Each winter, DH Lawrence descended into a state of critical illness. By Easter, like Christ, he resurrected. Lawrence’s tuberculosis had first manifested when he was a teenager; as if in a fable of ambivalent masculinity, he was nurtured back from the brink of death by his mother, and awoke to find his voice had broken. Following the Romantic idea that tuberculosis was “an internal flame that consumed the body”, Lawrence believed his illness was caused by an excess of love and rage, pent up inside him, and that his annual cycle of life and death afforded him a special proximity to the divine. Frances Wilson suggests that Lawrence always “saw himself as a figure of allegory”: this is the guiding principle of her book, which rejects two-dimensional interpretations of his life and work and, instead, reads Lawrence brilliantly as a “self-wrestling human document”, exploring with a wry eye “the preternatural strangeness of his power”.
Lawrence, Wilson suggests, built his life – which he called “that piece of supreme art” – around Dante’s Comedy, and her book is structured in three parts, based on Dante’s journey from Hell to Purgatory and into Paradise. Lawrence was constantly on the run, on a lifelong quest for freedom and rebirth: seeking new worlds to inhabit away from “this world of war and squalor”, and different versions of himself to be. Wilson takes us from Hampstead Heath in London via Italy to New Mexico, with a ragtag cast of larger-than-life characters who were Lawrence’s friends and enemies (the line was always thin): the tortured poet HD, the parasitical conman Maurice Magnus, the dynamo hostess Mabel Dodge Luhan, Lawrence’s wife, Frieda, with whom he shared a marriage of extremities, simultaneously vital and draining.
Lawrence was always searching for passionate connection – motherly, romantic, fraternal – and inspired extraordinary reactions in others, from the obsessive to the murderous: his life and work were shaped by encounters with acolytes, enemies, kindred spirits and detractors, which he restlessly charted in fictional form. Wilson’s narrative lays bare the fascinating struggle between Lawrence’s two selves: one peaceful and spiritual, another which fantasises about shooting everyone he sees “with invisible arrows of death”. Lawrence, Wilson writes, is a figure “composed of mysteries rather than certainties”: in this astonishing tale, rife with jealousy, messianism and blood, she meets Lawrence on his own terms, offering readers a mythology of his deeply wild and complex spirit.