September 21st 2019

  Buy Issue 3053

Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Federal Government should abolish Renewable Energy Certificates

ENERGY BP annual Review shows consumption, production up

CANBERRA OBSERVED NSW Labor caught in Panda's paws doing 'whatever it takes'

RELIGIOUS FREEDOM Religious discrimination bill: A litany of questions

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Boris' brinkmanship shakes up Britain, EU

WATER POLICY Angry farmers protest over Murray-Darling Basin Plan ... again

TECHNOLOGY Are we the dumbest devices in the room?

HISTORY AND POLITICS Lord Acton, nationalism and multiculturalism, Part 2

LITERATURE D.H. Lawrence: The Modernist in exile

MUSIC Dialectical transcendence

CINEMA The Farewell: Elegant and bittersweet

BOOK REVIEW Owning up to market imperfections

BOOK REVIEW Heroism and faith under tyranny

BOOK REVIEW The love that comes after love is gone


EDITORIAL Gladys Liu controversy ignores reality of China's interference

Books promotion page

D.H. Lawrence: The Modernist in exile

by Jeffry Babb

News Weekly, September 21, 2019

When D.H. Lawrence visited Australia in 1922, he was not impressed. He found the suburbs of Sydney to be dreary and the Australian bush to be vaguely threatening. The Australians he met were not interested in ideas and their mode of expression was prosaic.

D.H Lawrence and Frieda von Richtofen

Lawrence stayed in a guesthouse in Darlington, which was then a village in the hills outside of Perth. He even co-authored a book with Molly Skinner, a local literary identity, entitled The Boy in the Bush. During the 99 days Lawrence spent in Australia, he also produced an important novel, Kangaroo.

Kangaroo has always been controversial, but it is one of the most significant works of literature produced about Australia by a non-Australian. It is not Lawrence’s best book, although it does have the ring of veracity.

Although Lawrence must have worked quickly to produce a major work in the time he had available, the book is by no means a potboiler. Kangaroo is a narrative but it lacks the dense imagery of his earlier novels, which are regarded as masterpieces of Modernism.

Lawrence’s novels have remained popular because of their family-based plots. Even after 100 years, they remain readable. He also demonstrated a control of short fiction as a creative genre. Some of his short stories, such as The Rocking-Horse Winner, show a mastery of this genre.

The story in Kangaroo is said to have its source in the Old Guard; a secretive paramilitary organisation opposed to socialism, formed by ex-servicemen returned from World War I. The Old Guard later evolved into the New Guard. Although few historians doubt that the Old Guard existed, it was a secretive organisation.

The New Guard opposed the tumultuous regime of “The Big Fella”, NSW Premier Jack Lang. On March 19, 1932, Lang was about to cut the ribbon on Australia’s proudest engineering achievement, the Sydney Harbour Bridge, declaring it open for public use. Before he could act, Captain Francis de Groot, a New Guard operative, charged out of the crowd, riding a borrowed horse. He slashed the ribbon with a ceremonial sword. This was probably the high point of the New Guard’s public exposure.

T.S. Eliot


De Groot was born in Dublin to a Huguenot father. De Groot served gallantly with the Hussars on the Western Front in World War I. Following the ribbon-slashing incident, despite allegations to the contrary, de Groot was found to be sane. He was convicted on a minor charge and fined a modest amount. He later successfully sued the NSW Police for wrongful arrest, winning a tidy sum in compensation. He was also an antiques dealer and fine furniture manufacturer.

The Sydney Harbour Bridge was designed and constructed by a team lead by Dr John Bradfield, a brilliant Queensland-born engineer who devised much of Sydney’s modern transport infrastructure. Bradfield also proposed diverting Queensland’s coastal rivers across the Great Dividing Range, in the project now known as the Bradfield Scheme. The availability of water would open Australia’s interior to closer settlement.

A Modernist uneasy with modernity

Lawrence’s literary output was substantial, considering he was not yet 45 when he died of tuberculosis. At the time of his death, Lawrence was said to have been a writer of great, though unfulfilled, promise. He should, more correctly, be seen as one of the great literary Modernists, who flowered between the world wars.

James Joyce

The “between the wars” era was a revolt against the old conventions that had been shattered by World War I. Apart from Lawrence, James Joyce and T.S. Eliot were hailed as pioneers of a new era of Modernist literature. Joyce’s Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man are easy enough to understand, but most readers would find his Ulysses challenging and Finnegan’s Wake incomprehensible. Similarly, Elliot’s early magnum opus, The Wasteland, is rarely understandable without literary guideposts.

Lawrence, though, remains accessible to the general reader. Although Kangaroo was written almost 100 years ago, it is still easy to read. Although it can hardly be called a great book, it is plausible and the Australia it describes would be easily recognisable to many older Australians.

Sydney was not then a big city. Its population of 1 million was the same population that Perth had some 40 years ago. The total population of Australia was below 5 million. World War I had taken a terrible toll. According to the Australian War Memorial, 60,000 men died and 156,000 troops were wounded, gassed and became prisoners of war.

Lawrence did not support the war. He was suspected of being a German spy. His attitude to the war provoked a break with English public and official opinion that was never healed.

The strange thing about “Lawrence the Modernist” was that he didn’t like modernity. His best novels, such as Sons and Lovers and The Rainbow, are set in rural locations where there has been a continuity of English country life over the centuries. His books, including Kangaroo, are about families.

The period “between the wars” saw social dislocation on a massive scale, exacerbated by the economic chaos caused by the global stockmarket crash of 1929. Wise heads recognised the interwar period as an interregnum, not an end, and that the Great Power rivalry had not been ended. After the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, Supreme Allied Commander Marshall Ferdinand Foch said: “This is not peace. It is an armistice for 20 years.”

World War l ended with an Armistice, not a peace treaty. Britain’s economy was in ruins, made worse by Churchill’s policy of reinstating the gold standard. Eventually, Britain’s industries were reconstructed through the policy of Imperial Preference.

Germany was not occupied during World War I, leading extreme nationalists such as Adolf Hitler to promote the “stab in the back” theory. In other words, Germany was not defeated on the field of battle, but was betrayed by corrupt and cowardly politicians at home.

Personal life

Lawrence fell in love with Frieda von Richthofen, wife of an English academic in Nottingham and the pair eloped to Germany. Frieda, a distant cousin of the World War I German fighter ace, Manfred von Richthofen (the Red Baron), is said to be the model for Lawrence’s famously erotic heroine, Lady Chatterley. They married in 1914 and spent the remainder of the war in England.

The coal industry was central to Britain’s industrial economy, especially in the Midlands and North of England. Lawrence grew up in a coal-mining village. His father was a miner and was barely literate; his mother was a former teacher come down in the world.

Lawrence wrote several plays about mining communities, which received scant attention during his lifetime. His best play, The Daughter-in-Law, was revived in the late 1960s to much acclaim. The play resembles the popular “kitchen sink” dramas of the 1950s and 1960s, which depicted a “slice of working-class life”.

Lawrence’s most notorious book is Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Lawrence self-published the book in 1928 in Italy. The book did not become widely available until the 1960s. The obscenity trial in 1960 in London found that the book was not offensive. The book was defended in court by Penguin, the book’s publisher. By the time of the trial, Lawrence had been long dead.

The trial, however, opened the floodgates for pornographic literature, which could not claim even to have the literary merit of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, if indeed it has any. Critics say that Lawrence wrote the book with the intention of popularising the use of coarse Anglo- Saxon language for the description of sex: in this, he did not succeed. Modernist critics argued that “pornography as literature” is different from “pornography as titillation”. But is a book of literary non-violent pornography any different from any other “dirty book”?

We can only wonder what Lawrence (1885–1930) would have produced had he lived longer. He felt rejected by his native land and, after World War I, he spent most of his life in self-imposed exile. He excelled as a novelist, short fiction writer, poet, essayist and dramatist; he is said to be one of the great travel writers, though I find these writings to be verbose and rather dull.

Australia as a provincial British city

Lawrence was a Modernist who didn’t like modernity. As for Kangaroo, it is a realistic story about what might have been, and probably never was. It is interesting to read a story about one’s homeland by a foreign writer, although in the 1920s Australia was like a provincial British city, as much a part of the United Kingdom as Manchester or Edinburgh.

The Australia Lawrence describes shows little cultural diversity outside of the British Isles; it is Australia as it was before the influx of post-World War II migrants.

Is Kangaroo comparable with, say, Voss, by Australia’s only Nobel laureate for literature, Patrick White? White is, in terms of literary history, a fairly minor figure compared with Lawrence, who is acknowledged to be one of the great Modernists. Their intention – to reveal something about the soul of Australia – may be comparable, but the outcome is different. Kangaroo is interesting, but it is speculative. We might say that Lawrence was an acute observer of Australian life, but he remained an outsider.

D.H. Lawrence's Kangaroo can be read or downloaded at Project Gutenberg.

Listen to
News Weekly Podcasts

All you need to know about
the wider impact of transgenderism on society.
TRANSGENDER: one shade of grey, 353pp, $39.99

Join email list

Join e-newsletter list

Your cart has 0 items

Subscribe to NewsWeekly

Research Papers

Trending articles

ROYAL COMMISSION Hatchet job on Cardinal Pell breached basic principle of fairness

COVER STORY Gearing up to ditch free-trade policy

CANBERRA OBSERVED Regret over our rushed marriage to China

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Crucial to get Virgin Australia flying again

CANBERRA OBSERVED What's China's beef with our barley?

EDITORIAL Rebuilding industry won't just happen: here's what's needed

EDITORIAL Post-covid19, create a national development bank

© Copyright 2017
Last Modified:
April 4, 2018, 6:45 pm