Sunday, August 26, 2018

D. H. Lawrence's English short stories - It was horrible.

I find it easy to imagine a slightly different D. H. Lawrence, healthier, less weird, maybe a little less ambitious, who is happy to be the novelist of the northern English coal pits.  Maybe he still pushes the sexual boundaries of English fiction, maybe not as far as the real Lawrence did.  This Lawrence would have been a great writer, too, an important writer.  A smaller writer than the real Lawrence.

My imaginary Lawrence overlaps with the real one most clearly in earlier novels like Sons and Lovers (1913) and the short story collections The Prussian Officer and Other Stories (1914) and England, My England (1922), especially the short stories which while distinctively Lawrence’s do not seem so far off from what James Joyce or Katherine Mansfield are doing with the short story around the same time.  Incremental innovation.

Although I am mentally contrasting these stories to the truly weird American stories Lawrence wrote in the mid-1920s, I know it is hard to “periodize” Lawrence.  The Rainbow is from 1915, and it is much weirder at the sentence level and in its reach for mythic meaning.  I mean, the prose – I last read this novel thirty years ago, but I can open it randomly and find my idea of pure Lawrence:

So eager was her breast, so glad her feet, to travel towards the beloved.  Ah, Miss Inger, how straight and fine was her back, how strong her loins, how calm and free her limbs!  (Ch. 12, “Shame”)

Maybe the formal control, even perfection, of the stories, is a commercial compromise, a concession to the magazine market.  The Prussian Officer includes a novella, “Daughters of the Vicar,” that is like a dry run of The Rainbow, with two coal-country sisters who love in different ways, written in more conventional language.  I am inspecting the most intense scene:

Then suddenly a sharp pang, like lightning, seared her from head to foot, and she was beyond herself…

And as if turned to stone, she looked back into his eyes.  Their souls were exposed bare for a few moments.  It was agony.  They could not bear it.  He dropped his head, whilst his body jerked with little sharp twitchings.  (Ch. 13)

But this is not the normal language of the novella.

The “The Horse Dealer’s Daughter,” in England, My England, one of Lawrence’s most famous stories, felt like it could be in Dubliners – at first.  A family – siblings – have finally run their father’s business into the ground.  They discuss their plans.  There is no indication, title aside, that the sister’s story is the real story.  For a while, Lawrence and I just watch and listen to the knucklehead brothers discuss their plans, and get angry because the sister will not discuss hers.  Those turn out to be a surprise, including a surprising shift in point of view.  The last third of the story is the classic Lawrence love scene, intense and deliberately unpleasant.

It was horrible to have her there embracing his knees.  It was horrible.  He revolted from it, violently.  And yet – and yet – he had not the power to break away.

It’s the gradual move towards the emotional moment, from a starting point at a great distance, that I find artful, less than the conclusion itself.


  1. Well, now I have to blow the dust off the Complete Short Stories I haven't taken down in years. (It's an odd old Viking Compass set, three volumes with the contents for all three in all three, but in the order II-III-I in Vol. Two and III-I-II in Vol. Three.)

  2. planted their great hoofs floutingly in the fine black mud

    That adverb would have told me, all by itself, how much a writer friend of mine had learned from Lawrence, even if I didn't already know he loved Lawrence.

  3. The Lawrence spice such a strong flavor.