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(R)evolutionary Fears and Hopes in The White Peacock

Noëlle Cuny
p. 101-113

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1A letter written in June 1910 indicates that Lawrence had briefly considered entitling his first novel “Tendrils.” Of course every reader can choose to read this in his or her own way. Perhaps the most productive way to read it is as a two-faced symbol. On the one hand, referring as it does to the tendrils that “George is always putting forth […] for things that are out of reach” (L i. 167), it endows George Saxton with the instinctive persistency and the essential will-to-live of nature, forever reaching out for a new prop, a new expedient, a new opportunity for development. It could be a social metaphor: in this godless age, no matter how poor one’s social background, why not reach out for the top of the ladder and cling there in the sunlight to flourish? Why couldn’t the impoverished farmer rise to wealthier and more sophisticated spheres if he is clever enough to win the favours of the prize girl? On the other hand, reducing a human character to a “tendril,” a plant’s most tender limb, albeit a surprisingly industrious one, is reminiscent, not just of man’s vulnerability, but of a newly perceived consubstantiality between plants, animals and humans. At the time of Lawrence’s education, in fact, ever since the early 19th century, the awareness that evolution embraced all three kingdoms in the same movement, and that human beings descended from apes, was growing, and along with it, fear of atavism, of reverting to lower life forms.

  • 1 Nick Rylance, “Ideas, Histories, Generations and Beliefs: The Early Novels to Sons and Lovers,” in (...)

2In The Cambridge Companion to D.H. Lawrence, Nick Rylance describes The White Peacock as an interpretative “puzzle.”1 What is to be made of Cyril’s unresolved questionings, of Annable’s sudden disappearance, or the strange juxtaposition between strained aesthetic effect and crude naturalism? In spite of its tentative quality and formal flaws, The White Peacock is actually not just a useful document of Lawrence’s self-education as a writer. It is interesting in the way it dramatizes an evolutionary watershed. Like her archetype, Lady Chrystabel, Lettie represents a late stage of evolution, a final stage where existential misery and loneliness prevail. She is highly accomplished, ultra-refined, over-sensitive, and she is developing an allergy to material nature, including human bodies, as indicates the veiled fact of her frigidity and the way she keeps wiping or hiding her hands. Her symmetrical obverse and potential antidote is George: seen at times as a bucolic shepherd, at other times as a taurine embodiment of brute force, he is well-rooted in the natural world, in a way that suggests to Lettie and to the narrator Cyril that perhaps reversion to past modes of being are a way out of the impasse.

3Lawrence was a great student of history, not merely human history, but natural history as well. In his early religious training, the question had been to be or not to be saved, the question of origins having been satisfactorily answered in Genesis. But by 1907, Lawrence had read Darwin, Spencer, Renan, Blatchford, and other anti-creationist versions of natural and human history. Now, the question of origins was asked again, with a vengeance. And the more fully this question was answered, by progress in geology, chemistry and biology, the more the mutability of species was documented, the less certain one could be as to where mankind came from and where it was going. With every new scientific discovery, the range and variety of acceptable scenarios became greater.

  • 2 Primary parenthetical citations refer to the 1995 Penguin edition of The White Peacock.

4The question of origins permeates The White Peacock. Lettie and Cyril are both seeking to unfold the mysteries of their parents’ failed marriage and their father’s personality; Cyril is engaged in the serious study of “chemistry, and botany, and psychology […], of life, of sex and its origins; of Schopenhauer and William James” (WP 59)2. But mythic origins have their value too; indeed, they are almost desperately invoked in some scenes where lack of meaning, or lack of decisive action, is most cruelly felt by the characters and the reader. In chapters like “Pastorals and Peonies,” the Golden Age is called upon to bring life to tableaux vivants which remain rather pathetic parodies. The characters amuse themselves by revisiting classical representations of pastoral love and invoking the great figures of the tradition, including, most notably, Theocritus and one of his pre-Raphaelite followers, Maurice Greiffenhagen. All Lawrentians know his Idyll (1891), which serves as a model for the half-inviting, half-coy poses of beautiful Laetitia. Lawrence made several copies of the painting—one of them is printed on the cover of the Cambridge edition of The White Peacock. The painting renders nostalgia for an idealized golden age suspended outside time and outside history; the poppies, the shepherdess’s immaculate beauty and utter ingenuousness, the couple’s perfect physiques, all indicate that the scene takes place outside the complex and tainted world in which Lettie and George are chasing each other.

5But the other reading which is made of Greiffenhagen’s painting draws the reader’s attention to another, modern primitivism, set against the classical in the same scenes and the same dialogues. In this modernist context, the pastoral and the atavistic can coexist: therein, surely, lay the appeal of Greiffenhagen’s Idyll in Lawrence’s eyes. The characters themselves delight in the way the predator surfaces under the clumsy enamoured gesture of the shepherd: “She may well be half afraid, when the barbarian comes out in his glory, skins and all” (WP 29). The golden age reverie soon turns into a naturalistic archaeology of evolutionary man, as the predator and the ape surface under the shepherd’s smooth features; but because the pastoral, nostalgic element remains, it makes reversion to animality more acceptable, and suggests that much can be gained by being “a good animal” (Annable’s phrase, WP 147).

6However, cases of reversion to animal modes of being, whether in the actual of in the metaphorical, are hardly auspicious in The White Peacock. They account for much of the Hardyesque crudeness and violence which the novel’s first critics thought so out of place. The killing off of lesser creatures such as chickens, cats or dogs when the necessities of farm life demand it, even if it is an opportunity for self-discovery on the part of the adolescent narrator, always causes the protagonists a great deal of discomfort and ontological doubt. The educated and refined women, Laetitia and Annable’s Lady Chrystabel, share a predatory instinct that is typical of this atavistic world. Lady Chrystabel’s affair with Annable is described in terms that connote anthropophagous hunger: “it took her three years to have a real bellyful of me,” said Annable before the passage was bowdlerized (WP 150). The Dionysian Lettie with the “red berries in her hair” (WP 68) or with the Sacher-Masochian black furs (WP 128-129) is much more of a “Bacchante” than a “Chloë” (WP 69).

7Evolutionary biology and the possibility of reversion bring back echoes of ancient myths which, all of a sudden, take on a new relevance. The references to Bacchanals, to Salomé the Judean princess, to Zeus metamorphosed into a bull, encapsulate this encounter between the modern and the ancient, as if a loop of time had just become complete. From this encounter emerges great beauty, the kind of infinitely desirable beauty which made Samson powerless before Delilah and drives George to despair, and also great evil, the kind of evil which led John the Baptist to martyrdom and is leading George to self-destruction. In this novel, beauty is an actuating force which sets the men in motion and sends them to their doom. It is therefore tempting to read The White Peacock as decadent, in the sense that its aesthetic is based on the foreknowledge that the world is coming to a beautiful but final flourish, which only those who are sensitive enough and dedicated enough can appreciate. In this Paterian or Wildian atmosphere, the highest degree of beauty is also the most deathly, indeed deadly. Eros and Thanatos are ever so closely related here.

8At the time when he was writing his first novel, Lawrence appears to have been defensively aware of this fin de siècle tendency in his poetry: “I want to write live things, if crude and half formed, rather than beautiful dying decadent things with sad odours” (letter to Blanche Jennings dated 20 January 1909, L i. 108). But one finds that his central character is both a “beautiful dying decadent thing with a sad odour”—a fine young woman just like Burne-Jones’ damsels, with “troublesome shadows always crowding across her eyes” (WP 69) and a “live, crude and half-formed thing,” in the sense that she is in fact surprisingly inarticulate in matters that are in fact crucial, and has little or no control over the impulsive and paradoxical manifestations of her desire. Laetitia is both a baby and a very old woman, both sexless and sexually hypersensitive, both innocent and knowing. Her dangerous, narcissistic sort of beauty thrives on suffering and decay. Like Hermione in Women in Love, like Sue Brideshead in the Study of Thomas Hardy, she is both a symptom and an agent of the decline of civilisation.

  • 3 Another example of the narcissistic, reifying gaze that characterizes many of Lawrence’s women is “ (...)

9In The White Peacock, the coming together of Eros and Thanatos, which is at the core of decadent art, is the essence of what Lawrence later describes as “pornography and obscenity.” The problem is that beauty and life can be contemplated and enjoyed only in mirrors and artworks used as mirrors, in an artificial “Lady-of-Shalott” mode.3 The phrase is used to describe Annable’s Lady Chrystabel, ensnared in the threads of her own fantasy. But Lettie too is very good at composing her own fantasised version of herself. In order to do so, she too uses men as mirrors. She allows herself to be emblazoned as their eyes dwell successively on various fragments of her body—her neck, the rise and fall of her breathing, her uncovered shoulder, the way she carries a pile of books or gracefully arranges her hair. In the end, that is the dominant mode of her self-knowledge, as if she could only exist as an erotic puzzle portrait of herself. Her peacock cloak and her pantomime of seduction, as she is seen deliberately alluring her two lovers (even though she has already made her choice) in the second chapter of part three, are a reminiscence of the peacock-clad bodies and dancing half-nudes in Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations for Oscar Wilde’s Salomé. This is no coincidence, of course, since we know that Aubrey Beardsley’s drawings in Salomé are precisely what arouses and focuses George’s desire in the chapter entitled “The Irony of Inspired Moments.”

10Now, peacocks—even white peacocks, according to Annable—are “all vanity and screech and defilement” (WP 149). Clearly, a figure like Lady Chrystabel and her avatar, Lettie, who destroy life and sensual love by forever staging them, by cutting them up into blazons, by framing them like mirrors or pictures on a wall, are embodiments of what Lawrence later describes as pornography. They perpetuate a mix of onanistic perversity, puritanical hypocrisy and covert dirtiness. In theoretical terms, they pertain to western art in its degenerate state. “The outstanding feature of such consciousness is that there is no real object, there is only subject” (“Pornography and Obscenity,” LEA 246). These women’s gaze is autotelic and narcissistic, and their obsession with their own composed image is akin to a vampiric tendency, very much in the way that Dorian Gray’s portrait seemed to suck the life out of its owner; and that, in Lawrence’s view, even in his more experimental works, is a deadly sin.

11Paradoxically then, in her excess of refinement and cerebral narcissism, modern educated woman is no better than the crudest life form. In fact, she is worse, because she is likely to go extinct; as the end of Tennyson’s poem suggests, Ladies of Shalott are not among the fittest for survival, and Wilde’s Salomé, having taken the life of the man she desired, dies in a fit of necrophilia. In the new evolutionary language of the day, which Lawrence explicitly made his in Study of Thomas Hardy, but already adhered to at the time of writing The White Peacock, this corresponds to a dead-end in human evolution.

12This context of ontological instability, where everyone is prone to reverting to lower life forms—be it a bull, a harpy, or a peacock—turns the pastoral idyll to which The White Peacock nostalgically harks back into a savage, atavistic struggle. But it is also, as I suggested earlier, a carnivalesque opportunity for role reversal. In this world, where it is acceptable to show off one’s muscles and one’s half-tanned, well-toned body, where a certain callousness towards the blind workings of nature and a certain mistrust of the fallacies of art are welcome, a man like George stands a chance of surviving or even thriving. He is well-rooted in his farm world, at ease in his well-wrought body. As such, he possesses a clear advantage over Leslie Tempest, Lettie’s other suitor. For readers of texts like Schopenhauer’s Metaphysics of Love (1851), which Lawrence knew and with which his narrator is familiar, it is in the order of nature that the able-bodied shall prevail. This, according to Schopenhauer, is due to the fact that the female reproducers instinctively make their choice of a mate among the fittest of the males.

  • 4 Though of course, as we know, Lawrence was by no means alone in promoting this “physical imperative (...)

13This sounds like an absurdly reductive law, and could be the source of such inescapable determinism as to ruin any attempt at novel-writing. In The White Peacock, some degree of suspense is maintained by leaving open the question of what it means to be “fit.” Does it mean that Lettie should marry a socially “fit” man, providing her offspring with the necessary means to rise in the world? Or should she follow her primal instincts and mate with a man fully equipped in body, if not in cultural and financial capital? Because one does not know exactly how much of Europe’s cultural past is put into jeopardy by evolution, and how much of this cultural past has become ingrained in European man, the narrative is given leeway and in fact unfolds in the space of doubt and tension between those two interpretations of what it means to be “fit.” It can mean that one fits into a given social structure and is in the right position to take advantage of it, or that one possesses the right physical attributes for survival in a world from which basic commodities are absent. Arguably, the bulk of Lawrence’s fiction is built on the hermeneutic difficulties posed by key concepts such as “fitness,” “strength” or “weakness.” With the notable exception of Clifford Chatterley, a cripple with considerable talent for making the best of his bodily limitations, it is strange that Lawrence should make so much of the second kind of “fitness” when his characters all enjoy the relative comfort of life gradually made possible in the modern age.4

  • 5 William Wordsworth, “Lines Written in Early Spring” 1:22; commented on in Tess of the D’Urbervilles(...)

14In spite of the explicit presence of Schopenhauer and his views on the selection based on physical criteria unconsciously carried out by women, I would say that The White Peacock is more Darwinian than Schopenhauerian. Darwin was the one who refuted the notion that nature had a purpose, and that the great chain of being was a regular, linear progression towards god-like perfection. As Thomas Hardy noted, there is no such thing as “Nature’s holy plan.”5 This counter-teleological view may account for a reversal of power which, again, was the great hope of the 19th and early 20th centuries: truth, morality, and power were relative and mutable, and so there was no reason why the people may not eventually rule. This was greatly empowering, and those must have been exhilarating times.

  • 6 Joseph Femia, Against the Masses: Varieties of Anti-Democratic Thought since the French Revolution, (...)
  • 7 Michael Bell in D. Bradshaw (ed.), A Concise Companion to Modernism, Oxford, Blackwell, 2003, 58.

15For all those reasons, and for reasons of narratorial inclination, George stands a good chance of rising to the challenge and winning over his Salomé, his very own “white peacock,” simply by being himself, a “good animal” (Annable’s idea of proper manhood). He may even, like Annable, turn out to be a potential “master” in the Nietzschean sense. The exceptionally “fit” gamekeeper, who—just before being suddenly erased from the narrative—achieves apparent freedom from all transcendence, from all authority and all rules except the ones he makes for himself, reminds one of the historic filiation from evolutionary biology to the “master and servant” theory. If Nietzsche counts among the most influential thinkers ever, Darwin counted among his most influential sources6; in most accounts, evolutionary thinking is a major component of Nietzsche’s thought.7 The reason is that it lifted some of the weight of traditional nodes of power off the everyday living experience. Within a few decades, from Lamarck to Huxley, the power of the squire, the king and the father had appeared as contingent and possibly ill-founded. Any man now began to seem as good as any other, with the same potential for regression or progression. With Nietzsche, and the notion that the “weak” can be found in the ranks of the most powerful, any man, regardless of his origins, could hope that he was among the masters, provided that he could follow his own rules only, feel no compassion for the unworthy, and wield his natural authority without regard for obsolete power structures.

16However, in The White Peacock, in spite of the emphasis laid by the narrator on education, on equipping men with the right tools to make the most of their natural intelligence, the revolutionary overtones soon subside into a mere vague longing. One cannot miss the irony of Annable’s getting crushed by a falling church ruin, for example. The original sin, in his case, as in the case of George, is to have fallen prey to a white peacock’s narcissistic perversity. There is a tragic flaw in these figures of thriving manhood which bar them from ever expressing their potential. Here, evolution appears not as a great wind of change but as a new, terrible law of retribution. Backsliding, that is, reverting to obsolete life forms, to “primitive” manhood, when man has mutated beyond these forms, has one final sanction, erasure. Cyril’s father disappears, leaving a rather inadequate Cyril to brood over the “Dominant Motif of Suffering” (WP 279). Annable’s muscle-power is useless against the weight of church stone. George loses the only thing that afforded him some social and cultural recognition, his farm. He becomes a publican, that is, one by whom slow, imperfect, illusory democracy spreads like a bad alcoholic habit.

17More profoundly, part of the despair that pervades the last part of the narrative is due to the narrator’s realization that some figures of power simply don’t and won’t change, because they are rooted in the most primitive and universal cultural substratum. Motherhood is a case in point, judging from a passage describing “Domestic Life at the Ram”:

George sat looking glum and listening to us. Meg was quite indifferent. She listened occasionally, but her position as mother made her impregnable. She sat eating calmly, looking down now and again at her baby, holding us in slight scorn, babblers that we were. She was secure in her high maternity; she was mistress and sole authority. George, as father, was first servant; as an indifferent father, she humiliated him and was hostile to his wishes. Emily and I were mere intruders, feeling ourselves such. (WP 275)

  • 8 Michel Serres notes (with due reference to Ernout and Meillet’s etymological dictionary of the Lati (...)

18The world revolves around power nodes whose relative weight can be altered by great changes such as the decrease in religious faith or the rising adherence to evolutionary thinking. But some power loci8 cannot be done away with; indeed, they seem to be spectacularly strengthened by evolutionary thinking and its social applications. This novel ranks motherhood, and the exclusive bond that unites mother and child, as one of the major obstacles impeding fluid interpersonal relationships and proper human evolution. Hence perhaps the passing reference to Dr. David Eder’s pamphlet The State Endowment of Motherhood (WP 296). At the core of the essay, which stresses the centrality of the childrearing function in society and the necessity of opening up individual women’s lives to activities other than childcare, lies an implicit distrust of mothers: how can the fashioning of future generations be left to individuals driven by instinct? This was the tyranny that now had to be overthrown.

19Eder, like so many of his contemporaries, built his recommendations on the certainty that acquired characteristics will be transmitted to the next generation. What Darwin merely sought to describe was applied to the sphere of praxis, in the form of laws or law drafts. Now, originally, was there such a thing as Darwinian law? It may seem that in The White Peacock’s poetic justice, it is in the order of things that George disappear from the face of the earth and that Cyril be denied procreation, simply because they are neither good animals nor übermenschen. If “natural selection” and “survival of the fittest” are understood in terms of law, then it may also seem natural that a world where aestheticism has reached the narcissistic, frigid and cynical extremes embodied by Lettie and her archetype should be so clearly on the downward slope. However, Huxleyan or Darwinian evolution, with which Lawrence was familiar, do not so easily lend themselves to a deterministic worldview. Thomas Huxley viewed ethics as the faculty which would protect humanity from blind determinism and natural violence (Rylance 20). Similarly, there is no “downward slope” in Darwin: there is no such eschatology in properly understood evolutionary biology. There is no upward slope either. Darwin identified a few principles, for example those which govern transmission of acquired characteristics, but in the end the all-important notion of chance prevails: the interaction of external circumstance, accident and heredity, with the unpredictable effects of reflexive consciousness in the Homo sapiens, produces true novelty all the time. True novelty is not achieved in The White Peacock, whose ending only consolidates the social status quo and confirms an impression of doom, but the evolutionary vision of true novelty is at the core of Lawrence’s later novels, where eschatological fear and (r)evolutionary hope are more subtly and dynamically played against each other.

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1 Nick Rylance, “Ideas, Histories, Generations and Beliefs: The Early Novels to Sons and Lovers,” in The Cambridge Companion to D.H. Lawrence, ed. Anne Fernihough (CUP, 2001), 15.

2 Primary parenthetical citations refer to the 1995 Penguin edition of The White Peacock.

3 Another example of the narcissistic, reifying gaze that characterizes many of Lawrence’s women is “The Witch à la Mode”: “My length of blood and bone you don’t care a rap for. Ah, yes, you like me for a crystal-glass, to see things in: to hold up to the light. I’m a blessed Lady-of-Shalott-looking-glass for you” (LAH 67).

4 Though of course, as we know, Lawrence was by no means alone in promoting this “physical imperative” (H.B. Segel, Body Ascendant: Modernism and the Physical Imperative (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998).

5 William Wordsworth, “Lines Written in Early Spring” 1:22; commented on in Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891), (Hardmondsworth: Penguin, 1986), 62. Cited by Angelique Richardson in D. Bradshaw (ed.), A Concise Companion to Modernism (Oxford: Blackwell, 2003), 11.

6 Joseph Femia, Against the Masses: Varieties of Anti-Democratic Thought since the French Revolution, OUP, 2001, 112-113.

7 Michael Bell in D. Bradshaw (ed.), A Concise Companion to Modernism, Oxford, Blackwell, 2003, 58.

8 Michel Serres notes (with due reference to Ernout and Meillet’s etymological dictionary of the Latin language) that the word locus (like topos in Greek) refers to the female reproductive organs, one of the three binding loci in an individual’s life. (, last consulted 20 January 2009).

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Noëlle Cuny, « (R)evolutionary Fears and Hopes in The White Peacock », Études Lawrenciennes, 41 | 2010, 101-113.

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Noëlle Cuny, « (R)evolutionary Fears and Hopes in The White Peacock », Études Lawrenciennes [En ligne], 41 | 2010, mis en ligne le 24 janvier 2014, consulté le 18 janvier 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/lawrence.149

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Noëlle Cuny

Noëlle Cuny, Lecturer at the University of Haute Alsace, has published several essays on Lawrence and D. H. Lawrence : le corps en devenir (Paris: Presses de la Sorbonne Nouvelle, 2008).

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