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Digression/Revision as transgressive creative process

"Odour of Chrysanthemums": Absent-Presence and Textual Genetics

Elliott Morsia
p. 41-61


Cette étude génétique de “Odour of Chrysanthemums” transgresse une frontière textuelle tangible en se penchant sur les procédés d’écriture de Lawrence à travers les nombreuses versions de la nouvelle écrites entre 1909 et 1914. L’article réexamine la composition et la réécriture de la nouvelle en mettant en lumière des éléments du corps du récit peu étudiés que l’interaction générale entre l’absence et la présence dynamise pourtant. Ce thème se concentre autour de la figure absente de Walter Bates, un mineur local dont la famille ignore le décès survenu dans un accident mortel sur son lieu de travail et dont le corps est ramené chez lui au point culminant du récit. Les réécritures de Lawrence, effectuées entre 1910 et 1911 à la demande de Austin Harrison, le responsable de la publication pour The English Review, touchent en fait au drame inhérent au récit et non au retrait des détails ou des digressions. Cet article se conclut par la lecture des nombreuses fins envisagées par Lawrence au regard du contexte biographique en abordant la nature problématique des fins et des frontières « ultimes » chez Lawrence.

Entrées d’index

Studied authors :

David Herbert Lawrence

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  • 1 See Cushman, Emergence 47-76, and Schulz 363-371, who argues “the author’s main objective in this s (...)

1Though Lawrence’s novels have undoubtedly overshadowed his short fiction, the stories have had their own admirers from the start, particularly “Odour of Chrysanthemums.” Ford Madox Ford famously accepted the story, along with “Goose Fair,” both of which were subsequently collected in The Prussian Officer and Other Stories (1914), for the English Review in December 1909 and declared Lawrence a “genius” after reading just the opening page of the former story (See Ford 70-71, reprinted in Nehls 106-21). F. R. Leavis, despite titling his famous study D. H. Lawrence: Novelist, also declared that, “of the shorter forms of prose fiction—short story and longer tale—Lawrence is surely the supreme master. His genius manifests itself there with an authority of original power, and an astonishing maturity, from the start” (77). According to Con Coroneos and Trudi Tate, Leavis’s discussion of Lawrence’s stories “remains one of the finest accounts of Lawrence’s tales” (104). What is worth highlighting in the above quotation from Leavis, however, is its emphasis upon the “maturity” of the stories. While Keith Cushman and Victor Schulz also praise the story as a “masterpiece of short fiction,” these critics are representative in championing the final version of the story, which emerged following heavy revisions completed by Lawrence in July and October 1914 and which are read in a biographical context as evidence of Lawrence’s own emergence into maturity.1

2In an iconic early essay on “Lawrence’s Early Tales,” J.C.F. Littlewood concurred with Leavis’s suggestion that Lawrence first achieved artistic “maturity” in his short fiction, but refined this argument by suggesting it was Lawrence’s revisions of 1914 that constituted the “breakthrough” moment. Littlewood fleshes out this point by comparing a handful of early and late versions of scenes from stories in the Prussian Officer collection (focusing on “Daughters of the Vicar,” “The Thorn in the Flesh” and “Odour of Chrysanthemums”) and by holding up The Rainbow as a high-tide marker of artistic maturity. On “Odour of Chrysanthemums,” while conceding that the first published version of 1911 contains “the vivid, first-hand portrayal of the miner’s world,” Littlewood suggests that, in the “last few pages,” the story “collapses into an unfelt conclusion of weak moralising-cum-psychologising” (120). Littlewood suggests, by contrast, “the grafting on of the new ending [in 1914] seems entirely successful” and “comparison of the two versions makes the reader feel that in the second the author discovered the meaning that had always been waiting to be found in the story” (123).

3As with the majority of critics who have considered the story after him, Littlewood’s analysis focused on the story’s ending, in which its protagonist, Elizabeth Bates, confronts the dead body of her husband, Walter, who is carried home at night having suffered a fatal accident at work in the local pits. According to Littlewood, Elizabeth’s new “intuition of the ‘other’ reality of the other person” in the 1914 climax to “Odour of Chrysanthemums” provides a unifying key to the story and is “of the essence of Lawrence, and in the central line of his development,” repeating an insight “first realised [by Lawrence] in the Tom Brangwen part of The Rainbow” (123-24).

4Discussing the earlier revisions made by Lawrence between 1910 and 1911, in preparation for the story’s publication in the English Review in June 1911, under the new editorship of Austin Harrison, James T. Boulton deploys a very similar argument to Littlewood:

The focus of the writer’s attention has notably shifted from the beginning to the end; from, that is, the evolving situation in the Bates’s house in which the circumstantial details of the mother and children awaiting Bates’s return are central, to the adult emotions associated with the preparation of the dead man’s body for burial. Lawrence’s relative immaturity in the story printed here is manifest; the revisions recorded in the textual apparatus equally testify to his growth in self-criticism. (8)

5Disparaging an early version of the story as immature, Boulton, like Leavis and Littlewood, praises the supposed maturity of the later versions, which have apparently sloughed off “circumstantial details.” Though Boulton does differ from Littlewood in suggesting that “Lawrence comes closer to employing the adult emotion of maternal love as a unifying principle for the entire action” (11, my italics), as opposed to a perception of otherness, both critics focus exclusively on the story’s ending, disparaging the early parts as peripheral, and champion Lawrence’s revisions as providing a more “mature” expression. It is worth remarking upon the liminal position of the early scenes in traditional critical accounts of the story. These scenes are seen as representative of early versions of the story, which are commonly defined by their apparent absence of maturity. While critics suggest this lack is subsequently filled in, in the story’s compositional history, by the later rewritten conclusion, the perception of absence is itself a projection on the critic’s part arising from a prior knowledge of the final or “mature” version of the story, as collected in The Prussian Officer and Other Stories, which knowledge is brought to bear retrospectively on the earlier versions.

  • 2 Schulz qualifies this reading, however, by suggesting the story’s climactic lesson “in human isolat (...)

6Keith Cushman, who provides the most detailed study of the story, which he describes as “a moving statement about the human condition,” likewise suggests “the successive versions are one of the best available mirrors of [Lawrence’s] artistic and emotional growth during his first years as a writer,” and argues “the successive revisions of the original story—in connection with Lawrence’s biography—allow us to date with some precision the moment a central Lawrentian belief assumed its mature form. The culmination of the story is one of the starting points for the Lawrence of The Rainbow, Women in Love, and the 1920s” (Emergence 47, 76). Again focusing exclusively upon the story’s “culmination,” Cushman sides more with Littlewood’s interpretation than Boulton’s, arguing Elizabeth’s response to her husband’s body provides “a lesson in human isolation” and a “revelation of our irredeemable loneliness” (Cushman, Emergence 69).2 However, pushing the external biographical lens through which Lawrence’s revisions of “Odour of Chrysanthemums” have consistently been read to something of an extreme, Cushman also suggests that “Mrs. Bates’s reverie in successive versions of the tale is conditioned by Lawrence’s own feelings about his parents as he grew older” and, furthermore, that in the final 1914 version of the story, having eloped with and later married Frieda Weekley in the meantime, Lawrence has apparently “passed beyond the personal question of his mother and father to express an insight into man’s fate” (Cushman, Emergence 55, 69). The borderline between biographical and fictional realms is too rigid here, as one is read off against the other, and it is also unclear why “human isolation” or “man’s fate” should represent less personal or biographical questions for Lawrence.

7Rounding off this trend when reading “Odour of Chrysanthemums” and its revisions then, in the Cambridge edition of the Prussian Officer collection, John Worthen has suggested “Lawrence’s short stories allow us to see him revising, transforming and frequently transcending his early work; the history of the stories […] is also the history of Lawrence’s remarkable development as a writer between 1907 and 1914” (xix). While, more recently, in an introduction to The Vicar’s Garden and Other Stories (2009), which presents early and draft versions of stories, including “Odour of Chrysanthemums,” N. H. Reeve echoes Worthen by suggesting “this volume demonstrates, as no other brief collection of Lawrence’s work could, his extraordinary development as a writer of fiction between 1907 and 1914, and his growing mastery of the short-story form” (xvii).

8Before moving on to discuss the story itself, it is worth repeating the following observation by Howard J. Booth on the general topic of “maturity”:

Critics have not questioned sufficiently the model for interpreting the early life and work that Lawrence himself first laid down. Heavily teleological, the claim is that a “real” Lawrence emerged […] This narrative is organised around a breakthrough, or series of breakthroughs, that allowed the “mature” Lawrence to emerge […] An “advance” in terms of relationships is linked to a breakthrough in writing, where an outdated interest in late nineteenth-century forms of writing gives way to a more modern writing-style. (37)

  • 3 As Daniel Ferrer and Michael Groden discuss in their introduction to Genetic Criticism: Texts and A (...)

9As in the present essay, Booth challenges this influential narrative by considering early versions of Lawrence’s stories on their own terms and for their own merit, rather than as merely subservient to the “final” version. In this respect, I would highlight the usefulness of genetic criticism more generally in opening up Lawrence’s manuscripts and processes of writing to new interpretation; genetic criticism, which treats text as process as well as product, has been developing ideas for the study of manuscripts and writing processes (on their own terms) for many years.3 Genetic criticism also raises some fascinating questions regarding the borderlines of a text: are there definite borderlines between texts? Can texts be autonomous? Even if you can trace the genesis of a written document, how do you trace the genesis of an idea? While genetic study clearly transgresses any such boundaries between texts, these boundaries are themselves made permeable by the temporal dimension of textual process (composition and production). Ultimately, these questions allow us to consider parallels between the content (absent-presence) and the form (the borders of a text) and I return to this point at the end when considering the ways in which writing an ending represented both a dilemma and a potential relief for Lawrence.

10Venturing into the textual genetics of “Odour of Chrysanthemums” in the remainder of this essay, I begin by outlining the story’s history of composition and go on to discuss the ambiguous borderline between absence and presence in the early parts of the story. I believe this dynamic provides the dramatic heart of the story and is in fact jeopardised by Lawrence’s 1910-11 revisions, which were requested by his editor at the English Review (Harrison).

The Composition and Alternative “Versions” of “Odour of Chrysanthemums”

11As Worthen and Reeve supply detailed accounts (see bibliography), I will just provide a brief outline of the story’s compositional history, which officially begins December 9, 1909, when Lawrence sent an early version to Ford Maddox Ford at the English Review, though it was most likely written the previous month, in November (Letters 1, 147). Page proofs for the English Review were then prepared by March 10, 1910, and from this point up until April 1911, Lawrence revised the story using the proofs on more than one occasion: rewriting the ending twice, and, following the request of Harrison, the magazine’s new editor, cutting “5 pages” of material, predominately from the early parts of the story (Letters 1, 172). Lawrence began revising the story again in July 1914 when working on proofs for The Prussian Officer and Other Stories and extensively rewrote the ending once more, before making a further and final set of revisions in October 1914, at which point the story’s much altered ending was once again revised.

12As for the story’s extant materials, with reference to Roberts and Poplawski’s bibliography of Lawrence and to the Cambridge editions, these can be divided into five levels: (1) a six-page holograph fragment forming the conclusion to an early version of the story (Roberts E284a), published as “Appendix I” in The Prussian Officer (201-05) and later labelled “Version One” by Reeve; (2) twenty-seven corrected proof sheets for the English Review, with a further eight pages of holograph corrections and insertions (Roberts E284c), published in The Vicar’s Garden in two forms: with the pre-revision text as “Version Two” (75-99) and the post-revision text as “Version Three” (101-21); (3) a thirty-nine page fair copy of the heavily revised English Review page proofs, completed by Louie Burrows in April 1911 (Roberts E284b) and containing hundreds of errors and alterations which Lawrence subsequently adopted and revised, which forms part of the textual apparatus in The Prussian Officer; (4) the corrected page proofs of The Prussian Officer and Other Stories (Roberts E326.6), which contains the July 1914 version of the ending, published as an “Appendix” in The Vicar’s Garden (211-16) and assigned as “Version Four” by Reeve; (5) the first edition of The Prussian Officer and Other Stories (Roberts A6a), containing subsequent revisions completed in October 1914 (i.e. “Version Five”).

13Regarding such material from a “genetic” perspective, I would point out that the Cambridge edition of Lawrence sometimes produces the misleading impression that alternative “versions” of Lawrence’s work stem from entirely “separate processes of creation” (Clark xxv)—a term L.D. Clark uses to describe different versions of The Plumed Serpent and Lady Chatterley’s Lover. In fact, there is usually a great degree of continuity between alternative “versions” and Lawrence tended to rely directly upon earlier drafts while writing: revising and rewriting some sections of his work (often on numerous occasions), while leaving others intact. This is indeed the case with “Odour of Chrysanthemums,” as discussed in detail below. Lawrence cut and condensed certain sections in the early parts of the story when revising from 1910 to 1911. However, despite these alterations, much of the opening four-fifths of the story remained intact throughout the various phases of revision up to and including 1914. Similarly, though Lawrence rewrote the story’s ending at least half a dozen times between 1909-1914 (the English Review page proofs alone contain three different versions of the ending), there are still points where the ending can be “tagged together” across alternative versions: points where the versions overlap, despite extensive rewriting.

14Discussing the story itself in the remaining sections of this essay, I refer to the alternative versions using the published texts in the Cambridge editions. While I endeavour to make clear which text or version is under discussion throughout, as a general guide allusions to The Vicar’s Garden refer to earlier drafts (1910-11) whereas references to The Prussian Officer correspond to the later versions (1914). Finally, while the essay mostly compares separate versions of particular passages, on occasion I have provided a synoptic transcription, using strikethroughs to indicate deletions (deletion) and bold font to indicate insertions (insertion).

Child’s Play

  • 4 Cushman describes the opening paragraphs, specifically, as “a brilliant, closely written descriptiv (...)
  • 5 For Schulz, this episode also symbolises the start of a new and more hopeful phase in Elizabeth’s l (...)

15According to the readings of Cushman, Schulz and others, aside from the imperious climax, “Odour of Chrysanthemums” consists of well-crafted prose depicting domestic colliery life in a conventional realist manner.4 In the narrative, however, Elizabeth Bates and her two young children, Annie and John, await the arrival of their father, a local miner, whose return from work becomes increasingly overdue and whose absence hence becomes increasingly pressing. Critics also praise the story’s subtle symbolism. The opening paragraph, for example, provides a deft account of industrialisation. The fields are “dreary and forsaken” and “flames like red sores” rise from the “ashy” sides of a nearby pit-bank (Brinsley Colliery). A “small locomotive engine, Number 4,” appears in the opening line and comes “clanking, stumbling” down the line with “slow inevitable movement” (The Vicar’s Garden 77), thus symbolising the spread of industrial power. Nevertheless, a colt, which the train startles “from among the gorse,” is still able to outdistance the engine “at a canter” (77). Finally, the use of chrysanthemums is also highlighted in relation to the Bates’s marriage. Towards the beginning of the story, Annie gazes in wonder at a chrysanthemum tucked into Elizabeth’s apron-band and the mother explains her apparent hatred for the flowers, in lines which go virtually unrevised, as follows: “‘it was chrysanthemums when I married him, and chrysanthemums when you were born, and the first time they ever brought him home drunk he’d got brown chrysanthemums in his coatbutton-hole’” (The Vicar’s Garden 84; The Prussian Officer 186). Symbolising the end of the unhappy marriage, when the men carry Walter’s body into the parlour towards the end of the story, a vase of chrysanthemums is knocked to the floor and smashes.5

16Besides these concessions, the main body of the story is quickly passed over by the majority of critics, who treat it as subsidiary to the conclusion and praise Lawrence’s cuts to and condensation of the early parts. As mentioned already, Boulton describes the mother and children’s activities at home in this section of the story as “circumstantial detail.” Mara Kalnins also suggests “the superiority of the 1911 version […] over the early 1910 text” because Lawrence has apparently pared away “superfluous detail in the early part of the tale” (471-72), while Cushman likewise argues “the detail is lovely, but it distracts from the central situation” (Emergence 57).

17Against this consensus, I believe the early parts of the story establish an intricate network of objects and features that are central to the drama, involving a general interplay and evoking an ambiguous ontological borderline between absence and presence, which energise the story. Of first note in this respect are the railway lines themselves, which are alluded to numerous times and stretch “down from Selston” and “up […] to Underwood” (The Vicar’s Garden 77). The railway lines connect various locations and provide a network for local activities, trafficking miners between neighbouring towns and the pit. The tracks also provide Elizabeth with signals about the status of local activities and she gazes at them for this specific reason on more than one occasion in the story. Also relevant is the proximity of the tracks: the Bates’s “small cottage” is “squat beside the great bay of railway-lines,” there are a set of steps leading down “from the cinder-track to the threshold of the house,” and these steps are themselves made out of “old sleepers” (The Vicar’s Garden 77).

18The intimate connection between the Bates dwelling/family and the railway lines is further developed in one of the first episodes in the story as we discover that a second engine, which approaches down the track and comes to a halt just “opposite the gate,” is actually driven by Elizabeth’s father, who leans down from the driver’s seat to receive a cup of tea. In the ensuing dialogue we learn of Elizabeth’s absent husband, Walter, as her father recounts a tale of Walter bragging in a local public house; the father concludes, “I’ve repented the day I ever let you have him” (The Vicar’s Garden 80). Other features which emphasise the Bates’s networked location include a “large bony vine,” which scrambles over the cottage “as if trying to claw down” the roof, and “a tree-hidden brook course” at the bottom of the garden, which offers another point of transit at the rear of the cottage (The Vicar’s Garden 78). As a result of these features then, the story’s opening represents the boundaries between inner and outer, private and public, and absence and presence as almost disturbingly permeable.

19Besides symbolising the Bates’s marriage, chrysanthemums also function as a kind of network in the story and likewise draw our attention towards the ambiguity between absence and presence. Firstly, the story’s title (“Odour of Chrysanthemums”) renders these flowers (at least partly) symbolic, which means that their presence as ordinary objects within the narrative produces an immediate play between these different levels: abstract signified, material signifier, contingent object. Perhaps more intriguingly, the flowers also cross boundaries within the narrative. “Dishevelled pink chrysanthemums” (The Vicar’s Garden 78) are noted as growing in the back garden in the opening pages of the story, when Elizabeth goes to fetch John, and the flowers follow the pair back towards the house as John picks and scatters them along the garden path. As Elizabeth then pushes some “into her apron band” (79) before the pair return indoors, the chrysanthemums are implicitly present throughout the subsequent action inside and we are reminded of this fact later on, when, as mentioned, Annie spots them in her mother’s apron and Elizabeth scolds her for doting on them by remarking on the presence of chrysanthemums throughout her troublesome marriage. In doing the latter, Elizabeth adds a further temporal and memorial dimension to the flowers, loading them with baggage from the past.

20This tracing of the past in present objects and, inversely, the construction of the present out of the past, occurs elsewhere in the early parts of the story as well. John’s clothes, for example, “too thick and hard,” were “evidently cut down from a man’s clothes” (The Vicar’s Garden 78). Besides indicating the family’s penurious condition as stressed by previous critics (old clothes must be recycled), this detail also evokes the absence/presence of the boy’s father, presumably the “man” who previously wore the cloth in his own clothes. Similarly, the father is evoked in the boy himself later on, when Elizabeth reflects on her son as an amalgamation of his parents: John was “very much like herself,” yet he also “had his father’s brutality” (81).

21The children’s activities in the early version of the story are also richly suggestive and further evoke the absent father. Before dinner, John sits carving a piece of wood into the shape of a tram, “meaning a little truck such as is used down pit” (The Vicar’s Garden 81). This pastime draws the reader’s attention back to the father, a miner, and may also anticipate John’s own future employment, thus further identifying John with Walter. These points recur in the children’s games after dinner. In the first game, “gipsies,” John uses “a pair of the father’s stockings” (The Vicar’s Garden 85) as an imaginary dinner item, while in the second, he demands they play at “pit” and proceeds to lie under the sofa “on his side as his father had taught him,” pretending to hack at a wall while Annie “dragged up a little box on wheels […] loading a wagon” (85-86). Unbeknown to them, while their father asphyxiates in the pit, the children are imaginatively recreating his environment in their own living room.

22Before moving on to consider the ways in which Lawrence’s revisions jeopardise these significant features, I will consider another aspect of the story that particularly warrants discussion: the intense emotional sensitivity of the female characters, particularly Elizabeth. While the children play at “pit,” the mother sits “all this time” making a singlet (a garment for her husband) and, as she does so, “her anger wearied itself of pacing backwards and forwards like an impotent caged creature” (The Vicar’s Garden 86). The intensity of emotion blurs the distinction between interiority and exteriority as mind, feelings and bodily activity are tightly interwoven and shuttle back and forth; the characterisation of an emotion as a physical creature is also a staple of the story.

23Once Annie arrives home in the early stages of the story, she, her mother and her brother are left solely awaiting Walter’s arrival in order to begin eating the dinner which Elizabeth has already prepared. As a result, the tension of expectation becomes increasingly potent: “the mother let loose, now, the silent anger and bitterness that coiled within her. She said little, but there was the grip of ‘trouble,’ like the tentacle of an octopus, round the hearts of the children” (The Vicar’s Garden 82). With encouragement from Annie, the three eat dinner alone and the activity provides some respite. Likewise, after dinner, Elizabeth proceeds to clear the table and commences sewing because, “actively engaged she could endure, but as she sat still her fury seemed to sway like fighting imps within her, and to break out of her control” (85).

24Sensitive to this pressure, Annie also begins “almost feverishly chattering” as “anything was better than the clouds of silence that would settle on them” (85). She also suggests playing a game with her brother: feeling “almost unequal to the struggle with the pressure of the trouble” and “in childish dread of abnormal states, in terror of an approaching climax, she forced herself to play” (85). After the children finish their games and Elizabeth begins to read them a bedtime story, silence itself becomes menacing as a noise outside provides an interruption and “the old silence woke up” and “bristled in the room, till two people had gone by outside” (86).

25“Odour of Chrysanthemums” provides a deft dramatization of absent-presence and the longer Walter is absent from the scene, the more the tension ratchets up. Elizabeth, who gazes obsessively at the clock, provides a running commentary on the agonising passage of time; besides the clock itself, other signals of lateness deciphered by Elizabeth include the lighting of the “yellow lamps […] along the highway” and the traffic of the miners: “the men trooping home, fewer now, and fewer” (The Vicar’s Garden 81).

“Like a phantom”

26Having outlined the general interplay between absence and presence in the early version of the story, I now want to consider the nature of Lawrence’s cuts and revisions for the English Review. One of the most noteworthy alterations concerns the children’s games, which are almost entirely cut. Lawrence inserts the following passage in its place:

While, for an hour or more, the children played subduedly, intent, fertile of invention, united in fear of their mother’s wrath and in dread of their father’s homecoming, Mrs Bates sat in her rocking-chair making a “singlet” (The Vicar’s Garden 109)

27Whereas in the earlier version the details of the children’s games are richly suggestive in evoking the absent father, following Lawrence’s revision we receive the following matter-of-fact report: “the children played.” Likewise, while in the early version Annie resorts to play as a coping mechanism in response to the intense tacit pressure, here Lawrence offers a more immediate and reductive explanation: the children were “united in fear of their mother’s wrath and in dread of the father’s homecoming.”

28This alteration marks a pattern in Lawrence’s 1910-11 work on the story, as, under the influence of Harrison’s editorial requests, the domestic activities are curtailed and explained-away, which detracts from the dramatic tension deriving from a more subtle absent-presence in the early version. Consider the following post-revision passage as the children are taken up to bed in the 1911 text:

  • 6 Incidentally, for the English Review text, Lawrence completely cut the brief episode in which Eliza (...)

The children had their hands and faces wiped with the flannel. They were very quiet. When they had put on their nightdresses, they said their prayers, the boy mumbling. The mother looked down at them, at the brown silken bush of intertwining curls in the nape of the girl’s neck, at the little black head of the boy, and her heart burst with anger, at the father, who caused all three such distress. The children hid their faces in her skirts, for comfort. (The Vicar’s Garden 109-10)6

29The use of parataxis in this quite dense descriptive passage seems to enact the tension of the narrative in the accumulative flow of the syntax. While some of the details are somewhat ornate (“the brown silken bush of intertwining curls in the nape of the girl’s neck”), the syntactic rhythm, which switches between short and long sentences and presents a plurality of commas and details, encourages the reader on and intimates a blind dependency between the mother and children. However, a rather reductive explanation is again provided as the mother’s heart “burst with anger, at the father, who caused all three such distress.”

30By contrast, compare the above extract with the earlier version of the same passage in the 1910 text:

The children had their hands and faces wiped with the flannel, and were undressed on the hearthrug. They were very quiet. When they had put on their nightdresses, they kneeled down, and the girl hid her face in her mother’s lap, and the boy put his face in his mother’s skirt at the side, and they said their prayers, the boy mumbling. She looked down at them, at the brown silken bush of intertwining curls in the nape of the girl’s neck, and the little black head of the boy, and in front of her eyes shone love and pity, and close behind pity stood anger, with shadowy hate, like a phantom, and scorn, glittering and dangerous; all these on the darkened stage of the mother’s soul, with pity and love in front. The children hid their faces in her skirts, and were full of comfort and safety, and they prayed to her, for she was the God of their prayers. Then she lighted the candle and took them to bed. (The Vicar’s Garden 87)

31Here, the syntactic features highlighted above (long and short sentences, plural details, parataxis) are more proliferate and heighten the drama of the narrative. The specific units excised by Lawrence in the later version increase the sense of dependency between the mother and children, which is more overbearing in the earlier version. For example, the children, pressing their faces against the mother, pray “to her, for she was the God of their prayers.” Furthermore, rather than posit the absent father as a direct object-cause, Walter remains an absent presence in the earlier version, which places more emphasis upon the volatility of the mother’s emotions: “close behind pity stood anger, with shadowy hate, like a phantom, and scorn, glittering and dangerous.” In the earlier version, the mother’s soul is characterised as a “darkened stage” with psychoanalytical staging: “shadowy hate” lingers “close behind” love and pity. Her emotions seem to figure the absent husband, whose shadowy presence on the “stage” of the story is also like a “phantom.”

32Polishing away some of this tension and volatility, Lawrence’s revisions produce a less dramatic and perhaps more conventional realist text. Consider the following passage in the early version of the story, which comes immediately after the above extract, as Elizabeth returns downstairs:

When she came down, the room was strangely empty, with a tension of expectancy. The mother took up her sewing and stitched for some time without raising her head. Meantime her anger was accumulating. She broke the spell sharply at last, and looked up. It was ten minutes to eight. She sat staring at the pudding in the fender, and at the saucepan to the inside of which bits of dried potato were sticking. Then, for the first time, fear arrived in the room, and stood foremost. The expression on her face changed, and she sat thinking acutely. (The Vicar’s Garden 87)

33Here, the syntactic features highlighted in the previous passages are on display once again, along with numerous present participles (“sewing,” “raising,” “accumulating,” “staring,” “sticking,” “thinking”), which enact the feverish tension of the scene within the syntax. The “tension of expectancy” is tangible and Walter’s absence is neatly projected into the emptiness of the room. Elizabeth is also keenly aware of the uneaten and untidied remainders from dinner: “the saucepan to the inside of which bits of dried potato were sticking.” This passage allows us to revisit the features outlined in the previous section of this essay as domestic activities again serve as a form of distraction (“the mother took up her sewing”), Elizabeth’s obsessive record of time again contributes towards the accumulating tension (“ten minutes to eight”), which becomes “sharp” and “acute,” and the characterisation of an emotion as a physical creature again feeds into the emotional intensity, as “fear arrived in the room, and stood foremost,” which juxtaposes neatly with the non-arrival of her husband.

34Compare the above passage with the revised 1911 version:

When Mrs Bates came down, the room was strangely empty, with a tension of expectancy. She took up her sewing and stitched for some time without raising her head. Meantime her anger tinged with fear. (The Vicar’s Garden 110)

35Under pressure to cut, Lawrence again clips the richly suggestive details from the earlier version; even the apparently innocuous alteration of the more ambiguous pronoun “she” to the proper noun “Mrs Bates” seems to suggest an imposition of determinacy and economy. On the question of economy, it is worth pointing out that, though Ford Maddox Ford famously branded Lawrence a “genius” on the basis of the earliest (1909) draft of “Odour of Chrysanthemums,” Austin Harrison, who took over the editorship of the English Review from Ford in 1910, was a far more business-minded editor and often requested writers shorten their work in order to facilitate the magazine’s profitability (see Vogeler). Along with the removal of present participles, these revisions render the scene more static. However, the most reductive alteration to this particular passage concerns Elizabeth’s emotions, which, rather than arrive in the room like an unexpected guest, become a “tinge.”

36Before moving on to consider, briefly, the story’s conclusion, I will offer one final example on the effects of Lawrence’s revisions for the English Review, with a passage taken shortly after the above extract. Having “thrown down” her sewing, Elizabeth steps outside to seek her husband and the 1911 text reads as follows:

The night was very dark. In the great bay of railway-lines bulked with trucks there was no trace of light, only away back she could see a few yellow lamps at the pit-top, and the red smear of the burning pit-bank on the night. She hurried along the edge of the track, and, crossing the converging lines, came to the stile by the white gates, whence she emerged on the road. Then the fear which had led her shrank. (The Vicar’s Garden 110)

37Containing the same syntactic features outlined above, this passage produces a compulsive rhythm whereby the reader, like Elizabeth, is “led” along. However, consider the ways in which these features were reduced down from the following, longer and more intense version in 1910:

The night was very dark. In the great bay of railway-lines where the black trucks rose up obscurely there was no trace of light, only away back could she see a few yellow lamps at the pit-top, and the red smear of the burning pit-bank on the night. She could see the street lamps threading down hill beyond the railway and the field, shining large where the road crossed the lines, and tangling like fireflies in a blur of light where she looked straight down into Old Brinsley. She hurried along the edge of the track, stepping carefully over the levers of the points, and, crossing the converging lines, came to the stile by the great white gates near the weighing machine, whence she emerged on the road. Then the fear which had led her by the hand unhesitating loosed its hold, and shrank back. (The Vicar’s Garden 88)

38As in the previous example, the most reductive revision concerns the active emotion, fear, and its effects upon Elizabeth. While, in the later version, fear is vaguely described as having “led her” along and then “shrank,” its characterisation in the earlier version is much more emphatic: “the fear which had led her by the hand unhesitating loosed its hold, and shrank back.”

Climax, Death, Writing an Ending

39As the work of previous critics demonstrates, a detailed discussion of the concluding passages to “Odour of Chrysanthemums,” which Lawrence heavily rewrote on numerous occasions, warrants an essay in itself. However, while the present essay is more concerned with the main body of the narrative, having reassessed the earlier version of the story, it is important to highlight the ways in which the dramatic tension stemming from the interplay between absence and presence anticipates and provides an internal dramatic context for the conclusion, in which Walter finally returns.

40In the short “Foreword to Women in Love,” in which he remarks that “the sensual passions and mysteries are equally sacred with the spiritual mysteries and passions,” Lawrence famously concludes by suggesting that “every natural crisis in emotion or passion or understanding comes from this pulsing, frictional to-and-fro, which works up to culmination” (Women in Love 485-86). The crisis in “Odour of Chrysanthemums” concerns the “tension of expectancy,” and does indeed work “up to culmination.” In the early version of the story, Annie, in her “childish dread of abnormal states,” anticipates the “terror of an approaching climax” (The Vicar’s Garden 85) and, in terms of the story’s internal drama, the return of Walter provides Elizabeth’s agonizing anxiety with a release, which comes about through the attainment of certainty, regardless of Walter’s fate. When Walter’s mother finally arrives at the Bates’s cottage “at a quarter to ten” and obscurely moans “Whatever shall we do, whatever shall we do!” and “I don’t know […] I don’t know” (The Vicar’s Garden 92), Elizabeth’s anxiety reaches a limit-point and she asks the following question:

“Is he dead?” she asked, and at the words her heart swung violently, though she felt a slight flush of shame at the ultimate extravagance of the idea. The question sufficiently startled the old lady, almost brought her to herself. (The Vicar’s Garden 92, 113; The Prussian Officer 191)

41It is worth noting that, although Lawrence inserted an extra clause in 1914, this passage effectively went unaltered throughout the various phases of writing. Though her heart swings “violently” at the suggestion, Elizabeth desires the release of a definitive answer above all and the story’s climax provides this shortly afterwards as the miners appear, carrying her husband’s body.

42Another point of interest for this essay, which relates to the “genetic” approach to Lawrence’s writing, is the writerly context of the story’s climax. That is to say, the story’s climax also represents an end to writing. The story’s ending represents the point at which Lawrence’s process of writing ends, crossing a textual borderline to become a fixed product. However, by revisiting the story, and the story’s ending in particular, Lawrence repeatedly re-opened the text.

  • 7 On monumentality, see Lawrence’s “Foreword” to Studies in Classic American Literature (379-86).

43It is a well-known fact that Lawrence had a tendency to rewrite his work, regardless of the genre, from short poems or short stories to long novels, and he often did so on numerous occasions, as in “Odour of Chrysanthemums.” However, Lawrence’s tendency to rewrite endings in particular is less commonly observed, though I believe it relates to a problematic feature of “finished” works, which is that they are traditionally regarded as unified, self-sufficient, and complete, hence the common use of organic analogies like “maturity.” While Lawrence often made use of organic metaphors himself, it is also true that, as a writer, he consistently resisted and undermined concepts of unity, self-sufficiency, and completion; not only in his cultural critique of monumentality and the West, but also in his fiction, where stasis is commonly associated with death, and the universe is often figured as a creative flux.7

  • 8 See, for example, Lawrence’s “‘The Bad Side of Books’: Introduction to A Bibliography of the Writin (...)
  • 9 See The First Women in Love (443).

44Writing an ending represented a significant dilemma for Lawrence, who was forced to resolve the creative flux of his own processes of writing into static textual objects, hence his apparent disdain for his own published books, which he seems to have regarded as the dead material remainder of his creative life.8 It is worth pondering the significance of the dead male body in relation to this point, which forms a concluding object of contemplation not only in the interrelated play The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd (whose narrative parallels “Odour of Chrysanthemums” and is therefore often discussed in connection with the story), but also in Lawrence’s iconic novel Women in Love, at the climax of which Birkin reflects at length on Gerald’s body; the latter scene originally formed the conclusion to Women in Love and was also heavily rewritten by Lawrence on numerous occasions.9

  • 10 Another noteworthy inter-text for “Odour of Chrysanthemums” is the depiction and dressing of the de (...)
  • 11 This is partly a reference to the real deaths of Lawrence’s uncle James, who died in a mining accid (...)

45Traditional biographical readings of Lawrence and of Lawrence’s manuscripts are partly responsible for the lack of attention paid by critics to the writerly significance of death and endings. Cushman does point out some important literary contexts for the climax to “Odour of Chrysanthemums,” including J. M. Synge’s play “Riders to the Sea,” which appears to represent a direct and influential literary inter-text.10 However, while Cushman notes that “the young Lawrence” praised Synge’s play and suggests it “also influenced the composition of ‘Odour of Chrysanthemums,’” he ultimately argues that, “nevertheless the main creative impulse came from Lawrence’s own experience” (Cushman, Emergence 50).11 Rather than interpret Lawrence or the story as an absolute autobiographer/y, biography should instead be treated as another inter-text, alongside literary texts; Stanley Sultan has convincingly argued as much in the essay “Lawrence the Anti-Autobiographer.” In this respect, it is worth pointing out the striking coincidences in Lawrence’s allusions to “Riders to the Sea.” He first mentions having read the play (and wanting to read more by Synge) in a letter to Blanche Jennings on 1 November 1909 (Letters 1, 142), the precise time at which he is likely to have first written “Odour of Chrysanthemums.” Similarly, Lawrence’s next allusion to the play, in which he describes it as “about the genuinest bit of dramatic tragedy, English, since Shakespeare” (Letters 1, 261), comes in a letter to Sallie Hopkin on 26 April 1911, just a few weeks after he finished rewriting the story for the English Review, which suggests he may have reread it for this purpose.

  • 12 For a fuller discussion of these alternative literary ontologies see Sally Bushell’s chapter “A Phi (...)

46Notions of a writer’s “maturity” or of a “mature” literary work fit within a New Critical literary ontology, where writers have a defined oeuvre, of mature and immature or best and worst works, and where each work is itself treated as a complete and distinct (aesthetic) object. Within this ontology, drafts represent incomplete, immature and, ultimately, inauthentic objects and serve therefore as evidence of artistic “growth” towards maturity. However, genetic or compositional criticism offers a different literary ontology, in which the “finished” work or text, as product, exists on a continuum with the “unfinished” work or text, as process.12

47Lawrence saw “Odour of Chrysanthemums” in “finished” form when it was published in the English Review in 1911. Hence, when he came to revise the story in 1914, Lawrence was in a sense gazing at the corpse of his own work. While it may seem perverse to cross the ultimate borderline between life and text, Elizabeth’s reassessment of her relationship with Walter in the rewritten endings (of July and October 1914) can also be read within a context of writing, as both character and author re-read their past from a point of completion: “the horror of the distance between them was almost too much for her—it was so infinite a gap she must look across” (The Vicar’s Garden 216; The Prussian Officer 199).

  • 13 The phrase is reminiscent of Jesus’s last words related in John 19.30: “It is finished.”

48Rewriting the story’s climax in July and October 1914, Lawrence introduced the eventual final line, in which Elizabeth “winced with fear and shame” from death, “her ultimate master” (The Vicar’s Garden 216; The Prussian Officer 199). This recoil from the stasis of endings, as from a cruel master, echoes Lawrence’s own resistance to endings, as discussed above. However, endings also provide a relief, and Elizabeth’s climactic relief, having resolved her agonising uncertainty, can be compared to the writer’s own relief when finally resolving the uncertainty of a process of writing. In this respect, Lawrence introduced a highly noteworthy repetition during the same late phase of writing. In the early 1910 version of the story, after Elizabeth and her mother-in-law finish washing Walter’s dead body, the first sentence of the subsequent paragraph is simple: “At last it was finished” (The Vicar’s Garden 98).13 Lawrence never altered this sentence when subsequently rewriting the story’s ending and, in 1914, he repeated it when writing the concluding paragraph, which begins with the identical line.


The Authorized King James Version of The Bible. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1997. Print.

Booth, Howard J. “Same-Sex Desire, Cross-Gender Identification and Asexuality in D. H. Lawrence’s Early Short Fiction.” Études Lawrenciennes 42 (2011): 36-57. Print.

Boulton, James T. “D. H. Lawrence’s Odour of Chrysanthemums: An Early Version.” Renaissance and Modern Studies 13.1 (1969): 4-48. Print.

Bushell, Sally. Text as Process: Creative Composition in Wordsworth, Tennyson, and Dickinson. Charlottesville: Virginia UP, 2009. Print.

Clark, L. D. Introduction. The Plumed Serpent. Ed. L. D. Clark. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987. xvvi-xlvii. Print.

Coroneos, Con, and Trudi Tate. “Lawrence’s tales.” The Cambridge Companion to D. H. Lawrence. Ed. Anne Fernihough. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001. 103-18. Print.

Cushman, Keith. D. H. Lawrence at Work: The Emergence of the Prussian Officer Stories. Charlottesville: Virginia UP, 1978. Print.

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---. “’The Bad Side of Books’: Introduction to a Bibliography of the Writings of D. H. Lawrence, edited by Edward D. McDonald.” Introductions and Reviews. Eds. N. H. Reeve and John Worthen. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2005. 73-78. Print.

---. The Prussian Officer and Other Stories. Ed. John Worthen. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1983. Print.

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---. Women in Love. Eds. David R. Farmer, Lindeth Vasey and John Worthen. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1987. Print.

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1 See Cushman, Emergence 47-76, and Schulz 363-371, who argues “the author’s main objective in this story is to explore the widow’s complex response to her husband’s death” (366).

2 Schulz qualifies this reading, however, by suggesting the story’s climactic lesson “in human isolation” is not a universal one but is relevant to these particular “unsuitable spouses” (367). Furthermore, Schulz suggests the story ends on a positive note, with “Mrs. Bates turning away from the irreparable failure of her married life toward a vague hope of finding fulfilment as a mother” (368). Incidentally, Mara Kalnins has provided an extremely similar reading to Cushman in “D. H. Lawrence’s ‘Odour of Chrysanthemums’: The Three Endings” (1976).

3 As Daniel Ferrer and Michael Groden discuss in their introduction to Genetic Criticism: Texts and Avant-Textes (2004), traditional Anglo-American manuscript studies have “tended to be pragmatic and not theoretically self-conscious, to consider textuality and intention as unproblematic, and to see the manuscripts exclusively in relation to the subsequent published work” (4-5).

4 Cushman describes the opening paragraphs, specifically, as “a brilliant, closely written descriptive set piece, carefully designed to establish the tone and mood of the story, to put the reader immediately into its imaginative world—and to produce a shock of recognition in an editor” (Emergence 51); the latter point is in reference to Ford’s apparent emphatic acceptance of the story.

5 For Schulz, this episode also symbolises the start of a new and more hopeful phase in Elizabeth’s life (368).

6 Incidentally, for the English Review text, Lawrence completely cut the brief episode in which Elizabeth reads a story to the children, which is specified as Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Fir Tree.” Rivers discusses the potential significance of this reference.

7 On monumentality, see Lawrence’s “Foreword” to Studies in Classic American Literature (379-86).

8 See, for example, Lawrence’s “‘The Bad Side of Books’: Introduction to A Bibliography of the Writings of D. H. Lawrence, edited by Edward D. McDonald” in Introductions and Reviews (73-78).

9 See The First Women in Love (443).

10 Another noteworthy inter-text for “Odour of Chrysanthemums” is the depiction and dressing of the dead body of Christ in the gospels, which Cushman also alludes to.

11 This is partly a reference to the real deaths of Lawrence’s uncle James, who died in a mining accident before Lawrence’s birth, and his older brother Ernest, who died of pneumonia and erysipelas in 1901 and whose body, like Walter in “Odour of Chrysanthemums,” was brought home and placed in the Lawrences’ parlour. However, Cushman also suggests Lawrence’s own parents “are the real prototypes of Walter and Elizabeth Bates” (Cushman, Emergence 49) and, as discussed, relates Lawrence’s revisions of 1914 to his marriage to Frieda Weekley as well.

12 For a fuller discussion of these alternative literary ontologies see Sally Bushell’s chapter “A Philosophy of Composition” in Text as Process (215-38).

13 The phrase is reminiscent of Jesus’s last words related in John 19.30: “It is finished.”

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Elliott Morsia, « "Odour of Chrysanthemums": Absent-Presence and Textual Genetics », Journal of the Short Story in English, 68 | 2017, 41-61.

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Elliott Morsia, « "Odour of Chrysanthemums": Absent-Presence and Textual Genetics », Journal of the Short Story in English [En ligne], 68 | Spring 2017, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2019, consulté le 21 août 2019. URL :


Elliott Morsia

Elliott Morsia completed his PhD in 2017 after having been an AHRC-sponsored PhD candidate at Royal Holloway, University of London. His dissertation was entitled D.H. Lawrence and Genetic Criticism: Fictional Processes from 1913-1925. He received the Marjorie Thompson award for outstanding academic achievement from Queen Mary, University of London in 2012. He has previously published “A Genetic Study of ‘The Shades of Spring’” in the Journal of D. H. Lawrence Studies (vol. 3, no3, 2014, 152-178); his recent article on “The Composition of ‘The Depressed Person’” was published in Textual Cultures (vol. 9, n°2, 2015, 79-99).

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