I said in a comment on Monday that sometimes I’ve felt almost under a spell reading these D.H. Lawrence stories and novellas. My mood ends up somehow more open to his psychological flights, and I think at least part of it has to do with how well I feel he sets up the scene of the stories. Not just how well, also how, but he does it well.
In “England, My England,” we start out with, “He was working on the edge of the common, beyond the small brook that ran in the dip at the bottom of the garden, carrying the garden path in continuation from the plank bridge on to the common.” He’s building a path, worrying it might not be straight. “There was a sound of children’s voices caling and talking: high, childish, girlish voices, slightly didactic and tinged with domineering.” The sound is just, ambient? “His heart was hard with disillusion: a continual gnawing and resistance. But he worked on. What was there to do but submit!” Well, that was fast.
But that’s only phase 1. Phase 2 begins to describe the cottage—“Ah, how he had loved it!” And we get wrapped up in the cottage for pages, wrapped up in the beginnings of the marriage between Egbert and Winifred, in what it means to be English, in this primeval forest where Egbert is still cutting his path, though we’ve forgotten about all that. We have moved on to pages and pages on the history of their marriage, their closeness, the darkness and the intimacy of their cottage. It takes almost half the story before we get back to those childish voices Egbert was hearing and find out what is actually to happen, rather than what has happened, has been continuously happening, for years and years, between two people.
“The Blind Man” works exactly the same way. “Isabel Pervin was listening for two sounds—for the sound of wheels on the drive outside and for the noise of her husband’s footsteps in the hall.” And then, after just a single paragraph of Isabel waiting, “[Her husband] had been home for a year now. He was totally blind. Yet they had been very happy.” And then we get lost in how “[t]hey were newly and remotely happy. He did not even regret the loss of his sight in these times of dark, palpable joy.” Joy is dark in Lawrence, as true intimacy is dark and almost stifling. And this pattern of openings brings the reader straight into that warm, stuffy intimacy, straight into the tiny but pregnant space between husband and wife. Time doesn’t quite matter—can you pin a “when” and “where” on the complex, twisting, roiling emotions?—and it’s so easy to get lost.
These two stories are a bit unusual in that they both begin with couples already married, an easy way to get to the psychological intensity Lawrence relies on. But I’ve found most of them had the same effect on me—and maybe I’m a bit opened up to it by now. In the same comment thread I mentioned above, Amateur Reader tipped me off to a really great Lawrence story, “The Rocking-Horse Winner,” not at all about a husband and wife but where the intensity comes in right away all the same. The opening paragraph is pretty amazing for it.
There was a woman who was beautiful, who started with all the advantages, yet she had no luck. She married for love, and the love turned to dust. She had bonny children, yet she felt they had been thrust upon her, and she could not love them. They looked at her coldly, as if they were finding fault with her. And hurriedly she felt she must cover up some fault in herself. Yet what it was that she must cover up she never knew. Nevertheless, when her children were present, she always felt the centre of her heart go hard. This troubled her, and in her manner she was all the more gentle and anxious for her children, as if she loved them very much. Only she herself knew that at the centre of her heart was a hard little place that could not feel love, no, not for anybody. Everybody else said of her: “She is such a good mother. She adores her children.” Only she herself, and her children themselves, knew it was not so. They read it in each other’s eyes.
The family is living above its means, and “they felt always an anxiety in the house.” That anxiety is pervasive in the house, and in the story. “And so the house came to be haunted by the unspoken phrase: There must be more money! There must be more money!” We are haunted by that phrase, the mother is haunted by it, and the boy at the center of the story is haunted by it most of all. “The whisper was everywhere, and therefore no one spoke it.” How like Lawrence that is, and that is exactly the spell he weaves with everything.
I’m thinking of writing a bit about what I don’t like about Lawrence, or rather, when I think he doesn’t quite work. Where the spell is too thin.