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The Concept of Time in Lawrence’s Short Stories of the 1910s: Reading “a Bible of [the English people’s] hearts”

Natalya Reinhold

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  • 1 The subtitle of this article “a Bible of [the English people’s] hearts” comes from Lawrence’s short (...)

"[…] the clock is our only time-piece."
From Lawrence’s letter to Achsah Brewster
(L IV, 266)

  • 2 Ezra Pound, “A Retrospect” (Pavannes and Divisions, 1918); “A Few Don’t’s” in Poetry I ( 6 March191 (...)
  • 3 Cf. “History repeats the gesture, so we live it once more, and are fulfilled in the past. Whoever m (...)

1We know time to be a central modernist concept. Eliot, Pound, Lawrence all point to the importance of time, particularly the past. For Eliot in 1944, it is a people’s sense of history in connection with the history of another people that guarantees the sustainability of a culture (T.S. Eliot 52 – 74). To Pound, the poetry of the past matters as a source for the renovation of poetry.2 For Lawrence, it is impossible to overestimate the past, for it either gives you a chance to fulfill yourself, or it does not.3 It would seem the modernists are obsessed with time, temporality and with the past. But what then is special about Lawrence’s attitude to time? Why does the past matter so much for him? How does his view of the past operate in his early writing? Adopting the assumption that the earliest pieces of writing make up a writer’s “childhood,” which may then serve as a key to the locked doors of his/her mature work, my intention here is to examine the composition of Lawrence’s early stories and the role played in them by time and temporality.

  • 4 “At the start of June 1911 he had been approached by the publisher Martin Secker for a book of shor (...)

2We shall therefore consider four stories written between 1909 and 1911 (in the order they appeared): “Goose Fair,” summer-autumn 1909, written in collaboration with Louie Burrows, first published in The English Review in February 1910, “Odour of Chrysanthemums” (first version by December 1909, published in The English Review in June 1911), “A Fragment of Stained Glass” (revised in March 1911, published in The English Review in September 1911); and “Second Best” (first version of August 19114).

3Though of divergent origin (“Goose Fair” was written in collaboration), and different status regarding publication (“Second Best” did not go straight into print), and diverse, in relation to their message and their form, the four stories together make up an interesting body within Lawrence’s early prose. I have chosen them from within a larger corpus of early fiction with an eye to the issue of time.

  • 5 I find Linda Hutcheon’s comments on Lessing in connection with the temporal dimension in contempora (...)

4Let me start with a few preliminary observations. Interestingly, past and present (also, perhaps the future) in “Odour of Chrysanthemums” and “Goose Fair” are related through the way that a dramatic and crucial event in the past is downplayed, almost to the point of being scarcely mentioned. It is referred to in the story either in the form of someone’s description (a story-within-story), as in “Goose Fair” when Jack relates to Lois what happened the night before. Or it is alluded to in “Odour of Chrysanthemums” by way of the colliers’ comments on the cause of Walter’s death in the mine, resulting in the description of his dead body. In “A Fragment of Stained Glass,” the past event is wrapped up in the pages of a late medieval manuscript, which Mr. Colbran, a forty-two year old vicar of Beauvale and also an archeologist, reads to the narrator (the “I” in the story). In “Second Best,” the past is circumscribed in the news about Jimmy Barrass’s engagement, which Frances, his former fiancée, relates to her sister Anne. So in order to relate the past event, Lawrence has recourse to a variety of narrative techniques: a story-within-a-story, a commentary, a (presumably) fake manuscript, and a brief reference. Yet however much these narrative strategies may differ, they nevertheless have in common a similar foundation – that is, an indirect, or oblique treatment of the past within the time frame of the story. As if Lawrence, for some reason, were reluctant to deal with it in any direct, straightforward manner. Or perhaps, having learnt his lesson in classical writing, his intention is to apply it in his own prose: instead of describing something, the intention is therefore to convey the effect produced by the motif that is being addressed. See G.E. Lessing’s 1766 Laocoön: or, The limits of Poetry and Painting.5 Interestingly, there is a reference to the statue of Laocoön and therefore to Lessing in the vicar’s room in “A Fragment of Stained Glass”: “The room scandalises the neighbourhood because of the statuary which adorns it: a Laocoön and other classic copies” (Lawrence 1955, I, 187). Lawrence seems to have a particular notion of the past and of its connection with the present. In other words, he has a special conception of time. Whatever the reason, this seems to be a problem zone in the early stories.

The tale’s time

  • 6 See John Worthen on Haggs farm (Worthen 104–5).
  • 7 See Mikhail Bakhtin’s “Formy vremeni i khronotopa v romane. Ocherki po istoricheskoi poetike” [The (...)

5It is of note that the significant events that are almost deleted from the narrative, except for a few fleeting references to them, are accompanied by a certain arrangement of space and time in the story (By this I am not referring to the landscape, which carries numerous biographical associations).6 What I mean is closer to Bakhtin’s observation of time-space in a prose work. In his discussion of chronotopes in the novel,7 Bakhtin identifies the chronotope as the threshold (porog in Russian). I skip over the differences in meaning between the English word threshold and the Russian word porog and the interpretation issues which stem from these.

6Bakhtin describes the threshold chronotope as follows:

We will mention one more chronotope, highly charged with emotion and value, the chronotope of threshold; it can be combined with the motif of encounter, but its most fundamental instance is as the chronotope of crisis and break in a life. The word “threshold” itself already has a metaphorical meaning in everyday usage (together with its literal meaning), and is connected with the breaking point in a life, the moment of crisis, the decision that changes a life (or the indecisiveness that fails to change a life, the fear to step over the threshold). In literature, the chronotope of the threshold is always metaphorical and symbolic, sometimes openly but more often implicitly. In Dostoevsky, for example, the threshold and related chronotopes – those of the staircase, the front hall and corridor, as well as the chronotopes of the street and square that extend those spaces into the open air – are the main places of action in his works, places where crisis events occur, the falls, resurrections, renewals, epiphanies, decisions that determine the whole life of a man. In this chronotope, time is essentially instantaneous; it is as if it has no duration and falls out of the normal course of biographical time. (Bakhtin 248)

7Note that the threshold chronotope (the ladder, staircase, corridor) represents a moment of crisis, an instantaneous breaking point. This is what we find in “Goose Fair”: Lois meets Will on the staircase the night the fire happens and he meets the girl with the geese. Remember Elizabeth in “Odour of Chrysanthemums,” rushing up and down the staircase meeting the miners, comforting the children upstairs, – this is an example of threshold chronotope or porog.

8There is also a staircase motif in “A Fragment of Stained Glass”: “ Beauvale Abbey, I said; ‘they were only very few, the monks. What frightened them, I wonder.’ ‘I wonder,’ he repeated. ‘Somebody climbed up,’ I supposed, ‘and attempted to get in.’ ” (Lawrence 1955, 1, 188); “We found ourselves under a door of light which shed its colours mixed with snow”; “I flung off my cloak and my burden to climb up the face of the shadow. Standing on rims of stone, then in pockets of snow, I reached upward” (Lawrence 1955, 1, 194). In “Second Best” Tom and Frances speak together at the gate or over the hedge.

9All these contingent details, like the staircase and the steps, the doorway and the gate, actually make up the threshold chronotope or porog. They mark off the dramatic turn in the narrative. They are the stories’ clock. And it ticks for the reader.

The readerly time-space

10A possible approach to time in Lawrence’s early stories would consist in analysing it as the readerly time-space.

11The past events which are evoked indirectly (obliquely) have a special significance in the tale. They are the most significant elements for the narrative and for the reader. Everything evolves from them. Yet Lawrence uses subterfuges in order to deal with these past events. It is as if the most important moments were half-empty, or rather, left blurred. One such subterfuge is a historical fact or a legend. Take “Goose Fair”: there is an extended description of a peasant girl with a dozen geese she takes to the fair to sell (the story opens and ends with the episode which serves as a narrative frame, prominently positioned so as to signal that some special meaning is attached to it). This is evident in the story’s opening:

Through the gloom of evening, and the flare of torches of the night before the fair, through the still fogs of the succeeding dawn came paddling the weary geese, lifting their poor feet that had been dipped in tar for shoes, and trailing them along the cobble-stones into the town. Last of all, in the afternoon, a country girl drove in her dozen birds, disconsolate because she was so late. She was a heavily-built girl, fair, with regular features, and yet unprepossessing. She needed chiselling down, her contours were brutal. Perhaps it was weariness that hung her eyelids a little lower than was pleasant. (Lawrence 1955, 1, 234)

12And here is the story’s ending:

“There was a girl with some geese. She looked a tanger sitting there, all like statues, her and the geese. It was Will who began it. He offered her three-pence and asked her to begin the show. She called him a – she called him something, and then somebody poked an old gander to stir him up, and somebody squirted him in the eye. He upped and squawked and started off with his neck out. Laugh! We nearly killed ourselves, keeping back those old birds with squirts and teasers. Oh, Lum! Those old geese, oh, scrimmy, they didn't know where to turn, they fairly went off their dots, coming at us right an’ left, and such a row – it was fun, you never knew? Then the girl she got up and knocked somebody over the jaw, and we were right in for it. Well, in the end, Billy here got hold of her round the waist – ’

‘Oh, dry it up!’ exclaimed Will bitterly.

Jack looked at him, laughed mirthlessly, and continued: ‘An’ we said we’d buy her birds. So we got hold of one goose apiece – an’ they took some holding, I can tell you – and off we set round the fair, Billy leading with the girl. The bloomin’ geese squawked an’ pecked. Laugh – I thought I should a’ died. Well, then we wanted the girl to have her birds back – and then she fired up. She got some other chaps on her side, and there was a proper old row. The girl went tooth and nail for Will there – she was dead set against him. She gave him a black eye, by gum, and we went at it, I can tell you. It was a free fight, a beauty, an’ we got run in. I don’t know what became of the girl.” (Lawrence 1955, 1, 242-3)

13The episode with the girl and the geese is a framing device in the story. We can use Schleiermacher’s Parallelstellenmethode to analyse it. We can furthermore read it in terms of a well-known legend about the geese which saved Rome. Or we might read it through the lens of Malcolm Bradbury’s concept of the modernist treatment of history through the prism of a detail (Bradbury 411-2). Nevertheless the question of the story’s threshold episode remains open to interpretation. None of the above-mentioned strategies would take us far in understanding the story. The ending rather leads the reader to comprehend the episode as a psychological subterfuge or as a narrative instrument through which to hint at the revaluation of Will’s relationship with Lois:

She was far from forgiving him, but she was still farther from letting him go. And he walked at her side like a boy who has to be punished before he can be exonerated. He submitted. But there was a genuine bitter contempt in the curl of his lip. (Ibid., 243; my italics)

14The reader puts two and two together: the talk between Will and Lois at the staircase, Will’s nightly encounter with the peasant girl and the geese, his frustration that gives way to a genuine feeling, a possible revaluation of his relationship with Lois, his being saved, and so on. Such speculations take place in the readerly time-space. The speculations are prompted, but are not explicated by the tale itself.

  • 8 John Worthen’s definition (Worthen 241).

15In “Odour of Chrysanthemums,” Walter’s death is sentimentalized8 through Elizabeth’s speculations on their having been alien to each other, despite being husband and wife and their sleeping together. Following Elizabeth’s thoughts about the fact her husband did not return home immediately after his work in the mines, the reader can but notice her cold, unsympathizing and alien response to her husband. The way that Elizabeth thinks about him may well be a way to lay him out dead, since he is so strange and distant from her thoughts. It could well be that she is the one, not the machine, that killed the man. The time of reading the story up to its culminating point when the miners bring the body home may be equal to the time-span during which he is getting suffocated in the pit. And so the ultimate realization of her foreignness to him and of his foreignness to her does not come in the story as something that is unexpected. On the contrary, it arrives as something which is dead certain. The reader follows Elizabeth as (metaphorically) she drives nails into her husband’s coffin. This amounts to the actual time needed to realise how a person chooses to behave towards the other.

She looked at the pudding in the fender, and broke out: “It is a scandalous thing as a man can’t even come home to his dinner! If it’s crozzled up to a cinder I don’t see why I should care. Past his very door he goes to get to a public-house, and here I sit with his dinner waiting for him —.”9 (my italics)

16Chekhov is said to have remarked: “People are having dinner, just having dinner, but at this very moment it is their happiness that is at stake and their life that is getting broken” (Ars 521; my translation and italics). And further on in Lawrence’s story, Elizabeth thinks :

But he needn’t come rolling in here in his pit-dirt, for I won’t wash him. He can lie on the floor — Eh, what a fool I’ve been, what a fool! And this is what I came here for, to this dirty hole, rats and all, for him to slink past his very door. (Ibid.)

17She keeps degrading him in front of his children, their children:

“My father hasn’t come,” wailed Annie plaintively. But her mother was primed with courage.

“Never mind. They’ll bring him when he does come — like a log.” (Ibid.)

18She will not listen to herself and to the feeling of fear rising in her. Her family-Ordnung-self is too offended for that:

What a fool she had been to imagine that anything had happened to him! He was merely drinking over there at the “Prince of Wales.” (Ibid.)

19Elizabeth responds pragmatically to her premonition that her husband was killed:

If he was killed — would she be able to manage on the little pension and what she could earn?— she counted up rapidly. (Ibid.)

20In “A Fragment of Stained Glass” the reader bumps against a staircase, believes that somebody has climbed it to get at the window of the abbey, then puts together the passage from the yellow book with the vicar’s tale, so that eventually, with a piece of good luck, she or he will read the story as a tale from “a Bible of the English people – the Bible of their hearts – their exclamations in presence of the unknown” (Lawrence 1955,1, 188). The reader gets the story about a serf and Martha, “a jump at God from Beauvale” (Ibid.), largely thanks to the prop in the shape of the narrator’s “I,” with whom s/he can identify.

21In “Second Best,” the reader stumbles over the hedge and stops at the gate. Together with Frances the reader “buries” her relationship with Jimmy Barrass, much in the same way she crushes a poor mole and faces “a new life” or love with Tommy, which from the first is marred by the deadly past.

22We can note the substantial role that the readerly time-space plays in the stories, due to a peculiar arrangement of the narrative with its oblique treatment of the culmination point.

  • 10 Lawrence D.H. “Dostoevsky, (or an unfinished article on Tragedy), 1.
  • 11 See Thomas Hardy’s volume of poetry Moments of Vision (1917); for “moments of being see Virginia Wo (...)

23How then are we to account for Lawrence’s oblique treatment of the past, which he clearly thinks to be most important for an individual? First, the issue would seem to be related to the dramatic perspective that is predominant in Lawrence’s early work. We can mention, in this respect, his incomplete and unpublished piece on “Dostoevsky, (or an unfinished article on Tragedy),” presumably from 1915, where he writes about the split of the I “[a] change in the actual living frame of life to fit this new conception” as a source for tragedy.10 Secondly, the question can be related to Hardy’s “moments of vision” and to Woolf’s “moments of being.”11 Can it then be part of the modernist search for a new sensibility in writing? Thirdly, it may well be that Lawrence simply did not know how to go about it. (Perhaps he did not care). He was mesmerized by the past. He was familiar with the classical manner of showing the effect without describing the event itself. However the manner served him badly, for he wanted to explore the psyche even though as yet, at that stage in his development as a writer, he did not know how to go about the task effectively. Hence the subterfuges. If so, then The Trespasser can be considered as an exercise in shaping his writing technique, for it was based on a real diary (Helen Corke’s) about a person who went through a mental and emotional crisis, and committed suicide in the end.

24Finally, this narrative technique reveals a peculiar sense of the past and of memory in Lawrence’s work. It seems that his personal attitude towards the past was ambivalent. The past, as late as 1923, repulsed him. He spoke about the “dead hand of the past.” In his letter of 27 December 1923 to Mabel Dodge Luhan, he wrote bitterly:

I am due to go to the Midlands to my people, but don’t bring myself to set out. I don’t want to go. It’s all the dead hand of the past, over here, infinitely heavy, and deadly determined to put one down. It won’t succeed, but it’s like struggling with the stone lid of the tomb. (L IV, 552-3)

25(If it is true that even today people in Eastwood and Nottingham remember Lawrence in connection with the scandalous case of adultery, this might be the manifestation of his normal reaction to the disapproval with which the public had reacted to his running away with Professor Weekley’s wife). Nevertheless, the past seems to persist, quick and vivid, in Lawrence’s memory. His recollections of his nonconformist childhood and of his “congregational upbringing” remained fresh and intact in his mind. He wrote about “the wonder of it penetrate[ing] very deep in me,” in his “Hymns in a Man’s Life” (1928):

Thirty-six years ago, then, even Sunday-school teachers, still believed in the fight for life, and the fun of it. “Hold the fort, for I am coming –“ It was far, far from any militarism or gun-fighting, But it was the battle-cry of a stout soul, and a fine thing too.

Stand up, stand up for Jesus

Ye soldiers of the Lord –

  • 12 LaL3/1 ms 1480, 6.

Here is the clue to the ordinary Englishman – in the nonconformist hymns.12

26To sum up, I would say that the clock in Lawrence’s early stories ticks to the emotionally charged moment of a person’s choice either to act handsomely, in the human-cum-Christian sense of the word or to fail to act handsomely. A well-known story from Lawrence’s life sums up the case neatly:

One of the first things Lawrence did was to walk around the lake, when he pulled out his watch, which had refused to go, and threw it into the middle of the lake. On his return to the house we were sitting on the north verandah […], laughing over the episode, when he touched my husband’s watch-chain, admiring the design of the curious links of silver-gold, which had been picked up in Kandy. He measured it with his eye and announced that the chain was too long – twice as much as needed, and added: “Let me have the other half.” With delicate dexterity he pried open the links. A second fob was found and attached, making the two chains complete. Each of the two put the other half of the same chain into his pocket. (Nehls II, 123)

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Ars, G. “Iz Vospominanyi o Chekhov’e.” [From My Recollections of Chekhov] In Teatr i Iskusstvo [Theatre and Art], 1904, Issue 28.

Bakhtin, M. Voprosy literatury i estetiki [Issues of literature and Aesthetics]. Moscow: Khudozhestvennaya literatura, 1975.

Bakhtin, M. “Forms of time and of the chronotope in the novel.” In The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by M.M. Bakhtin. Translated by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981, 84–258.

Eliot, T.S. Selected Essays. London: Faber & Faber, 1963.

Hutcheon, Linda. A Theory of Adaptation. Second Edition (with Siobhan O’Flynn). London, New York: Routledge, 2013.

Lawrence, D.H. The Complete Short Stories. In 3 vols. London, Melbourne, Toronto: Heinemann, 1955.

———. “Dostoevsky (or an unfinished article on Tragedy?)” (1915?), 5 pp., La L 6/1, E 100, Ts. In Lawrence Mss in the DHL Archive in the Department of Manuscripts and Special Collections, Nottingham University Library.

———. “Hymns in a Man’s Life,” 6 pp., LaL3/1 ms 1480. In Lawrence Mss in the DHL Archive in the Department of Manuscripts and Special Collections, Nottingham University Library.

———. Movements in European History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1925.

———. The Letters. Vol. 4. 1921 – 1924. Ed. by Warren Roberts. In The Letters of D.H. Lawrence. 7 vols. Cambridge University Press, 1979-1993.

Lodge, David. After Bakhtin. Essays on Fiction and Criticism. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Bradbury, Malcolm and James McFarlane. Modernism: A Guide to European Literature 1890 – 1930. Ed. by London: Penguin Books, 1991.

Nehls, Edward. D. H. Lawrence: A Composite Biography. 3 vols. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1957-59.

Worthen, John. D.H. Lawrence: The Early Years 1885 – 1912. The Cambridge Biography of D.H. Lawrence. Vol. 1. Cambridge University Press, 1992.

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1 The subtitle of this article “a Bible of [the English people’s] hearts” comes from Lawrence’s short story “A Fragment of Stained Glass.” It is a paraphrase of the vicar of Beauvale’s words, spoken to justify his interest in the old papers found in the Abbey.

2 Ezra Pound, “A Retrospect” (Pavannes and Divisions, 1918); “A Few Don’t’s” in Poetry I ( 6 March1913).

3 Cf. “History repeats the gesture, so we live it once more, and are fulfilled in the past. Whoever misses his education in history misses his fulfillment in the past.”(Lawrence 1925 xiii).

4 “At the start of June 1911 he had been approached by the publisher Martin Secker for a book of short stories, but because he had written too few, he had to put Secker off; hence the production of ‘The Old Adam,’ the early ‘Daughters of the Vicar,’‘Second Best’ and ‘Love Among the Haystacks,’ in the summer and autumn of 1911 – at the expense of his work on his novel. None of them got into print, however, and the short-story volume remained a vague and distant project” (Worthen 320).

5 I find Linda Hutcheon’s comments on Lessing in connection with the temporal dimension in contemporary fiction to be relevant to the discussion of temporality in Lawrence’s narrative: “If Lessing were correct in calling literature an art of time (and painting an art of space), we might expect the telling mode, as in an extended narrative fiction, to be the best at depicting time […]” (Hutcheon 63).

6 See John Worthen on Haggs farm (Worthen 104–5).

7 See Mikhail Bakhtin’s “Formy vremeni i khronotopa v romane. Ocherki po istoricheskoi poetike” [The Forms of Time and Chronotope in the Novel: Essays on Historical Poetics] (orig. 1937-38), (Bakhtin 1975, 234-407).

8 John Worthen’s definition (Worthen 241).

9 Lawrence 1955, 2; qtd.

10 Lawrence D.H. “Dostoevsky, (or an unfinished article on Tragedy), 1.

11 See Thomas Hardy’s volume of poetry Moments of Vision (1917); for “moments of being see Virginia Woolf’s “A Sketch of the Past” (1939).

12 LaL3/1 ms 1480, 6.

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Natalya Reinhold

Russian State University for the Humanities, Moscow, Russia

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