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Aspects of Lawrence’s Style Revealed by “The Back Road”

Helen Baron
p. 143-167

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1A very short story, consisting of twenty-two sentences, entitled “The Back Road” and followed by the initials “D.H.L.” was published in the Everyman magazine in 1913. It lay there forgotten until 1990, when Jonathan Rose discovered it and published an article in the D.H.Lawrence Review (Fall 1990) in which he attempted to prove, from “circumstantial and textual evidence” (Rose 267), that Lawrence was indeed the author of the story. He concluded that Lawrence must have written it earlier than any of his other published work (Rose 270).

  • 1 The precise passages are not specified, but given as: Letter, 1907; Letter, 1913; Sons and Lovers, (...)

2This identification was soon refuted by Jill Farringdon who published an article entitled: “‘The Back Road’ and the Linguistic voice of D.H. Lawrence” in the D.H. Lawrence Review of Spring 1992. The essay reported the results of subjecting “The Back Road” to statistical comparison with five specimens of Lawrence’s writing, 20 to 25 sentences in length, from letters, fiction and a prose essay,1 using a forensic analysis known as the “cusum” test which had long been accepted in criminal courts. The guiding principle of the “cusum [or cumulative sum] test” is that each individual’s utterances (spoken or written) have what might be called a “fingerprint,” which is consistent throughout his or her lifetime, so that when any specimens of someone’s language are statistically examined, they produce the identical pattern each time. The data that Jill Farringdon used for her comparisons were: the amount of deviation from average sentence length, the frequency of two- and three-letter words and the frequency of words beginning with a vowel. When two passages by Lawrence were compared with each other, the patterns, in the form of graphs, superimposed precisely; but when passages by Lawrence were compared with one specimen from Aldous Huxley’s “Introduction” to his edition of Lawrence’s letters, or with various passages from “The Back Road,” there was a mismatch between the graphs each time.

3I take this forensic analysis as proof that Lawrence did not write “The Back Road”: proof of a quality that would stand up in a court-of-law. The case is closed. The whole of my paper is based on this judgement.

4The results of the “cusum” test support my subjective impression that the use of language in “The Back Road” is unlike Lawrence’s—a subjective impression which I can only express by saying that it seems extremely wooden, or perhaps that the rhythms of the sentences are very heavy-footed. However, the graphs do not help me, as a reader, to identify the distinguishing literary qualities, or techniques, of the two styles. Even so, what Jill Farringdon’s scientific proof that “The Back Road” cannot be by Lawrence does provide is an opportunity to exploit its text as an example of how Lawrence did not write, in order to achieve a clearer understanding of how he did write.

5It is the aim of this paper to compare “The Back Road” with the opening page of Lawrence’s earliest published story, “A Prelude,” of December 1907 (AP 5). The purpose is to identify features of the style of “The Back Road” which are definitely different from Lawrence’s, in order to gain a better insight into Lawrence’s characteristic means of expression. The comparison cannot be exactly like-with-like, because “The Back Road” only consists of twenty-two sentences, which are, incidentally, divided into three parts: 1. the boy’s arrival at his boarding school, 2. his last day of school when he kisses a girl in the moonlight, and 3. his return in old age to the same place. By contrast, the opening page of “A Prelude” contains the first nineteen sentences of a ten-page story. The pace and rhythm, the attention to detail, are bound to be different. So any comparison must be based on precise features of syntax, characteristic sentence openings, verb-tenses, use of adverbs, features of rhythm and repetition.

  • 2 I dismiss as tendentious the circumstantial evidence he adduces that because “The Back Road” appear (...)

6The focus of this paper is strictly on style and definitely not on content. In order to emphasise this point it is necessary to tackle some of the arguments used by Jonathan Rose when he published his discovery of “The Back Road.” He focussed his proof that “The Back Road” was written by Lawrence on content and vocabulary, rather than syntax.2 The D.H. Lawrence Review asked leading Lawrence scholar John Worthen for a report on Rose’s first draft, and Worthen objected that the geographical setting of “the Saline Hills” was unLawrencian and implied a Scottish author. Rose cited this counter argument in his published article and coolly retorted that “the scenery of ‘The Back Road’ corresponds closely [my italics] to Jessie Chambers’s description of her father’s farm. For Saline Hills read Annesley Hills; for Farmer Heeltap, read Edmund Chambers.” He further suggests that for “the roar of the river” we can simply substitute the brook at Felley Mill! Equally obvious to Rose is that the trees in “The Back Road” with their “withered leaves” are synonymous with Jessie Chambers’s description of “the nursery of young firs and spruce trees we called the Warren.” (Rose 269-70). This cavalier assembling of fictitious proof, which is even undeterred by the fact that firs and spruces are evergreens, trees that have needles instead of leaves, is so bizarre that it brings to mind the famous and hilarious scene in Act 4 of Shakespeare’s Henry V in which the Welsh Captain Fluellen tries to prove King Harry is truly comparable to Alexander the Great on the grounds that: “There is a river in Macedon, and there is also, moreover, a river at Monmouth […] ‘tis as like as my fingers is to my fingers, and there is salmons in both” (Henry V 4.7.26-31).

  • 3 References are to the line-numbers in the texts reproduced at the end of this paper.

7Content is not proof of style: nor is vocabulary. The mere presence of farmers and trees does not confirm authorship. However Rose confidently points out further items of vocabulary and content in “The Back Road” which might tempt readers of Sons and Lovers and The Rainbow to agree with him: “a huge orange moon” (14-15), “golden moonlight” (18), “he kissed her” (19), “dead rainbow hopes” (33), and a reference to lovers’ initials carved in a tree (16).3 For this to identify Lawrence as the author, we would have to assert that he had taken out intellectual copyright on moons, kisses and rainbows, etc., and that no other author ever mentioned them. An author’s linguistic fingerprint cannot be sought in this way, but in his characteristic mode of expression: how he writes.

8Rose does attend to one aspect of the style in “The Back Road.” He focuses on the problem that one expression does seem unLawrencian. It occurs in the second paragraph, the following context: “That night in the dormitory he overheard […] three boys discussing the deeds actual and potential of the captain […] he felled the rector with his right, the janitor with his left, and […] he butted Farmer Heeltap’s bull to the scathe of the latter” (6-12). Rose recognises that the word “scathe” is “unusual” but he dismisses the problem on the grounds that Lawrence “had a fondness for [unusual] words like smeggin and measly” and that Jessie Chambers claimed Lawrence’s “speech abounded in vivid and oddly characteristic turns” (Rose 271). This argument is a disastrously reductive one—in effect it is that Lawrence used some strange words and therefore “scathe” could be one of them. But there are plenty of hints in the contextual passage as to where, socially, the old-fashioned, rather pretentious, even Victorian literary mediaevalising, expression, “to the scathe of the latter” belongs: in the middle-class register of privately educated schoolboys and their literature. On the other hand, “smeggin” and “measly” betray the decidedly different register of lower-class slang.

9No amount of attention to trees, farmers, kisses, moons or strange words can constitute proof of characteristic style, any more than a river in Macedon can prove anything about the qualities of a King born in Monmouth.

10How can the style of writing found in “The Back Road” illuminate our understanding of Lawrence’s personal and unique use of language? Rose concluded that “‘The Back Road’ was written in late 1905 or 1906 for ‘A Prelude’ suggests that Lawrence had already matured considerably as an author by 1907” (Rose 270). Therefore the opening 19 sentences of this short story are the most reasonable choice of material for comparison with “The Back Road.” Lawrence wrote “A Prelude” between 20 October and 9 November 1907 in order to enter it in a competition in the local newspaper, the Nottinghamshire Guardian, under the heading “The most enjoyable Christmas.”

11First I will compare the opening sentence of each passage, and then examine the way all the sentences in each piece begin.

12The first sentence of “The Back Road” (a) is:

The gravel crunched, and a boy, moving slowly along, passed the janitor’s house, and stood for the first time in the Back Road.

13The first sentence of “A Prelude” (b) is:

In the kitchen of a small farm a little woman sat cutting bread and butter.

14Both sentences use the present participle, ending in “ing,” which suggests current movement, but in “The Back Road” this is end-stopped by the context. Although the boy is described as “moving along” his movement is foreclosed by the past definite verbs “passed” and “stood.” By contrast, in the other passage the little woman’s activity “cutting bread and butter” is still going on at the end of the sentence. It is as if readers are asked to assume her activity is continuous until the author tells us otherwise. How is this achieved, grammatically? Partly it is because the woman is not given a main verb after the present participle, “cutting” (the past definite “sat” came before), so that by the end of the sentence, she is still doing it. The suggestion that Lawrence certainly intended this effect is supported by his repetition of “cut” in the next paragraph.

15The chief grammatical difference between the two opening sentences is that, whereas the woman acts a main verb before the present participle, she “sat cutting,” the boy does not. His main verbs come afterwards and bring his movement to an end: “a boy, moving […] passed […] and stood.” This distinction holds true for nearly all of the present participles in the two passages. In “The Back Road,” of the eleven “-ing” endings, six are participles and five are adjectives. Nearly all the participles have this grammatical structure: they are not preceded by a main verb, they are a participle following a noun: “boys discussing,” (7) “a shrill wind driving,” (21) “schoolboys strolling,” (27) “his thought running” (32-33). Because there is no main verb, the emphasis is on the nouns (boys, wind, thought, etc.) rather than the activity, and so the meaning of the participle, the “-ing” verb, is tilted towards an adjectival function. What would the different nuance be if the author had written, “three boys were discussing” or “three boys lay in bed discussing”? I suggest that the impression given would be more active. In fact, when the list of these phrases given above is read, it brings to mind the song, “On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me,” with its sequence “Twelve drummers drumming, Eleven pipers piping, Ten lords a-leaping, Nine ladies dancing, Eight maids a-milking, Seven swans a-swimming and six geese a-laying,” all images which can readily be represented in pictures, because the emphasis is on the nouns, so that the activity becomes a decorative extension of the visual image of each noun. The verbal force of the participles, their power to foreground current activity, is reduced to a descriptive function in “The Back Road.” To push this observation to its logical conclusion, one might suggest that “The Back Road” is presented as a series of tableaux, whereas the opening of “A Prelude” is more like an on-stage drama.

16In one instance only does the author of “The Back Road” introduce a main verb before the participle: “The voices sank to thin sibilants, growing thinner […] as he floated away into the land of dreams” (7-9). Here, the participle “growing” placed after the finite verb “sank” is used to emphasise continuous activity; and that is, in fact, the only formula found in the Lawrence passage: “looked up, and setting” (7), “hurried about, bringing […] lifting […] peeping” (16-17), “turned away, and catching” (20-21). It seems that Lawrence characteristically uses the present participle to enhance the impression of continuous activity. This observation is re-inforced by comparison of the one sentence by each author which presents multiple activities in the form of a sequence of verbs:

He raced express trains, he sprang backwards across the river, he felled the rector […] he butted Farmer Heeltap’s bull […]. (BR 9-12)
The little woman hurried about, bringing milk and other things from the dairy; lifting the potatoes from the fire, peeping through the window […]. (AP 17-18)

17The passage from “The Back Road” uses simple syntax, Pronoun + Main Verb, which creates a static list of completed actions, whereas Lawrence does not even use the simple form of the main verb. Not only does he vary the presentation of the subject with the adjective “little,” he uses a phrasal verb, “hurried about”; and then his list of activities is all expressed with the continuous present participle.

  • 4 As a footnote to this observation, both authors use adjectives ending in “ing.” In (a) there are fi (...)

18Lawrence’s preference for implying ongoing activity is also indicated by the fact that he alone uses the gerundival noun form of the “-ing” verb-ending: “a rumbling and a whirring,” (15) “ached with watching” (19). He could have written, for example, “The clock rumbled and whirred,” or “she watched so long it made her ache,” but, in effect, chose nouns which masquerade as verbs, noises which pretend to be an activity. This adds statistical support to the subjective impression that Lawrence’s writing is lively and “The Back Road” is static. Lawrence emphasises the verbal, representing objects as a form of activity, while the other writer progresses by means of nouns which are feebly enlivened by adjectives, such as “the eager tears.”4

19Before moving away from the task of comparing the opening sentences, there is a further, salient issue to be analysed: their impact on the ear.

20Rhythmically, or musically, the two opening sentences are very different. In (a) there are frequent down beats (printed here in bold): “The gravel crunched, and a boy, moving slowly along, passed the janitor’s house, and stood for the first time in the Back Road.” In (b) by contrast, the rhythm is less emphatic and therefore more difficult to scan with certainty, but is probably: “In the kitchen of a small farm a little woman sat cutting bread and butter.” There are more strong beats in (a), but that is not accounted for by the fact that it contains more words. Describing rhythm can be done in various terminologies, but since my training in scansion is from the Latin tradition, I would characterise (a) as largely “spondaic”: it has many long stresses, which occur in pairs three times; indeed the two long beats of the title, “The Back Road” form a spondae. In fact the statistics are very telling: sentence (a) has 23 words, which contain 14 long and 15 short stresses, almost equal in number, whereas in sentence (b) Lawrence wrote 15 words which contain 8 long but as many as twelve short stresses. Moreover, there are two sequences of three short syllables in a row here, but none in sentence (a).

21Is it possible to identify rhythm as an indicator of an author’s idiosyncratic style? In some ways rhythm is closely aligned to syntax. So I turn to grammar, and try to flesh out, with substantive analysis, my subjective impression that the prose of “The Back Road” is “wooden” (or, to be more precise, lacks flexibility and animation), by comparing the way all the sentences of both pieces begin, and, specifically, how long it is before the main verb is reached.

22My initial conclusion is that the author of “A Prelude” finds a greater variety of ways of delaying the arrival of the main verb. Take, for example, the sentences beginning with the word “The.” Although the quantities are not hugely discrepant—eight in “The Back Road” and five in “The Prelude”—there is a great difference in the relationship between “The” and the ensuing noun and verb. “The Back Road” begins “The gravel crunched.” Although the sentence continues with “and,” this opening group of three words is a complete sense-unit; and this simple syntax appears frequently in the text: “The voices sank” (7-8), “The captain was there” (9), “The stranger glanced” (28). By contrast, in “A Prelude” Lawrence only uses this basic form once, “The sky was” (8), but even this is not a complete grammatical unit, because it requires the following words: “heavy and grey.” In all other sentences beginning with “The” Lawrence interposes one or more adjectives, an adverb or a whole phrase between noun and verb.

23Two observations strike me as a result of this comparison. Firstly, Lawrence’s syntax produces rhythms that are more varied, lighter, suggesting more movement and a greater range of possible outcomes. Secondly, Lawrence makes the reader wait for the main verb, with the result that the reader’s mind is invited to be more open and to wonder what will happen. By contrast, each sentence in “The Back Road” seems to give readers all they need to know, and so deters them from asking questions, such as, “Who is this boy? Where has he come from? Where is he going?” The sentence structure seems to aim at a self-sufficient tableau, a scene, a static moment without the alluring hint of open possibilities. The grammar is closed and unsuggestive; it does not invite the reader’s imagination to forage for parallel options, alternative perspectives.

24By contrast, Lawrence’s sentences offer a varied range of description, background, action, and anticipation, which tempts readers to speculate. This tactic of making readers wait for the main verb, or for the resolution of little questions that the narrative hints at, is like a microcosm of a strategy used by many novelists, who stimulate their readers’ imaginations by teasing them to wait for clarification. I am not likening these works of fiction to detective whodunnits. On the contrary, I am referring to the skill creative writers have in awakening their readers’ imaginations, in provoking them to wonder and ruminate about the details of the story being recounted.

25One such memorable delay is in Chapter XIV of Mr Noon, a novel based on Lawrence’s travels in 1912-13 but written in 1920-22. Lawrence introduces the heroine on page 119 with the words, “In the Orient Express, which in those paradisal days ran to the Morgenland via Munich and Vienna, sat a lady.” Lawrence describes her as active and voluble for three pages, until on page 122 he provides the reader with her name. The delay is clearly deliberate teasing, and the reason why this example sticks in my mind is that it exemplifies an intriguing problem for an editor charged with providing explanatory notes. Do we rush in, acting as the transparent uncomplicated simple servant of literature and offer at the first mention (119) the annotation that this larger-than-life airhead of a woman is based on Frieda Weekley (Lawrence’s wife), or do we exercise obedience to the author’s the narrative deviousness and wait till page 122, when the text finally gets round to calling her Mrs Johanna Keighley? This is especially a problem in the case of the Cambridge University Press editions of Lawrence’s works, because an asterisk is placed in the text at each point where there is an explanatory note available at the back of the book: it is like a cattle-prod to the reader to stop reading and check out some background information.

26My extrapolation from minor delays in sentence structure to macrocosmic teasing of the reader may be an argument too far. It may be best to stay with the basic observation that in “A Prelude” Lawrence inserts a variety of grammatical content between the nominative (subject) and the verb, and this has the effect that his sentences not only have a lighter rhythm, but produce the effect of flexibility and animation.

27Many sentences in “The Back Road” start with “He,” “His” or “She,” “Her,” and in all cases the verb immediately follows: “His eyes grew,” “He felt,” “He raced,” “She was,” “Her eyes flashed,” “He turned,” “He fumbled.” This is not only very simply structured in grammatical terms, it also seems to me (again, in the terminology of Latin scansion) predominantly spondaic. However, I have been corrected by Professor Sylvia Adamson, whom I consulted to save me from any howlers in a draft of this paper, and she replied that this is a serious howler, on the grounds that subject pronouns are typically unstressed. How is it that I hear, for example, “He turned” as “tum-tum” and not “ti-tum”? I think it is because each grammatical unit is end-stopped with a main verb.

28By contrast, where the subject of Lawrence’s sentences is “She,” “Her” or “He,” there is more variety. Admittedly, towards the end of the passage, he uses “She ran” and “He drooped,” but, otherwise, there is variation: “She skilfully spread,” “So she turned,” “She turned away,” “Afterwards she laid,” “Very often her neck ached.” These rhythms would in Latin scansion be termed iambic, dactylic, anapaestic, and other labels for measures with lighter stresses.

29The repetition of “The gravel crunched” in the third section gives it a special prominence in “The Back Road.” One might almost imagine the tale having been set as an exercise in school, such as: “Write a short story in three sections, beginning ‘The gravel crunched’. “However, this expression gives us a fascinating, and, I believe, crucial, contrast with Lawrence’s way of introducing sounds and noises. In “A Prelude” there are three instances where noises occur: “There was a rumbling and a whirring in the corner and the clock struck five” (15-16); “There was a click of the yard gate” (20); and “A clinking scrape of iron shod boots sounded outside” (22-23). In each instance, the location is offered, “in the corner,” “the yard” and “outside,” with the inevitable implication that there is a spatial relation between the noise and a perceiver, i. e. the old woman. In imagination readers turn their heads along with her to look at the clock in the corner.

30If Lawrence had wanted the gravel to crunch, I suggest he would have written: “There was a crunch on the gravel.” In fact, I would go even further, and speculate that this represents a profound philosophical position on Lawrence’s part. Gravel cannot crunch. It is inanimate. It does not have a life of its own. If a crunch is heard, there has to be the hint that it is perceived by a human being. Lawrence already has his grey-haired woman in place, so that all these perceptions can be intuited as focalised through her, in her state of anxiety while preparing for a meal, looking out of the windows, waiting and anticipating.

31By coincidence, Lawrence did write about crunching gravel in the mid-nineteen-twenties. The Plumed Serpent was written and re-written between 1923 and 1925 and first published in January 1926. In Chapter XV, there is the following:

On such a night Kate sat on her verandah facing the deepness of the black night […] Now and again she saw the oleanders and the papaya […] by the blue gleam of lightening […] There was a distant noise of thunders, several storms prowling round like hungry jaguars, above the lake.
And several times the gate clicked, and crunching steps came along the gravel, someone passed on the gravel walk, saluting her […] (PS 220:22-9)

32Here, the expression “crunching steps came along the gravel” seems to corroborate my analysis, and my insistence that inanimate gravel cannot crunch. However, the preceding expression, “the gate clicked,” appears to undermine my case completely. In “A Prelude” Lawrence wrote, “There was a click of the yard gate” and in Sons and Lovers, Paul’s arrival at the farm with his bicycle on Easter Sunday in Chapter IX is expressly registered by Miriam: “Hearing the clack of the gate, she stood in suspense” (255:25). In Paul Morel this is: “Hearing the chock of the big white gate, she stood still in suspense” (103:37). So why did he write “the gate clicked” in The Plumed Serpent? Can a gate “click” on its own? In mitigation, it must be said that in the context of this sentence, Lawrence has given such emphatic focus on Kate’s perceiving consciousness that no reader could think that the expression “the gate clicked” was attributing independent life to an inanimate object.

33As early as 1907, in “The Prelude,” Lawrence was seeking a form of focalized narrative in which the story is told from a point of view internal to the story itself. Obviously it is not yet remotely as complex as the later “free indirect style” in which the author uses a mixture of verb-tenses with indications of time and place to channel perceptions through characters’ minds to produce the so-called “novel of consciousness,” as was lucidly discussed by Violeta Sotirova in Etudes Lawrenciennes (151-2); nonetheless the notations in “The Prelude” are related to that way of writing. By contrast, in “The Back Road” the sound is recorded neutrally. No agent is mentioned before the sound occurs, and no character in the tale hears it. The style is one of impersonality, however sentimental it also is. The story is recounted by someone looking on from a distance. The narrator’s stance is to tell the reader directly what the central male character is doing and this includes what his eyes, nose and mouth are doing. The sentence “His eyes grew moist, and he sniffled softly to himself” (2-3) can be compared with the first sentence of paragraph 5 of “A Prelude”: “She turned away with a little sigh.” They seem very similar in style and intention. But there is a difference. In “The Back Road,” the actions described suggest feelings but there is no attempt to present those feelings through the character’s own consciousness, whereas in “A Prelude,” the words “away” and “little” suggest an observer who is less detached and more emotionally involved with the character. This suggestion, in turn, challenges us to question and describe the different role of each narrator.

34Violeta Sotirova associates the impersonal narrator with the narrator who makes authoritative pronouncements on the characters’ experience, usually in the present tense, and cites George Eliot as a prime example (160).

  • 5 Mr Noon may be the exception to the rule, since it was not revised for publication, and it is chara (...)

35The opening of “A Prelude” contains two instances of this kind of author/narrator pronouncement. In the first paragraph, the narrator steps outside the action for a moment to make a detached comment: “but grey hair will not take the warm caress of firelight” (2-3), and in the sixth paragraph he does so again to observe, in the manner of a social historian: “Like clocks in many farmers’ kitchens, it was more than half an hour fast” (16). One might reasonably conclude that at this early stage in his career Lawrence had not fully emerged from the influence of nineteenth-century fiction with its tradition of narrators who comment on the period setting, the action or the characters; but it is worth remembering that despite his mastery of free indirect style in the intervening years, Lawrence still had the impulse to make this sort of authorial reminiscent observation in 1921, as exemplified in the passage from Mr Noon quoted above.5

36In “The Back Road” the narrator’s only authoritative pronouncement has a different quality: it is both detached from and involved with the narrative; “he kissed her with the ineffable tenderness and self-forgetfulness of youth” (19-20). This is not an attempt to represent the character’s feelings as felt by the character himself, but a judgement made by the detached narrator. It sounds like an older man commenting on a younger man. And yet the narrator in this story is not detached. At almost every point he seems to stand outside the main character, attributing emotional signals to him, such as “His eyes grew moist and he sniffled softly to himself” (2-3). The word “softly” does not indicate the boy’s feelings, but the narrator’s observation. (Compare this with Lawrence’s description of the woman “peeping […] anxiously” (18), which seeks to give the woman’s own emotion). The narrator’s technique in “The Back Road” is to use emotive language to inject sentiment into an otherwise impersonally observed account: “eager tears” (3), “the kindly tree” (16), “dead rainbow hopes” (33). This mixture of impersonality and the attribution of feelings from outside, compellingly deserves the designation of sentimentality.

37By contrast, Lawrence uses a variety of tiny notations to lure readers into the illusion that they are witnessing the little woman’s inner thoughts. For example, in the fourth paragraph, she observes the sky to be heavy and grey and Lawrence writes “So she turned” (9), which leads us to imagine we have seen her thought-process, reasoning, or motivation; and then he adds “The northern sky was blacker than ever,” (10-11) which tricks us into thinking we have witnessed her making comparisons between the skies on either side of the farmhouse, and on earlier occasions, as she frequently monitors the changes in the weather. Indeed, his direct attribution of emotion to her, “peeping […] anxiously” (18), suggests it might be revealing to conduct a further analytical comparison of the two passages in their use of adverbs:

“The Back Road”
1 moving slowly along
3 sniffled softly to himself
15 moon swung slowly up
16 initials cunningly entwined
18 eyes flashed softly in the […] moonlight
23 turned mechanically to the left
26 He […] moved uneasily with his feet
28 to gaze curiously at
32 walked dully onward

“The Prelude”
4 She skilfully spread
18 peeping through the window anxiously.
25 worked heavily

38There are many more adverbs in “The Back Road” than in “A Prelude,” none of them unusual or arresting, many of them clichéd. But all three of Lawrence’s adverbs are distinctive in different ways. The first, “skilfully,” is a value-judgement by the author or narrator. It is not neutrally descriptive, as “slowly” and “softly” are in the other text, nor can it be attributed to the little woman as her feeling about her action. Unusually, the adverb “skilfully” voices the author/narrator’s approval. Furthermore, in the context of the current comparative analysis, “skilfully” is the only adverb that precedes the verb, in either passage (“cunningly entwined” is, in effect, an adverb qualifying an adjective).

39The second adverb, “anxiously,” ends the sentence. By contrast, none of the adverbs in “The Back Road” occurs at the end of a sentence. The effect Lawrence achieves by this is to spread this particular adverb into the next sentence, make it extend in time.

40The third adverb, “heavily,” is like a transferred epithet: it does not mean literally what it says. How does someone “work heavily”? What Lawrence means is that the burly man has done heavy labour all his life; but by transferring the adjective to an adverb, Lawrence makes it become an extension of the man’s manner of bursting into the farmhouse kitchen—heavily, with drooping shoulders—so that the physical description of the man becomes, in the reader’s imagination, continuous with his active movement in entering the house. He has always done heavy work, so he enters heavily.

41This last example invites a comparison between the use of alliteration in the two passages. Lawrence has: “the door opened with a burst as a burly, bearded man entered.” The other story has: “a man bronzed and bearded passed the janitor’s house, and stood in the Back Road.” The use of alliteration is completely different between the two passages because of the different syntax in which they are embedded. In “The Back Road” it is true that the alliterative words “bronzed and bearded” have significant content: they suggest a character who has aged and travelled. However, they are left hanging after the noun, awaiting the verb, and therefore appear as decorative appendages to the noun, “man,” so that “a man bronzed and bearded,” occurs within a construction similar to “a boy moving slowly along,” discussed above in terms of noun-plus-description. By contrast in Lawrence’s sentence beginning, “The door opened with a burst,” the noun “a burst” is used almost as a verb and reinforces it with the similar sound, “burly,” which onomatopoeically seems to extend the activity of bursting into the kitchen. This is not decorative, but a reinforcement of vigorous activity. Furthermore, the action is not given to the man. He does not burst the door open and enter the kitchen. The act is again perceived by the little woman, almost as a steadily increasing, explosive intrusion: “the door opened” is followed by “with a burst” and then the shock of “burst” is reverberated with “as a burly, bearded man,” and finally he is there in her presence, “entered.” Again, whereas “The Back Road” offers a colour photograph, “A Prelude” suggests a video.

42Other occurrences of alliteration in both passages do not achieve this dramatic effect. In “The Back Road” one of the two instances might be thought to have some effective sibilants: “His eyes grew moist, and he sniffled softly to himself as he strove to hold back the eager tears” (2-3), but the effect of the “s” sounds appeals more to an intellectual, or perhaps musical, response than a physical one, partly because “strove” and “eager” are mental rather than physical concepts. The other, “the roar of the river rose louder,” is a cliché which has no emotive impact on the rest of the sentence. Lawrence’s use of sibilants in the third sentence, “She skilfully spread the softened butter,” is more baffling. Did he intend an onomatopoeic effect? Are we to hear a slosh or scrape with the swift movement of knife and butter spread across bread? This suggestion seems too far-fetched. On the one hand the uncertainty here enormously increases the confidence with which we can attribute to Lawrence a deliberate intention to use alliteration so as to enforce the dramatic “burst” of the farmer’s entrance to end the first phase of the story and start the next, in which action and dialogue follow the setting of the scene. On the other hand, I wonder if it is possible to postulate that Lawrence may have from time to time used alliteration to get himself into the physicality of drama at the opening of a story, to help himself envisage his characters in action.

43This suggestion was prompted by searching “The Horse-Dealer’s Daughter,” a short story of 1921/1922, for ideas about language. The family’s business has collapsed, and the four grown-up children face an uncertain future, except that one of them, Joe, has found the security of marriage to a wealthy woman; but he fears he will be under a yoke. The first paragraph is full of Joe’s off-hand dismissiveness, anxiety-laden carelessness, onomatopoeically expressed in a scattering of “f” and “t” sounds, which seem to evoke his shrugging, scoffing and spitting. This is developed in the second paragraph, where the despairing “f”-sounds are surrounded by the drones of doom-laden “d”s:

“Well, Mabel, and what are you going to do with yourself,” asked Joe, with foolish flippancy. He felt quite safe himself. Without listening for an answer, he turned aside, worked a grain of tobacco to the tip of his tongue, and spat it out. He did not care about anything, since he felt safe himself.

44The three brothers and the sister sat round the desolate breakfast-table, attempting some sort of desultory consultation. The morning’s post had given the final tap to the family fortunes, and all was over. The dreary dining-room itself, with its heavy mahogany furniture, looked as if it were waiting to be done away with. (H-D D 137:2-11)

45By extension, the question arises whether repetition of words and phrases occurs in different ways in “The Back Road” and “A Prelude.” It is self-evident that the author of “The Back Road” uses a certain amount of repetition as a quasi structural device to bind his three sections together. The most obvious is “The gravel crunched” in the opening sentence (1), which is repeated in the third section (21-2); and this is followed in the same sections by “stood for the first time in the Back Road” (l2) and “stood in the Back Road” (22-3). In addition, there are “their initials cunningly entwined” (16) and “a cunning device of interwoven letters” (24), as well as, finally, the tiny notation of “leafy giants” (5) and “withered leaves” (34). Apart from this last case, the repetition contains no development. Other repetitions in “The Back Road” do not have this structurally binding effect: the use of “slowly” in “boy, moving slowly along” (1) does not appear to have any significant echo in “moon swung slowly up” (18) and, similarly, the use of “softly” in “he sniffled softly to himself” (2-3) is not meaningfully reinforced by “Her eyes flashed softly” (18).

46Lawrence certainly does not, in “A Prelude,” use repetition as a structurally binding device. His repetitions are less strategic. Apart from his reinforcement of “cutting” in the first sentence with “cut” twice in the second paragraph, there are two salient recurring words, “little” and “shining.” But are these repetitions intended to indicate a special relationship? The expression “little woman” is repeated (1, 17) and she gives “a little sigh” (12), a notation which is perhaps supported by “small farm” (1) and “tiny window” (9). It is hard to see any great significance in this, unless one considers that since the purpose of the exercise was to win a pre-Christmas competition, words like “little” may have been intended to evoke, “dear little” and a sweet, nostalgic atmosphere. Perhaps the repetition of “shining” has a more complex effect. It seems to spread the perception of the glowing fire through the passage. First Lawrence notes: “The glow of the clear, ruddy fire was on her shining cheek” (1-2), so that when he refers later to the “red, shining warming-pan” (12-3) we are reminded of the firelight, and have to conclude that this is what makes the warming-pan appear to be “red,” when normally made of copper. These repetitions are small notations, and are used in a progressive fashion, not as a fixed re-echo.

47A far more interesting repeated note, which runs throughout the passage, is that of the little woman looking out for her husband’s return. When the words that refer to looking are analysed, they can be found to form a developing series, which also includes ideas of going, and turning. The sequence, which culminates in the final sentence, runs as follows:

looked up (7) […] went to look (8) […] as she saw it (8) […] So she turned and went to look (9) […] She turned away (12) […] peeping through the window (18) […] watching the gate (19) […] click of the gate. She ran to the window but turned away again (20-1) […]

48It is clear that here, already in 1907, Lawrence uses repetition as a progressive, developing process, which shows a person’s activity or experience as a sequence rather than a single event.

49In conclusion, although the two texts are different in structure and content, their differences have suggested eight observations on Lawrence’s use of language, which may enlighten our reading of his other works 1. He has a preference for the present continuous participle, ending in “-ing,” and makes it follow a main verb, so as to enhance the impression of immediate activity. In addition he uses “-ing” words to represent sounds as part of a physical action 2. His prose rhythms contain a larger mix of short (or light) stresses than long (or heavy) stresses, which has the effect of liveliness, variety, openness 3. He greatly varies the way he begins sentences, placing adjectives, adverbs, phrases of time and place, or whole clauses, between the subject and the verb. In addition to variety, this can give the impression of open possibilities, even surprises 4. In the representation of sounds, he suggests a spatial relationship between the source of the sound and a character who perceives it 5. His narrative technique includes an intriguing mixture of, on the one hand, focalised narration viewed through the consciousness of a character, which is designed to create the illusion in his readers that they have witnessed a character’s inner thoughts and motivations; and, on the other hand, authorial pronouncements and judgement 6. His adverbs are sparing, but they are arresting and have the effect of focussing intensity on the feeling associated with an activity 7. His use of alliteration is not intellectual, but onomatopoeic and anchored in the physical 8. Finally, his use of repetition is not a strategic, structural elaboration to please the reader with a mental symmetry, but a fluid, progressive, variable, almost ruminative process, whereby characters’ experiences are presented as developing and responsive.

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Farringdon, Jill. “‘The Back Road’ and the Linguistic Voice of D.H. Lawrence.” D.H. Lawrence Review, 24.1, Spring 1992: 57-64.

Lawrence, D.H. “A Prelude” in Love Among the Haystacks. Ed. John Worthen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985. 5-15.

Lawrence, D.H. Mr Noon. Ed. Lindeth Vasey, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

Lawrence, D.H. Paul Morel. Ed. Helen Baron, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Lawrence, D.H. Sons and Lovers. Ed. Helen Baron and Carl Baron, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Lawrence, D.H. “The Horse-Dealer’s Daughter” in England, My England and Other Stories. Ed. Bruce Steele, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988. 137-152.

Lawrence, D.H. The Plumed Serpent. Ed. L.D. Clark, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Rose, Jonathan. “Lawrence for Everyman: an Undiscovered Short Story?” D.H. Lawrence Review, 22.3, Fall 1990: 267-273.

Shakespeare, William. Henry V. The Riverside Shakespeare, 1974: 935-971.

Sotirova, Violeta. “Shifts in Point of View: From Paul Morel to Sons and Lovers.” Études Lawrenciennes, 37, 2007: 143-165.

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The Back Road

The gravel crunched, and a boy, moving slowly along, passed the janitor’s house, and stood for the first time in the Back Road. His eyes grew moist, and he sniffled softly to himself as he strove to hold back the eager tears. He felt somehow the charm of the green hills and the tall trees, and, so comforted, he wandered on between the leafy giants.

That night in the dormitory he overheard a conversation of absorbing interest—three boys discussing the deeds actual and potential of the captain. The voices sank to thin sibilants, growing thinner and fainter in the new boy’s ears as he floated away into the land of dreams. The captain was there, but changed. He raced express trains, he sprang backwards across the river, he felled the rector with his right, the janitor with his left, and, not so improbable, he butted Farmer Heeltap’s bull to the scathe of the latter.


The end of school life had come, and the boy’s last day wore to evening. The roar of the river rose louder with the falling shadows, and a huge orange moon swung slowly up from the Saline Hills. The boy and the girl were seated beneath the kindly tree that bore their initials cunningly entwined. She was silent, his own lips were sealed; but he drew closer to her, and drew her closer to himself. Her eyes flashed softly in the golden moonlight, a shining mist whirled around him, and in that enchanted haze he kissed her with the ineffable tenderness and self-forgetfulness of youth.


October, with a shrill wind driving a thin rain before it. The gravel crunched, and a man bronzed and bearded passed the janitor’s house, and stood in the Back Road. He turned mechanically to the left, and stopped before a mighty tree. High up he saw what had once been a cunning device of interwoven letters, but the swelling bark had writhed and sundered them.

He fumbled with his stick and moved uneasily with his feet, and his mouth twitched at the corners. A vociferous band of schoolboys strolling past fell silent for a moment to gaze curiously at the stranger. The stranger glanced at them in his turn, murmured a few half-audible words, and turned away. One of the boys declared he had heard something about “all gone,” and “familiar faces,” but the others laughed, and told him to shut up.

And the stranger walked dully onward, the black current of his thought running through dead rainbow hopes. And before and behind stretched the black ribbon of the road between gay ridges of withered leaves.

A Prelude

In the kitchen of a small farm a little woman sat cutting bread and butter. The glow of the clear, ruddy fire was on her shining cheek and white apron; but grey hair will not take the warm caress of firelight.

She skilfully spread the softened butter, and cut off great slices from the floury loaf in her lap. Already two plates were piled, but she continued to cut.

Outside the naked ropes of the creeper tapped and lashed at the window.

The grey-haired mother looked up, and setting the butter on the hearth, rose and went to look out. The sky was heavy and grey as she saw it in the narrow band over the near black wood. So she turned and went to look through the tiny window which opened from the deep recess on the opposite side of the room. The northern sky was blacker than ever.

She turned away with a little sigh, and took a duster from the red, shining warming-pan to take the bread from the oven. Afterwards she laid the table for five.

There was a rumbling and a whirring in the corner, and the clock struck five. Like clocks in many farmers’ kitchens, it was more than half an hour fast. The little woman hurried about, bringing milk and other things from the dairy; lifting the potatoes from the fire, peeping through the window anxiously. Very often her neck ached with watching the gate for a sign of approach.

There was a click of the yard gate. She ran to the window, but turned away again, and, catching up the blue enamelled teapot, dropped into it a handful of tea from the caddy, and poured on the water. A clinking scrape of iron shod boots sounded outside, then the door opened with a burst as a burly, bearded man entered. He drooped at the shoulders, and leaned forward as a man who has worked heavily all his life.

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1 The precise passages are not specified, but given as: Letter, 1907; Letter, 1913; Sons and Lovers, 1913; “New Eve and Old Adam,” 1913; “Thomas Mann: a Review Article,” 1913. Jill Farringdon later published a book entitled, Analysing for Authorship: A Guide to the Cusum Technique, 1996, which included a chapter (3) based on this article.

2 I dismiss as tendentious the circumstantial evidence he adduces that because “The Back Road” appeared in Everyman on 27 June 1913, exactly two weeks after the journal published a review of Sons and Lovers, and because in 1929 and 1930 Everyman published an essay and a review by Lawrence, this makes it more likely that the short story is also by him (Rose 269).

3 References are to the line-numbers in the texts reproduced at the end of this paper.

4 As a footnote to this observation, both authors use adjectives ending in “ing.” In (a) there are five: “absorbing interest,” “falling shadows,” “a shining mist,” “a cunning device,” “the swelling bark”; and in (b) Lawrence uses three: “her shining cheek,” “the red, shining, warming-pan,”“A clinking scrape.” Lawrence’s, particularly the last, are more physical and less clichéd than those in “The Back Road.”

5 Mr Noon may be the exception to the rule, since it was not revised for publication, and it is characterised by frequent authorial comments addressed to the “gentle reader” in a very sardonic tone.

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Helen Baron, « Aspects of Lawrence’s Style Revealed by “The Back Road” »Études Lawrenciennes, 44 | 2013, 143-167.

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Helen Baron, « Aspects of Lawrence’s Style Revealed by “The Back Road” »Études Lawrenciennes [En ligne], 44 | 2013, mis en ligne le 01 avril 2014, consulté le 14 juin 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Helen Baron

Helen Baron, now an Honorary Research Fellow at Hull University, edited Sons and Lovers for CUP in 1991 and Paul Morel (the early manuscript draft) in 2003. She has published several article in Etudes lawrenciennes.

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