From Dennis Jackson and Charles L. Ross, eds. Editing D. H. Lawrence: New Versions of a Modern Author. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995. 173-187.

Original pagination in square brackets.

Copyright 1995 by Paul Delany

The letters of the great English modernists provide an extraordinary resource for biography, literary theory, social history, and the study of literary institutions. In no other period of English literature have letters been of such a consistently high standard, or so rich and varied in their interest. The editing of modernist letters is therefore an important branch of literary studies; it is also one with a distinct set of textual problems, arising from the differences of production and reception between a letter and a literary work.

No edition of an author’s letters can be truly complete, because many of his or her letters are sure to have been lost or destroyed before editors begin their work of assembly and publication. After his mother and brother died, T.S. Eliot destroyed much of his correspondence with them, and shortly after his second marriage in 1957 he destroyed all his letters from Emily Hale (who had upset Eliot by depositing his letters to her at Princeton, to be sealed for fifty years after the death of the last survivor). (n. 1) Jessie Chambers destroyed all of D.H. Lawrence’s letters to her, and Lawrence probably destroyed his letters to his mother (one has survived). (n. 2) The editor thus begins with a mutilated or otherwise incomplete corpus; and for the texts that are available, obstacles to publication abound. If we take the major modernists to be W.B. Yeats, James Joyce, Wyndham Lewis, Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence, Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, only one - Lawrence - has now had his surviving letters published in full, in the Cambridge edition published from 1979 to 1993. (n. 3) Woolf’s letters have been published nearly complete, with excisions due to “the risk of libelling or deeply offending some living person” (Woolf, Letters III xi). [174] For none of the others is a complete edition likely to be published in this century, even though they died between 1939 (Yeats) and 1972 (Pound).

Publication of the letters of any of these seven writers requires means, motive, and opportunity, and there is no single explanation for the degree of success in each case. Virginia Woolf’s letters had the smoothest passage, thanks to the Bloomsbury boom and a cooperative literary estate: six volumes appeared in five years (1975-80) from a trade publisher, and with paperback editions following. The five authors without a complete edition have lagged for various reasons. Yeats’s handwriting is so difficult to read that any edition would have thousands of errors and omissions (Yeats had trouble reading his own writings once he had put them down). The literary estate of James Joyce is unlikely to sponsor a complete edition of the letters in the near future. Lewis’s letters are probably not commercially viable, and Pound’s are so numerous and complex that an army of richly endowed scholars would be needed to tackle them. Valerie Eliot started editing her husband’s letters in 1965; the first volume appeared in 1988, but has had no successor.

Lawrence’s letters therefore stand alone in having been published complete, under the imprint of a university press and edited by a team of professional literary scholars. (n. 4) The Cambridge Edition of the Letters and Works of D.H. Lawrence is a merged edition of two different kinds of writings, edited on different principles. The Works appear as authoritative single texts that have been refined by editorial labor from a much larger body of surviving manuscript and printed sources. With the Letters, however, the aim is not refinement and exclusion, but inclusiveness:

all Lawrence's available letters‹those to which he contributed as well as those originating with him‹will be published in their entirety. . . . The editors have not felt it legitimate to exclude any. Nor have any been excised or bowdlerised. (Letters I xi)

“Print everything you can find” makes an editor's work simpler, if also more arduous. Aldous Huxley's edition of Lawrence's letters in 1932 had something under 400,000 words in one volume; Harry T. Moore’s in 1962 was over 500,000 in two volumes; Cambridge ends up in the region of two million words in seven volumes (plus an index volume). In deciding what to include, Huxley had to step very carefully to protect the sensibilities of people still alive. (n. 5) Then, both Huxley and Moore were constrained by commercial forces to cut out letters that were “trivial,” [175] repetitive, or concerned with business. The selected editions therefore showed Lawrence as, above all, a prophet and artist: a larger-than-life character who might fit easily into one of his own novels. The Cambridge Lawrence is a more petty, irritable, everyday sort of person. When every letter is included, the writer is bound to seem more banal, since biographers always use their power of selecting evidence to make their subjects' lives more dramatic than they actually were. The Cambridge Letters stand as a corrective to the partial views of Lawrence given by editors and biographers.

In his Introduction, and through his power of selection, Huxley presented Lawrence as a tragic and isolated genius. By excluding background information and suppressing so many names - even printing “Mrs. _____ ” for “Mrs. Weekley” - Huxley made Lawrence seem a solipsist, given to lyrical outbursts on the slightest excuse. (n. 6) Moore, thirty years later, still used annotation quite sparingly; he emphasized the role of the letters as biographical evidence. The Cambridge rule of completeness means that a “selective” Lawrence is not available to its editors. Still, their Lawrence is shaped by the textual company he keeps: introductions and chronologies, extensive annotations, texts from other sources, and some letters written to Lawrence. Beyond this, there is the contrast between Huxley's beautifully designed volume, so attractive and easy to read, and the Cambridge Lawrence whose words are tightly squeezed in and hedged around by the apparatus of literary scholarship. A necessary change of format, no doubt; but one that poignantly marks the shift from a volume that was a tribute to a recently dead friend, to an impersonal monument of erudition.

Volume One of the Cambridge Letters has 579 pages and ends on the publication date of Sons and Lovers, a suitable point to mark Lawrence's arrival as a major writer. After that, even though the volumes vary in length they do not correlate well with significant phases of Lawrence's life or literary career. Except for Volume One, therefore, there are no distinct and self-sufficient volumes. (n. 7) The Introductions to each volume more or less concede that, between such arbitrary dates of starting and ending, no unified biographical phase can be defined. The consequent running together of volumes reinforces other monolithic tendencies in the project as a whole. If each volume had its own shape, Lawrence's life would appear as a series of Acts or Chapters; but the Cambridge editors prefer to let the massive record of the letters unfold with only a minimal periodization imposed by editorial imagination or literary judgment. With tireless industry, [176] they explain what has become unfamiliar and fill in what has become inaccessible; any master-interpretation of Lawrence as a letter writer they leave to the initiative of others.

How well do these editorial principles accord with the reasonable expectations of those who will be using the Cambridge edition of the letters for decades to come? Editors for all the Cambridge volumes seem to strive to be quietly authoritative, to avoid speculating or casting too wide a net in their commentary, to eschew humor, and to keep their own personalities in the background. Since the volumes are expensive, and unlikely to be revised, the editors would not want to include material that might become obsolescent; this might be one strong reason, among others, for making only minimal reference to the secondary literature on Lawrence.

But important issues of editorial practice remain. The grand design of the overall Cambridge edition was laid out in the mid-1970s, and seems likely to remain constant until the completion of the project more than twenty years later. That design was a somewhat uneasy hybrid of two separate tendencies in Anglo-American literary studies. One, the “New Criticism,” viewed the text as a self-sufficient aesthetic object, the site of a complex interplay of meanings; the other, positivist scholarship, sought to stabilize the text by specifying its relation to surrounding historical “facts.” One tendency privileged the internal relations of textual elements; the other, the external relations between literature and a knowable real world. The Cambridge edition seeks to reconcile these perspectives by positing their convergence on a single ideal, the text that Lawrence “would have wished to see printed.” But the editors recognize that such texts “will differ . . . often radically and certainly frequently, from those seen by the author himself.”(n. 8) We are left, then, with a synthetic text, validated by the supposed intentions of a unitary subject‹that is, the ideal author who stands behind the ideal final text. For both the literary works and the letters, the Cambridge edition set out to preserve Lawrence’s texts in a stable and authoritative format‹like some precious object in a museum cabinet.


Just as the Cambridge edition was established with these ambitions, Anglo-American literary studies were being invaded by Continental literary theories directed against that ideal authorial subject who supported the edition's claim to knowledge and fixity. Prominent among these rival [177] models of textual production were Foucault's critique of the “author-function”; Bakhtin's “dialogism”; and Kristeva's “intertextuality.” (n. 9) In different ways, all these models challenged the idea of a text being made stable, knowable, and delimited by an authorial intention. Rather, these critics (along with many others) dispersed the individual work into a wider and more impersonal textual field, now called a discourse.

It could be argued that letters can stand up better to such deconstructionist forces than literary works can. Letters are tied to a specific audience, moment, context, and intention, and almost all of Lawrence’s survive as single holograph manuscripts. What is left for the editor to do, beyond putting the letters in order and transcribing them accurately from manuscript? (n. 10) Nonetheless, Continental literary theory is bound to affect the way modern readers interpret these documents, and relate them to other “contiguous” texts: Lawrence's literary writings, the Cambridge annotations, Lawrence criticism, and so on in widening circles. Formally, the letters are indeed signed, private, and specific utterances, whereas the literary works are public and assignable only to an authorial persona. Bakhtin speaks of the novel as an “internally dialogized” genre, where the author simultaneously lets his characters speak and implies judgment on them. Letters, in contrast, may be seen as “monologic,” arriving at their destination as the “direct words” of their authors (Bakhtin Dialogic 45-46). But the division is scarcely so simple. Letters, too, are “dialogized” in the sense of being adapted to specific recipients. Two days after he arrived to teach at Croydon, Lawrence sent Jessie Chambers a letter that was “like a howl of terror”; at the same time, he wrote to his mother that “everything was all right and he was getting on well” (Letters I 82). We cannot reduce the discrepancy by just saying that one letter (which?) was true and the other false; rather, Lawrence wanted different things from Jessie and from his mother, and therefore presented each woman with a different version of himself. The chronological order followed by Cambridge repeatedly shows us several different Lawrences on the same day; collections that have been made of individual correspondences, such as with Louie Burrows or S.S. Koteliansky, show a much more integrated personality.

If we give up belief in a “direct word,” in the sense of a transparent and unified revelation of the self, letters become as literary as everything else Lawrence wrote. “I am English, and my Englishness is my very vision” is as much implicated in textuality as “Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically” (Letters II 414; Lady Chatterley's Lover 3). That one statement was not intended for publication, and the other was, can [178] scarcely make a fundamental difference to the kind of self-revelation - or self-dramatization - that they offer their readers. The Lawrencean self is something that we construct from the fiction as much as from the letters: for example, it is from the novels rather than the letters that we project Lawrence’s experience of tuberculosis, anality, and impotence. The letters may be read, in the first instance, as the raw materials from which biographical narratives are worked up; statements of creative intention; communications with a special legal and conventional standing; documents deeply embedded in everyday life. But all these qualities lend themselves, in turn, to literary use - which is why the novel, from the beginning, has had a close affinity with epistolary form. (n. 11)

Lawrence explores the conventions of letter-writing in the “Gudrun at the Pompadour” chapter of Women in Love, where Halliday brings out a letter Birkin wrote him and reads it aloud - to the delight of his cronies in the Café and the disgust of Gudrun and Gerald. Lawrence's actual letters to Philip Heseltine have not survived, but they may have been close enough in style to the words Halliday reads. (n. 12) In the novel, Halliday presents Birkin's words as those of a sententious clergyman:

“Surely,” Halliday intoned, “Surely goodness and mercy hath followed me all the days of my life - ” he broke off, and giggled. Then he began again, intoning like a clergyman. “Surely there will come an end in us to this desire - for the constant going apart . . . .” (Women in Love 384)

When Ursula criticizes Birkin for preaching, elsewhere in the novel, he takes her words to heart; but Halliday seizes on the trait out of pure malice, and violates his intimacy with Birkin by using a private letter to expose him. In Bakhtin's terms, Halliday can be seen “representing” Birkin's mode of discourse to others - even as, at the same time, the author is representing, and condemning, Halliday to the novel's readers (Bakhtin, Dialogic 43-45). Gudrun then asks for the letter and walks off with it; she crushes it into a ball, as if to make it literally “unreadable,” and excoriates Birkin for making the scene possible: “Why is Rupert such a fool as to write such letters to them? Why does he give himself away to such canaille?” (385).

It was actually an unidentified woman, not Heseltine, who read aloud at the Café Royale; and she did not read a letter, but a published volume of Lawrence's poems. (n. 13) Lawrence made the change, in Women in Love, to [179] show that in a letter one “gives oneself away” more intimately than in a literary text. A letter also involves a literal gift - the manuscript - which can be displayed and made into an object of derision, as Halliday does in the novel. That Halliday can misuse Birkin's letter reveals its elusive status as a document. From the side of the writer, a letter may seem perfectly direct and “monologic,” a spontaneous cry from the heart. But from the side of the recipient, the letter is dialogic. When first received, it will be read as a response to something in the recipient's life-situation. If the letter is then published, it is made available for interpretation by a mass audience. In the case of the Cambridge edition, at least sixty years will have passed between a letter's being written and its being read in modern form. The immediate context of any letter will be recoverable only through an effort of historical imagination; as we move further away from Lawrence's era, editors are both more necessary, and more powerful, in representing the milieu within which a letter will be understood.

Link to Part 2


1. Eliot Letters I xv, xvi. Eliot’s letters to Hale will become available in 2020.

2. Chambers published excerpts from Lawrence’s letters to her in her memoir D.H. Lawrence: A Personal Record.

3. Seven volumes have appeared. A final index volume is still to come, containing also some letters discovered while the edition was in progress.

4. The Woolf letters, published in England by Chatto and Windus, credit on the title page Nigel Nicholson as editor, Joanne Trautmann as assistant editor. Nicholson is a former politician, writer, and publisher, Trautmann an academic. The American edition by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich gives equal billing to both editors.

5. This was less of a problem for Moore, but he still made silent cuts - especially in the letters to Ottoline Morrell, where he had to follow Huxley. See, for example, Lawrence/Morrell 19 April 1915 in Moore (reproducing Huxley) and Cambridge. Moore also excluded altogether the crucial Lawrence/Garnett 19 April 1915, though it had already been published in part.

6. There is no mention of Frieda's first marriage in Huxley, and the name "Weekley" does not occur in the index.

7. Compare Volume I of the Woolf letters, which ends with Virginia’s marriage to Leonard Woolf, and of the Eliot letters, which ends with publication of The Waste Land.

8. “General Editors' Preface,” included in each volume of the Works.

9. Kristeva's intertextuality was closely akin to dialogism; her concept was first voiced in the context of her close study of Bakhtin in the 1960s.

10. It goes without saying that the Cambridge edition achieves a high standard of accuracy, though a few errors have slipped by, as, e.g. Healey and Cushman have noted (Lawrence, Letters of Lawrence and Lowell16-17).

11. A continuous history could be traced, here, from Richardson's beginnings as a writer of form letters to the letter - testament, pledge, and confession of faith - that concludes Lady Chatterley's Lover.

12. See, for example, Lawrence's letter of 15 February 1916 to Ottoline Morrell, where Heseltine is discussed (Letters II 539).

13. The weight of the evidence suggests this, at least; see Delany, Nightmare 248.