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Lawrence and His History Books: From Reader to Writer.

Jonathan Long

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1"No scruples of style or scholarship stood in his way" was how a New Statesman and Nation reviewer described Lawrence’s approach in Sketches of Etruscan Places (1932). This paper will examine Lawrence’s involvement with the study of history, starting with his own formal education, and then exploring what he read during his writing career. It will look at how he came to write Movements in European History (1921), the project to publish the book in its various forms and how the book related to his philosophy at that time. It will consider Sketches of Etruscan Places (1932), generally considered to be just a travel book, but described by Lawrence as "only half travel book." What is the other half? It will compare Sketches of Etruscan Places with Movements in European History in various ways, in particular whether there is an historical element in the former, when there was so little factual source material available to Lawrence.

2A.L Rowse in his widely read 1948 study, The Use of History, recorded some fairly conventional views on why history should be studied. Principally it enables us to understand the present. It can also help us to predict the future, he argued. This is not to say that history repeats itself but that there are patterns and rhythms that enable us to generalise and suggest trends for the future, such as the irresistible impulse towards nationalism and self-government. This paper explores the extent to which Lawrence’s engagement with history reflected those views, set against the backdrop of his work as a writer of fiction, not generally appreciated during his lifetime.

3History is generally regarded as a key element of education. Lawrence’s formal education included history but from what we know perhaps not as much as might be imagined. We have no detailed information about Lawrence’s education at Beauvale Board School and not much about his time at Nottingham High School. At the end of his first term there he came second in his class (Worthen, 86). His proud family kept his school report, reproduced in Ada Lawrence’s Early Life of D.H. Lawrence, which, ironically in the context of this paper, did not include history as one of his subjects but it is reasonable to assume that history subsequently featured in his education there. He was clearly an exceptional pupil for his background, coming no lower than fourth in English, French, German, Writing, Science and Mathematics. At the Ilkeston Pupil Teacher Centre he studied for the King’s Scholarship exam. The results were published in the journal The Teacher and the best candidates were asked to write with an indication of how the courses of study it contained had contributed to their success. In one of his first published comments on history he noted in his submission that "The lessons on geography and history bring the important points clearly into view" (Li. 25) and he named the two books he had used for his history studies.

4At University College Nottingham history was one of the subjects on the course but we have no further details. He took the final exams in summer 1908 and his results were the best of any man that year, getting distinctions inter alia in History with Geography but ironically, not English, a subject which he of course later mastered (Worthen,188). One of our main sources for this time, Jessie Chambers in her D.H. Lawrence A Personal Record, makes relatively little mention of any interest in history but numerous mentions of the different English and other writers that she and Lawrence were reading, and of course his early efforts as a writer himself.

5Armed with his teacher’s certificate, Lawrence started work as an assistant teacher at Davidson Road School Croydon in October 1908. From this time there is little if any evidence of Lawrence taking any great interest in history outside school, certainly not in his writing. He was based in Croydon until the beginning of 1912 and his attentions outside school were very much focussed on The White Peacock, The Trespasser and his early short stories and poems. Indeed the word "history" scarcely features in the whole of Lawrence’s eight hundred plus poems in any context, as the Garcia and Karabatsos Concordance shows. In school though, teaching history would have been an integral part of his job. His methods were evidently unconventional, even seen as "somewhat suspect" but relatively successful. Frieda Lawrence, in her letter to Amy Lowell of 15th April 1918, gives us an insight into how he taught history, recounting the fact that "In English history for instance he did not only expound the battle of Agincourt, but arranged the boys in two sides and they fought the battle of Agincourt over schoolforms and all" (Worthen, 208). These are the classes that Lawrence perhaps had in mind when he was writing Movements in European History, trying to find a style that would inspire children, some of whom the Schoolmaster poems, first written in 1909, famously described as unwilling to learn. History would have been part of the "quarry of knowledge they hate to hunt" in Last Lesson of the Afternoon.

6Lawrence’s preoccupation with reading and writing literary fiction and his not being particularly engaged in history continued from the Croydon years through his elopement with Frieda and into the Great War. His experiences then of trying to make money out of writing were not happy ones and he turned to the project that culminated with the publication of Movements in European History to try to reverse his fortunes. Rose Marie Burwell in Keith Sagar’s A D.H. Lawrence Handbook produced a checklist of all the books we know Lawrence read. The index to that checklist lists about 50 history books plus about nine on the Etruscans. However, this is out of a total of about 1200 books. Published in 1982, the checklist needs to be updated to reflect the publication of the Cambridge Edition of Lawrence’s Letters and Works and the three volume biography, which reveal much more about Lawrence’s reading. However, it is unlikely that overall the balance will be much different: history books were not a large part of Lawrence’s reading. And as we shall see, they were required for his latest research project, to learn more about a place he was going to (for example the history books he read before visiting Mexico are in the checklist) or for something he was writing, not part of his regular reading.

7Although this paper focuses on Lawrence’s engagement with history in his non-fiction books it is worth pausing to mention Lawrence’s early short story, A Fragment of Stained Glass, which in its earliest form was written in 1907. As Harry T. Moore pointed out in his 1955 Lawrence biography The Intelligent Heart, this story, which has as its setting the ruins of Beauvale Priory, invokes the violent mediaeval past of the area and "shows how strongly Lawrence felt the magnetism of its history" (Moore, 4). And as mentioned by Worthen in the explanatory notes to the Cambridge Edition of the story (258), a probable source for Lawrence’s knowledge of the history of the Priory is the first history book in the checklist, Griseleia in Snotingscire by Rodolph von Hube, a book alluded to by Lawrence in The Rainbow (Moore, 59). It is also instructive to reread the description of the location of Marsh Farm in the first chapter of The Rainbow, which as Mark Kinkead-Weekes pointed out reflects a wealth of local history knowledge (13.20 – 34).

8The index to the Burwell checklist reveals that Lawrence’s reading included three books each on African, World and Roman history, five each on American and Greek, one each on Australian, Balkan and Dutch history, ten on Eastern, six on English history, two on Italian and eight on Mexican and South American history. This demonstrates the breadth of his interests and with the other books listed, likely to be only a fraction of the total actually read, shows he truly was a "man of learning." Using this knowledge, Lawrence must be one of the most allusive of modern writers and although literary allusion is outside the scope of this paper, just how allusive he was is reflected in the number and type of explanatory notes in the Cambridge Edition volumes. Many of the books listed in the checklist were English Literature but other categories included books by American and Australian authors, by French, German, Italian, Russian, Scandinavian and Spanish authors and books on travel, natural history, the occult, philosophy, psychology and religion. The history books that Lawrence read more closely than any others would have been those he used for Movements in European History. Philip Crumpton in the appendix to the Cambridge Edition has identified the books that Lawrence used more than any others for his research, used so closely that Lawrence’s text can be traced back to passages in the dozen books he relied on most.4 The similarities are so striking that Lawrence has been accused of plagiarism – indeed the appendix shows that Gibbon was used for about a third of the ground covered. As Crumpton shows, Lawrence tended to use one source for each section he was working on, rather than blending different texts into his own, with little manipulation of those sources. Some of the passages in Lawrence’s work are little more than simplifications of the original text for the benefit of the young reader; occasionally the source appears almost verbatim. Lawrence was following not just consulting his sources. An exception to this is the opening chapter on the earlier history of Rome, where identifying the sources used proves more difficult and the ambitious attempt to synthesize all his sources is less successful – this by his own admission when later he succinctly put it to Catherine Carswell "first worst’"(Liii. 701). All this is perhaps an indication that Lawrence was trying to get the book completed in the quickest fashion possible (to get his £50 advance paid), whilst still achieving the publisher’s objectives and, as we shall see, his own.

9Lawrence’s objectives for Movements in European History are perhaps most clearly stated in his letter of 26th July 1918 to Nancy Henry at the Oxford University Press when sending her the first three chapters of the book:

I wanted to make a serious reader that would convey the true historic impression to children who are beginning to grasp realities. We should introduce the deep, philosophic note into education: deep, philosophic reverence. (Liii. 268-9)

10This was the only published book Lawrence was commissioned to write, specifically by Vere Collins of the Oxford University Press, who was aware of Lawrence’s financial difficulties following the suppression of The Rainbow in 1915. He recorded how the idea for the book came about in early 1918 in his memoir for Edward Nehls’ Composite Biography:

‘Struck by the knowledge he had of history, I suggested to him that he might consider the idea of writing an elementary text-book for junior forms in grammar, or in upper forms in primary, schools, of European history’ (Nehls, vol.1, 471).

11There was a gap in the market as something was needed for younger pupils to address the move away at that time from teaching English history to teaching European history. Collins suggested that the book be a "series of vivid sketches of movements and people" (ibid.) and Lawrence came up with the title (Liii. 326). At the same time he had enjoyed "reading Gibbons Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire – the emperors are all so indiscriminately bad," he wrote to Mark Gertler in April 1918 (Liii. 239), probably in part because of the grounds for optimism it gave Lawrence during that profoundly depressing time of war. Equally, he would have noticed the parallel with what was perceived to be the decline and fall of the British Empire, for similar reasons. And his finances were becoming unsustainable at this time, especially with there being no publisher for Women in Love and nothing else he could sell. All this coupled with his desire to propagate his ideas to children when adults were not so interested meant that there were good omens for the project.

12Once Oxford had accepted Lawrence’s first submission he completed his work quickly, between December 1918 and February 1919. He was asked to complete his task with a final chapter on the unification of Italy, which he did in 1920. A further chapter could perhaps have dealt with the reasons for the outbreak of the War, addressing that topic by reference to the conclusions reached from the earlier history. Other histories of the time did not shy away from covering the allies’ victory. But for Lawrence, given his extreme reaction to it, recorded in many of his letters, the War was perhaps too close, emotionally and temporally, although it is clear from the book that he saw war as unavoidable. The War was addressed though in the Epilogue written for the 1925 illustrated edition of the book, which was very much political philosophy, not historical narrative, and therefore for a variety of reasons rejected as being inappropriate. Its relationship to the main text has been explored elsewhere. It was not published until 1972 when the James T. Boulton edition of the book came out. Lawrence did not always find writing it easy. In a letter typical of the time he wrote to Katherine Mansfield on 10th December 1918 "-Somehow I hate doing that European History for the Oxford Press. Curse it – why shouldn’t one do as one likes," (Liii. 307 – 8). But as he got nearer to completion he was happier. As he wrote to Nancy Henry on 23rd January 1919:

I have only one more chapter. Every chapter, I suffer before I can begin, because I loathe the broken pots of historical facts. But once I can get hold of the thread of the developing significance, then I am happy, and get ahead[….].But you’ll see, when you get these 4 last chapters, the book does expand nicely and naturally. I am rather pleased with it. There is a clue of developing meaning running through it: that makes it real to me. (Liii. 322)

The "developing meaning" was the message that he was wanting to convey to his young audience, as we shall see.

13The Oxford University Press brought out the first edition of the book in February 1921, consisting of 2000 copies according to the Roberts and Poplawski Bibliography (65). Attempts in America to get the book published by Seltzer and subsequently Oxford were unsuccessful, not surprisingly as the subject matter did not fit the American schools’ syllabus, but by Lawrence’s standards the book sold relatively well and there was a second impression in March 1923. Amusingly the copy of the book that Lawrence gave Collins, now at the University of Texas, is inscribed to him "By the Author in all but name," reflecting the fact that it was first published under the name Lawrence H. Davison, in view of his perceived notoriety (Nehls, vol.1, 472). Oxford brought out an illustrated edition with Lawrence’s own name on 21st May 1925. There were 2000 large-paper copies and 6000 ordinary copies. A further 3000 copies of the illustrated edition were printed in May 1931, with the book remaining in print until 1944, so it was a rare non-fiction success for Lawrence, at least in England. It was generally well-reviewed. In Ireland there was an attempt to produce an edition that was acceptable to the Catholic Church. Crumpton tells the story in detail but suffice it to say that the scheme to sell the books, published in 1926, was a failure, even with Lawrence’s swipes at the Church removed, resulting in what in a letter to Collins of 17th November 1925 he called a "mauled History." His protectiveness about his history book was very clear, as he continued in the same letter:

When I went through it, I was half infuriated, and half amused. But if I’d had to go through it, personally, and make the decision merely from myself, I’d have sent those Irish b-s seven times to hell, before I’d have moved a single iota at their pencil stroke.’ (Lv. 336)

These were hardly the words of someone who saw his book as an unimportant piece of hackwork. Its message was more important than was immediately apparent.

14It is fair to say that Lawrence achieved the Oxford University Press objectives, producing a book with those "vivid sketches of movements and people." It is a lively, informal and occasionally amusing narrative without too much detail, avoiding where possible the "broken pots of historical facts" and would have found favour with its target readership, which would not have noticed his occasional errors of dates and other details, only some of which were picked up in the 1925 edition. He was not a trained historian but his skills as a writer made the book very readable, describing an historical event in a way that a pupil could "live it once more" to quote from Lawrence’s introduction to the book, reminding us almost of the classroom re-enactment of the Battle of Agincourt previously referred to. And he was not afraid to invent detail not in his sources, in the interests of keeping his reader’s attention.

15So, why did what could have been just a piece of hackwork become of greater significance to Lawrence, something he was "rather pleased with"? Lawrence eschewed the jingoism and nationalism current at the time and indeed arguably treats the German invaders fairly neutrally. The final paragraph of the book is worth quoting in full, as it draws together Lawrence’s findings from the "movements" he has identified throughout his book, the "patterns and rhythms" of A L Rowse:

But we must never forget that mankind lives by a twofold motive: the motive of peace and increase, and the motive of contest and martial triumph. As soon as the appetite for martial adventure and triumph in conflict is satisfied, the appetite for peace and increase manifests itself, and vice versa. It seems a law of life. Therefore a great united Europe of productive working people, all materially equal, will never be able to continue and remain firm unless it unites also round one great chosen figure, some hero who can lead a great war, as well as administer a wide peace. It all depends on the will of the people. But the will of the people must concentrate in one figure, who is also supreme over the will of the people. He must be chosen, but at the same time responsible to God alone. Here is a problem of which a stormy future will have to evolve the solution. (MEH 252.11)

16The first part of that paragraph is fairly uncontroversial and fits in with Collins’ "vivid sketches of movements and people" but Lawrence was taking the opportunity in the second part to force his own conclusion, fitting in with his own philosophy of the time in the leadership novels. Indeed he had been working on Aaron’s Rod, with its concerns about the morality of political power. And this was an ideal opportunity to propagate those ideas, with a young and impressionable readership, ideas now given more substance with evidence from European history. Nowhere is this clearer perhaps than in his treatment of great men in history, for example Napoleon who "was supreme because the people willed it" (MEH 207.40 – 208.1). He was an inspirational leader very influential in the great surging movements of his time, one of the great periods of history, and leaders were to become of increasing significance in Lawrence’s work, the most obvious example being The Plumed Serpent. And as the Epilogue makes clear, people must submit to the leader they have chosen; this is also the conclusion to Aaron’s Rod (299.5 – 15). He had subtly been building up to this proposition with various passages in the book (241.34 – 242.1, 246.25 - 32) drawing interim conclusions from the "movements" he identified. So whilst the reasons for claims of plagiarism are understandable they can only relate to the "broken pots of historical facts" reproduced and not to the sustained analysis, which is Lawrence’s alone (not forgetting his own skilful writing style) and which distinguishes his work from the kinds of history he criticised in his introduction.

17The gestation period for what was to be Lawrence’s work on the Etruscans, first published in periodicals between November 1927 and February 1928, was fairly lengthy. As far back as 24th October 1921 he wrote to Catherine Carswell:

Also will you tell me what then was the secret of the Etruscans, which you saw written so plainly in the place you went to? Please don’t forget to tell me, as they really do rather puzzle me, the Etruscans. (Liv. 105)

18He planned a tour with Earl Brewster of some of the best Etruscan sites, which took place between April 6th and April 11th 1927. But the preparatory work took much longer. In March 1926 he was in Perugia which was, he relates "the first time I consciously saw Etruscan things, in the museum" (SEP 9.16). At this time he was telling correspondents that he was reading books on the subject. When in Rome he apparently also visited the Vatican Museum to look at the paintings which are copies of those in the François tomb in Vulci (SEP 150.4), and he had of course been to the archaeological museum in Florence. He also refers to "having read all the learned suggestions, most of them contradicting one another; and then having looked sensitively at the tombs and the etruscan things that are left, one must accept one’s own resultant feeling." (SEP 28.3) – so, that was his methodology. And different sources make it clear just how thorough his research was. He used books by George Dennis, Adolphe Noel Des Vergers, Theodor Mommsen and Fritz Weege, and Pericle Ducati, respectively English, French, German and Italian, and wanted more. The project was ambitious. He told Brewster in his letter of 25th June 1927 that he envisaged a two-volume heavily illustrated publication, the first dealing with nine of the twelve great cities comprising the Etruscan League and the second covering smaller sites (Lvi. 89). The project, which he worked on between April and June 1927, was not even half completed. The end result was the publication in periodicals of four of the six essays he completed, which in 1932 were posthumously published in book form as Etruscan Places, called Sketches of Etruscan Places in the Cambridge edition volume, using the title Lawrence gave it.

19The book is generally classified as a travel book, but it is much more than a tourist’s guide to the sites, or a description of what Lawrence saw. He referred to it as far back as 4th April 1926 as "half travel book" (Lv. 412) and it is quite different from his other "travel" books. It deals with his method of travel, the local people, the locality and amusing incidents, just as one would find in Sea and Sardinia for example. More specifically relevant to his subject matter he describes the tombs, interprets images and comments on artistic quality. But beyond that, not generally found in his travel books, he supplies historical background (including a fair amount of speculation), provides his interpretation of the Etruscan culture and religion but strays into contemporary Italian politics.

20Looking at the historical aspect then, Aldous Huxley set the scene in his 1932 Spectator review when he said that the book was "not only a beautiful and delicate work of literary art; it also makes a real contribution to historical knowledge […] any sensitive person is left with the inner certainty that Lawrence’s interpretation is right" (SEP l). And interpretation it is. Each chapter is scattered with historical pronouncements but it is generally supposition, imaginative reconstruction of Etruscan civilisation through consideration of tomb artefacts – but that must apply to the books he had read on the subject too. Interpretation of the archaeological evidence cannot be conclusive. Indeed, Lawrence’s contempt for a more scientific approach is reflected in his treatment of the young German archaeologist who accompanies him. There is so little left of Etruscan civilisation that it is impossible to create an authoritative history. A professional historian would be more restrained but many of Lawrence’s speculations have not been improved on and some, such as the correct location of the ancient city of Tarquinia, have proved to be correct (ibid. 43.20). But perhaps the most important consequence for him of assembling a recreation of the Etruscans that works is that he can use it in a contemporary context. The idealised Etruscan society is unfavourably contrasted with the present: "We have lost the art of living, and in the most important science of all, the science of daily life, the science of behaviour, we are complete ignoramuses. We have psychology instead." (ibid. 116.28)

21There is a wish-fulfilment here, finding something not in his other travel books, the Rananim he hoped to create himself but failed, and did not find it in any of the places he travelled to, and also a consideration of death and rebirth found in his later poems. Etruscan Places is not a history book but this recreated history is a key element in it.

22Accurately or not (the Roman poet Juvenal wrote about slave prisons), Etruscan sensitiveness is throughout the book contrasted with the brutal and imperialist Roman mode, which in turn latterly is compared with Italian Fascism. Thus Lawrence bridges the two main narratives in the book, the Romans as part of the historical fate of the Etruscans and the Romans as models for the Fascists whose presence was felt by him on his travels. The Romans’ treatment of the Etruscans forms a significant part of Lawrence’s historical narrative in the book and this amounts to a thinly disguised but powerful criticism of what the Fascists were doing and could do. This is demonstrated in Lawrence’s description of the tombs too, where the later they were and more reflective of Roman colonisation, the less satisfactory they were. On the face of it these references to Fascists are completely irrelevant to a guide to Etruscan sites. They are relevant though because Lawrence’s purpose is to warn the reader – conquering powers eliminate difference.

23To conclude then, how do these two books compare? Superficially they are quite different. Movements is a published textbook written to order for schoolchildren and very reliant on secondary sources, not even referring to the Etruscans, whereas Sketches of Etruscan Places is an uncompleted original work written for the adult traveller, reflecting Lawrence’s attitude to and preparation for death, and indeed his affection for Italy. However, both were the product of considerable research projects about the past that helped inform Lawrence’s political philosophy for the present, a philosophy explicit to varying degrees in the analysis appearing in each. History is used to justify Lawrence’s political philosophy. The comment by the New Statesman and Nation reviewer of Sketches that "No scruples of style or scholarship stood in his way" may reflect the unconventional way Lawrence handled his material or rather the lack of historical fact available but although speculation was inevitable much of it cannot be disproved. The bullying and brutal approach of the Romans described in Sketches as responsible for the demise of the Etruscan civilisation that Lawrence praises was echoed in Lawrence’s criticism of the Italian Fascists found in both books. The underlying theme in each is that the successful leader must be chosen by the people and they must submit to him but he must in turn be "responsible to God alone." Finally, although Lawrence would no doubt have found reasons to argue with A.L. Rowse, the two it would appear agree on the use of history to understand the present and the fact that although history does not repeat itself, there are patterns and rhythms that enable us to generalise and suggest trends for the future.

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Jonathan Long, « Lawrence and His History Books: From Reader to Writer. »Études Lawrenciennes [En ligne], 47 | 2016, mis en ligne le 09 décembre 2016, consulté le 28 novembre 2020. URL :; DOI:

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