By Clemmie Read
Burning Man: The Ascent of D H Lawrence
Frances Wilson, Bloomsbury, 2021
Laurence Leamer, Penguin, 2021
‘I love you, Lorenzo,’ the writer John Middleton Murry once told D H Lawrence, ‘but I won’t promise not to betray you.’ He was right not to promise; he would go on to publish three cruelly revealing books about Lawrence after his death. Lawrence, however, was in no position to complain. Many of the friends he loved the most, from Katherine Mansfield to Ottoline Morrell, he would go on to betray, to recycle in his fiction with little mercy. These women were not the first or last to serve as muses to great writers — not the last to play the role inadvertently, nor the last to object.
In only the past year, a series of minor scandals has brought the debate around the appropriation of personal identities to the forefront of literary discourse. In July, Alexis Nowicki came across ‘Cat Person’, Kristen Roupenian’s viral short story, and discovered that it was based directly on her own life. In August, journalist Jia Tolentino was made the subject of a grossly voyeuristic love poem by Nicholas Rombre. In October, Robert Kolker’s story ‘Who Is the Bad Art Friend?’ dealt with a woman who accused a writer of plagiarising her life. Plagiarism, after all, is what this kind of literary inspiration can easily become. More often than ever, we find ourselves wondering when a muse is a muse, and when a muse is just stealing someone else’s life: when a writer is following the instruction to write what they know, and when they are writing what isn’t really theirs to write.
Autofiction, as recent biographies of D H Lawrence and Truman Capote have brought home, is nothing new. Frances Wilson introduces her biography of Lawrence with a confession: ‘I am unable to distinguish between Lawrence’s art and Lawrence’s life.’ In her research, she reads his novels and his letters ‘as exercises in autofiction, which genre he pioneered’. With a reference as canny as it is perceptive, she brings Lawrence consciously into the literary zeitgeist, and leaves him exposed to the questions we might ask of contemporary writers.
Lawrence considered the work of Katherine Mansfield, whom he knew as Murry’s girlfriend, to be ‘false’ because she was too detached from real life. And he had a point, insofar as the work of Mansfield and her fellow modernists is often criticised for being overly cerebral and contrived, rather than naturalistic and ‘real’ like Lawrence's. He, on the other hand, was engaged with real life to a fault, not least with regards to Mansfield, upon whom he based the madly frenzied, unfaithful character Gudrun in Women in Love, even taking advantage of her hospitality by moving uninvited into her tower to finish the novel.
But this quasi-betrayal paled in comparison to his treatment of Ottoline Morrell, whose aristocratic background enamoured the socially ambitious Lawrence. The most generous of hostesses in Bloomsbury and at Garsington Manor, she took him up and became his patron, only to be warped into Hermione Roddice, the villainess of Women in Love. ‘It is so loathsome one cannot get clean after it,’ a devastated Ottoline wrote to a friend, ‘a horrible disgusting portrait of me making me out as if filled with cruel devilish lust.’ To add to the betrayal, she noted that Hermione attempts to kill another character with a lump of lapis lazuli — which she had lately given Lawrence as a present. She intended to sue for libel, but Lawrence had no British publisher, so all she could do was to cut off the friendship. ‘What a cheap little bounder he was,’ Virginia Woolf commented, ‘taking her money, books, food, lodging, and then writing that book’; the remark could apply just as easily to Mansfield. Lawrence was a serial bounder.
Then there is the American society heiress Mabel Dodge Luhan, who, Wilson writes, not only inspires, but ‘dominates’ Lawrence’s writing. Luhan did not object. She consciously positioned herself as a muse, framing herself as a Beatrice to his Dante. ‘I was thrilled at the thought,’ she wrote, that Lawrence, who wanted to write an American novel, ‘wanted to write it around me’. Indeed, she goes on, ‘it was for this I had called him from across the world’. This is in her own memoir about her short-lived friendship with him, Lorenzo in Taos; this time, the mining for literary material was mutual. But fiction distorts, and distort her it did. She told him everything about herself, ‘became more intimate, psychically, than I have ever been with anyone else before’. And when he stopped getting on with her, Lawrence repurposed this material time and again, into anything but what Mabel wanted him to tell.
Mabel becomes Kate Leslie in The Plumed Serpent, her life story transposed onto his own ‘taming of the shrew’, whose heroine, a fictionalised Luhan, is punished with a marriage in captivity — ‘You won’t let me go!’ she says to her new husband as the novel closes. It is cruel and unkind. ‘Kate Leslie is his enemy’, Wilson writes. The novel is ‘hard to forgive and hard to forget’. Twice he kills her, in ‘The Woman Who Rode Away’ and ‘None of That’, and this in an unsettlingly ill-humoured way which she thought ‘too damn mean’. Luhan is far from unobjectionable: her portrayal of Lawrence in Lorenzo in Taos is unsympathetic and even repulsive, so that his works and hers, as Wilson aptly puts it, operate like ‘pistols at dawn’. But betrayal in fiction, particularly in works that continue to attract attention a century later, is a different matter altogether.
Wilson works around the moral shortcomings of her subject with variously heavy-handed strategies. Upon visiting Tahiti, Lawrence writes a card to a friend saying ‘if you are thinking of coming here, don’t. The people are brown and soft’. Wilson simply overlooks Lawrence’s racist tone by describing his response as ‘tiresome.’ And it would seem she finds him tiresome mainly in his role as biographical subject: she clearly wants to rehabilitate his reputation, but he resists at every turn. Still, she leans away from being critical, excuses him this and all his sins, not least his literary betrayals, by dividing him into Self One and Self Two: Self One is the admirable Lawrence, and Self Two the Hyde to his Jekyll, the troubled alter ago upon whom everything can be blamed. ‘Once again the reactionary hysteria at the core of Self Two smashed the genius of Self One to smithereens,’ Wilson sighs of the Tahiti comment, and is satisfied. For all the modishness of the sociological view of the self as episodic, and for all Lawrence’s sense of his own split personality, this seems like a convenient retreat from the need to grapple with Lawrence’s character. He, a single Lawrence, was simply behaving cruelly.
If biography confers a kind of immediate status upon a subject by implying that they are worthy of our time, this inclination towards excusing the costs of their art is, perhaps, explicable.Laurence Leamer’s Capote’s Women narrows in on this question by focusing entirely on the Answered Prayers debacle of 1975, when Capote took cruel appropriation of his friends’ lives to a far higher, far more callously explicit level than Lawrence. For over two decades, Capote had been surrounded by a coterie of enchantingly glamorous women nicknamed his ‘swans’, foremost among them the society beauties Babe Paley and Gloria Guinness. They were renowned worldwide for their beauty, sophistication, and opulence (the husbands of Babe and Gloria were two of the richest men in America), and they were fabulously well-connected: one of them was Lee Radziwill, sister of Jackie Kennedy Onassis; another, Marella Agnelli, was an Italian princess. They had brought Capote, brilliantly talented but far removed from the echelons of high society, into their stratospheres. But they were unaware of his ruthless observation. When he decided to publish a chapter of the forthcoming Answered Prayers, which was effectively a string of gossipy set-pieces about the women, and a friend warned him that they would recognise themselves at once, he responded: ‘Naaah, they’re too dumb. They won’t know who they are.’
Capote was so famous and so famously well-connected by this point that, with the manuscript still unwritten, it was enough for him to say that his next work would be ‘a sort of roman à clef, drawn from some people I’ve known and places I’ve been’ for 20th Century Fox to buy the film rights on the spot for $350,000. Random House offered him a three-book contract for $750,000. But how incendiary the novel would be only gradually became apparent. He showed an early chapter to Agnelli and she berated him for writing only ‘a gossip column’, but it took some time for him to realise that she had cut him out of her life altogether. It was with the 1975 publication of ‘La Côte Basque, 1965’, an eleven-thousand-word excerpt set at the eponymous New York restaurant, moving between tables and relaying gossip about the different customers that the betrayal really came to the fore. It included secrets the women had told him in deepest confidence. Some were given pseudonyms. Others, like Guinness, he simply attacked in the open, satirising her multiple marriages, her relentless gossiping, calling her and her friends ‘charmingly incompetent adventuresses’. Paley, to whom he was closest, he devastated by relaying a thinly veiled account of her husband’s affairs. She, like most of the others, never spoke to him again.
It was whispered at the time, and it is posited by Leamer, that Capote was in a state of some insanity when he wrote ‘La Côte Basque, 1965’. In Cold Blood had emotionally drained him. The death of Perry Smith, one of the real killers with whom Capote developed an intimate bond, had devastated him; soon after its publication, he turned to hard drink and drugs, and spent a month in a rehabilitation centre. All this and more point to a man who was not well. Because the real problem with Capote’s work — the reason Leamer must find these explanations for his betrayal like his friends did at the time — is that Answered Prayers wasn’t just a betrayal. It also wasn’t any good. Women in Love and The Plumed Serpent might be flawed novels, but they were recognisably well-crafted fiction. Although Wilson might have to excuse Lawrence morally, his decision to appropriate his friends’ lives is never explicitly in question. What exists of Answered Prayers, on the other hand, reads like cruel gossip, and not like a novella at all. It is an exposé of a period, but all it does is expose Capote’s friends’ secrets. Whatever we might consider the bounds of ‘good’ literature, this didn’t fit them, and so we find Capote far harder than Lawrence to excuse.
Where does this leave the ethical implications of autofiction? Perhaps the legal line is the clearest. Capote’s ‘swans’ were too high-profile and publicity-conscious to go to court; Ottoline Morrell would have done but could not. In contemporary fiction, however, the law is closely involved: an unsympathetic portrayal of someone in fiction could be libellous if they are clearly recognisable and the depiction is defamatory, and one cannot usually publish private facts about someone without their permission.
In 2009, Vickie Stewart successfully sued Haywood Smith, author of the bestselling The Red Hat Club, for defamation, because the novel’s lascivious protagonist was recognisably, and specifically, based on Stewart. A legal perspective, after all, can patiently trace the nuances of a case without becoming enamoured by the quality of the work in question. It can evaluate the reasonableness of the hurt caused where artists, and even biographers who necessarily value their subjects, might tend towards the unreasonable. Otherwise, we risk excusing literally anything, as long as it is for the sake of for the sake of good art. But is the law too dispassionate to adjudicate here? Perhaps its disregard of quality in questions like this is the wrong approach, and the importance of the work can have weight in these moral questions. Short of clear libel, a writer’s artistic freedoms must surely be paramount — but they will find biographers and readers far more inclined to forgive them their betrayals if the results are worth it.
So much for the ethics of the issue in the abstract. Inasfar as we might forgive Lawrence and demur in forgiving Capote, we cannot escape the sexist attitudes to women that fed their work. After all, it is only their female friends who received this treatment.
Fiction provides a simulated arena for this subjugation of women, be it Mabel Dodge Luhan as Kate Leslie in captivity, or Gloria Guinness relegated to the role of ‘charmingly incompetent adventuress’ when in fact she was a highly influential figure to whom Capote owed his notorious social life. The writers can construct their ideal power dynamic, both in the realm of fiction and by humiliating these women in reality. The long-held arguments of Simone de Beauvoir and Kate Millet that Lawrence’s oeuvre is overwhelmingly phallocentric hold truer than ever in light of this. The only surprise is how shameless he and Capote are about their treatment of real people whose friendship they then inevitably lose.
The portrayals of such women may be seen in isolation as merely the creation of compelling characters, but they reveal a pattern of misogyny, as real women, creative forces in their own right, are warped into nymphomaniacs and incompetents. They become problems, who must be taken under control by men both inside the work and out of it. Husbands and lovers rap them on the wrists in the novels, but the writers too are trying to gain control, to take these women in hand by forcing them reductive fictional characters. Rapacious attitudes towards women translate to the same approach to their lives, taking what they're willing to give and stealing what they aren't, to recycle it all into fiction.
Even if we conclude that in most cases artistic freedoms are paramount, we can still find that predatory, patriarchal attitudes discredit these works considerably in light of the sources. The two writers' novels are tainted by their own implicit secondary form, as constructed sites of fantasy-realisation. For all their greatness such works were a way for the writers to place their female peers under their control as they could not in real life. We might forgive but, once revealed, this vicious underside can be hard to forget.
CLEMMIE READ reads English at Magdalen College. She’s heard enough nominative determinism jokes.
Art by Agnes Halladay