A Journey Without Shame: BBC2

Programme broadcast on Saturday 23rd Nov. 2013  on B.B.C. Television

Featuring Geoff Dyer, Dr. Catherine Brown, Dr. Andrew Harrison and Prof. John Worthen—even Simon Armitage, opening his heart, or was it me opening my own?

Previous experience of Lawrence on T.V. led me to be very anxious about this latest B.B.C. venture, an effort, rather late in the year, to celebrate the centenary of “Sons and Lovers”. A death on a ‘sand-dune’ and, I have to be honest, I’m not a great lover of Geoff Dyer’s “Out of Sheer Rage”. What could I expect?

Emma Sturgess’ ‘Radio Times’ flag waver for the programme did little to reassure me :- ‘well meaning but lopsided’ , It doesn’t delve too deep’ or ‘accusations made about Lawrence. Was he a misogynist, a racist?’

In  advance I armed myself with a copy of Andrew Harrison’s Times Lit Supp. article “Meat Lust” and John Worthen’s chapter “The Role of Women” (Chap3 of “D.H. Lawrence” in the Arnold Modern Fiction series) ready to refute in anger a shallow, badly edited and biased B.B.C. token culture Saturday show.

What emerged was, for me, a very interesting and balanced account of Lawrence’s voyage, his journey across the Alps, and eventually to Taos and Mexico. (Phone calls and e mails to other Society members garnered responses ranging from ‘I am in love with Catherine Brown’ to ‘That is the best programme I have ever seen on Lawrence’ to ‘It’s got to come out on D.V.D.’ There was little negative response from any member I spoke to.) The scenery in the Alps was used to dramatic effect, and the conversation between Catherine and Geoff Dyer emphasised the point that Lawrence and Frieda were not on a ‘honeymoon’, their journey was hard and Lawrence was very involved in his writing, and he was not always well, despite the fresh air. In November 1911 he was ‘fearfully ill’. As well as the facts of Lawrence’s desire to work, and his ill health, the programme also brought out the significance of their poverty. Frieda may have had an aristocratic family background, and she left a comfortable life in Private Road, but they were not well off, and often walked because they had to. Initially Frieda intended to return to her husband and three children. The programme suggested that, at first, she had not planned to make a complete break from her husband.

The programme made clever use of the fade in of Geoff and Catherine as almost Lawrence and Frieda, but also allowed them in their discussion to stand outside the relationship and analyse the significance of the relationship, and of the Alpine journey. Undoubtedly Lawrence was looking for himself, he was reacting against the strictness of his ‘Methodist’* background as he sought to find a new spirituality. Catherine’s comments on the little chapel, but her horror of the broken and bleeding Jesus in the crucifixion, suggest Lawrence’s interest in a new spirituality. The mountains, we are told, gave him a deep almost ‘spiritual’ experience. Geoff calls it a ‘sense of arrival’, a physical high point from which there is ‘no going back’ so ‘where now, on into Italy’?  (* This was one mistake in the programme. I think the main influence on Lawrence was the Congregational Church. In “The Early Years” John Worthen discusses the influence of the congregational church, and the Monday meetings of the Congregational Literary Society. Pages 169—173)

Talking about Lawrence’s journey with Frieda, John Worthen’s comments were very enlightening. He suggests that on the first part of their journey Lawrence quickly became ‘a deep necessity’ for Frieda and, equally, she drew Lawrence into a new sphere of his own life, and his writing life. It was not an easy journey, physically or emotionally for either of them but, as John suggested, Lawrence was ‘excited by Frieda from the first meeting’. She became ‘a central person in Lawrence’s life’, ‘a woman of a life time’. They were a revelation to each other.

In the section of the programme up until Lawrence and Frieda journey on to Ceylon, Australia and finally Mexico, (Carswell’s “Savage Pilgrimage”) I felt that the script was tight and intense without being too serious. Catherine Brown suggested that Lawrence had a sense of humour, and demonstrated this from both his novel “Mr. Noon” and from some of his poetry. The camera work added to the enjoyment of the programme, there were silences where the splendour of the snow face or the isolation of the ridges and peaks spoke volumes, there were close ups which visually supported the comments that were being made—the man beneath the log in the religious image was just one example. It was gorgeous T.V. without being sentimental or unreal. The dialogue and the images reinforced the sense of the journey, people seeking their purpose and place, and a sense of their own identity, in a new and changing world. Lawrence was always special, he wore a white pocket handkerchief at school, but it was a new sense of purpose, away from the industrial England that, in one sense, he loathed that he sought. Ironically, despite the beauty of the Alps, it was the landscape of his Nottingham which was always “The Country of my Heart. Frieda was always a rebel, she was happy, initially, to purse an affair with Lawrence, she had sex with Harold Hobson, and told Lawrence she had, but she too took on a new role. She supported Lawrence and he ‘lifted me body and soul out of all my past life.” (“Not I, But the Wind”).One positive aspect of the programme was the use that was made of Lawrence’s texts. Quotations were used from “The Rainbow” and “Women in Love”, and descriptions from “Mr. Noon”. Simon Armitage called Lawrence’s poetry ‘something new’ ‘a splurge on the page’ which excited him when he first came to it. Lawrence’s travel texts were used to support the view that “Lawrence describes mountains better than any other writer”.

An element of controversy was introduced into the programme by the reference to Lawrence as a misogynist. In 1970 he was attacked by an American critic for what was perceived as an anti female attitude in his work. The programme was very fair, it aired this view but gave John Worthen opportunity to refute it. (as Dr. Harrison had done in his TLS article on “Meat Lust”). John also put into perspective the accusation that Lawrence was a Fascist and racist. He made the interesting comment—“to study a topic is not to believe in it”.

The idea of Lawrence and Frieda on a journey was further explored, in some detail, as the programme showed them in Taos and Mexico. Good use was made, again, of stunning visual images, of the great sweep of the open prairie and the spectacle of a largely unexploited landscape that so easily inspired Lawrence. (In his preface to “Mornings in Mexico” Michael Squires  writes “What is remarkable is the rapt sympathy” – which Lawrence felt and expressed—“for the ‘snake’ world where human passions intersect with earthly process”) Lawrence and Frieda felt at home there and, as the programme suggested, found New Mexico encouraged more free thought. Here ‘the old world gave way to the new.

The title of the programme seemed to suggest that Lawrence’s journey was indeed “Without Shame”, and the opportunity was given to John Worthen, Andrew Harrison and others, as well as Catherine and Geoff, to emphasise the physical and metaphorical aspect of Lawrence’s and Frieda’s eloping (though Lawrence did not call it such.) I was pleased that the temptation to stress a sexual adventure was resisted. What resulted was, I felt, a very positive and balanced record and analysis of ‘the Journey’. The programme was, in my opinion, one of the best television responses to any aspect of Lawrence’s life and work.

A ‘stand alone’ D.V.D. for use in schools, colleges etc would be a fitting by-product, a very sound way of introducing potential students and scholars to Lawrence study. It was worth missing “Match of the Day” for, and better than ‘Strictly’. I feel the B.B.C. has given Lawrence studies a positive promotion and we, as a Society, need to build on it.

Malcolm Gray

By DH Lawrence Society

The DH Lawrence Society, based in Eastwood Nottingham.