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Critical materials: 'Odour of Chrysanthemums'

From Keith Cushman, D. H. Lawrence at Work: The Emergence of the Prussian Officer Stories (University Press of Virginia, 1978), 47-76. We are very grateful to Professor Cushman for permission to republish this piece.


Section One: The Emergence of a Writer

'A story full of my childhood's atmosphere'

'Odour of Chrysanthemums', a story of colliery life, is rightly considered to be among Lawrence's finest tales. One of the most carefully wrought of the early stories, it exemplifies his art at its most dramatic, his vision at its most sympathetic. A moving statement about the human condition is made within the context of the world Lawrence knew as a child and young man. The collier's son was able to observe his own milieu with the eyes of an outsider; the domestic tragedy is rendered with what seems great detachment. A scholar lacking the biographical background of 'Odour of Chrysanthemums' would be hard pressed to discover the author's deep personal involvement with its materials.

The story is bound together by the pervasive imagery of the flowers in its title. Chrysanthemums are associated with the cycle of birth, marriage, defeat and drunkenness, and death. This highly visible symbolic framework is perhaps a little overdone. Lawrence is here exploiting some of the formulas of late-nineteenth-century symbolic realism, working them up with an eye toward magazine publication. Indeed, 'Odour of Chrysanthemums' was the story that first drew Lawrence to the attention of both Edward Garnett and Martin Secker.

The story has an austere simplicity and also shows the young writer experimenting with traditional tragic forms. The proud woman who is the central character is emotionally estranged from her collier husband. At the end of day she waits with her two children for her husband, overdue from the pit. She suspects that he has gone to the pub to drink, but as time passes her anger becomes deeply tinged with fear. In actuality the husband has been killed in a mine accident. The climax of the story—the bringing in of the collier's body, the washing of the corpse by the wife and the collier's mother, and the wife's realization of the years of estrangement between her husband and herself—is one of the most moving scenes in Lawrence's fiction.

The story's formal finish emerged only as the end product of a number of earlier, more tentative treatments of the same material. The climactic scene constitutes a Lawrentian archetype that remained central to his imagination all his life. He returned again and again, almost obsessively, to this emotion-charged tableau (The poem 'A Man Who Died', which exists in several versions, is an early example. Some obvious later variations are the scene of Gerald's body at the end of Women in Love, Kate's response to the wounded Don Ramon in The Plumed Serpent, and Mrs Bolton's memory of the appearance of her dead collier husband in Lady Chatterley's Lover). Because Lawrence was imaginatively so close to the story, the successive versions are one of the best available mirrors of his artistic and emotional growth during his first years as a writer.

Harry T. Moore tells us that the young Lawrence and his sisters often visited their three aunts who lived in Brinsley. One of these aunts, Aunt Polly, was the widow of his father's brother James. She had remarried some years after James Lawrence had been killed in a mining accident. According to Moore, 'years later Lawrence used this aunt as the leading character in his story 'Odour of Chrysanthemums' (Harry T. Moore, The Priest of Love: A Life of D. H. Lawrence (New York, 1974), 18).

There can be little doubt of the key role this bit of family history played in the original idea for the story, but Moore's formulation is too simple. The story probably was suggested by his uncle's death, but its basic materials arc much closer to home. The great detachment of the narrative voice is all the more miraculous in light of the fact that his parents are the real prototypes of Walter and Elizabeth Bates. Despite its objectivity, the story is, as Lawrence himself put it, 'full of [his] childhood's atmosphere' (D. H. Lawrence: Collected Letters, 159). This is a revealing description of a story that ends with a collier's wife grieving over the dead body of her husband. Walter and Elizabeth Bates are instantly recognizable as versions of Walter and Gertrude Morel [in Sons and Lovers], and the emotional link with Lawrence's own parents is self-evident. 'Odour of Chrysanthemums', along with The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd, makes use of his parents' marriage more directly than any other of his works except Sons and Lovers.

Lawrence's older brother Ernest died of pneumonia and erysipelas in London in October 1901. When the body was brought home to Eastwood, the huge coffin was placed across some chairs in the parlor (Moore, The Priest of Love, 41). The death of Ernest and Lawrence's response to it are rendered in the death of William in Sons and Lovers. The bringing in of the coffin in the novel is one of the most moving passages in the book:

The coffin swayed, the men began to mount the three steps with their load. Annie's candle flickered, and she whimpered as the first men appeared, and the limbs and bowed heads of six men struggled to climb into the room, hearing the coffin that rode like sorrow on their living flesh.
'Oh, my son—my son!' Mrs. Morel sang softly, and each time the coffin swung to the unequal climbing of the men: 'Oh, my son—my son—my son!' (Sons and Lovers (Seltzer, 1913), 139)

This scene in his family's history found its way not only into Sons and Lovers but also into the climax of 'Odour of Chrysanthemums', where the colliers carry in the dead Bates. Mrs. Morel cries, 'Oh, my son—my son!' when the body is brought in. Mr. Bates's mother cries, 'Oh, my boy, my boy!' ('Odour', English Review, 427).

J. M. Synge's Riders to the Sea, a play the young Lawrence called 'the genuinest bit of dramatic tragedy, English, since Shakespeare' (Collected Letters, 76), also influenced the composition of 'Odour of Chrysanthemums'. The carrying in and washing of the drowned youngest son's body helped shape the end of the tale, and more than likely Lawrence modeled his wailing mother-in-law after Maurya in the play. Another grieving woman important to 'Odour of Chrysanthemums' is the mother of Christ. Some of the emotional impact of the final tableau is unquestionably related to its associations with the pieta. Synge and the New Testament can both be felt in the story, but nevertheless the main creative impulse came from Lawrence's own experience.

Ford Madox Ford accepted 'Odour of Chrysanthemums' and 'Goose Fair' for the English Review in December 1909. Ford's account of his discovery of Lawrence is famous:

In the year when my eyes first fell on words written by Norman Douglas, G. H. Tomlinson, Wyndham Lewis, Ezra Pound, and others . . . — upon a day I received a letter from a young schoolteacher in Nottingham. I can still see the handwriting—as if drawn with sepia rather than written in ink, on grey-blue notepaper. It said that the writer knew a young man who wrote, as she thought, admirably but was too shy to send his work to editors. Would I care to see some of his writing?
In that way I came to read the first words of a new author:

The small locomotive engine, Number 4, came clanking, stumbling down from Selston with seven full waggons. It appeared round the corner with loud threats of speed but the colt that it startled from among the gorse which still flickered indistinctly in the raw afternoon, outdistanced it in a canter. A woman walking up the railway line to Underwood, held her basket aside and watched the footplate of the engine advancing.

I was reading in the twilight in the long eighteenth-century room that was at once the office of the English Review and my drawing-room. My eyes were tired; I had been reading all day so I did not go any further with the story. It was called 'Odour of Chrysanthemums. I laid it in the basket for accepted manuscripts. My secretary looked up and said: 'You've got another genius?' I answered: 'It's a big one this time,' and went upstairs to dress. (Ford Madox Ford, Portraits from Life (Boston, 1937), 70-71. Reprinted in Edward Nehls, D. H. Lawrence: A Composite Biography, vol I (University of Wisconsin Press, 1957), 106-121.)

Some of Ford's best fiction is found in his various books of reminiscences, and much of his portrait of Lawrence fits this category. In writing about the literary men he had known, he was always apt to put strong emphasis on his own early awareness of their genius and on his decisive influence on their respective careers. Still, an impressive ring of truth penetrates through the complacent Fordian melodrama. The opening paragraph of the story is a brilliant, closely written descriptive set piece, carefully designed to establish the tone and mood of the story, to put the reader immediately into its imaginative world – and to produce a shock of recognition in an editor.

The young schoolteacher who wrote Ford was, of course, Jessie Chambers. In D. H. Lawrence: A Personal Record, she remembers a “beautiful June morning” in 1909 on which she copied some poems to be sent to Ford (Jessie Chambers ('E.T'), D. H. Lawrence: A Personal Record (London, 1965), 157). Ford insisted that Jessie sent him prose as well as poetry in her first Lawrence installment, 'Odour of Chrysanthemums' and three schoolmaster poems. Consequently, June 1909 has always been accepted as the date for the composition of the story. However, the letters in the Louie Burrows papers at the University of Nottingham call for a revision of this date. In December 1909 Lawrence wrote Louie, the young woman who had replaced Jessie as his fiancee, that he had 'sent the story, with another I have written, up to Ford Madox Hueffer on Thursday' (James T. Boulton, ed., Lawrence in Love: Letters from D. H. Lawrence to Louie Burrows (Nottingham, 1968), 47, hereafter LL) 'The story' is 'Goose Fair', which Lawrence had been trying to place since the summer. The other story he had written was 'Odour of Chrysanthemums', which thus dates from the late autumn of 1909 rather than from June of the same year.

Ford's account of his central role in discovering Lawrence's genius is thrown into at least partial disrepute because he never even published the story during his term as editor. Austin Harrison had become editor of the English Review when the story appeared in June 1911, and by that time Lawrence had extensively revised the text that Ford had read. Ford accepted both stories and printed 'Goose Fair' in the February 1910 issue. The first proofs of 'Odour of Chrysanthemums', dated 10 March 1910, are among the Louie Burrows papers. However, this version was never printed. In late July, Lawrence reported that he had been asked to cut out five pages. In the early spring of 1911, Harrison, who had succeeded Ford, wanted further revisions. Lawrence had finished his revision of the March 1910 proofs by 2 April 1911. On that day he sent the manuscript to Louie Burrows to have a fair copy made. Louie's beautiful fair copy holograph can be found today in the collection of the Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin. This manuscript, which reached the English Review some time after the middle of April 1911, is virtually identical to the text published there in June 1911, and so will not be discussed here.

© Keith Cushman
February 2010

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