In E.M Forster’s Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905), Philip Herriton and his sister Harriet are seen travelling to Italy. The purpose of travel is to “adopt” the young son their late ex-sister-in law has left behind – a son she has with a rural Italian rustic, Gino – whose existence outside the Herriton family irks the tempered Christian consciuosness of Mrs. Herriton, Philip and Harriet’s pious middle aged mother. While travelling Italy, the following ensues, which summarizes Forster’s general assessment of the Herriton-types (from a stiff-necked provincial England with their small mercies and suffocating pieties) encountering the heart and pulse of a non-Christian Italy:
“[o]n the second day the heat struck them, like a hand laid over their mouth, just as they were walking to see the tomb of Juliet. From that moment everything went wrong. They fled from Verona. Harriet’s sketch book was stolen, and the bottle of ammonia in her trunk burst over her prayerbook, so that purple patches appeared on all her clothes. Then, as she was going through Mantua at four in the morning, Philip made her look out of the window because it was Virgil’s birthplace, and a smut flew in her eye, and Harriet with a smut in her eye was notorious. At Bologna they stopped twenty-four hours to rest. It was a festa, and children blew bladder whistles night and day. “What a religion!” said Harriet. The hotel smelt, two puppies were asleep on her bed, and her bedroom window looked into a belfry, which saluted her slumbering form every quarter of an hour. Philip left his walking-stick, his socks and the Baedeker at Bologna; she only left her sponge-bag. Next day they crossed the Apennines with a train-sick child and a hot lady who told them that never, never before had she sweated so profusely. “Foreigners are a filthy nation” said Harriet. “I don’t care if there are tunnels; open the window”. He obeyed, and she got another smut in her eye”.
The energy in DH Lawrence’s later fiction comes from his movement away from England and his location in Florence, Italy; with sufficient movement to remote United States and Mexico. The triumph of the human spirit and sentiment in these later works has much to do with a violent rejection of and breakaway from values and sensibilities that Lawrence often associates with his characterization of provincial British, Christian middle class life. His early work such as Sons and Lovers (1913), The Rainbow (1915) and Women in Love (1920) demonstrate the conflict felt by an artiste who is concerned with the freedom and liberation of the human body and mind, amidst various limiting factors and value assignments of an industrial, petty capitalist society.
As much as his later novels are a contunation of this search of the free spirited body and psyche, the crucial development is Lawrence’s dislocation from Britain, which seems to have made the discarding of an “English shadow” that hovers over his struggle for that redeemed human status easy and feasible. Outside Britain, with that overarching, conspicuous Christian provinsialism shrinking away, Lawrence seems to gain assurance and strength to venture deeper into the bones and blood of human encounters: encounters which, not accidentally, often undermine or ruthlessly snub at the mangled and warped human forms and formations that are the products and guardians of an (English) indistrial capitalist society.
However, Lawrence’s last novels are also among his most “controversial” – by British, middle class standards, of course: the judgment passed down on Lawrence by the vanguard of the very limiting social ethos he strives to unclutch himself from. Here, again, a crucial development of Lawrence’s temperament as artiste is reflected in his re-assessment of craft and structure in his later novels. A reading of work, among others, such as St. Mawr (1925), The Captain’s Doll (1923), Virgin and the Gypsy (1930) and The Fox (1923) makes us receptive of an un-Englishness in not only the general assessment of the body and sensation, but also in a clear cut deviation from the “English form” of novel writing.
Early novels such as Sons and Lovers and The Rainbow, in form, organization and style conveniently fit into the general category of a mainstream English novel of Lawrence’s time. The well panned out plotlines, the strategically placed crises and climaxes, the comprehensive and mappable “beginning-middle and end”, are among other “grounding” features which makes Lawrence’s sentiments – even ones that are rebellious and challenging of the normative mainstream – the inmates of a structure that contradicts the animation of his sensibility.
With his later novels comes a liberation of the craftsman, (in sentiment as well as) in the conceptualization of structure and organization. Lawrence, by now, has dismissed the English/non-Continental European notion of progression and teleology, and has embarked on an experiment through which the sensory and the “chemistry” of what is essentially human are made the means and the ends of his expression. In this un-learning of the British novelistic mould, which is the default/natural feed Lawrence would have readily received and fostered through his formative phases, lies the decisive achievement in Lawrence’s craft, making his later works daring and honest.
The “shift” in Lawrence’s craftsmanship shows early signs in 1920-1922, with The Lost Girl (1920) and Aaron’s Rod (1922). Both novels table the motif of breaking away from provincial Midland life, and relocation to Italy: a theme that would take over Lawrence’s fiction for the next decade. In The Lost Girl, Alvina undergoes an awakening of sorts (of body and spirit) upon her breakaway from her provincial working class background, and moving into Italy with an Italian lover. In Aaron’s Rod we have a similar relocation: that of Aaron, who walks out on his family in the collier quarters, and moves to Italy as a musician and becomes critically engaged in political and social debate, while moving in the artistic circles of Florence. These two works, together constitute a shift that later takes more definitive and daring shape in writings such as The Plumed Serpent (set in Mexico) and Virgin and the Gypsy .
On a concluding note, a reference to EM Forster – whom I have quoted substantially at the outset – merits mention. Forster, too, is a writer who often looks upon Italy as an alternative and reformer of the corrupted British sensibility, dented and stunted by the petty and limiting middle class narrowmindedness of the times. This is memorably projected in novels such as A Room with a View (1908) and Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905). Forster, for the record, disembarks his protagonists on Italian shores a decade and a half before Lawrence, while he is among the leading men in literature to defend Lawrence, in later years.