I continued my recent D.H. Lawrence binge over the weekend with Daughters of the Vicar, a tiny novella about a poor but proud vicar’s family. All the early Lawrence stories I’ve been reading lately focus on contrasts, and this is no exception. Usually the contrasts are just between a man and a woman—“just,” ha!—but here they are packed in more thickly. And the usual contrasts between men and women, the real, pure Lawrence masculine/feminine mismatches, aren’t quite there in the same way.
The titular vicar, Mr. Lindley, has many children, many daughters, but the oldest two are the focus here. Mary, the first-born, reacts to her family’s genteel poverty by deciding to marry for money. Not a rich man, but a tiny, sickly, pathetic clergyman with enough money to support them comfortably and help her family. She
tried to become a pure reason such as he was, without feeling or impluse. She shut herself up, she shut herself rigid against the agonies of shame and the terror of violation which came at first. She would not feel, and she would not feel. …She had sold herself, but she had a new freedom. She had got rid of her body. She had sold a lower thing, her body, for a higher thing, her freedom from material things. She considered that she paid for all she got from her husband.
Louisa, Mary’s younger sister, is nothing less than disgusted at this behavior. She decided, around the same time Mary consented to marry Mr. Massy, that she herself would only marry for love. And she set her heart on Alfred, a local collier who was a bit apart from the locals, just enough for Louisa to fall for him.
So, the most central contrast of the story is between the two sisters, and it’s done up in the way Lawrence usually does these things. Mary is dark-haired, Louisa fair. Mary is “queenly,” Louisa frumpy. Mary gets married and has children, Louisa becomes an old maid while Alfred is in the navy. Mary’s husband is “a little abortion,” Louisa’s man is large, strong, a pit worker.
Lesser contrasts abound. The two vicars. Alfred and the other men of the village. Alfred’s independent spirit and his self-subjugation in the military. Alfred the upstanding citizen and his drunken brothers.
The writing here is just as good as in the other Lawrence I’ve been reading, but it’s been mostly, as I mentioned, early stuff. But I feel like he tries to do a little too much in 72 pages here. Alfred’s mother, Mrs. Durant, figures prominently, but I can’t quite make out why. She seems like only a device to set up everything with Alfred, but she gets lots more screen time than he does. And frankly I found her a bit confusing—as, I suppose, Louisa did as well.
My blogging energy has been flagging lately, but I’d like to write a bit more about Lawrence this week, and then get into some other good stuff I’ve been at lately.