Friday, April 30, 2021

Kay Boyle's short Lawrencian novels - leading their own strong violent life

Kay Boyle’s short novel The Crazy Hunter (1940) is about wealthy, horsey English people, and The Bridegroom’s Body (also 1940) begins:

The swannery had been established there, just on the edge of Lord Glourie’s grounds, because it was here the swans had come of themselves  since years, since centuries maybe, to feed on the weeds and to lead their own strong violent life in the lagoon. (143, page numbers from Three Short Novels, New Directions, 1958).

Soon enough a swanherd appears.  This is the only fiction I have read featuring a swanherd.

At some early point in The Crazy Hunter I thought “Isn’t Kay Boyle American?”  Yes, born in St. Paul, raised in Cincinnati, with the next major step a career as a Paris Bohemian, a “scenester,” almost, who pops up in most accounts of Americans in Paris in the 1920s.  Boyle’s life in the 1920s and 1930s was complicated and likely a lot of fun.

She did briefly live in England.  She must have sponged it up pretty thoroughly.  I would never have guessed that the author of these two stories was not English.  That is partly, though, because she so thoroughly sponged up D. H. Lawrence.  Her prose, characters, use of animals, and attitude are the most Lawrence-like I have seen outside of Lawrence.  See above, “strong violent life.”

St. Mawr (1925) is Lawrence’s little novel about a married couple who fight and fall apart over a horse.  In The Crazy Hunter, Nancy’s new horse, a gift from her father, has a stroke and goes blind.  The colder mother wants it put down, as anyone would; Nancy wants to keep it, ride it, and even train it to jump; the warmer, drunken, failed artist father supports his daughter to the point of self-destruction.  Lawrence’s gender roles have all been moved around here, but they are recognizable.  The mother – the parents have names but are often referred to by their roles, as “the mother” and “the father” – is not a villain but is understandably worried that show jumping with a blind horse is crazy and will get Nancy killed.

In The Bridegroom’s Body, the male swans try to murder each other over the females, and the male humans do not actually fight but certainly compete for a new young female who appears in their ecosystem.  What can animals do about their instincts.

The protagonist, Lady Glourie, not the woman everyone is fighting over, is watching a swan bathe:

He was just across the lake with the moon shining fully on him, and presently she began walking panther-swift and soft along the path that led her to where he bent and dipped and shook under the lambent dripping veils of mingled water and light.  Her eyes did not leave him; as if it was his own luminosity that drew her like a sleepwalker to him she moved, seemingly stepless, seemingly mindless, towards him. (198)

And “staining the incredible purity as blood might have stained it,” “[t]he great throbbing of his wings,” and so on.  It is in these sexually intense scenes that Boyle really leans on Lawrence’s style, although I think she is more self-consciously controlled.  Maybe.

They can’t stink more than stud-farms do of sex and monstrous matings and foalings brutaler than murders. (The Crazy Hunter, 34)

But that’s a character, the self-pitying father, sounding like Lawrence at his most ranting, not the narrator.

Looking in Leo Hamalian’s D. H. Lawrence and Nine Women Writers (1996), to make sure I am not seeing things, I find that Boyle herself says (p. 101) that the first Lawrence book she read was Studies in Classic American Literature (1923), perfect for a future American Lawrencian, which her mother sent to her in Paris from Cincinnati.  What a great mom! Boyle quickly read all available fiction, and poetry, and everything, and nodded to him constantly in her fiction of the 1920s and 1930s.

I should read more Boyle sometime, although I have no idea what.


  1. I have been to a bunch of book stores over the last two weeks, including a couple of fine used book stores, and did not see a single Boyle novel on the shelves. I confess myself disappointed.

    "brutaler" is a real Lawrence sort of word.

  2. Once I saw the Lawrence touch, it was everywhere in Boyle. Well, no, it was not in the third of the three short novels, "Decision" (1948), which I ignored here.

    New Directions has kept a couple of Boyle books in print, but not much.

  3. I'm always happy to throw money in New Directions' direction, so maybe I'll have a look at their website today.