Review of D. H. Lawrence’s Australia: Anxiety at the Edge of Empire, by David Game

Abstract

Preconceptions of another country can take hold of an artist’s imagination – as ‘America’ did Kafka’s and Lorca’s – but who knew that D. H. Lawrence developed a comprehensive idea of ‘Australia’ long before his one hundred-day visit? Or how central that was to his later work? The objective of David Game, Honorary Lecturer at the Australian National University, is modestly expressed: to ‘throw new light on the significance of [Lawrence's] overall engagement with Australia – its place in his life and art’ (7). He does much more in a work of major scholarship.

Preconceptions of another country can take hold of an artist’s imagination – as ‘America’ did Kafka’s and Lorca’s – but who knew that D. H. Lawrence developed a comprehensive idea of ‘Australia’ long before his one hundred-day visit? Or how central that was to his later work? The objective of David Game, Honorary Lecturer at the Australian National University, is modestly expressed: to ‘throw new light on the significance of [Lawrence's] overall engagement with Australia – its place in his life and art’ (7). He does much more in a work of major scholarship.

Showing that two decades of extensive reading of ‘Australian’ material preceded Kangaroo and The Boy in the Bush, Game argues the thought, study and writing constitute an ‘Australian period’, 1920–1924, in Lawrence’s work and that it illuminates decisions Lawrence made for his literary, intellectual and personal journeying. To frame his argument, Game places Australia comprehensively in the discourses of early modernity. His approach is to scrutinise Lawrence's texts in detail, scrutinise biographical and historical details, and align all three to demonstrate how Lawrence’s creative writing process itself probed and progressed ideas he projected onto Australia as much as the non-fiction, essays and letters do. The result is a deeply scholarly study revealing not only Lawrence's writing and thought but what Australia signified in cultural debates across the globe in the first decades of the twentieth century.

Lawrence’s Australia opens with the background to his and Frieda’s expedition to Australia in 1922. The first two chapters place Lawrence’s ideas in the context of cultural trends, preoccupations, policies and anxieties in a period – not unlike our own – of economic uncertainty, violent national upheavals and political unrest. Degenerationism underpins the ‘anxiety’ of the subtitle. Game draws on William Greenslade's terminology for the ‘loose assemblage of beliefs’ known by the term ‘degenerationism’ (Greenslade 15-16), was central to cultural trends that interested the writer. Throughout Western and colonial societies, these beliefs, first based on Social Darwinism, grew into constructs like eugenics and racial and social hierarchies. Linked to ‘public health, national purity and imperial fitness’, symptoms of degeneracy were seen in both the desperately poor and ‘decadent artists, “new women” and homosexuals’ of the cities (24). Within the British Empire a remedy was projected to offset this social decline: relocation to ‘healthier’ climates. Settler societies like Australia were imagined to provide a ‘regenerative’ opportunity. ‘Central to regeneration was the desire to improve the physical and mental health of the individual and society’ (35) with a focus on eugenics and so-called ‘reproductive fitness’ resulting from migration, an ‘ennobling and invigorating stimulus for our youth’ as Lord Curzon put it in Frontiers (1907) (qt. in Game 36). One historical result, as we know, was the mass transportation of children.

Game shows the precepts were generally rejected by Lawrence though he could not fail to be influenced by the discourse and believe, for his own reasons, he was living through ‘the moral collapse of modern industrial civilization’. Game traces ‘degenerationist images and assumptions’ adapted by Lawrence to construct a different regenerationist vision. Industrial society with its collective aspirations and enthusiasm for colonisation, empire, social betterment and democratic political structures were set aside in order to rethink society in terms of individual well-being and fulfilment.

Game makes these concepts central to Lawrence's ‘Australian period’, characterised by ideas for a new society whose members would live in a holistic state of personal freedom. New relations between men and women would transform communities which would thus avoid industrialism with its deleterious impacts on both natural and human worlds. A pivotal concept for Australia in this vision was the state, (in the senses of both affect and political entity), that Lawrence called ‘Raninim’. An awkward name for a utopian condition, ‘Raninim’ was only possible in a ‘new’ place, it seems. As Lawrence’s reading about Australia – which included Frazer’s Golden Bough and Totemism and Exogamy, Jane Harrison’s Ancient Art and Ritual and anything else he could find on Aboriginal society as well as fiction like Clarke’s For the Term of His Natural Life – progressed, he thought more of the geographical Australia’s possibilities for finding, or founding, Raninim, through a settler society that would be energised and civilised by absorbing Aboriginal traditions and spirituality. The idea was developed through Lawrence’s first major Australian character in ‘The Lost Girl’ (1920); Dr Graham, an Australian with dark eyes and ‘dark blood’, has an energy and sensuality attracting the heroine Alvina, frightening her staid, passionless English community and preparing her, Game argues, to leave England finally for a life in remote, mountainous Italy and the 'dark, sensual potency' of her Italian husband (89).

Famously, when the Lawrences arrived in Perth, the fledgling nation of Australia totally failed to live up to the writer's vision. Rather than finding it a fresh new state enriched by Aboriginal energy, after two weeks Lawrence was to describe it as more atrophied than the Old World, with less potential than Europe for the lived reality he sought. Nonetheless, he became engaged with the political and social culture and events around him after he moved across the continent to Sydney and Thirroul. These interests build on his earlier reading to take form in The Boy in the Bush and Kangaroo. Game shows that many of the topics and opinions raised by the characters in that novel are clearly indebted to, if not plagiarisations of, articles about politics, race and Empire in the Bulletin of 1922. Again, Game is exceptionally thorough, not only comparing parallel paragraphs but pursuing circumstantial evidence to the street corner in Sydney that Lawrence passed where a news-stand sold the Bulletin.

To describe the twelve chapters of D. H. Lawrence’s Australia as ‘comprehensive’ is to do the study scant justice. Game identifies every reference to Australia and every Australian character or image not only throughout Lawrence‘s published works but the unpublished manuscripts, drafts and proofs from the earliest reference (in 1907). Game shows that Lawrence developed a ‘passionate engagement with a country that seemed to him at once familiar and foreign’, even as he expressed unflattering views about it and turned to New Mexico. Moving on from the confines of de- or re-generationism, the dimension of Australia that continued to absorb and reward him was its natural environment and first people, exemplifying a view Game quotes that ‘we may see the whole of Lawrence’s creative project as sharing, with post-Darwinian scientific literature, this exploratory quest to delineate man’s place in nature’ (21).

Its expression was as contrary as ever: for Lawrence what was alienating, harsh and messy to other short-term visitors was a profound and spiritual experience he evoked repeatedly up to the so-called ‘mimosa [wattle] letters’ written just before his death. In a chapter on the poem ‘Kangaroo’, Game elaborates, bringing together the recurring themes of ‘aboriginal bush’ and ‘Aboriginal being’. Both Game and Lawrence deftly avoid the colonial trope conflating Aboriginal people and nature with Lawrence instead representing the two as mutually defining. It is here his preconceptions about the enhanced sense of being derived from indigeneity meets the ‘physical feeling’ he experienced repeatedly as a presence in Australia’s natural world. Lawrence was not to abandon his perception of Australian country and its autochthonous people even while he was unimpressed by its European citizens.

Game seems unperturbed by Lawrence’s more strange postulations about place, human life and character, distinguishing tactfully between the living Lawrence and Lawrence the writer by arguing that the latter did not lay down fixed doctrine but made creative ‘explorations’ (210). At points where the reader might splutter at these, Game avoids judgement, setting out the evidence comprehensively, relaying adverse viewpoints of critics (which are many and Game knows them well) and moving on. Lawrence's opaque and sometimes farcical-sounding reasoning about ‘physical feeling’ – blood, sex, gender and autochthony – suggests trajectories that were only to emerge as philosophical concepts in late modernism: subjectivity, space and place, apparatus and discourse, and especially the connections between affect, emotion, individual and society. Lawrence contributed to the foundations of these modes of thought even as Game shows the novelist had drawn on Nietzsche, Darwin, Frazer and Herbert Spencer.

The final chapter returns to the biographical mode to show how the relationship with Australia continued to the very end of Lawrence's life, through connection with Jack Lindsay and P. R. Stephenson, then idealistic young left-wing Australians set up as writers and publishers in London. Lawrence was not impressed by their writing but Stephenson published a volume of Lawrence's paintings, running the gauntlet of censorship laws to do so. The Australians did not deliver what Lawrence wanted personally. ‘In a sense this was typical of Lawrence. He was prone to passionate enthusiasms, followed by equally passionate withdrawals.’ (275) He was more loyal to nonhuman manifestations of place and upon his death a few months later, Frieda wrote ‘I put lots and lots of mimosa [wattle] on his coffin’ (282).

While Lawrence’s Australia builds from Game’s detailed knowledge of the Lawrence scholarship to set out the textual minutiae, its wide scope and research are original. Game has given us a major textual, literary and biographical study of Lawrence’s Australia, Australia’s Lawrence, and the ‘place’ of Australia in the early twentieth-century world.

Published 2 November 2018 in Volume 33, No. 3. Subjects: English literature & writers, D. H. Lawrence.

Cite as: Holloway, Barbara. ‘Review of D. H. Lawrence’s Australia: Anxiety at the Edge of Empire, by David Game.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 33, no. 3, 2018. https://doi.org/10.20314/als.6a844f24ab.