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‘Harmless Eden’: Revisiting D. H. Lawrence’s Kangaroo

By Julian Hanna.



Interest in Kangaroo has usually focused on the novel’s dramatization of the extreme politics of the day – socialists fighting fascists on the streets of Sydney. The book is a useful reminder of the crisis of democracy in the West in the wake of the First World War, when many regarded it as a failed experiment. Characteristically, D. H. Lawrence caused offence by allowing the author-figure, Richard Lovatt Somers – first introduced by the name on his suitcase, ‘R L Somers’ – to be drawn toward the Diggers, a revolution-minded, quasi-fascist group of ex-soldiers led by a paternal, idealistic Jewish lawyer named Ben Cooley, known as Kangaroo. Somers’s comments on the subjugation of women have also attracted criticism. More recently, though, notice has been paid to the novel’s concern for landscape and what Lawrence would call (in his essay of the following year) ‘spirit of place’, not least by the new eco-criticism. For the most part, the plot and characters have their sources outside Australia. The political violence at the climax of Kangaroo and Lawrence’s previous novel, Aaron’s Rod, draws upon events witnessed in Italy shortly before Lawrence and Frieda sailed for Asia and Australia in February, 1922. Even Kangaroo himself seems to be based on a composite of non-Australians in Lawrence’s circle, including his Russian Jewish friend Kot, who acknowledged the resemblance, and possibly even Bertrand Russell. But the landscape – the setting in Sydney and the little cottage on the South Coast – is all first-hand observation taken directly from Lawrence and Frieda’s one hundred days in Australia, during five or six weeks of which Lawrence wrote his ‘Australian novel’.

Kangaroo was not an immediate success, either critically or financially. It is, as John Worthen has argued, a deceptively experimental novel – 1922 was, after all, the annus mirabilis of British modernism; James Joyce’s Ulysses was published during the writing of Kangaroo. Lawrence boasted that his novel went further, albeit not in a way that was likely to please critics: ‘Even the Ulysseans will spit at it’, he wrote. This warning is typical; he told another friend shortly after completing the manuscript: ‘I wrote a sort of novel here… you won’t care for it at all.’ Perhaps tellingly, however, he added: ‘But this bit of landscape and atmosphere [is] pretty clear’. The ‘spirit of place’, at least, had been achieved. What was Lawrence’s sense of Australia, and how did it evolve: from the colonizing view he held early in the trip, to the breakthrough epiphany inspired by the landscape and finally captured in the novel?

Lawrence was born, in 1885, into the Victorian dream of bucolic splendour and wide open spaces in settler colonies like Australia and Canada. The dream was still alive in the 1920s, when Kangaroo was written; in terms of governed population – a quarter of the world in 1922 – this was the Empire at its peak. Emigration campaigns were ongoing: in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, for example, which was published in 1925 and set in 1923, Lady Bruton discusses her ‘project for emigrating young people… born of respectable parents and setting them up with a fair prospect… in Canada’, in order to ease unemployment and overcrowding in English cities – the very sort of fate that might have awaited a provincial young man like Lawrence. In 1922, leaving Europe for the first time, Lawrence had yet to encounter and have his ideas transformed through contact with non-European cultures. He sounds like any other little master of the British Empire when he writes in a letter from a ship bound for Ceylon: ‘I like the P&O boats, with the dark servants’. His biographer notes Frieda’s observation that Lawrence became ‘terribly English’ when he left home. When he stopped in Ceylon en route to Australia he wore the traditional colonial uniform of a ‘sun helmet and white suit’, in Lawrence’s own words, and commented on the ‘soft, brown bodies’ of the natives. But while the far corners of Empire were still being depicted as pastoral utopias, they were also being urbanized, ‘spoilt’ like Papeete, capital of French Polynesia, which Lawrence found ‘dead, dull, modern’, seeing only ‘natives in European clothes’. ‘These are supposed to be earthly paradises: these South Sea Isles’, he wrote in a letter from Tahiti. ‘You can have ’em.’ In a draft ending to Kangaroo, Somers stops in New Zealand. The narrator describes Wellington as a ‘cold, snobbish, lower middle-class colony of pretentious nobodies’. Ouch.

Australia was let off easy by comparison. The novel starts with the arrival in Sydney of Somers and Harriett, and follows closely the first impressions that are recorded in Lawrence’s letters. On the boat to Sydney, following a brief stop in Perth, Lawrence describes Australia as ‘a weird country, as if the people were not really here: only accidentally here’. This would become a constant refrain in the letters and the novel alike, and it led to one of his most striking statements about the country. Before even landing in Sydney, he had decided: ‘one could never make a novel out of these people, they haven’t got any insides to them’. The landscape, always by contrast, is breath-taking, if haunting in its incomprehensible scale and unconquered, even ‘uninhabited’ feel. The ‘space and sun and unwornout air’ tempt him almost immediately to dream of disappearing into the bush and leaving the fallen, materialistic world behind. When they had settled on the coast south of Sydney, Lawrence wrote: ‘We live mostly by the sea – not much with the land – and not at all with the people’. Lawrence had no letters of introduction and they met virtually no one during their three-month stay. He also wrote at this time: ‘I never felt such a foreigner… in all my life’. Summing up his experience of isolation, being alone in the landscape, to a friend in London, he wrote: ‘It is rather like falling out of a picture and finding oneself on the floor, with all the gods and men left behind in the picture’. Yet the isolation he found pleasing; it was his encounters with society that provoked his condemnation.

Lawrence, and his character Somers, reacted strongly against what he saw as the empty materialism of the New World. This response was conditioned in part by his colonial view and his lingering nostalgia for England and Europe. ‘God how I hate new countries’, Lawrence wrote in one letter, summing up this feeling. He compares Australia to the sort of futuristic utopia depicted by H. G. Wells: ‘That’s what life in a new country does to you’, he wrote, ‘it makes you so material, so outward, that your real inner life and your inner self dies out, and you clatter round like so many mechanical animals. It is very like a Wells story.’ His view of Sydney reflects a typical disdain of the centre of Empire for the margins, which are seen as ersatz replicas of the true culture of the mother country. In the novel, Somers attacks what he calls the ‘London of the southern hemisphere’ for appearing to have been ‘made in five minutes’; merely ‘a substitute for the real thing. Just a substitute – as margarine is a substitute for butter.’ Somers notes the seemingly random development, the mismatched architecture, the sprawl of tin cottages along the coast. ‘The vacancy of this freedom is almost terrifying’, he tells Harriett. For the Englishman it is a nightmarish reflection of home: ‘this Englishness all crumbled out into formlessness and chaos!’ (‘Why don’t you see the lovely things?’ Harriet asks.)

These rants are partly rooted in Somers’s homesickness. At the beginning of the novel he is described as ‘pining for England’ and having a ‘hungry yearning’ for Europe. His imperialistic attitude and concern for authority and ‘responsibility’ gradually fades, but he always sees the country as essentially ‘unborn’, its inhabitants failing thus far to make a mark on the vast landscape aside from erecting a cheap version of London and little shacks that dot the coast as if afraid to venture further inland. Somers fears that the freedom of Australia, with only these scant symbols of Empire to hold it together, will tip into anarchy. He asks: ‘Was all that stood between Australia and anarchy just a name? – the name of England, Britain, Empire, Viceroy, or Governor General… Was it just the hollow word “Authority”, sounding across seven thousand miles of sea?’ This fear, from the perspective of Empire, that the margins are in danger of unravelling, is the spur to the political plot of extreme politics – the threat of anarchy, and the temptation to impose order on the chaos.

The fear of anarchy, even the fear of mob rule in the guise of democracy, leads Somers to flirt with political action. In particular, he is drawn to the quasi-fascist Diggers, with their black-and-white uniformed wing, the ‘Maggies’ (after the Australian magpie). The Diggers are mostly returned servicemen itching for action. They also desire the kind of firm, paternalistic authoritarian rule that Kangaroo offers. Woven into this is also Lawrence’s ideal of fraternal love – ‘David and Jonathan’, Somers thinks – hence the Whitmanesque ‘bromance’ that flourishes briefly between Somers and Jack Callcott, an organizer and activist for the Diggers. The plan, as Somers explains to Harriett, is ‘To have another sort of government for the Commonwealth – with a sort of Dictator’. Lovely! This would lead in turn – though it is by no means clear how – to the discovery of ‘a new life-form, a new social-form’; ‘a new show’ in which a natural aristocracy, the leadership favoured by so many modernist writers, would turn the world away from its materialistic path, its ‘frenzy for possessions’, ‘and let life begin to live again’. Making it new, on a grand social scale, is what interests Somers – so he joins their gang, at least temporarily.

But despite this Commonwealth frame, the political action of the novel is foreign to Australia, and ultimately it fails to take hold. In the novel, as in life, it is imported, brought over from Europe. When a bomb explodes at the climax of the novel, the newspapers downplay the event, ascribing it to a foreigner: ‘The bomb thrower was an unknown anarchist, probably a new immigrant from Europe’, the story goes. This kind of violence is uncharacteristic, in other words; and so it turns out to be. Once Kangaroo dies from a bullet wound received in the riot, things calm down and return to what the novel portrays as the predominant ‘gentleness’ and unconcern of Australia. Somers awakes as if from a spell, and swears off further engagement. Ultimately, the novel’s political plot turns out to be a tempest in a teapot – when it subsides, Australia returns to its natural state of ‘bed-rock indifference’. The politics of the Old Country are alien here; they graze the surface, but leave no lasting mark on the landscape.

Although Somers, like his creator, remains ambivalent about Australia during his stay, his attitude toward the country lightens as the novel progresses. Gradually he leaves his colonial view and his nostalgia for England and Europe behind and begins to acclimatize to his temporary home. When he is told that he ‘has a bit of an Australian look’ (whatever that means) he answers with nodding enthusiasm: ‘I feel Australian. I feel a new creature.’ Losing his colonizing gaze means he no longer wants to meddle in Australia’s fate or to impose a political system to suit his will. Now Somers thinks: ‘Perhaps… this is really the country where men might live in a sort of harmless Eden’.

At the end of the novel, Somers experiences an epiphany as he contemplates the vast indifference of the Australian landscape. Here is the key passage, in which he thinks to himself:

‘There is nothing to care about.’ Absolved from it all. 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. The white clarity of the Australian, fragile atmosphere. Without a mark, without a record.

‘Why have I cared? I don’t care. How strange it is to be here, to be soul-less and alone.’

That was the perpetual refrain at the back of his mind. To be soulless and alone, by the Southern Ocean, in Australia.

‘Why do I wrestle with my soul? I have no soul.’

Clear as the air about him this truth possessed him.

In this reflective interval he realizes that ‘nothing is so meaningless as meanings’. He lets go of politics and all ‘cares’; he sees the futility of revolution, class hatred and the desire for revenge. The trauma of the First World War, which hangs over the novel and is the subject of the long central chapter, ‘The Nightmare’, seems suddenly far away. He feels the vast expanse of geological time. At the beginning of the novel he had gone for a swim in the ocean and felt for the first time ‘that he weighed so little, that he was such a scrap of unimportance’. Now at the end he sees the colonial project, just beginning its long decline, in this context: ‘white men thrown in like snow into dusky wine, to melt away and disappear’. Civilization now ‘felt like a clock that was running down. It had been wound up in Europe, and was running down… here in Australia.’

From being concerned with ‘responsibility’ at the beginning of the novel, Somers now turns toward the birth of a new, post-civilized future. Just as, in Mrs. Dalloway, Septimus Warren Smith finds Shakespeare tainted after the war, so civilization has become a ‘nightmare’ to Somers – the cathedrals of Europe ‘made him sick… the beauty was nauseous to him’; it was all as ‘heavy as death’. Now, as Somers looked around him, ‘he loved the Australian landscape’, and in stark contrast to the beginning of the novel, even the ‘flimsy bungalows’ that he had complained about now seem beautifully fresh and light. Harriett, like Somers, ‘hated the old world so much’; she wanted ‘A land with a new atmosphere, untainted by authority’. This ‘tabula rasa’ has none of the old authority inscribed in its landscape; far from wanting to inscribe it with their own idea of civilization, Somers and Harriett appreciate it as the antithesis of the ‘machine-civilization’ they left behind. Australia is described no longer as simply a potential building site for a new utopia, a ‘new Jerusalem’ ruled by Kangaroo; it is in itself ‘a sort of heaven, bungalows, shacks, corrugated iron and all’. It had avoided ‘the horrible human mistake of Europe. And probably, the even worse human mistake of America.’ For now, at least.

As he prepares to leave, reluctantly, for America, Somers gushes: ‘I love Australia’. ‘I want Australia like a man wants a woman’, he says. ‘I fairly tremble with wanting it.’ (His interlocutor asks, sceptically: ‘Australia?’ as if they might be talking about different countries.) Yet he resists, savouring the temptation. In the final pages, descriptions of the landscape take over the narrative – there is no more blather about politics or the soul: ‘trotting on the yellowbrown sandy trail through the sunny, thinly scattered trees of the untouched bush, it was heaven’. No longer trying to reshape it or judge and dismiss it without comprehending, he sees the landscape now in its full beauty. The book ends with a vision of heaven – a word that is repeated perhaps a dozen times in the closing pages – as the Australian spring bursts into bloom: ‘all at once, in spring, the most delicate feathery yellow of plumes and plumes and plumes and trees and bushes of wattle, as if angels had flown right down out of the softest gold regions of heaven to settle here, in the Australian bush. And the perfume in all the air that might be heaven, and the unutterable stillness… and a manlessness, and an elation, the bush flowering at the gates of heaven.’ Ultimately, however, Somers is not ready to stay in the ‘heaven’ of Australia just yet. Like the heaven described by David Byrne, it is ‘a place where nothing ever happens’, and Somers, like Lawrence, decides this is no place for a combative writer.

In the short story ‘The Man Who Loved Islands’ (1927), the writer sets out in the first paragraph ‘to make… a world of his own’ as the master of a small island. Lawrence, like Somers, fantasized about this kind of escape. But he also saw the perils. Soon – driven by his growing disenchantment with human society in any form – the man moves to an even smaller island. Before long he finds that even this island feels like ‘a suburb’ and he moves farther out to settle on a third, almost uninhabitable island; ‘a few acres of rock away in the north’. What started as a hopeful utopia ends badly, and he goes mad on his desolate rock, shouting: ‘The elements! The elements! You can’t win against the elements!’ This gives us a hint, perhaps, as to why Lawrence, and Somers, chose in the end to move on. In the letters Lawrence is tempted to remain in Australia, to ‘go bush’ as he calls it in one letter, but decides he still has work to do: ‘If it weren’t for fighting the world to the last gasp, I would stay here and lapse away from the world into the bush’. In another letter he added: ‘My conscience tells me not yet’. Lawrence did fight the world to his last gasp, with Lady Chatterley’s Lover sounding the bell for the energetic final round. In Kangaroo, Somers decides to stick to his plan and sets sail for America: ‘farewell Australia, farewell Britain and the great Empire’. The insightful Jaz says to Somers near the end of the novel: ‘seems to me you just go round the world looking for things you’re not going to give in to’. But by choosing travel and the nomadic life, Somers chooses an alternative means of achieving the ‘cool detachment’ that he seeks, apart from ‘cares’. To settle is inevitably to embrace the cosy, homey, domestic life; and Somers, remaining adamant that he won’t be deluded by what he calls ‘the fallacy of home’, severs his last ties to Britain, the final image of the book being the colourful streamers as the ship leaves port, ‘from the hands of the departing to the hands of those who would be left behind’. ‘But the ship… drifted out, and every coloured strip was broken… the side of the vessel… fluttering with bright, broken ends.’


Julian Hanna is Assistant Professor at Madeira Interactive Technologies Institute. He writes mainly on modernism, manifestos, and futurisms past and present, and files detritus at @julianisland.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, October 28th, 2014.