Monday, May 6, 2019
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.
“THE PRUSSIAN OFFICER” by D.H.Lawrence (first published 1914); and “ENGLAND, MY ENGLAND” by D.H.Lawrence (first published 1922)
Once or twice before on this blog I have made it clear that I have never been an admirer of the works of David Herbert Lawrence (1885-1930). (See on this blog incidental remarks about Lawrence in a piece concerning Aldous Huxley’s Point,Counter Point and in the essay Religionand Spirituality). Forty-five years ago, as an honours student in English, I had a lecturer who was too uncritical an admirer of Lawrence and who was apparently under the impression that Lawrence had opened a new path to true enlightenment for the human race. As I trudged through the set texts The Rainbow and Women in Love, and read on my own initiative Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Aaron’s Rod and The Plumed Serpent, I could find no evidence of this.
The Lawrence I encountered in the texts was a man who canonised the ego, confused his sensual experience with the spiritual or religious, and used far more “blur words” in conveying that experience than Joseph Conrad was ever accused of. Lawrence’s novels were padded out with vague generalities and a vocabulary which rhapsodised while often avoiding being specific about what his characters were doing. There was also a repugnant element of what I called “sensual bullying” in Lawrence’s works, a habit that seemed to have been picked up by his most ardent admirers. This was the assumption, made by Lawrence’s leading male characters and by Lawrence himself, that “my sensual and sexual experience is liberating, enlightening, connected to nature and leading to new and wondrous perceptions – while yours is dirty, sordid, bourgeois and animalistic.” In other words “I am superior to you because I feel things more intensely than you do.”
I saw something fundamentally wrong in the way Lawrence looked at the world, in his attitude to women and in his massive misunderstanding of society. I am not pretending that I anticipated the wave of feminist criticism that broke over Lawrence’s work in the decades after I was first a student. In the early 1970s, Lawrence was still known to the general public as a “daring” controversial author, largely because of the publicity surrounding the trial for obscenity (in the early 1960s) of the publishers of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. He was, to quote the blurb printed on the back of a paperback reprint of one of his novels, “the prophet of sex”. But later, in the 1980s and 1990s, he became more marginalised in university Eng Lit studies as feminists pointed out how much his stories depended on male domination of women, on women submitting to strong, sensual men and on a lack of equality between the sexes. (Some also noted his aversion to homosexuals – but this was commonplace in writing in his lifetime.) No – as a young student I did not articulate this. But I did see that in the Lawrence universe, there was a revelling in penis power, and for Lawrence’s protagonists, other people existed to feed his enlightenment-through-sex.
Remember, I was judging Lawrence by his written works. That is the only fair way to judge any author. I was not judging him through the personal psychological weaknesses that are revealed in any honest biography of him. I also gave him a “fair go” and revisited him when I was a secondary school teacher. For three years, I chose to study with my Year 13 pupils Sons and Lovers, which, for all its flaws, still strikes me as his best work, written before he went off the rails and began raving about “blood” and his “gods” and his penis as the road to Nirvana.
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Now this has been a long and irritating introduction, hasn’t it? I haven’t even got to the substance of this “Something Old” and already you are feeling the need for a cup of tea and a lie-down. I do go on a bit, don’t I?
But my point is this. Having read only six of Lawrence’s ten completed novels, and that some years back, I recently thought that maybe I should reassess the chap. Perhaps with a more mature eye I would judge him differently. Lawrence is best-known for his novels, and when he wasn’t writing full-length novels he tended to write stories the length of short novels or novella, like St Mawr and The Virgin and the Gypsy. But he also wrote a considerable number of short stories, and in making my reacquaintance with his work I decided to focus on these. So I sat down and read one collection of his short stories published before the First World War (The Prussian Officer, 1914) and one published after (England, My England, 1922)
The twelves stories that make up The Prussian Officer are clearly grouped together thematically by Lawrence.
The opening two stories concern military bruality and the dehumanisation of soldiers. In “The Prussian Officer” a misused peasant soldier in the (German) army kills the officer who torments him. Ostensibly about violence and retribution, the story has a subtext of homosexual desire – the cruel officer is “stirred” by the soldier, which leads him to be brutal. The soldier is repelled by the officer’s attentions and kills him, and in his last delirium, before he dies, the soldier identifies with sylvan nature, the opposite of regimentation and military discipline. The same polarity is presented in “The Thorn in the Flesh”, again set in the German army. After he has struck a brutal sergeant, a soldier flees the army to find the woman he loves. He finds true ecstasy in making love to her, but he is dragged back to military servitude and punished. Nature versus cruel constraint – and, just before the First World War, both stories play to the received image of German brutality.
There is in this collection one brief eccentric tale, “A Fragment of Stained Glass”, a medieval fantasia as told by an antiquarian vicar, which is very atypical of this author, and which breaks off suddenly as if Lawrence was bored with it. Otherwise, all the other stories in The Prussian Officer deal somehow with the intersection of sex, social class and intimate strains in marriage.
“Daughters of the Vicar” is in the form with which Lawrence was most happy. It is a long short-story – at about 50 pages, virtually a novella – and the matter of social class looms very large in it. Lindley is the vicar in a colliery village. He has an enormous sense of his own self-importance and feels socially superior to the coal-miners who are his flock. One of his daughters, Mary, marries a weedy little vicar and – Lawrence implies – gives up the life of the senses for bourgeois respectability and a strict domestic regime of child-bearing and child-rearing. By contrast the other daughter, Louisa, is attracted to the forthright but rough working-class man Durant. Louisa and Durant become the focus of the story as they circle around each other in an awkward courtship after Durant’s mother has died. Against all her snobbish parents’ wishes, Louisa chooses to marry Durant – and they plan to emigrate to Canada.
As I read this story, I could at once see some of the earlier Lawrence’s most constant preoccupations – the contrast of desperate lower-middle-class refinement and rough working-class honesty reads like the contrast of pretentiously refined mother and rough miner father in (Lawrence’s most autobiographical novel) Sons and Lovers. More to the point, the comparison of two sisters seems like a trial run for the two sisters at the centre of The Rainbow and Women in Love, the next two novels Lawrence wrote after The Prussian Officer was published. The tiresome F.R.Leavis (does anyone still read him?) takes 25 tiresome pages over-analysing “Daughters of the Vicar” in his pompous 1955 opus D. H. Lawrence: Novelist, in which he spells out the links between this story and the novels that followed it.
Solidly structured story though it is, there are two things about “Daughters of the Vicar” that intrigue me. One is Lawrence’s habitual use of blur words and rhapsodisation to suggest sensual experience. The other is the depiction of the working-class man Durant. He is big, virile and will apparently be very satisfactory in servicing Louisa sexually. But there is an odd dependency about him. He has been very reliant on his mother before she dies. Only then does he marry. It is Louisa who takes the initiative – she proposes to Durant rather than he to her. There is the strong sense that Louisa is going to look after him emotionally, and that in the process she will shape him to her needs. Is this the image of man-as-overgrown-child? Having brought this couple together, Lawrence leaves them at what is the beginning of their long relationship. Perhaps it is up to us to guess where they go from there. Will she, consciously or not, attempt to “refine” her husband? And after all their pulsating emotions in courtship, how will their marriage work out in practice?
I think we get our answer in most of the stories that follow, for repeatedly Lawrence presents marriage as a form of constraint or entrapment. A married man, dissatisfied with his marriage, comes back to the country to meet the woman he once loved; but he finds that the flame has died (“The Shades of Spring”). A woman finds herself in the unhappy position of having married a man on the rebound (“Second Best”). In tension with her husband, a married woman seeks out an old flame – but finds he is now an inmate in a lunatic asylum (“The Shadow of the Rose Garden”). You get the picture. Marriage leaves you with regrets you cannot repair.
The story “Goose Fair” seems to be set a few decades before Lawrence’s time – the odd reference in the text suggests it takes place in the 1870s – and presents a picture of old rural peasant ways coming up against the new industrial age. A young woman fears that the man she loves has been killed in a factory fire; but she is enraged when she discovers that both her lover and her brother, far from having died, have been involved in a rough peasant game of teasing a girl who drives geese through their town.
Then it is back into tales of unequal marriages and class consciousness, although this time with the emphasis more heavily on working-class homes. “The Christening” does not directly depict a marriage, but it concerns constraining taboos. The daughter of a wealthy collier has had a child out of wedlock. Too ashamed to have the christening before their church’s congregation, the family has to invite the vicar to their home to have the baby christened in private. In a long , erratic prayer which the old collier says towards the end of the story, it is clear that it is his religiosity that has scarred his family as much a society’s taboos.
“A Sick Collier” is more of a vignette than a story. It presents a situation without a resolution. A prim, housebound young wife has to get used to the uncouth ways of her soot-stained collier husband. When he is severely injured in a mine accident, she then has to get used to nursing him, listening to his raving when he is in pain, and cursing her when he is delirious. For this woman, marriage is hard toil.
More substantial are the two stories “The White Stocking” and “Odour of Chysanthemums”, both of which (especially the latter) have often been anthologised.
In “The White Stocking” a young couple have been married for two years. The young husband resents the way, before their marriage, in which his wife used to be flirted with by her employer at work, and the way she seems to have flirted back. The husband is enraged when he discovers that her employer still sends his wife presents and Valentine cards. He smacks her (i.e. practises domestic violence) and gets her to send the trinkets back. She cries a lot, but the story’s conclusion implies that she will now submit to her husband’s strength. Are we meant to approve of this arrangement or not? I don’t think Lawrence takes sides – he simply presents the case. We can sympathise with the young wife’s loneliness and need for companionship, but we can also see why the young husband feels betrayed.
“Odour of Chrysanthemums” is a fitting conclusion to this collection, as it confronts the finality of death. It carries the very strong suggestion that, even in marriage, people will not really know each other. A woman is already discontented with her unsatisfactory collier husband. He dies in a mining accident. Lawrence describes vividly, in a sombre and direct way, the laying out of the corpse in the widow’s tiny parlour. But as the wife washes the corpse of her husband in preparation for burial, and as she handles his flesh intimately, she realizes more and more strongly (in what amounts to a long interior monologue) how little she really knew this man, now that they are facing each other body to body, dead flesh to living flesh. The story’s title refers to an incident where the woman explains that, for some reason, the unhappiest moments of her life have been connected with the smell of chrysanthemums, which are flowers often associated with funerals.
At his best in the stories of The Prussian Officer, Lawrence is presenting a believable view of working–class lives in the collieries, their dangers (note how often industrial accidents and deaths intrude), their class snobberies and their constraints. He is probably being much truer to his own formative experience than he was in some of the novels and stories yet to come. Only occasionally do the stories in this volume portend the unbalanced and obsessive views on sex that were to grow into a mania in his later work, by which time he was floating in a fantasy world constructed out of fragments of the exotic countries he visited briefly and knew superficially.
There is a clear distinction between the stories of The Prussian Officer and the stories of England, My England. The stories of England, My England are written in the shadow of the First World War – many of them were written while the war was still in progress. Most of them make at least some allusion to death in the war (“England, My England”); women doing work in the place of men at the front (women tram conductors in the story “Tickets, Please!”); a man blinded in the war (“The Blind Man”); soldiers helping with farm work (“Monkey Nuts”); a soldier concealing from his wife the fact that he probably has had a child with a girl in Flanders (“Wintry Peacock” – the only story told in the first person); and a sergeant and three privates helping a woman restrain her erring husband (“Samson and Delilah”). Even when the war is not referenced directly, there is the sense of dislocation of peoples brought about by the war – the young man who has come back from Canada in “You Touched Me”; and the roughneck taxi-driver (in “The Primrose Path”) who has been to Australia (and, briefly, to Wellington in New Zealand) and says he now prefers Sydney to London.
Collectively, then, these stories suggest a big social upheaval since Lawrence wrote The Prussian Officer. But what of Lawrence’s ideas and world view? Most stories in England, My England turn on conflict between men and women in which, most often, women yield, willingly or unwillingly, to men’s desires and sexual power.
In “The Blind Man”, a man scarred and blinded in the war gets a physically weaker man to yield to him, and go away and stop flirting with his wife, by simply getting him to touch his scars, showing that he is the braver and stronger man. Here we have the Lawrentian “your gods bowing to my gods” schtick. In “Monkey Nuts” a young soldier rejects and scorns a young woman because he doesn’t want to be controlled by her. In “You Touched Me”, an old man manages to manoeuvre his daughter – an independent spinster in her 30s – out of her legacy by getting her to marry her adoptive brother. The most blatant example of the power of virility is the story “Samson and Delilah”, where, with the help of soldiers, a strong and domineering woman – an innkeeper – manages to throw out her ne’er-do-well husband who has returned after deserting her years before, and who expects to be taken in. This sounds like a victory for the woman… except that after the soldiers have gone, the erring husband creeps back, and the woman yields to his unconquerable manly vigour. Then there is the story which seems to buck this trend, “Tickets, Please!” It reads (refreshingly) like a straightforward anecdote. Annie, a woman tram conductor, takes revenge on the slick male tram inspector who has flirted with her and with most of the women who work on the trams – in other words, he has engaged in what would now be called sexual harrassment. Annie gets all the affected women to trap the man in their common room and then to beat him up until he says whether he really cares for any of the women he has approached. This reads a little bit like the Furies following and punishing Orestes (or a traveller being set upon by wild Harpies or Maenads). Read to this point, the collective power of the women wins. Yet the story has a curious ending which suggests that, by the sheer force of the man’s masculinity, Annie is going to have to admit her powerlessness.
I would accuse one story in this collection of sounding a little like Barbara Cartland. In “The Horse-Dealer’s Daughter”, a desolate daughter attempts to commit suicide when a financial collapse imoverishes her family. A doctor rescues her… and it’s instant love and submission to a powerful male. There is, however, considerably more nuance to the story “Fanny and Annie”. Having lost once in love, a young woman, who has adopted middle-class manners and habits, returns to marry her first proletarian flame. But an older woman loudly denounces the man for having impregnated another girl. Casually, the man says it could have been any one of a number of men – and the young woman is prepared to accept this explanation. Male power and force again prevail… but at least in this story, there is the implication that the woman will now have something to hold over the man – a sort of psychological blackmail.
Thus for most of the tales in this collection. But I am neglecting the longest story, which opens the volume, gives it its title and is almost in the favoured Lawrentian form of being a short novel (33 pages in the Penguin edition I read). “England, My England” tells a credible enough tale. Egbert potters around making a bare living as a handyman-gardener. He has no wish to be anything more. His wife Winifred has a wealthy father. She wishes Egbert had more ambition. When she begins to have children (eventually three girls), he feels locked out of her love. She appears to have transferred her love from him to her children. Then comes a crisis. Egbert accidentally leaves his scythe lying about. Their six-year-old daughter falls on it and severely gashes her leg, opening her knee. To heal her, without her being permanently crippled, requires more and more expensive medical treatment. Obviously Winifred’s rich father foots the bill. Winifred, who is Catholic, sees herself as being less and less of a wife, and more and more as a Madonna sacrificing herself for her children… So husband and wife become completely alienated. Egbert lives on his own, feeling thwarted and cheated by life. When war breaks out, he feels no antagonism to the Germans, but enlists anyway. He is killed while serving in an artillery unit.
To give Lawrence credit, this is at least a credible story. The title can only point to an intended comment on the state of England, and it would doubtless have had more impact when it was first published than it does now. Far from seeing a man going off to war feeling a sense of patriotic duty, it depicts a man shuffling off to war to escape a pointless and cheerless existence. Enlisting is a means of escape. This, the story suggests, could have been the reason that many Englshmen went to war. As a state-of-England story it also, mainly by its imagery, implies something else. Egbert does not exactly belong to the peasant class, but the image of the destructive scythe gashing open a comfortable bourgeois family suggests peasant ways not compatible with the new world. Egbert himself, of course, is killed by the new industrialised version of war. Goodbye old scythe-wielding England.
But then there are all those strained Lawrentian things. Well over half the story occurs before the crucial scythe accident, and in the first half of the tale Lawrence indulges his deadly habit of over-explaining his characters relationships and feelings rather than dramatising them. Too many paragraphs tell – rather than show – how Egbert feels about his gradual alienation from Winifred. I would be more accepting of this if I thought that Lawrence was being ironical, but he seems to identify, and completely sympathise with, Egbert’s ire as he ceases to be a sole centre of his wife’s life when children come. Nowhere does Egbert consider that he now has to support a wife and children by more than subsistence work.
Then there is the over-played imagery. Three or four times the story reminds us that snakes lurk in the apparently sylvan scene (there is an image of a snake devouring a screaming frog). So Egbert’s handyman-gardener dreams are really danger-fraught and poisoned. And naturally Winifred’s Catholic Madonna worship is played against Egbert’s “pagan” gods, his “viking” looks and the call of his “blood”. Yes, it’s the natural man of the soil pitted against refinement and modern civilization. Oh dear! Lamenting the passing of peasant life is one thing, but we are here beginning to approach the sexualised Blut und Boden nonsense that infects so many of Lawrence’s esteemed novels.
Have my views on Lawrence been altered by my re-encountering him in these stories? A little, I suppose. In both these short-story collections I can see much clear observation of how working people once lived, the dangers they faced and the circumscribed nature of their lives. I can see what a powerful impact many of the stories would have had when they first appeared – it was rare for a voice from the working-classes to be heard in what was then considered highbrow fiction. I have no difficulty with the regional accents that Lawrence puts into the mouths of his working-class characters. I assume these were copied from life. Likewise, his criticisms of the old taboos around social interaction seem justified by time. In the main, these are still in their own right readable stories. But there are worrying signs here, suggesting the increasingly crazed direction in which Lawrence was moving. Perhaps, if I were really to reassess Lawrence, I would have to re-read his major novels. But that is a project that I will take a very long time getting around to.