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Mourning Becomes Lawrence: Giving Sorrow Words in “Odour of Chrysanthemums” and the Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd

Nora Foster Stovel

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  • 1 "Odour of Chrysanthemums" 196. Henceforth, unless otherwise specified, parenthetical references to (...)

1Lawrence portrays widows mourning husbands in two early works—his story "Odour of Chrysanthemums" and his play The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd. Both works center on a marital conflict that can end only with the death of one of the partners. In The Work of Mourning (2001), Jacques Derrida writes, “One should not develop a taste for mourning, and yet mourn we must” (95). Lawrence did develop a taste for mourning, as his growing recognition of “the dignity of death” in these moving texts reveals.1

  • 2 Schwarze and Worthen comment on the similarities between the story and the play: “The play’s closen (...)

2"Odour of Chrysanthemums" and The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd offer readers an ideal opportunity to compare Lawrence’s genius for fiction and drama because they are as similar as a story and play can be—parallel in settings, characters, conflicts, and crises. Similarities have been perceived, though not pursued, by various scholars and critics, from Raymond Williams and Keith Sagar to Hans-Wilhelm Schwarze and John Worthen.2

  • 3 Two books on Lawrence's plays are Sylvia Sklar, The Plays of D. H. Lawrence: A Biographical and Cri (...)

3In his introduction to the 1968 edition of Lawrence's colliery plays—A Collier’s Friday Night, The Daughter-in-Law, and The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd—Michael Marland declared, "There is nothing in print on Lawrence as a playwright" (ix). Although two book-length studies of his drama, as well as several articles, have been published and several plays subsequently staged successfully, Lawrence's drama remains relatively unknown, even to many Lawrence specialists.3 The Cambridge edition of the plays makes a study of Lawrence’s drama both possible and desirable.

  • 4 Reported to Lawrence in a letter by Rolf Gardiner, quoted in D. H. Lawrence: A Composite Biography (...)

4Lawrence enjoyed writing drama, composing eight complete plays in all. “I enjoy so much writing my plays—they come so quick and exciting from the pen,” he wrote to Edward Garnett on 12 January 1913 (Letters i. 500-1). He was particularly pleased with The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd, writing to Garnett on 13 August 1913, “What a jolly fine play it is” (Letters i. 58). His rebellious attitude to the well-made play that set him decades ahead of his time is demonstrated in his 1 February 1913 letter to Garnett: “I’m sure we are sick of the rather bony, bloodless drama we get nowadays—it is time for a reaction against Shaw and Galsworthy and Barker and Irishy (except Synge) people—the rule and measure mathematical folk […]. We have to hate our immediate predecessors, to get free from their authority” (Letters i. 509). In his 1934 review of A Collier's Friday Night, Sean O’Casey declared, “Had Lawrence got the encouragement [he] deserved, England [as well as Ireland, that is] might have had a great playwright” (124). Nevertheless, Lawrence did become a great playwright. Bernard Shaw reportedly said that Lawrence's "dialogue was the most magnificent he had ever heard and his own stuff was 'The Barber of Fleet Street' by comparison."4 Richard Eyre claims that, if the New Drama had lasted longer, “its finest playwright, D.H. Lawrence […] would have had the recognition he deserved” (95).

5Although three plays, including The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd, were published and two produced, again including The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd, during his lifetime, Lawrence never saw one of his plays performed. The opportunity to have three plays published by Garnett was foiled by circumstances, as Ford Maddox Heuffer mislaid the manuscripts of two plays. Lawrence asserted to Garnett, “I believe that, just as an audience was found in Russia for Tchekhov, so an audience might be found in England for some of my stuff, if there were a man to whip ’em in. It’s the producer that is lacking, not the audience” (Letters i. 509). He was very enthusiastic about Iden Payne’s plan to produce one of his plays, writing to Garnett on 22 May 1912: “It is huge to think of Iden Payne acting me on the stage: you are like a genius of the Arabian Nights, to get me through.[ …] it’s ripping to think of my being acted” (Letters i. 384). But this plan was also foiled when he eloped with Frieda Weekley in May 1912. Garnett sent The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd, his favourite of Lawrence’s early plays, to Mitchell Kennerley, who had published The Trespasser and who considered publishing the play in his “Modern Drama Series,” but, again, the project came to nothing (Plays xxxix). Unfortunately—perhaps as a result of these disappointments—Lawrence was not to return to playwriting for another five years.

6The parallels between "Odour of Chrysanthemums" and The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd include virtually identical settings: what is Eastwood in reality becomes Underwood in the story and Bestwood in the play. Both works are set in a mining village and centered in a colliery cottage kitchen, for the hearth is the heart of the home. But sinister external fires threaten the home, as each cottage is tainted by the proximity of the hellish pits, which, visible through the open door of the stage setting, overshadow the home. Anthropomorphic in description, the pit is a crucial character in the story: "The pit-bank loomed up beyond the pond, flames like red sores licking its ashy sides," reflecting the home fires and echoing the human heartbeat as "the winding engine rapped out its little spasms" (OC 181). The menace of the underworld of the mines is suggested by the rats, spawned in the pit, that invade each home. The virtuous housewife wages a continual war with filth, endlessly washing, as her white sheets are stained by dirt generated by the pit. Always it is the miner husband who is guilty of bringing the colliery grime into the home. Both texts conclude with the wife washing the pit dirt from her husband’s dead body.

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7The Bates family of the story and the Holroyds of the play are similar in character, even sharing Christian names. Each wife is a proud, puritanical woman: Elizabeth Bates is a "woman of imperious mien" (OC 182), and Elizabeth Holroyd is distinguished primarily by "pride," which she terms "nothing but decency."5 While the women are proudly puritanical, the collier husbands, Walter Bates and Charles Holroyd, are sheerly sensual. The attraction of opposites becomes a war of attrition. As the puritanism of the woman opposes the sensuality of the male, the man batters against her steely resolve, shattering his substance, until he is a hollow man. Mrs. Holroyd complains, "There's just his body and nothing else. Nothing that keeps him, no roots, no anchor, nothing satisfying" (WMH 92). Ultimately, she is left with just his body and nothing more. Ironically, she had declared, “Eh, he’ll not come home now till they bring him. There he’ll stick! But he needn’t come rolling in here in his pit-dirt, for I won’t wash him.”

8Initially of virile physique, each miner shrinks physically under the weight of wifely disapprobation, gradually diminishing from hearty exuberance into peevish meanness, as the result of drunkenness and marital discord. Walter Bates is reduced to a "pale shadow […] floating weirdly on the floor" (OC 186). Never seen alive in the story, he is represented symbolically by the dying chrysanthemums with their odor of decay. His wife complains to their children, Annie and John, “It was chrysanthemums when I married him, and chrysanthemums when you were born, and the first time they ever brought him home drunk, he’d got brown chrysanthemums in his buttonhole” (OC 186). Appropriately, the miners smash the vase of chrysanthemums when they carry Holroyd’s corpse into the parlour (OC 194). Holroyd’s body, “fair and full fleshed,” Lawrence writes in an extant 1909 fragment, lies “naked in the grandeur of death” (Worthen 203-04).

9Finally fulfilling his wife's vision of him as a brutish “beast” (OC 183), each husband is destroyed morally before he dies physically. Cast out by his wife, each man deliberately risks his life in the pit as revenge for her rejection of him. The scene in which Holroyd is carried in dead drunk prefigures the scene in which he is carried in dead.

10Each work climaxes with death, and it is at the point of death that the play diverges from the story in ways that reflect Lawrence's personal experience and illuminate intrinsic differences in genre. Lawrence with a manuscript was like a dog with a bone: after burying it in a bottom drawer, he would dig it up and rewrite it, only to repeat the process again another year. True to his tendency to “worry” a work, Lawrence wrote various versions of the story and play, revealing development in his emphasis on the wife’s recognition of the mystery of death and her realization of her responsibility for the failure of the relationship and the destruction of her husband, as his guilt is purged and his image purified by death. A comparison of the two texts demonstrates Lawrence’s mastery of dramatic form that, arguably, rendered the play even more powerful than his moving story.

  • 6 Lawrence’s aunt and uncle “lived in a tiny cottage just up the line from the railway-crossing at 7 (...)

11The main reason for the discrepancy in perspective between play and story involves the identity of Lawrence’s sources. Lawrence told Violet Hunt in 1910 that “‘Holroyd […] was my uncle, and his name was Lawrence,’” and in 1926 he stated, "'Mrs. Holroyd' was an aunt of mine" (Letters i. 199). The models for the married couple in both story and play were Lawrence's Aunt Polly and his Uncle James, who was a miner, like his brother, Arthur Lawrence, and who died on 17 February 1880 in a mining accident at Brinsley Colliery, near Eastwood, where Arthur Lawrence worked for many years, in a situation similar to that depicted in the story and play.6 The death of Lawrence's mother in December 1910 marked the turning point in Lawrence’s personal life and literary career, inspired his increased awareness of the mystery of death and influenced his revisions of both works. T.H McCabe claims, “Early, death was human loss, but later it came to symbolize [for Lawrence] the separate intact otherness of every human soul” (152). In his 1969 edition of Lawrence's colliery plays, Raymond Williams explains:

In the novels of this period – The White Peacock and The Trespasser – Lawrence was in important ways unable to deal with his central experiences, or with the life that was nearest to him. His final resolution of this early crisis was indeed in the great novel Sons and Lovers, but his first direct attempts to write this experience were in plays and stories: often a play and a story on the same experience, as with The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd and “The Odour of Chrysanthemums.” (9)

12Revising these works allowed Lawrence to perform Der Trauerarbeit, or “the work of mourning,” that Sigmund Freud discusses in “Mourning and Melancholia” (1917): “The loss of the love object is an excellent opportunity for the ambivalence of love relationships to come to the fore […] and force it to manifest itself in the form of self-reproaches for having been oneself responsible for the loss of the love-object, for having wanted that loss” (Freud 318). Freud’s statement applies with uncanny accuracy to Lawrence’s works.


  • 7 See John Worthen’s introduction to “Odour of Chrysanthemums" (l) and Mara Kalnins’ “D.H. Lawrence’s (...)

13"Odour of Chrysanthemums," first written in 1909, is the earlier work, although he revised the story several times between 1909 and 1914.7 The original version of the story was discovered in 1966 at the University of Nottingham among the papers of Lawrence's former fiancée, Louie Burrows (who made 200 changes in the story [Worthen l-li]) and was published for the first time in 1969 by James Boulton. The versions display a progressive emphasis on the wife's response to the death of her husband and an increasing awareness of her responsibility for his demise.

  • 8 Lawrence wrote in 1910 about his Uncle James Lawrence, “I heard my grandmother […] say, 18 years ag (...)

14In the first version, the wife's response to her dead husband is primarily maternal. As the wife and the mother of the dead man wash his corpse, their feelings are identical: "the women experienced suddenly the same feeling; that of motherhood, mixed with some primeval awe. But the pitiful mother-feeling prevailed" (RMS 42).8 Death has reduced him to infantile innocence. Only when he is helpless, like a child, can the wife love him: "She loved him very much now – so beautiful, and gentle, and helpless [. . .] more helpless than a baby, poor dear – and so beautiful" (RMS 44). "How she had loathed him" when alive: "If he spoke, even now, her anger and her scorn would lift their heads like fire" (RMS 44). Like a child, irritating awake but adorable asleep, he is only lovable dead: "She did not want him to wake up," for in death she can possess him utterly. "She had him again now, and it was Death which had brought him"; so she is grateful to "Death which had taken the ugly things from him." The true "poignancy of her grief was that she loved him again": "She loved him so much now; her life was mended again, and her faith looked up with a smile; he had come home to her, beautiful" (RMS 44) – beautiful, but dead.

15Lawrence sent "Odour of Chrysanthemums"—calling it “a story full of my child-hood’s atmosphere” (Plays Note 63:1)—to Hueffer at The English Review on 9 December 1909; it was accepted immediately, along with “Goose Fair.” But Hueffer asked Lawrence to “cut it 5 pages: a devilish business,” Lawrence notes (Worthen l). While cutting the early sections radically, Lawrence extended the conclusion considerably and repeatedly, tripling the length of the climax. He sent the page proofs with his revisions to his fiancée Louie Burrows to recopy on 2 April 1911, saying: “Here are the MSS – it's a really good story. The desideratum is to shorten sufficiently the first part” (Letters i. 249). On 6 April he added: “Mind you leave out all I have crossed away. All the playing part – most of the kiddies share – goes out, I think. I intend it to. The story must work quicker to a climax” (Letters i. 252). “It has taken me such a long long time to write those last two pages of the story. You have no idea how much delving it requires to get that deep into cause and effect” (Letters i. 250).

16Lawrence’s effort to expand the conclusion was justified, for, in the second version, published in The English Review, viii, in June 1911, he concentrates on the climax, exploring the reasons for the wife's reaction to her husband's death in greater depth. Boulton judges that "In the published story, the focus of the writer's attention has notably shifted from the beginning to the end" (RMS 8). The wife's response is also totally altered; the stress on maternal affection is almost entirely abandoned, and the new emphasis is solely on the purification of death. This is the point where Lawrence added the crucial phrase "the dignity of death," for death reveals the ideal man to his wife as she observes him "lying in the reckless dignity of death":

Life with its smoky burning gone from him, had left a purity and a candour like an adolescent's moulded upon his reverie. His intrinsic beauty was evident now. She had not been mistaken in him, as often she had bitterly confessed to herself she was. The beauty of his youth […] shone almost unstained again. It was this adolescent “he” […] that Elizabeth had loved.

17The transformation of the miner to an innocent youth recalls “The Bride,” which begins, “My love looks like a girl tonight” (65). In this version of "Odour of Chrysanthemums" Lawrence explains, “It was this recreant his wife had hated so bitterly, had fought against so strenuously. She had strove […] to save the man she had known new-bucklered with beauty and strength. In a wild and bloody passion she fought the recreant. Now this lay killed, the clean young knight was brought home to her” (ER 432). Death, by killing the miscreant and restoring the ideal youth, is a source of joy to Elizabeth: "more joy was mixed in her emotion than she knew"; through death, "he was restored to her fair, unblemished, fresh as for the splendour of a fight" (ER 432)—her champion in death.

18Although joy predominates in the wife's response to her husband's death in this version, an incipient awareness of responsibility exists. His old mother said, "She drives him to it, she makes him ten thousand times worse" (ER 433). Grief for guilt gradually begins to war with the joy of triumph in the wife's breast: "her heart was bursting with grief and pity for him. What had he suffered?" She begins to perceive him as a suffering being and to feel empathy with him. She grieves because "She had not been able to help him […]. It was grief unutterable to think that now all was over between them […]. She saw the great episode of her life closed with him, and grief was a passion" (ER 432-33). Joy still predominates over grief, however, at this stage.

19In the third and final version of the story, despair at the utter alienation that death reveals vanquishes the joy of triumph. Lawrence revised "Odour of Chrysanthemums" again in July and October 1914 for Duckworth for inclusion in The Prussian Officer and Other Stories, his first collection of stories, published in 1914. “I have just finished getting together a book of short stories,” he wrote to Garnett on 14 July: “Lord, how I've worked again at these stories – most of them – forging them up. They're good, I think" (CL 287). His work was rewarded, for this final revision is by far the best. Although Lawrence left the first part of the story virtually untouched in this final draft, he rewrote the conclusion completely, emphasizing the wife's realization of the mystery of death and her recognition of her responsibility for the destruction of her husband. Mara Kalnins concludes:

A comparison of the three very different endings to the 1910, 1911, and 1914 “Chrysanthemums” stories reveals the striking advances in Lawrence's understanding of Elizabeth's reaction to her husband's death, from the brief statement of her newly awakened and essentially maternal love for him in the first text to the profound and complex analysis in the third of her recognition of the meaning of death, her realisation of her husband's alienation from her even in life and her acute sense of isolation, presented through a close imaginative following of her train of thought and feeling […]. (Kalnins 472)

20How can we account for this striking advance in Lawrence’s understanding of the widow’s recognition of the power of death and her husband’s alienation? Between the first and final versions of the story, Lawrence had become intimate with death. As indicated in poems written at the time, such as “The Bride”—in which the dead mother “looks like a young maiden” and “sleeps like a bride” (66)—and “The Virgin Mother”—wherein he writes, “Twice I am born, my dearest: / To life, and to death, in you. […]” (66)—the demise of his mother revealed to Lawrence the transformation wrought by death. The portrayal of Paul Morel’s loving vigil over the dead body of his mother, as “she lay like a maiden asleep” (443), parallels the meditation of the widow in "Odour of Chrysanthemums" and The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd--a transfiguration the final version of the story emphasizes.

21Initially, the widow embraces the corpse, trying to create a connection in a scene that strikes some readers as redolent of necrophilia, but his inviolate condition frustrates her: “Elizabeth embraced the body of her husband with cheek and lips. She seemed to be listening, inquiring, trying to get some connection. But she could not. She was driven away. He was impregnable” (OC 196). As she observes her husband "lying in the naive dignity of death," she recognizes "the utter isolation of the human soul":

Life with its smoky burning gone from him, had left him apart and utterly alien to her. And she knew what a stranger he was to her. In her womb was ice of fear, because of this separate stranger with whom she had been living as one flesh. Was this what it all meant—utter, intact separateness, obscured by heat of living? (OC 197)

22The omniscient narration of the story allows Lawrence to express the poetic, mystical, transcendent nature of death. And yet his dramatic genius impels him to include dialogue, as the widow admonishes herself. The revelation of her husband’s autonomy and their alienation in death inspires recognition of her own identity, as well as his:

“Who am I? What have I been doing? I have been fighting a husband who did not exist. He existed all the time. What wrong have I done? What was that I have been living with? There lies the reality, this man.” And her soul died in her for fear: she knew she had never seen him, he had never seen her, they had met in the dark and had fought in the dark, not knowing whom they met nor whom they fought. And now she saw, and turned silent in seeing. (OC 198)

23Death inspires a revision of her perspective on her conflict with her husband: “For she had been wrong. She had said he was something he was not; she had felt familiar with him. Whereas he was apart all the while, living as she never lived, feeling as she never felt” (OC 198). This revelation catalyzes her remorse: “She had denied him what he was—she saw it now. She had refused him as himself.—And this had been her life, and his life.—She was grateful to death, which restored the truth. And she knew she was not dead” (OC 198). She recognizes their ultimate separation, as she, being alive, cannot reach him in death.

24Finally recognizing the wrong she had done him in denying him the dignity of his individual identity, the wife realizes that his bodily death is the natural result of his moral destruction, their division in death as the logical extension of their separation in life:

Now he was dead, she knew how eternally he was apart from her, how eternally he had nothing more to do with her. She saw this episode of her life closed. They had denied each other in life. Now he had withdrawn. An anguish came over her. It was finished then: it had become hopeless between them long before he died. (OC 198-9)

25The widow is appalled at the great divide between her dead husband and herself: “A terrible dread gripped her all the while: that he could be so heavy and utterly inert, unresponsive, apart. The horror of the distance between them was almost too much for her—it was so infinite a gap she must look across” (OC 199). Lawrence concludes the story with this statement: “She knew she submitted to life, which was her immediate master. But from death, her ultimate master, she winced with fear and shame” (OC 199). The page proofs read: “she crouched stiff and frozen in shame, hopeless. For in death she would have no life, for she had never loved. She had life on earth with her children, that was all” (Worthen page 275, note 199: 21). Ultimately, her crime is a failure of love.

26Elizabeth Bates, consigning her husband to death, is sentenced to life. She has died as a wife, but she must live as a mother. In the opening scene of the story, she plucked a sprig of chrysanthemums and tucked them into the waistband of her apron—to the delight of her daughter, Annie, who tries to smell them—emphasizing her figure “just rounding with maternity” (OC 186)—evidence of the couple’s intimacy. Now, on the threshold between life and death, “The child was like ice in her womb” (OC 198). Alvina, the third child of Lawrence’s Uncle James and Aunt Polly, the models for the Bates and Holroyd families, was born after her father’s death, and christened in July 1880 (Worthen 272, Note 181-1). The proofs read: “But the child in her womb burned cold like ice. Out of her body the child must be born, and she must relax herself to it. She must close her eyes, and cease to know herself, she must die, and be born again in her child. She must be a mother only, nameless, impersonal, without a self or a distinct life” (Worthen 275, Note 199: 3).

27Unlike "Odour of Chrysanthemums," however, there is no herald of new life in The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd, as Lawrence’s emphasis is entirely on death. He apologized: “I am sorry that it is a play of unbelief—a bit cynical in conception” (quoted in Plays xl). The parallels between the two works merely serve to emphasize the differences. Critics have been divided: Williams concludes, "The story is so much stronger, in this last crisis, that there is hardly a comparison; it moves into a different world" (Williams, “Introduction” 260). Gerald Coniff agrees with Williams: "in the story Mrs. Bates's experience and vision are more intense and much broader than Mrs. Holroyd's" (Coniff 32). Waterman differs:

In the play, the miner triumphs in death, forcing his wife to realize her situation and her responsibilities – as they were in relation to him, and as they will be in her life without him. It is as if the dead Holroyd had become a dark god to whom his wife offers herself in tears of atonement for killing him, that is, for destroying him and wishing his death. There is only a hint of this in the story where Mrs. Bates neither accepts nor realizes her guilt as she does in the play. (Waterman 146)

28Brilliant as the story is, I agree with Waterman that the drama is more powerful.


29In Grief as a Family Process, psychologist Ester Shapiro argues that death in our culture “abandons family survivors of a loved one’s death to a crisis of loss and a crisis of personal meaning [that] forces us to dissolve and recreate the deepest human bonds that form us” (4), and Neil Tolchin argues in Mourning, Gender and Creativity, “Until the mourner works through the conflicts he or she feels toward the deceased, a full cathartic grief reaction cannot occur (5). The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd illustrates the veracity of their arguments, dramatizing these processes.

30Although both works are about the death of a husband, there is far more emphasis on the widowing of Mrs. Holroyd, as the title of the play indicates. When Lawrence was revising his original 1910 draft of the play in 1913 for its publication in 1914, he wrote to Garnett on 13 August 1913, "Must I find another title? The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd describes it, but doesn't sound very well" (Letters ii. 58). He suggests “Afterdamp” as an alternative—a term referring to the poisonous gas that killed Holroyd—a term that would speak to a colliery community, but not to a West End audience (Plays xl). As Marland explains, "The play is about Mrs. Holroyd; it is her widowing – first emotionally and then physically. And the tragedy is the process by which she kills her husband as a husband so that it is inevitable that he should die as a man" (Marland, xxvi-xxvii). It is the widow's ultimate recognition of this tragedy, rather than the husband's actual death, that Lawrence emphasizes in the play, for, as he states in his Preface to Touch and Go: "Tragedy is not disaster. It is a disaster when a cart-wheel goes over a frog, but it is not tragedy. Tragedy is the working out of some immediate passional problem, within the soul of man […] There must be a supreme struggle" (Plays 365-66).

31Although the original version of the play does not survive, Lawrence's comment on his revision in 1913 shows how he wished to clarify this final illumination: “I saw how it needed altering-refining. Particularly I hated it in the last act, where the man and woman wrangled rather shallowly across the dead body of the husband. And it seemed nasty that they should make love where he lay drunk. I hope to heaven I have come in time to have it made decent” (CL 223). The fact that the widow expresses her epiphany in an apostrophe to her husband renders her awareness more immediate and explicit in the play than in the story, although the omniscient narrative of the story allows Lawrence to express the philosophical, poetic aspect of death.

32Whereas the three versions of the two-part story focus increasingly on the crisis, the three-act dramatic structure allows Lawrence to delve deeper into the "cause and effect" of the tragedy. He makes brilliant use of the extended exposition of the drama to focus greater attention on the wife’s responsibility for Holroyd’s death and her recognition of the tragedy. He employs the dramatis personae to provide perspective: the children, the rival figure of Blackmore, and Holroyd’s old mother provide varied viewpoints that gradually penetrate the prejudice of the proud wife. Elizabeth Holroyd recognizes, more acutely than Elizabeth Bates, the retributive nature of the accident: "This is a judgment on us," she declares to Blackmore over the dead body of her husband (WMH 107).

33The two children accentuate the poignancy of both works by acting as a barometer in the domestic storm and a battlefield in the marital wars. But the son and daughter play a more intrusive role in the play than in the story: little Minnie Holroyd suggests tentatively, “‘Appen if you said something nice to him, mother, he’d happen to go to bed, and not shout,” and begs her mother not to “row him,” implying the wife’s shared responsibility for the domestic discord (WMH 95-6). Jack Holroyd provides the opposite perspective, declaring, “I hate him. I wish he’d drop down th’ pit-shaft” (WMH 95), paralelling young Paul Morel’s fervent wish: “‘Lord, let my father die,’ he prayed very often” (SL 85, l. 21). A potential rival figure, the son wishes to supplant his father, reassuring his sister, “You don’t want a father. I can go to work for us” (WMH 95).

  • 9 See my essay, “Minerva Victrix: The Daughter-in-Law, A Power Play.” The D.H.Lawrence Review, vol. 4 (...)

34Young Blackmore, Elizabeth Holroyd’s would-be lover, is the explicit rival in the play, however, as it opens with Blackmore calling to her from the dusk outside the house – “like the Evil One out of the darkness,” as she puts it (WMH 63). Although his surname suggests the pit-dirt that blackens the face of the miner, Blackmore is Holroyd’s opposite. More refined and dispassionate than the husband, Blackmore is significantly “different from most men,” claiming, at age twenty-seven, never to have known love (WMH 69). As an electrician, Blackmore also has a more “gentlemanly” job in the mining profession—“We electricians, you know,” he explains to the wife, “we’re the gentlemen on a mine” (WMH 64)—although Holroyd dismisses him as “a flimsy jack” (WMH 84). Thus, he seems more suited to the ladylike Lizzie, as her husband is all too aware: “I’m not good enough for ‘er. She wants Mr. Blackymore. He’s a gentleman, he is” (WMH 83). The fact that Mrs Holroyd has inherited 120 pounds (WMH 92) hurts Holroyd’s pride—like Luther Gascoyne, who resents his wife Minnie’s inheritance in The Daughter-in-Law.9

35Blackmore illumines the home literally when he steals a lamp from the mine to replace the one that Lizzie, in her nervousness, has smashed. He also helps her fold her sheets, “selvidge to selvidge” (WMH 67) — an intimate domestic act that moves them to and fro towards each other in a kind of mating dance. An explicit rival, Blackmore fights Holroyd, wishes him dead, and attempts to supplant him, proposing that Lizzie abandon her husband and elope with him to Spain. Blackmore echoes young Jack Holroyd, saying, "My God, but I hate him! I wish either he was dead or me" (WMH 90). Lizzie makes her choice, declaring, "I wish he was dead. I do, with all my heart" (WMH 34), and Blackmore comes close to fulfilling her wish by knocking Holroyd into insensibility. As he gently washes the blood off the face of the unconscious man in an eerie prefiguration of the final scene, in which the wife will wash the pit dirt from her husband's dead body, Blackmore regrets that he has not completed Holroyd's destruction: "I could have [killed him]," he declares: "He ought to be dead" (WMH 87).

36And indeed he does kill him in a sense, as this rivalry is responsible for Holroyd's destruction. In revenge, the husband brings home two trollops to meet his wife, declaring, "They’re women as good as yourself" (WMH 79). This invasion is underlined by the “poisonous” rat that careers out of the scullery, creating a panic (WMH 72). Following this desecration of the sanctuary of the home, the wife explicitly rejects her husband: "Don't you come near me again," she warns, for "I'm sick of the sights and the sounds of you" (WMH 79-80). She casts him out: "Go out again after those trollops—leave me alone. […] And if you never come back again, I'm glad" (WMH 80). He takes her at her word.

  • 10 Old Mrs. Holroyd’s lament regarding her sons killed or injured in the mine may reflect Maurya’s lam (...)

37Old Mrs. Holroyd emphasizes the jealousy motif: "Lizzie, he's got something on his side," for "They've been saying a long time now as that young electrician is here a bit too often," and "Charlie's not the man to put up with that sort o' work" (WMH 98). The role of the grandmother in the story is expanded significantly in the play. She is used in both works to provide a different perspective on the husband, portraying him, even in the story, as a good lad before his marriage: "he was a jolly enough lad wi' me," she affirms (OC 192). But in the play, she explicitly holds Lizzie responsible for the failure of the marriage: "You thought yourself above him, Lizzie, an' you know he's not the man to stand it," for "what man wouldn't leave a woman that allowed him to live on sufferance in the house with her, when he was bringing the money home?" She accuses Lizzie of uncompromising pride, warning, “you’ve a stiff neck, but it’ll be bowed by you’re my age.” She laments, "I was always sorry my youngest son married a clever woman. He only wanted a bit of coaxing and managing, and you clever women won't do it" (WMH 98-99).10

38Prompted by her mother-in-law's perspective, the strangely deliberate nature of the accident, and her husband’s bloody nails—evidence of his struggle to survive, which penetrates the widow’s shock—she recognizes her responsibility for his destruction (WMH 109). Dismissing his butties and remaining alone in the pit, he deliberately courted disaster in revenge on his wife's rejection. He is stifled when the roof of the pit caves in, trapping him: "it come on 'im as close as a trap on a mouse, an' gen him no air, an' what wi' th' gas, it smothered him," his butty Rigley explains, and the mine manager adds, "a lot o’ stuff falls behind him, clean as a whistle, shuts him up safe as a worm in a nut” (WMH 103-4).

39The accident has a peculiarly purposeful quality in both play and story: "Sphyxiated. [...] Seems as if it was done o' purpose. Clean over him, an' shut 'im in, like a mouse-trap" (OC 198). Elizabeth Holroyd recognizes, far more acutely than Elizabeth Bates, however, the retributive nature of the accident: “Yesterday you talked of murdering him," she tells Blackmore. "Now we've done it [...] He'd have come up with the others, if he hadn't felt – felt me murdering him.[…] If he hadn't felt, if he hadn't known, he wouldn't have stayed, he'd have come up with the rest." She acknowledges, "It's my fault," for "I've killed him, that is all" (WMH 107). The Manager affirms that there will be an inquest into Holroyd’s death (WMH 105). One could argue that Lawrence’s play constitutes a moral inquest into the wife’s responsibility for the death of her husband.

40Just as the night before she had declared her love for Blackmore over the unconscious body of her husband, this night, over his dead body, she dismisses her suitor, and Blackmore simply evaporates, as swiftly as their airy fantasies of castles in Spain. Although Blackmore opened the play, Holroyd closes it. Left alone with her husband momentarily for almost the first time in the play, the love that has been implicit in the wife's attempts to protect her husband from the attack of the poisonous rat and "the Evil one," Blackmore, finally becomes explicit. As she gently washes the pit dirt from his body, in an ironic reprise of her repeated ablutions, in which routine becomes ritual, the widow addresses her dead husband with an affectionate intimacy that her hurt pride would not allow her to display to him alive. Her recognition of her responsibility for the failure of their marriage and the moral and physical destruction of her husband is made manifest in this eerie apostrophe:

  • 11 Lawrence called this speech “the keystone of the play” (CL ii, 78). Schwarze and Worthen opine that (...)

My dear, my dear – oh, my dear! I can't bear it, my dear – you shouldn't have done it. You shouldn't have done it. Oh – I can't bear it, for you. Why couldn't I do anything for you? The children's father – my dear – I wasn't good to you. But you shouldn't have done this to me. Oh, dear, oh, dear! Did it hurt you? – oh, my dear, it hurt you – oh, I can't bear it. No, things aren't fair – we went wrong, my dear. I never loved you enough – I never did. What a shame for you! It was a shame. But you didn't – you didn't try. I would have loved you – I tried hard. What a shame for you! It was so cruel for you. You couldn't help it—my dear, my dear. You couldn't help it. And I can't do anything for you, and it hurt you so! My dear, my dear, what can I do for you, what can I? (WMH 108)11

41McCabe claims Lawrence suggests that the “dark knowledge” of the mystery of death “is more easily apprehended through the blind senses than the intellect, for it is through touching her husband’s dead body that Elizabeth reaches this knowledge” (155-56). Perhaps that is why the play seems more powerful than the story in its conclusion.

42Lawrence said, "I tried to write for the stage – I tried to make it end up stagily." Indeed, this intimate cleansing is dramatically effective. Blackmore directs Lizzie, “You’ll have to wash him and lay him out” (WMH 103). In Lawrence’s colliery milieu, grieving families had to lay out their dead for burial, not simply wait for an undertaker to whisk the body away and prettify it. Lawrence was very conscious of the physical body, as we know, and the dramatic power of the “dead” body on stage cannot be overestimated, as demonstrated by the audience’s sniggering—a sure sign of discomfort and embarrassment —in the first production of a Lawrence play in England by the Altrincham Garrick Society near Manchester in 1920 (Plays lvi).

43This conclusion has remained controversial: Lawrence’s friend Catherine Carswell, who reviewed the play for The Times on 12 March 1920, judged in The Savage Pilgrimage that the "body-washing scene was theatrically unacceptable" (Carswell 135-6). Half a century later, V.S. Pritchett echoed her sentiments, calling the conclusion "theatrically grotesque" (18). Lawrence was finally convinced by his critics: "Probably they're quite right when they say that the last act is too much taken up with washing the dead, instead of getting on a bit with life." After its second, English, production, in 1926, Lawrence determined, "if ever the play were to be done again, I'd remodel the end" (CL 953).

  • 12 McCabe claims, “Lawrence is preparing Elizabeth to accept a dark knowledge, not through the visual (...)

44Fortunately for posterity, there was no subsequent performance of the play during Lawrence's lifetime, and so he did not have the opportunity to alter the ending. Subsequent critics, some reviewing the successful Lawrence revival at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 1968, point particularly to the power of this conclusion as the culmination of the entire drama: Ronald Bryden writes, "When she bends over her husband's body to wash it, the whole movement and cumulative meaning of the play gathers in her gesture like a breaking wave," and Simon Gray declares, "Its charged, ritual ending, the inevitable conclusion to all that has gone before, belongs uniquely to the theatre."12

  • 13 This stage production, starring Frank Converse, was subsequently filmed and broadcast on American P (...)

45Drama is meant to be performed, after all, not read silently and in solitude, like a story, and the power of this embodiment cannot be overestimated, especially in The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd. No wonder it was the first of Lawrence’s plays to be staged and televised! When I saw what was virtually Lawrence’s American premiere at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut in 1973, the final scene was so powerful that it inspired me to study Lawrence’s drama.13 By writing these early works of mourning Lawrence learned to give sorrow words.

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Boulton, James T. “D.H. Lawrence’s ‘Odour of Chrysanthemums’: An Early Version.” Renaissance and Modern Studies 13 (1969): 5-11.

Bryden, Ronald. “Lawrence Triptych.” The Observer (London), 17 March 1968: 31.

Carswell, Catherine. The Savage Pilgrimage: A Narrative of D. H. Lawrence. London: Martin Secker, 1932.

Gerald Coniff, “The Failed Marriage: Dramatization of a Lawrentian theme in The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd." D.H. Lawrence Review 11 (1978): 21.37.

Derrida, Jacques. The Work of Mourning. Ed. and trans. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas. Chicago and London: U of Chicago P, 2001.

Eyre, Richard. Changing Stages: A View of British Theatre in the Twentieth Century. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2000.

Freud, Sigmund. “Mourning and Melancholia.” A General Selection from the Works of Sigmund Freud. Ed. John Rickman. Garden City: Doubleday, 1957, 124-40.

Gray, Simon. “Lawrence the Dramatist.” New Society, 21 March 1968: 24.

Kalnins, Mara. “D.H. Lawrence’s ‘Odour of Chrysanthemums’: The Three Endings.” Studies in Short Fiction 13 (1976): 471-9.

Lawrence, D. H. “The Bride.” The Poems volume I. Ed. Christopher Pollnitz. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2013. 65-6.

---. The Letters of D.H. Lawrence, Volume I, 1901-1913. Ed. James T. Boulton. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1979.

---. The Letters of D.H. Lawrence, Volume II, 1913-1916. Ed. George Zytaruk and James T. Boulton. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1981.

---. The Letters of D.H. Lawrence, Volume III, 1916-1921. Ed. James T. Boulton and Andrew Robertson. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1979.

---. The Plays. Ed. Hans-Wilhelm Schwarze and John Worthen. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999.

---. "Odour of Chrysanthemums." The English Review, 8 (1911): 432.

---. "Preface to Touch and Go." The Plays. Ed. Hans-Wilhelm Schwarze and John Worthen. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999. 363-68.

---. Sons and Lovers. Ed. Helen Baron and Carl Baron. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1979.

---. “The Virgin Mother.” The Poems volume I. Ed. Christopher Pollnitz. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2013. 66-7.

---. The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd. The Plays. Ed. Hans-Wilhelm Schwarze and John Worthen. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999. 301-55. Print.

McCabe, T.H. “The Otherness of D.H. Lawrence’s ‘Odour of Chrysanthemums.’” The D.H. Lawrence Review 19.2 (Summer 1987): 149-156.

Marland, Michael. “Introduction.” D. H. Lawrence: The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd, The Daughter-in-Law. London: Heinemann, 1968.

Moore, Harry T. Ed. The Collected Letters of D. H. Lawrence. London: Heinemann, 1962. 287.

Nath, Suresh. D. H. Lawrence: The Dramatist. Ghaziabad: Vimal Prakashan, 1979.

Nehls, Edward, ed. D. H. Lawrence: A Composite Biography III. Madison: Wisconsin UP, 1959.

The Newsletter of the D.H. Lawrence Society of North America Volume 46 (November 2014), O'Casey, Sean. "A Miner's Dream of Home." The New Statesman and Nation, 28 July 1934. 124.

V. S. Pritchett, “Lawrence’s Laughter.” New Statesman. (1 July 1966): 18.

Shapiro, Ester R. Grief as a Family Process: A Developmental Approach to Clinical Practice. New York and London. The Guilford P, 1994.

Shore, Robert. “A world made of mothers.” TLS, Issue 5190. 20 Sept., 2000, 17.

Sklar, Sylvia. The Plays of DHL: A Biographical and Critical Study. London: Vision, 1975.

Stovel, Nora Foster. “Minerva Victrix: The Daughter-in-Law, A Power Play.” D.H. Lawrence Review 40.1 (2015): 53-66.

Tolchin, Neal L. Mourning, Gender, and Creativity in the Art of Herman Melville. New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1993.

Waterman, Arthur. "The Plays of D. H. Lawrence, “D. H. Lawrence: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Mark Spilka. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1963. 142-50.

Williams, Raymond. “D. H. Lawrence: The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd.Drama from Ibsen to Brecht. London: Chatto and Windus, 1968, 257-260.

---. "Introduction." Three Plays by D.H. Lawrence. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969, 7-14.

Worthen, John. The Prussian Officer and Other Stories. Cambridge: CUP, 1983.

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1 "Odour of Chrysanthemums" 196. Henceforth, unless otherwise specified, parenthetical references to "Odour of Chrysanthemums" will be to the CUP edition, with the abbreviation OC, as in (OC 196). I am indebted to this edition throughout this essay.

2 Schwarze and Worthen comment on the similarities between the story and the play: “The play’s closeness in subject matter, selection of characters and atmosphere to ‘Odour of Chrysanthemums’ is […] so striking that the play’s origins may be directly linked to the first version of the story, which Lawrence sent to Hueffer on 9 December 1909 and which he had extensively revised by March 1910” (Plays xxix).

3 Two books on Lawrence's plays are Sylvia Sklar, The Plays of D. H. Lawrence: A Biographical and Critical Study (London: Vision, 1975) and Suresh Nath, D. H. Lawrence: The Dramatist (Ghaziabad: Vimal Prakashan, 1979).

4 Reported to Lawrence in a letter by Rolf Gardiner, quoted in D. H. Lawrence: A Composite Biography III, edited by Edward Nehls, p. 121. Richard Eyre reports, “‘I wish I could write such dialogue,’ said Shaw when he read it. ‘With mine I always hear the sound of the typewriter’” (Eyre 96). Schwarze and Worthen write, “Lawrence’s plays have a richness of expression in dialogue and are characterised by a lively vernacular” (Plays xxvi).


Schwarze and Worthen, 64. Henceforth, unless otherwise specified, all parenthetical references to The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd will be to this edition, with the abbreviation WMH, as in (WMH 64). I am indebted to this edition throughout this essay.

6 Lawrence’s aunt and uncle “lived in a tiny cottage just up the line from the railway-crossing at 7 Brinsley” (letter to Rolf Gardiner, 3 December 1926) (quoted in Plays 272, note 181:28). Their son was named “John,” like the Bates’s son in the story.

7 See John Worthen’s introduction to “Odour of Chrysanthemums" (l) and Mara Kalnins’ “D.H. Lawrence’s ‘Odour of Chrysanthemums’: The Three Endings.” Studies in Short Fiction 13 (1976): 471-479. Henceforth, references to Worthen’s introduction will be given parenthetically in the text as (Worthen l-li).

8 Lawrence wrote in 1910 about his Uncle James Lawrence, “I heard my grandmother […] say, 18 years ago, ‘Like a blessed smiling babe he looked’” (Letters, i. 199; quoted in Plays Note 109: 9).

9 See my essay, “Minerva Victrix: The Daughter-in-Law, A Power Play.” The D.H.Lawrence Review, vol. 40.1, 2015.

10 Old Mrs. Holroyd’s lament regarding her sons killed or injured in the mine may reflect Maurya’s lament for her lost sons in John Millington Synge’s 1904 play Riders to the Sea.

11 Lawrence called this speech “the keystone of the play” (CL ii, 78). Schwarze and Worthen opine that Lawrence is referring to the wife’s apostrophe to her dead husband.

12 McCabe claims, “Lawrence is preparing Elizabeth to accept a dark knowledge, not through the visual imagination which he usually associates with the assertive will and the conscious mind, but through blind touch while washing the body” (255). He explains, “Lawrence seems to suggest that the mystery is more easily apprehended through the blind sense than the intellect, for it is through touching her husband’s dead body that Elizabeth reaches this knowledge.” (255-6).

13 This stage production, starring Frank Converse, was subsequently filmed and broadcast on American Playhouse. A 1985 performance of The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd exists on a BBC Video Classics version—starring Colin Firth, Zoë Wannamaker, and Stephen Dillon—recorded on DVD in 1988. The actual first production of The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd was at the Little Theatre in Los Angeles, 26-10 December 1916. The Newsletter of the D.H. Lawrence Society of North America Volume 46 (November 2014), reports, “The Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond. West London, staged a ‘fine production’ (The Guardian) of The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd in September 2014” (15).

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Electronic reference

Nora Foster Stovel, « Mourning Becomes Lawrence: Giving Sorrow Words in “Odour of Chrysanthemums” and the Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd »Études Lawrenciennes [Online], 49 | 2019, Online since 01 April 2019, connection on 05 December 2020. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Nora Foster Stovel

Nora Foster Stovel is Emerita Professor at the University of Alberta, where she taught in the Department of English and Film Studies, 1985-2014. She has published books and articles on Jane Austen, D.H. Lawrence, Margaret Laurence, Margaret Drabble, and Carol Shields,. She has edited Margaret Laurence’s Long Drums and Cannons: Nigerian Dramatists and Novelists and Heart of a Stranger, and has also edited Jane Austen Sings the Blues and Jane Austen and Company: Essays by Bruce Stovel. She is composing "Sparkling Subversions”: Carol Shields's Vision and Voice, editing“Ivory Tower or Grass Roots?”: Margaret Laurence’s Essays and Stories, editing The Creation of Giselle: Classical Ballet Meets Contemporary Videogames, and planning Women with Wings: The Romantic Ballerina.


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Licence Creative Commons
Études lawrenciennes est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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