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Wartime Ideology in “The Thimble”: A Comparative Study of Popular Wartime Romance and the Anti-romance of D. H. Lawrence

Gaku Iwai

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1D. H. Lawrence detested war enthusiasm and did not wish to participate in any war work during the First World War. He did not therefore contribute to the promulgation of the nation’s cause, unlike famous British writers such as Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, Arnold Bennett and H. G. Wells, who willingly met at Wellington House, the British War Propaganda Bureau. Lawrence particularly hated persons who strove to arouse jingoistic feelings in the public, such as David Lloyd George and Horatio Bottomley, and regarded them as demagogues. Furthermore, he felt drained by people who were stirred up by their agitation. Lawrence wrote to Cynthia Asquith in December 1916: “Here’s a pretty state of affairs—Messrs Lloyd George and Lord Derby—funny—pretty! This is the last stage of all, that ends our sad eventful history. So be it. It is what the countryful of swine wanted, now let them have it. All we have to do is wait for the débâcle” (3L 49).

2However, Lawrence was not a pacifist. He stated in one of his letters: “[. . .] I am not a conscientious objector.[ . . .] I too believe man must fight.[ . . .] I would never forbid any man to make war, or to go to war” (II 633-35). In the above-mentioned letter to Asquith, he shows no sympathy for intellectuals who advocated pacifist social reform:

I must say, I too expect a national disaster before very long. [. . .] Perhaps when we’ve all had a ducking in the sea of fearful disaster, we shall be more wholesome and truthful. At any rate, then I feel we shall be able to do something, something new.—It is no use adhering to that old “advanced” crowd—Cambridge, Lowes Dickinson, Bertie Russell, young reformers, socialists, Fabians—they are our disease, not our hope. We want a clean sweep, and a new start. (3L 49)

3Nor could Lawrence appreciate novelists or readers of popular books, which he considered shallow, sloppy and futile. During the Great War, he did not get along with publishers, and his works attracted only a small circle of readers. Lawrence published The Rainbow in 1915, but it was soon banned. In addition, he revised Women in Love without any hope of publishing it.He wrote several important essays, but The Signature, a journal that he launched with John Middleton Murry as a medium to publish his essays, released no more than three issues due to a shortage of subscribers. In another letter to Asquith in March 1916, Lawrence did not conceal his hostility towards and dislike of sentimental, popular stories and their readers: “[. . .] I can’t write stories to make money, because I don’t want to. Curse the idiotic editors and the more idiotic people who read: shall I pander to their maudlin taste. They bore me” (2L 587). In a letter to his literary agent, J. B. Pinker, Lawrence cynically approves of the war because, according to him, it would eradicate shallow, trendy books:

I am glad of this war. It kicks the pasteboard bottom in the usual “good” popular novel. People have felt much more deeply and strongly these last few months, and they are not going to let themselves be taken in by “serious” works whose feeling is shallower than that of the official army reports. [. . .] Folk will either read sheer rubbish, or something that has in it as much or more emotional force as the newspaper has in it today. I am glad of the war. It sets a slump in trifling. (2L 240)

4Lawrence watched the massive surge of patriotic frenzy with disgust, but did not participate in any political campaigns against the war. Thus, he turned into a bitter misanthrope, remained isolated in Cornwall and composed works that few publishers wanted to print.

5In spite of his mental and geographical distance from the rest of the world, however, Lawrence lived within the confines of a world at war and was not totally free from the wartime ideology swirling around him. He occasionally described the war from a contemporary point of view, using the terminology of popular writers responsible for disseminating the dominant notions of the war. In 1915, for instance, S. P. B. Mais, a prolific writer and journalist, celebrated the Great War, which illustrates the war enthusiasm of the period: “[E]ven the most wilfully blind of us recognises that one great effect of this war will be an immediate demand for a thorough cleansing of all Augean stables, whether in economics, politics, or education”(Mais 148). In a letter written in the same year, Lawrence, used the same metaphor, emphasizing the necessity for social reform based not on materialism but on an inner nucleus of being: “We must revolutionise this system of life, which is based on outside things, money, property, and establish a system of life which is based on inside things. The war will come to an end, and then the Augean stables are to be cleansed” (2L 280).

6A medical analogy was also often used when referring to the war. Arthur Machen, a popular novelist, publicized a famous legend in a propagandistic story titled “The Bowmen,” in which the ghosts of the victorious army of the Battle of Agincourt in the 15th century assist the British soldiers retreating from Mons. Machen supported the war, stressing its necessity to cure the nation’s disease: “There are terrible operations in surgery, burnings and cuttings, which give life to the individual; it may well be that there is a surgery of nations as well as of individuals” (18-19). Lawrence employed the same metaphor to defend the war as a purifier of the British social system, which was, to him, base and degraded:

[…] if I have toothache I don’t depend on hope nor faith nor love, but on surgery [. . . .]. And it is surgery we want, Cambridge wants, England wants, I want. There is in us what the common people call “proud flesh”—i.e., mortified flesh: which must be cut out: it cannot be kissed out, nor hoped out, nor removed by faith. It must be removed by surgery. And it is in us now “proud flesh.”

I thought the war would surgeon us. Still it may. But this England at home is as yet entirely unaffected, entirely unaware of the mortification in its own body. (2L 318)

7The basic idea that underlies Lawrence’s and other writers’ views expounded in these quotations is that the war may cure the disease widespread within society and thereby cleanse the entire nation. Although Lawrence detested warmongers and distrusted the masses who blindly supported them, he occasionally expressed views synchronous with the dominant ideology, which justified the war as a purifying force.

8One of the most striking examples of this ambivalence is found in his short story “The Thimble,” which was written in 1915 and later developed into the novella The Ladybird. In this story, Lawrence explores the possibility of resurrection after the devastation of war. In a letter sent with the story’s manuscript to Asquith, who served as the model for the story’s heroine, he explains the following: “This is the story: I don’t know what you’ll think of it. The fact of resurrection, in this life, is all in all to me now [ . . .]. The fact of resurrection is everything, now: whether we dead can rise from the dead, and love, and live, in a new life, here” (2L 420). Lawrence composed “The Thimble” in order to test a concept resurrection, implying the possibility of a re-born ex-soldier leading the population into regeneration.

  • 1 The Great War encouraged reading, particularly among women and war workers, either in the trenches (...)

9The theme of this story is obviously different from that of popular romances, which Lawrence detested, calling them “stories to make money” with “maudlin taste.” However, a comparison of “The Thimble” with contemporary romances is not irrelevant because Lawrence’s story is a satire of the popular romances that flourished during the First World War.1 He employed the conventional settings of melodrama and created his own version as an anti-romance. This is demonstrated by a comparison of “The Thimble” with a story called “The Infant-in Arms” by Berta Ruck. Both stories were written in 1915 and exhibit a similar pattern: each heroine finds a new relationship with her sweetheart who returns disabled from the battlefield. A comparison illustrates a contradictory dimension in Lawrence’s text: “The Thimble” is composed as an anti-romance in its satirical use of romantic diction and norms; on the other hand, it embraces the wartime ideology that popular romance espoused.

10Berta Ruck was a prolific writer who published more than 150 works of fiction. Her works during the First World War were topical, and she built a career on the success of her wartime writing.”The Infant-in Arms” was the opening story of her short story collection Khaki and Kisses. The first part of the story, set in June 1914, several months before the outbreak of the war, opens at a glittering costume party attended by members of London’s fashionable society. At this party, an anonymous heroine dressed as Nijinsky’s Spectre of the Rose dances with an anonymous young man dressed as a black panther. The man woos her, but she dismisses him, calling him an infant in arms and flatly refusing his proposal, saying, “’Not in the mood!’” (KK 11).

11Nearly a year has passed when the second part of the story begins, wherein the heroine goes to a stately home that has hastily been refurbished as a hospital ward for invalid ex-soldiers. There, she sees the young man with whom she danced at the party and discovers that he has lost one of his legs in the Battle of Ypres. In spite of his injury, or rather because of it, she is attracted to this man who fought for the nation and accepts his proposal, saying,“I am in the mood, now!” (KK 16).

12This frothy piece represents typical aspects of wartime melodrama, such as undisguised patriotism and patriarchalism. Once he is wearing khaki, the inexperienced youth becomes manly and attractive. The heroine’s impression of him changes when she sees the young man in uniform: “In his face, drawn and drained of blood, his eyes are bright and handsome as ever [ . . ]. He was a dilettante sculptor once, but he looks a thorough soldier now” (KK 12). The heroine falls in love with this young man because he has shed his blood for king and country. His injury is a morally agreeable emblem and makes the ex-soldier more honourable and attractive. It is the beginning of a new romance: Nor has he expected what she does next. For she slips on her knees on the floor beside his couch, and falters. [. . .]

13The radiant, kneeling girl beside him laughs and sobs together. “Oh, can’t you understand that this has made everything different? You’re just twice as much of a man, now that you’ll have to get along with one leg, as you were when you were dancing and fooling about on two! As for me, I’m not even a woman unless you’ll help to make me one.” (KK 14-15)

  • 2 Potter argues that wartime romance novels “were, in effect, vehicles for the dissemination of patri (...)

14The gender roles that the text depicts are stereotypical; it celebrates manly, chivalrous acts by men and virtuous, submissive behaviour for women. As an example of the popular romances published during the war, “The Infant-in Arms” is overtly propagandist, crammed with celebrations of honour and glory and hence contributed to the promulgation of wartime ideology.2 Such escapist entertainment, which readers sought during that period, raised the soldiers’ spirits in the trenches and consoled women on the home front.

15By employing the conventional code of romantic stories, “The Thimble” denounces brief love affairs and relationships found in wartime melodrama. Its heroine, Mrs Hepburn, is a fashionable woman yearning for love and romance. Like the heroine of Ruck’s story, she is initially presented as a woman with Edwardian ostentation: “She was a beautiful woman [ . . ]. one for whom the modern fashions were perfect.[ . . . ] She knew she was a beauty, she knew it was expected of her that she should create an impression of modern beauty” (192). She is intently focused on her appearance, “wearing her jewels, her string of opals, her big, ruby brooch,” and gives meticulous directions to the maid who does her hair (EME 193). She has perfectly learned the appropriate code of behaviour in high society: “She knew how to walk, how to hold her body according to the mode. She did it almost instinctively, so deep was her consciousness of the impression her own appearance must create” (EME 193). This stylish lady had been swept away by the public’s enthusiasm for the war and had fallen in love with Mr Hepburn when he wore a khaki uniform, although she had no interest in him prior to his enlistment:

“If you want to love your husband,” she had said to her friends, with splendid recklessness,“you should see him in khaki.” And she had really loved him, he was so handsome in uniform, well-built, yet with a sort of reserve and remoteness that suited the neutral khaki perfectly.

Before, as a barrister with nothing to do, he had been slack and unconvincing, a sort of hanger-on, and she had never come to the point of marrying him. […]

Then came the great shock of the war, his coming to her in a new light, as lieutenant in the artillery. And she had been carried away by his perfect calm manliness and significance, now he was a soldier. He seemed to have gained a fascinating importance, that made her seem quite unimportant. It was she who was insignificant and subservient, he who was dignified, with a sort of indifferent lordliness. (EME 190)

16The plot is appropriate for a light romance: an ostentatious and flamboyant lady falls in love with a manly soldier and becomes submissive. These are the parodic passages that copy the convention of wartime melodrama.

17The irony in “The Thimble” lies in the fact that Mrs Hepburn is not eligible to be a romantic heroine. Although she wishes to play the role of a heroine, imagining herself as a virgin girl, she is not young enough to play that role. In fact, she is obliged to accept that she is far from a heroine:

She was getting dressed now to see her bridegroom. The phrase, with its association in all the romances of the world, made her snigger involuntarily to herself. She was still like a schoolgirl, always seeing herself in her part. She got curious satisfaction from it too. […] In life, however, there was always a certain painful, laborious heaviness, a weight of self-responsibility. The event never carried her along, a helpless protagonist. She was always responsible, in whatever situation…

Entering the small drawing-room she lifted her eyes slowly and looked at herself.[…] She was aware also of the traces of weariness and illness and age, in her face. She was twenty-seven years old. (192-93; emphasis mine)

18Mrs Hepburn is a middle-aged woman—at least in the context of the early twentieth century—worried about the burdens of real life.

  • 3 Judith Ruderman calls her behaviour “symbolic masturbation” (76).

19The thimble retrieved from the sofa on which she sits symbolises romance, and its excavation is related to the discoverer’s unfulfilled sexual desire. While waiting for her husband’s homecoming, she puts her fingers into a crevice in the sofa. The passage in which she gropes into the depths of the crevice with a rhythmic movement in a trance is replete with sexual innuendo to her unsatisfied eroticism.3 The decorated souvenir, the thimble, looks gorgeous, but its authenticity is uncertain: “It was a thimble set with brilliants; it was an old, rather heavy thimble of tarnished gold, set round the base with little diamonds or rubies. Perhaps it was not gold, perhaps they were only paste” (EME 195). This thimble, with a monogram indicating that it dates back to 1801, reflects an aspect of courtship that existed a century earlier. It is the relic of an old romance, when men were virile and women submissive, or, as the text expresses, “the days when women did stitching as a usual thing”(EME 195). The thimble embodies values celebrated in romances—chivalry, loyalty, devotion and obedience. The faded antique of doubtful authenticity implies that these virtues are outmoded and illusory.

  • 4 Laurence Steven maintains that the disfigurement helps the heroine relinquish her idea of romantic (...)

20The text’s satire on romance is also illustrated by its reversal of the pattern of a conventional fairy tale in which an ugly toad is revealed to be a handsome prince. In “The Thimble,” an attractive husband is exposed as a repellent ex-serviceman. The heroine is horrified to see her husband’s destroyed face: “It [his mouth] was broken in, the bottom teeth all gone, the side of the chin battered small, whilst a deep seam, a deep horrible groove ran right into the middle of the cheek. But the mouth was the worst, sunk in at the bottom, with half the lip cut away” (EME 196). This injury assumes a different function in “The Thimble” than in “The Infant-in Arms.” While the injury in the latter is meant to enhance the romantic effect, the disfigured face in the former signifies the end of the romance.4 The fact that Mr Hepburn’s disfigurement is caused not by an honourable wound from battle, as is the young man’s mutilation in “The Infant-in Arms,” but rather by friendly fire amplifies the irony of the story. This scene reveals that the glittering image of love for disabled soldiers, celebrated in Ruck’s story, is simply a romantic illusion. At the end of the story, Mr Hepburn throws the thimble away. This is a decisive moment in the text as it represents the negation of romance.

21Thus, the contrast between the two stories is obvious. In Ruck’s story, the heroine, aroused by patriotic fervour, finds love for the disabled ex-serviceman. In Lawrence’s anti-romance, the text’s parodic descriptions subvert the embellished glitter of wartime love and romance. “The Thimble” instead explores how human beings could be reborn after the brutal massacre of humanity, as expounded in Lawrence’s letter to Asquith.

22Despite the fact that Lawrence’s story satirizes popular romances by parodying romantic diction and conventions, “The Thimble” and “The Infant-in Arms” exhibit a similar pattern: they demonstrate the war’s power to transform British society and its people. Both stories presuppose that before the war, British society and its people were depraved and frivolous, and that the war would recondition them. “The Infant-in Arms” opens with a glittering costume party, and the text emphasizes that corruption is widespread within the decadent society. The entire nation is enamoured with bacchanalian revelries:

For we are at that brief, grotesque phase in English History when dancing and masquerading seem affairs of national importance, when columns of responsible newspapers are given up to accounts of some “brilliant carnival” or other, when tickets for artists’ balls are gambled with as with stocks and shares, when prizes for costume [. . .] run into hundreds of pounds, and when Society, the Arts, Commerce, and the “respectable” Middle Class join hands to dance the maddest Ring-o’-Roses round some mulberry-bush rooted in Heaven knows how deep a soil of slackness.(KK 8)

23The second part of the story is set in the spring of 1915. The city is full of vitality because the war has dispelled the rottenness formerly prevalent in the capital:

Spring, Nineteen fifteen.

  • 5 Despite the similar settings—spring in London—the optimism in Ruck’s story during the first phase o (...)

London’s gayest finery of lilac and laburnum seems put on in special honour of the khaki boys that throng her streets.[ . . .] For the soil of slackness that produced those gay and bizarre blossoms of decadence has proved not so deep after all; there was British bedrock beneath it! (KK 11)5

24The main characters in the story are also purified. The flippant and cynical young woman is transformed into a “sensible,” patriotic lady who supports Britain’s cause. The text modestly but explicitly asserts that it is the war that changed her: “Can it be that this War, which has cut all life in half for our nation, has worked another miracle in her?” (KK 14). In the first part, the heroine teases the young man, calling him “an infant-in-arms.” Through his sacrifice for the nation, however, the “dilettante sculptor” is also transformed into “a thorough soldier” and earns her love. Ruck’s text embraces the Great War as a purifier.

  • 6 Despite the lack of a historical point of view, Janice Hubbard Harris indicates the same function o (...)

25Likewise, in “The Thimble,” the war brings about the characters’ metamorphosis. Mr Hepburn, formerly an ineffectual fellow, is transformed through his ordeals on the battlefield into a man with a mystic, dark and taciturn aura. He becomes a typical Lawrencian hero who might be able to lead people to a resurrection. Mrs Hepburn, a frivolous and fashionable lady who always dreams of romance, is also transformed into a woman who, at the instigation of the ex-soldier, discovers her new being and feels her soul newly born. As a result, the two main characters resurrect into innocent beings and seek a new relationship: “The darkness of his eyes was now watching her, her soul was exposed and new-born. The triviality was gone, the dream-psychology, the self-dependence. They were naked and new-born in soul, and dependent on each other” (EME 198). Thus, the text is constructed within the framework of the period: it implies that the war functions as a purifier and a source of social regeneration.6 “The Thimble” embraces the wartime ideology, as does the melodrama which it aims to caricature.

26As seen above, Lawrence detested unashamed patriotic agitation and abhorred people who enthusiastically followed propagandists. “The Thimble” criticises contemporary romances, which functioned as ideological vehicles and contributed to the circulation of wartime ideology. Instead, in his fiction, Lawrence explored how mankind could resurrect itself from the ashes of a catastrophic disaster and construct new relationships in a new society. Yet, what Lawrence sought was too unique, and he achieved little recognition among contemporary readers. Despite this alienation, however, his short story captured the ethos of a society gone mad with war, and the dominant thinking of the era defines the text. “The Thimble” resonates with the widespread ideological conviction that the Great War would purify the corrupt British society. Thus “The Thimble” is a salient example of ambivalence in Lawrence’s texts: it is a scathing critique of the period in which it was composed, but it also bears discernible traces of the contemporary logic and frame of reference that it intends to subvert.

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Harris, Janice Hubbard. The Short Fiction of D. H. Lawrence. New Brunswick, N. J.: Rutgers University Press, 1984.

Lawrence, D. H. The Letters of D. H. Lawrence. Eds. Zytaruk, George J. and James T. Boulton. Vol. 2. Cambridge: CUP, 1981.

---. The Letters of D. H. Lawrence. Eds. Boulton, James T. and Andrew Robertson. Vol. 3. Cambridge: CUP, 1984.

---. England, My England and Other Stories. Ed. Steele, Bruce. Cambridge: CUP, 1990.

Machen, Arthur. War and the Christian Faith. London: Skeffington, 1918.

Mais, S. P. B. "The Public Schools in War-Time." Fortnightly Review 98 (1915): 142-52.

Maunder, Andrew. "Introduction." British Literature of World War I. Ed. Maunder, Andrew. Vol. 1. London: Pickering, 2011. xxxiii-lxiii.

McAleer, Joseph. Popular Reading and Publishing in Britain 1914-1950. Oxford: Clarendon, 1992.

Ouditt, Sharon. Fighting Forces, Writing Women: Identity and Ideology in the First World War. London: Routledge, 1994.

Potter, Jane. Boys in Khaki, Girls in Print: Women's Literary Responses to the Great War 1914-1918. Oxford: OUP, 2005.

Ruck, Berta. "The Infant-in Arms." Khaki and Kisses. London: Hutchinson, 1915. 7-16.

Ruderman, Judith. D. H. Lawrence and the Devouring Mother: The Search for a Patriarchal Ideal of Leadership. Durham: Duke UP, 1984.

Simpkin. Advertisement. The Publishers' Circular 2 Oct. 1915: 301.

Steven, Laurence. "From Thimble to Ladybird: D. H. Lawrence's Widening Vision?" D. H. Lawrence Review 1986: 239-53.

Wright, Pamela Kaye. "Living Outside-In: The Role of Beauty and Disfigurement in The Ladybird." D. H. Lawrence Studies 15.2 (2007): 159-76.

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1 The Great War encouraged reading, particularly among women and war workers, either in the trenches or on the home front. Escapist fiction was especially sought by the lower-middle and working classes, as the headline of an advertisement in a contemporary magazine suggests: “6s. [shillings] Novels that will help you to forget the War and other troubles” (Simpkin). Jane Potter argues that “the demand in fiction was not for realistic war stories, but for romantic tales and detective thrillers that may or may not have had war as a backdrop” (89). See also, McAleer 71-99 and Maunder XXXIII-LIII.

2 Potter argues that wartime romance novels “were, in effect, vehicles for the dissemination of patriotic ideals and models of appropriate wartime behaviour” (91). For her detailed analysis of “The Infant-in Arms,” see Potter 103-07. Analysing The Land Girl’s Love Story by Ruck, Sharon Ouditt summarizes the essence of Ruck’s works: “the trajectory of the love story is supported by the detail of government propaganda to produce some lively escapism in which true love and war work are securely housed within the walls of patriarchy, patriotism and conventional femininity” (64).

3 Judith Ruderman calls her behaviour “symbolic masturbation” (76).

4 Laurence Steven maintains that the disfigurement helps the heroine relinquish her idea of romantic love, arguing that “The destroyed face becomes a useful symbol—one which informs the theme of superficiality running through the story” (247).

5 Despite the similar settings—spring in London—the optimism in Ruck’s story during the first phase of war strikingly contrasts with T. S. Eliot’s pessimism in “The Waste Land,” published four years after the war:

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

6 Despite the lack of a historical point of view, Janice Hubbard Harris indicates the same function of war in the story: “[. . .] in this tale the war wound takes on ironic significance. The war has made the blind see, the mute speak” (124). Likewise, Pamela Kaye Wright argues that “some of his [Lawrence’s] characters who were wounded in war tend to gain some extraordinary ability or understanding that they can carry into relationships” (160).

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Gaku Iwai, « Wartime Ideology in “The Thimble”: A Comparative Study of Popular Wartime Romance and the Anti-romance of D. H. Lawrence  »Études Lawrenciennes [En ligne], 46 | 2015, mis en ligne le 23 février 2017, consulté le 28 septembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Gaku Iwai

Kumamoto Health Science University, Japan

Gaku IWAI is an Associate Professor at Kumamoto Health Science University in Japan.  He is a co-editor and co-translator of the Japanese version of the Collected Letters of D. H. Lawrence, and has published numerous articles on Lawrence, H. G. Wells, J. M. Barrie and J. G. Ballard. He is also a co-author of several books on Lawrence and twentieth century British writers.

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