The World a New Leaf: D.H. Lawrence on Australia

Since even before British settlers began to arrive in numbers on its shores at close of the eighteenth century, Australia has exercised both fascination and repulsion on the European mind. The wide, open horizons, fertile and ripe with possibility, were yet inhabited also by strange and lethal creatures, not to mention inscrutable people. Europeans gazed upon the great southern continent with ambivalence, uncertain whether to fear or love it.

This ambivalence manifested itself in a variety of ways. Let us ponder, for a moment, a phenomenon as superficially unremarkable as the existence of black swans. From the composition of Juvenal’s Satires some fifty years after the crucifixion of Christ, “black swan” became a byword in Europe for the fantastical, the non-existent. What could be more self-evidently absurd than a swan with black feathers? More than being simply silly as, say, lime-green foxes or fuchsia kestrels might have been, the black swan represented the very opposite (the antipode, if you will) of the standard white swan. It was the anti-swan.

But then, in 1697, at the mouth of what would later be named the Swan River, Dutch sailors discovered a waterway choked with the very birds whose existence popular European wisdom had explicitly denied. In time, stuffed swans would reach Batavia, and then later Europe itself. For the next century, visitors from the northern hemisphere would remark on the frequency with which they witnessed flocks of Juvenal’s rara avis on the lakes and rivers of the new continent. In one of those magical moments historians so relish, the European absurdity was revealed to be the Antipodean commonplace.

Europeans had long suspected that the southern hemisphere would be inhabited by monstrosities (the early Christian philosopher Lactantius declared the Antipodes an impossibility, stating that were such a place to exist it would be inhabited by “men whose footprints are above them and their heads down”, and that there “trees and grain [would] grow downward” into the ground), and the black swans presaged oddities later to be discovered: porcupine-like creatures that laid eggs (let us not forget that Echidna was the “mother of all monsters” in Greek myth, an abomination who in Hesiod’s words “dies not nor grows old all her days”), great mammals, tall as men, that hopped about on their hind legs and carried their young in pouches. When the first platypuses arrived stuffed in London they were taken for a crude taxidermist’s joke.

Thomas Watling, describing this mystifying new continent in a letter of 1791 to his presumably baffled aunt in Dumfries, could speak in the same paragraph of an environment with features both “elysian” and “grotesque”. One need only glance at early colonial landscape painting to see the difficulties the European eye had in processing this alien world, and the difficulties the European hand had in depicting it. Fear and beauty inhering in the same phenomenon—once again, ambivalence.

This vein ran no less through literature, from Abel Magwitch in Great Expectations to Algernon Moncrieff in The Importance of Being Earnest (“Australia! I’d sooner die”) to, in the first quarter of the twentieth century, D.H. Lawrence. In 1923, Lawrence published a novel called Kangaroo, the story of a period spent by an Englishman and his wife in Sydney and the southern coast of New South Wales. It is, perhaps not unjustly, one of his lesser-read works. Regarding Kangaroo’s broader literary significance, I am not qualified to speak. What I can speak on, however, is the profound interest it holds as a vision of Australia and Australians.

When I was buying my second-hand copy of Kangaroo, a tiny, yellowed receipt from the Sydney University Co-Operative Bookshop, dated April 18, 1962, fell out from among the pages—one pound, seven shillings and threepence someone had paid for Lawrence’s novel in the classic orange-and-cream, phoenix-rising-from-the-ashes Penguin paperback edition, in a pre-decimal link to what was once called the “mother country”, now lost. Given the novel’s theme, the appearance of this odd little memento seemed appropriate.

The year before Kangaroo’s publication, Lawrence and his wife had, like the protagonists of the novel, spent a period in Australia, arriving in Fremantle (he notes, with muted pleasure, that a copy of his novel The Rainbow sits on the shelves of a library he visits in Perth) and sailing on to Sydney via Adelaide and Melbourne. Lawrence spent by far the greater part of his time in Australia in New South Wales, and ended up writing most of Kangaroo in a seaside bungalow in Thirroul.

The great man of early twentieth-century English letters did not think terribly highly of Australia. In fact, Lawrence’s deep antipathy towards all things Australian shines through on almost every page of this strange novel. He insists on rendering our speech, what he calls “Cockney-Australian”, in demeaning eye dialect (“next people who kyme arfter must ’ev tyken it”). His protagonist prickles at the Australians’ “aggressive familiarity”. This grating personability and its attendant vulgar upward mobility are embodied in the novel’s titular character, an articulate but menacing barrister whose real name is Benjamin Cooley, and who acts as the charismatic ringleader of a New Guard-type paramilitary organisation of former comrades-in-arms from the Great War called the “Diggers Club”, a crew of what one could perhaps call ocker blackshirts.

It is not merely Australia’s men upon whom Lawrence heaps his opprobrium. “So many women,” he writes, “almost elegant”—momentarily lured in—“[y]et their elegance provincial, without pride, awful”—and then repulsed. The superficially enchanting shell of Australian womanhood, as with all else in this continent, hides a vulgar interior. This lack of elegance extends to the city of Sydney itself, with which Lawrence is most unimpressed:

In Martin Place he longed for Westminster, in Sussex Street he almost wept for Covent Garden and St Martin’s Lane, at the Circular Quay he pined for London Bridge. It was all London without being London. Without any of the lovely old glamour that invests London. This London of the Southern hemisphere was all, as it were, made in five minutes, a substitute for the real thing. Just a substitute—as margarine is a substitute for butter.

These remarks are not terribly original; they could have come from the pen of any transplanted English grumbler. One is almost surprised not to find a crack about convicts thrown into the mix for good measure. What makes Lawrence’s frustrations with Australia intriguing is that they are the frustrations of ambivalence, of a man who once wrote “[f]or some things … I love Australia” (during his time in Sydney, Lawrence composed, in addition to his novel, an unambiguous tribute in verse to the poise and dignity of the great kangaroo), and yet who lamented that “[i]t eludes me, and always would”. They were, at base, the frustrations of a man with a profoundly authoritarian streak cast adrift in a (comparatively) egalitarian society. They are philosophical objections to an Australia of the imagination.

Though he is remembered today as a transgressive novelist—perhaps even as a sexual revolutionary avant la lettre—whose vivid depictions of human sexuality in Lady Chatterley’s Lover so scandalised the middle classes of his time (even thirty years after Lawrence’s death, a barrister could ask an English jury whether Lady Chatterley was “a book that you would even wish your wife or your servants to read”), Lawrence was not a man of liberal political opinions. On the contrary, he was something of a dyed-in-the-wool reactionary: in a July 1915 letter to Bertrand Russell, he fumed that “the extant democracy … is our enemy”, and proceeded to lecture the great philosopher on the insanity of allowing the idiot proletariat a say in the running of the country. Democracy, he fumed in an essay four years later, meant “the reduction of the human being to a mathematical unit” (the so-called “Average Man”), and the equalisation of human beings who were patently not equal in intellect or physique. His opinions on the Jews, or the non-white subjects of the British Empire he encountered in Ceylon, are best left unrepeated.

Yet for all this Lawrence was no traditionalist—a man of humble social origins (his father a coalminer, his mother a teacher and sometime lace factory worker, and D.H. himself likewise trained as a teacher), he did not yearn for a return of the aristocracy. The future of which he dreamt would see “women governing equally with men”, with a “Dictatrix” ruling alongside a “Dictator”. If Lawrence’s political philosophy reminds us of anything it is the ordered utopia Plato presented in his Republic and his Laws: Lawrence envisages “a body of chosen patricians” whose sole objective in governing will be “the highest good of the soul of the individual, the fulfilment in the Infinite”. Beyond this, it is a resistance to the spirit of modernity that hearkens back, not to an idealised golden age in the past, but to a basic human authenticity (however hierarchically and undemocratically perceived) against the poisonous atomisation of the industrial age.

Fascist is not the word to use here—partly because Lawrence never described himself as such, and because, in any case, polemic overuse has slowly drained that word of all meaning beyond “political phenomenon I do not like”. No, Lawrence was no fascist: if nothing else, he could not stomach the fascists’ street-fighting and head-kicking, and before coming to Australia he had been in Italy, where he had himself had a chance to witness the brute reality of the fascist squadristi. Indeed, at Kangaroo’s climax, a brawl between Cooley’s Diggers and a group of anarchists leaves the Lawrence-protagonist disillusioned. This was the politics of the ugly mass: the gathering “of all the weak souls, sickeningly conscious of their weakness, into a heavy mob”.

Lawrence knew exactly what he did not want in a society, and he had found exactly that in Australia. In a letter of June 1922, he wrote that “the more I see of democracy, the more I dislike it”, and that Australia was “the most democratic place I have ever been in” (it goes without saying that he did not intend this to be a compliment). There are hints of what Lawrence clearly perceives to be the bankruptcies of negative freedom here: the idea that, undirected, ungoverned, people will simply attend to the “little things”, and their own “little egos”, at the expense of the great and the beautiful. The natural order of humanity, and the institutional architecture that holds it together, would erode, with disastrous consequences for all. In Kangaroo, Lawrence laments that Australians had effaced the “categorical difference between the responsible and the irresponsible classes”. Australians “fail to admit the necessity for rule”—a cardinal sin in Lawrence’s book. The result is a sort of hollow ghost polity in which effective authority ceases to exist:

But in Australia nobody is supposed to rule, and nobody does rule, so the distinction falls to the ground. The proletariat appoints men to administer the law, not to rule. These ministers are not really responsible, any more than the housemaid is responsible.

Yet, for all his bilious denunciation of the depravity of our culture and the hollowness of our institutions, the great southern land nevertheless continued to exercise an almost primal allure on Lawrence. In what, given his previous outbursts, feels almost like a moment of Freudian parapraxis, he goes on to describe Sydney later in the novel as “[o]ne of the great cities of the world”, before drawing himself back to castigate its lack of “heart”. He wonders whether Australia isn’t in some awful fugue state, doomed to be rudely and damagingly awoken one day by reality. It seems to trouble Lawrence deeply that this degraded polity is able to function at all.

But the true horror of Australia does not percolate through to Lawrence’s consciousness until he leaves the city for the outback, for the vast emptiness. It is difficult to think of a landscape less similar to the Australian desert than the rolling green of Lawrence’s native Nottinghamshire (try as Englishmen might to replicate the latter in the former by founding settlements with names like Eastwood, Mansfield and Carlton). Australia, he writes in the letter of June 1922, is “empty and untrodden”, indeed, “so empty, so nothing, it almost makes you feel sick”. From Darlington, east of Perth, Lawrence wrote to his German mother-in-law that the landscape was such that “the people who are here are not really here”: in Australia, human beings merely “schwimmen wie Schatten über die Fläche davon” (float like shadows over the expanse of the place) or, to use another of his metaphors, are like ducks skating on the surface of a pond.

The soft, blue, humanless sky of Australia, the pale, white unwritten atmosphere of Australia. Tabula rasa. The world a new leaf. And on the new leaf, nothing.

It is, to use a Lawrence phrase from another letter, a “country to disappear into”, “where one can go out of life” and fade into a landscape that evades even human sight—“nobody has seen Australia yet: can’t be done. It isn’t visible.” This is Australia as Lawrence fears it most: without command, without authority, without order, unable to be assembled even for the benefit of the human eye. There is awesome strength there, but it is untrammelled, uncontrolled and, indeed, perhaps ultimately uncontrollable. Here we have moved beyond mere ambivalence: this is Australia as an Englishman’s nightmare.

Daniel O’Neil is an Australian who is studying history at the University of Oxford.


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