A vast quantity of letters (and a counting pony)

(D. H. Lawrence/ Nancy Mitford: both © National Portrait Gallery)

In a letter partly about letters, Nancy Mitford wrote to Hamish Erskine on 24 October 1932: ‘The others have all gone off to a circus but I remain here by the fire & with D. H. Lawrence’s letters. Terrible to have reached an age (or a stage) when one would rather hear about a pony counting to 9 with its foot than bother to go & see it do so. Lawrence’s letters are terrifying – would you read them if I sent them to you? But they must be read – all & carefully or no use & there is a vast quantity of them.’ Mitford added a postscript: ‘The children are back – the pony counted to 20 AND LAUGHED OUT LOUD. Well well.’[1]

That selection of Lawrence’s letters, edited by Aldous Huxley, had appeared the previous month and was reprinted before the end of the year. It was certainly a hefty volume, coming in at almost 900 pages, though Mitford’s ‘vast quantity’ would be thrust into sharp perspective fifty years on by the Cambridge edition of the letters, which increased Huxley’s 790 items by a factor of more than 7, added invaluable annotations and restored the excisions which Huxley had made—‘cutting out feeling-hurting passages, uninteresting bits and things which are repeated in several letters to different people . . . tho’ it’s often worth keeping repetitions because of the subtle variations’.[2] Understandably, he felt he needed to tread a little warily since his edition was appearing only two years after Lawrence’s death at the early age of 44. Huxley had first proposed to Frieda Lawrence that they produce a memorial volume, ‘reminiscences by various people interspersed with Lawrence’s own letters’, offering (‘this goes without saying’) to do whatever work was involved for nothing. But the idea ‘petered out’.[3]

Lawrence and Huxley had met in 1915, apparently at the home of Lady Ottoline Morrell. She suggested to Lawrence that the two of them should get to know one another and Lawrence wrote to Huxley a week or so later, inviting him to tea.[4] They met again in the mid-1920s and Huxley was very important to the Lawrences in the last years of Lawrence’s life.[5]

If, like Orwell, Huxley was not a great novelist—Brave New World and Island, like Animal Farm and 1984, tend to be viewed as fables or satires rather than ‘straight’ novels—he was certainly a significant writer and an extraordinarily interesting figure: Sybille Bedford’s great affection for him is made wholly understandable in her biography of him. 

A year into the First World War—he was then 21—Huxley wrote a letter to a family friend of the Huxleys, the concert violinist Jelly d’Aranyi: ‘This war impresses on me more than ever the fact that friendship, love, whatever you like to call it is the only reality.’ He went on: ‘You never knew my mother—I wish you had because she was a very wonderful woman’ (Julia Huxley had died in 1908). ‘I have just been reading again what she wrote to me just before she died. The last words of her letter were “Dont be too critical of other people and ‘love much’”–and I have come to see more and more how wise that advice was. It’s a warning against a rather conceited and selfish fault of my own and it’s a whole philosophy of life.’[6]

Certainly, that advice—if not always easy to follow—is, yes, not bad. Really not bad at all.


[1] The Letters of Diana Mitford, edited by Charlotte Mosley (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1993), 51. To a Guy Davenport reader, the counting pony can only recall the typing dog that caused the Stan Brakhage–Joseph Cornell contretemps: see ‘Pergolesi’s Dog’ in Davenport’s Every Force Evolves a Form (Berkeley: North Point Press, 1987), 144-146.

[2] To Dorothy Brett, 10 March 1931: Letters of Aldous Huxley, edited by Grover Smith (London: Chatto and Windus, 1969), 346-347.

[3] Sybille Bedford, Aldous Huxley: A Biography (London: Pan Macmillan, 1993), 235.

[4] Letters of D. H. Lawrence II, June 1913–October 1916, edited by George J. Zytaruk and James T. Boulton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 452, n.2  and 467-468.

[5] David Ellis, D. H. Lawrence: Dying Game, 1922-1930 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 312, and later instances indexed.

[6] Huxley, Letters, 83.