26 Apr 2021

On D. H. Lawrence and Oscar Wilde

One hundred years ago today - 26 April 1921 - D. H. Lawrence arrived in the German spa town of Baden-Baden, situated on the edge of the Black Forest, close to the border with France. He was on a visit to his mother-in-law, Frau Baronin von Richthofen. 
It had been, he tells one correspondent, a devil of a journey from Italy; one that left him feeling not quite right inside his own skin [1]. Perhaps the curious stillness and emptiness of the place intensified this feeling. And one can't imagine the cold northern air helped matters. 
Not surprising then that, although his wife hoped they would be staying for the entire summer, Lawrence is already thinking of leaving in a few weeks; "doubt I shall stand it more than a month" [2]
Interesting as all this is, what really caught my attention, however, was a remark made in another letter written on the 28th of April, this time to his London publisher: "Alfred Douglas is a louse." [3]  
Why this remark caught my attention is because, as a matter of fact, Lawrence makes very few references to Oscar Wilde and his circle, only one of whom, Reggie Turner, does he ever meet in person [4]
Why this is so, we can only guess ...
For one thing, of course, it's generational; the world has moved on and, despite being born in 1885, Lawrence belongs very much to the unfolding twentieth-century, rather than the fag end of the nineteenth. Like many others, he finds Wilde's work dated and describes the 1890s as a ridiculous decade - a mix of decadence and pietism [5]
But it's also a question of temperament. For one suspects that Lawrence - an English puritan at heart - would have found Wilde a little too Irish, a little too queer, a little too affected ... In brief, just a little too much all round. We find traces of this in his characterisation of Wilde as a grand pervert, i.e., someone full of ineffable conceit who tried to "intellectualise and so utterly falsify the phallic consciousness" [6].
[1] See Lawrence's letter to John Ellingham Brooks (28 April 1921), in The Letters of D. H. Lawrence, Vol. III, ed. James T. Boulton and Andrew Robertson, (Cambridge University Press, 1984), p. 706.
[2] See Lawrence's letter to Robert Mountsier (28 April 1921), ibid., p. 707. In the event, Lawrence and Frieda stayed in Baden-Baden until mid-July.  

[3] See Lawrence's letter to Martin Secker (28 April 1921), ibid., p. 708. 
      Despite the harshness of his description, Lawrence had, when younger, admired some of Douglas's poetry in The City of the Soul (1899): "Alfred Douglas has some lovely verses; he is affected so deeply by the new French poets, and has caught their beautiful touch." 
      See his letter to Blanche Jennings (20 Jan 1909), The Letters of D. H. Lawrence, Vol. I, ed. James T. Boulton, (Cambridge University Press, 1979), p. 107. 
      Lawrence being Lawrence, however, he can't resist also taking a bit of a pop at Douglas in the same letter immediately afterwards: "the fat-head [...] feels himself heavy with nothing and thinks it's death when it's only the burden of his own unused self"
[4] Lawrence is introduced to Reginald Turner by Norman Douglas in 1919 and he partly bases the character of Algy Constable on Wilde's most loyal of friends in Aaron's Rod (1922).
      References to Wilde in Lawrence's work include, for example, 'The Proper Study', in Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine and Other Essays, ed. Michael Herbert, (Cambridge University Press, 1988), p. 170, and 'Introduction [version I] to The Memoirs of the Duc de Lauzun', in Introductions and Reviews, ed. N. H. Reeve and John Worthen, (Cambridge University Press, 2005), p. 89.
 [5] See Lawrence's 'Review of Hadrian the Seventh, by Fr. Rolfe (Baron Corvo)', Introductions and Reviews, p. 239. 

[6] D. H. Lawrence, letter to Aldous Huxley (27 March 1928), in The Letters of D. H. Lawrence, Vol. VI, ed. James T. Boulton and Margaret Boulton, with Gerald M. Lacy, (Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 342. 
      Wilde finds himself in good company, as Lawrence also brands Goethe, Byron, Baudelaire, and Proust (among others) as grand perverts
For further refections on Lawrence and Wilde, click here.  

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