John Worthen taught at universities in America and Wales before becoming Professor of D. H. Lawrence Studies at the University of Nottingham, where he remains Emeritus Professor. His career as Lawrence’s biographer began in the 1980s and culminated in the celebrated D. H. Lawrence: The Early Years 1885–1912, the first part of the three-volume Cambridge biography (CUP, 1991–8). Though based in Lawrence’s hometown of Nottingham, he has researched and travelled around the world to complete this portrait of the writer. He is now working on a life of Frieda Lawrence and a biography of the musician Robert Schumann.
D. H. Lawrence biographer, John Worthen tells us about his travels, goals and achievements.
Do you have any interesting or unusual research or writing methods? Have you travelled to undertake your work?
Any biography of Lawrence means a good deal of travel. I have climbed mountain passes in the Alps on foot, rowed on lakes, walked for miles, tracked down innumerable dwelling houses by asking impertinent questions of passers-by, hunted for demolished railway stations, interviewed old ladies; have always attempted never to describe a landscape I have not seen (or better still, walked) myself.
Can you summarize your main goals and major influences during your career?
I became a biographer during the 1980s, and slowly realised that it was what I should have been doing as a writer all my life; I’d never been happy as an academic literary critic. One of my reasons for taking early retirement was to give myself more time as a writer.
I seem to be setting myself various tasks as a biographer: first the academic biography of part of a life (Lawrence 1991), the biography of members of a group (Coleridge, Wordsworth et al. 2001), the commercial single life (Lawrence 2005), the biography of a musician (Schumann, in progress), the biography of a woman (Frieda Lawrence, in progress). And then perhaps the biography of someone almost unknown; Henry Marten.
What do you feel is your most significant achievement in your field? Is there a story/piece of research/publication/idea that you feel has been particularly worthwhile or influential?
The 1991 CUP biography of Lawrence was (and is) a landmark study; the first fully comprehensive study of Lawrence as a child and young man, but also the narrative of the start of an extraordinary life. It’s full of original research (all the way from material from school log-books to the reconstruction of poems which had been erased); but it is also (I hope, and I’ve been told) a thoroughly readable book.
In it, I learned for the first time that Lawrence was someone who not only (like all writers) talked and wrote his way into his opinions and beliefs; but he tried himself out in his writing, reinvented himself, and to some extent made himself the instinctive, intuitive person he wanted to be, felt he ought to be, and wasn’t.