Collected Stories of D. H. Lawrence: the First Quarter

I have long held a theory – held so long that it is now impervious to mere factual evidence to the contrary – that authors who tend towards the self-indulgent in their longer works are best sampled in their shorter, as the form of the short story does not allow room for self-indulgence.

But on reflection, Lawrence was not really a self-indulgent author: he wrote as he did not to indulge himself, but because there was no other way to communicate what he wanted to communicate. I used to think that whatever it was that Lawrence was trying to communicate, his concerns weren’t really mine, and that, as a consequence, it wasn’t really possible for me to find way in. And it did not frankly bother me too much: no-one’s mind, after all, could be so all-encompassing as to be receptive to all writers, no matter how rewarding their work may be. But then, some two years ago, I read a short story by Lawrence, “The Odour of Chrysanthemums”, which struck me with the utmost force and left me struggling to find superlatives to describe its impact. It is a story that deals directly with some of the most vitally important themes of our lives and of our deaths – the extent to which, within our brief spans, we can know and understand each other, the acknowledgement of our failures, and the price we pay for them. How could such themes be beyond any reader’s range of concerns?

Maybe I had been too easily dismissive, I thought; maybe I needed to reacquaint myself with this admittedly troublesome writer, and teach myself how best to read him. And yet, I harboured memories of trudging through two of his later novels – The Plumed Serpent and Lady Chatterley’s Lover: although it had been a very long time since I had read either, I do remember thinking quite distinctly at the time that these were bad novels – didactic in the service of questionable ideologies, and, worse, the lives of the characters smothered by the author’s polemic intent. Well, maybe even there I was mistaken: who knows. But here was a writer who clearly needed re-evaluation. So I re-read last year The Rainbow and Women in Love, that diptych that is often held up as the highest peaks of Lawrence’s art.

Neither novel is without its problems. In The Rainbow, Lawrence is wrestling with language to try to capture that which language is not really designed to depict – the inner world of our selves, under the rind of our outward personalities, where intangible and unnamable forces contend with each other in some primal darkness. The language often fails; the cynical reader is given many opportunities to point out specific passages and question what they mean, and, indeed, decide that the whole thing is mere sound and fury signifying nothing. I think such cynical readers would be wrong. For while Lawrence’s attempts to force language to yield what it generally can not arenot uniformly successful, the attempts nonetheless had to be made, and, despite the failures, the picture that emerges of humans and of human life is triumphant and majestic. The closing pages of The Rainbow, where Ursula sees a rainbow as if it were a divine vision, made me catch my breath. But visionary though it is, the point is that the vision isn’t divine: “And the rainbow stood upon the earth.” The mysteries of Lawrence’s fiction are human mysteries, not divine. Lawrence reveres life, but his reverence is not for some possible spirit hidden within the flesh, but for the flesh itself.

Women in Love is, I suppose, a sequel, featuring as it does some of the characters already introduced to us in the earlier novel, but we are here in a different world: humanity now seemed stripped of that visionary gleam, and is left wondering where it has fled. The characters try desperately to seek it, or to seek something resembling it; they search, run into dead ends, conflict with each other, are all at the end of their tether. An outline of the plot, such as it is, would give the impression that this is a tragic novel – as, indeed, in many senses it is; but its keynote seems to be not tragedy, but uncertainty. Once again, sceptics will find much to be sceptical about, but Lawrence once again conveys a sense of those mysterious forces within us that refuse not merely to be pinned down, but to be seen even in passing.

Let me be frank: I still do not understand Lawrence. I get a sense of something very important lurking in there, and at times, indeed, quite often, I get the sense that I have grasped something of the utmost importance, but as soon as I try to express just what it was I thought I had grasped, it seems to elude me again. So it seemed a good idea to try his shorter fiction, to see if something of what I find so fascinating and yet so elusive in his longer work might perhaps be expressed here in terser form. Lawrence did, after all, write short stories and novellas throughout his life; and it was a short story that persuaded me to revisit his writings. So I bought myself the handsome Everyman Library edition of his Collected Stories, running to some 1400 pages, and containing all the short stories and novellas that had been included in the two Penguin editions I had (both now supplanted by shorter collections), and also many more that these old Penguin editions didn’t have.

Of course, 1400 pages of short stories by a single writer is too much to be gobbled up all at once, but it seemed to make sense to split it up into four roughly equal quarters; and these four quarters, read over maybe a year or two, will give me, hopefully, an overview of Lawrence’s art from the beginning to the end; for, I am reliably informed, even when he was writing “regrettable” novels (to use the adjective used by F. R. Leavis, a great admirer of Lawrence, to describe The Plumed Serpent),  his shorter fiction remained of the highest quality. The only problem with the splendid Everyman’s Library collection is that, unlike the Penguin collections, it contains no dates, so there is no way of telling when these stories were written or published; and that’s a bit of a problem if one wants, as I do, to get some impression of Lawrence’s development as an artist; the best one can do is to collect the dates of the ones that are included in the Penguin versions, and to try to interpolate from these the dates of the others.

But on to the stories themselves. The First Quarter covers some of Lawrence’s earliest efforts – dating, I’d guess, from around 1902 or 1903, till about 1911 or 1912. And it is surprising just how quickly Lawrence found his feet. The earliest stories may not be literary masterpieces, but there’s little to betray a novice writer: they are more than merely competent, and it is fascinating to see how artistically ambitious Lawrence was, even at so early a stage. Those who object to the awkwardness and the unrefined quality of much of Lawrence’s later prose will find little to complain about here: indeed, from what I remember of Sons and Lovers (which I read more years ago than I now care to remember) , Lawrence was capable of the most exquisitely refined and polished prose when he set his mind to it. The short story perhaps doesn’t offer much scope for extended passaged of description, but Lawrence’s ability to make the prose tell even within the narrow confines of the form is never in doubt: the mining villages of England, the streets and the classrooms (Lawrence makes use of his experience as a teacher in a mining town), the Bohemian surroundings in and around London (which, again, Lawrence knew), the countryside of the East Midlands of England, and even, in one delightful short story (and who would have thought one could use the word “delightful” when talking about Lawrence!) – “A Chapel and a Hay Hut Among the Mountains” – the landscapes of Bavaria.

The stories themselves are varied, but for the most part, he was still writing stolidly within a certain tradition – the tradition of George Eliot and of Thomas Hardy: most of these stories are driven by plot – a sequence of ordered events, each event a consequence of previous events, leading to a climactic point that resolves, at least in terms of plot, the issues raised. And this resolution is often a happy resolution: even in a story as complex and as ambitious as “Love Among the Haystacks”, true love finds its way, as surely as it does in any Jane Austen novel.

Perhaps the temptation to look for signs of what was yet to come is to be resisted: there are signs aplenty, but these stories deserve to be enjoyed in their own right. The variety is remarkable – from the picture of love fulfilled in “Love in the Haystacks” to the study of coruscating sexual jealousy in “The White Stocking”. Perhaps the most surprising story in this First Quarter is “The Prussian Officer” in which Lawrence steps out of his comfort zone, and tells us a story of a soldier in the Prussian army who, bullied beyond endurance by his sadistic officer, kills him, but finds himself subjected to a quite different and even more intense kind of torment. It is a tale of startling intensity, and not one I would have expected from Lawrence, either in terms of setting or of theme; but it does display his ability to peer beneath the outward rind of our individual personalities, and to find the subterranean currents that flow in the dark and mysterious regions beneath.

Not even the weakest of the stories in this first quarter is a dud, and there are about three or four that seem to me masterpieces. Perhaps the best is the rather long story “The Daughters of the Vicar”. The vicar’s family struggles desperately to maintain, despite severely limited means, its genteel standing and its social status in a predominantly working-class mining town; the older daughter, much like Charlotte Lucas in Pride and Prejudice, marries for the sake of her social and financial security a man she does not love, and whom she knows to be worthless; the younger daughter resents her sister’s sacrifice, and finds herself attracted to a miner, far beneath her in social standing. Once again, Lawrence is not quite here a modernist: the plot here is important, and the question “what happens next?” carries the story forward. But Lawrence addresses directly  – as he was to do in the slightly later “The Odour of Chrysanthemums” – the strongest and most overpowering of emotions without any trace of reticence or of embarrassment. What, for instance, does a dying mother say to her beloved son as he is about to leave for work in the morning, and she is certain she would be dead by the time he returns? Most writers would, I imagine, draw a tactful veil over such a scene, but Lawrence doesn’t – not because he wishes to wallow in the lachrymose, but because these most powerful of human emotions are precisely his theme. And if that leads to a certain messiness – since human emotions are rarely if ever neat and decorous – then messy it must be. For if life itself does lacks a formal shape, then to impose a shape upon it is to misrepresent life.

Anticipating somewhat, Lawrence soon became impatient with literary form. He later wrote in his preface to a collection of stories by Verga: “The emotional mind, however apparently muddled, has its own rhythms, its own commas and colons and full-stops … We need an apparent formlessness, definite form is mechanical.” It seems strange that he says this when talking about a writer who, it seems to me, cared very deeply for literary form, but I suppose every major artist must of necessity be an egotist, and every egotist must, similarly of necessity, see in everything a reflection but of himself.  And I do not think it is merely my fancy in seeing in the later stories of this First Quarter a deliberate stepping away from literary form – which, frankly, Lawrence had already mastered – in search not so much perhaps of formlessness, but of a different kind of form – one dictated by the emotional mind, dictated by “its own rhythms, its own commas and colons and full-stops”.

I am giving Lawrence a rest now, but I do look forward to the next three Quarters.

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2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Jonathan on September 24, 2015 at 9:21 am

    I don’t think I’ve read any short stories by Lawrence. Could you suggest a collection to start with? – I don’t feel like tackling the collected works just yet.

    Reply

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