and offers a very rapid but generally well informed summary of all the biographical data that may be collected through various testimonies, previous biographies and the semi-autobiographical novel Sons and Lovers. Yet, there are some debatable assertions concerning Lawrence’s relation to his parents due to oversimplification. The authors never indulge in a panegyric but, in spite of their effort at a fair appreciation of the man and his work, they do not avoid a few sweeping statements. For instance, they denounce Lawrence’s “flirtations with eugenics and futuristic creeds” or his utter lack of humour, which shows that, at times, they have a certain lack of critical sense towards their sources. Examining the ups and downs of Lawrence’s reputation, they finally conclude, with a note of personal humour, that “it is a rare achievement to be successively unpopular with working-class puritans, upper-class prigs and chattering-class pundits”.
Three chapters out of five are devoted to Lawrence’s sense of place and connection to the Midlands, where he lived till the age of 23, that is to say, half of his life. He used to take long walks in the country around Eastwood, either by necessity or out of choice since he enjoyed walking even very long distances. The authors claim that, in his works, the events are fictional but the settings are always real, insisting that, for all that, Lawrence never meant to be “a regional author” but “aspired to address a universal audience”.
Bailey and Nottingham (a well-suited name) invite us to visit with them the sites that Lawrence evokes in his novels and short-stories, mixing remarks on the difficulty of attracting tourists to Lawrence’s birthplace, on the tremendous changes that occurred in the region since the writer’s day, with considerations on the social, cultural and economic atmosphere at the beginning of the twentieth century. There are interesting passages on the decline of the mining industry, the development of railways, the Congregationalist church and its impact on Lawrence’s writing, on the teaching profession (and its feminisation) and more generally on education with reference both to Lawrence’s life and the character of Ursula in The Rainbow. The authors rightly assert that if Lawrence touched on political issues, his answers were always spiritual, in an unorthodox way. The section entitled Chapel gives a good idea of the influence of the Congregationalist church and various eclectic readings on Lawrence’s philosophy and utopian dreams.
The last two chapters are literally a guide to the Heartlands mentioned in the title of the book: Eastwood, Greasley, Cossall, Nottingham and parts of Derbyshire – heartlands on which Lawrence had changing views at different periods of his life. In each case, the authors try to identify the novels and short stories associated with the place, and take us on a tour of these sites, contrasting past and present, bringing in anecdotes or commenting on the use of local names, on the accurateness of some passages or the reorganisation of the landscape in the fiction. In Chapter 5, for each of the five areas, a related walk, described in Sons and Lovers,is explored, and illustrated by numerous quotations from the novel.
In their conclusion, the authors note that, after a last stay in Eastwood in 1912, Lawrence left the country of his heart never to return except for very short visits. They insist once again that he revisited in imagination the landscapes of his youth till the end of his life. To those who think that Lawrence abandoned England to wander around the world, the authors reply “they ignore the extent to which ‘England’ abandoned Lawrence”.
One may wonder who this book is meant for. Students interested in Lawrence? Visitors to the Lawrence country? Local people eager to know more about the area and its famous novelist? The answer is not easy. With its maps, numerous old photos, its chronology, its appendix about Lawrence’s place names, its endnotes and dense bibliography, it looks scholarly, but the whole reads rather like simple vulgarisation. The tours and walks through the Lawrence country in the last chapters are demanding for the reader’s imagination, but they set off Lawrence’s descriptive power and are definitely the most original parts of the book.
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