Go to the home page for Odour of Chrysanthemums, a text in process

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.


'The Father' in The White Peacock (1908)

Lawrence made a trial run with the materials in the scene from The White Peacock. Cyril Beardsall, the priggish young narrator, is an obvious self-projection. Lawrence's attitude at this time to the continuing battle between his parents is made clear when one realizes that his protagonist bears his mother's maiden name. Cyril's father has deserted the family long ago and has taken to drink. Early in the novel Cyril and a friend came upon him sleeping beneath a tree, although they do not realize who it is. There is no mistaking Lawrence's feelings toward his father: 'The cap had fallen from his grizzled hair, and his head leaned back against a profusion of the little wild geraniums that decorated the dead bough so delicately. The man's clothing was good but slovenly and neglected. His face was pale and worn with sickness and dissipation. As he slept, his grey beard wagged, and his loose unlovely mouth moved in indistinct speech' (White Peacock 26). There is a brief exchange in which Cyril treats the man condescendingly, after which Mr. Beardsall walks away 'feebly into the darkness' (White Peacock 35).

In the next chapter Cyril's mother receives a note from his father. He is dying of a kidney disease, obviously induced by drink. Before she and Cyril set out for the cottage where he is staying, hoping to reach him before it is too late, Cyril tells the tale of his parents' marriage, devoting a total of one paragraph to it. The young Lawrence lays all the blame emphatically on his father:

The marriage had been unhappy. My father was of frivolous, rather vulgar character, but plausible, having a good deal of charm. He was a liar, without notion of honesty, and he had deceived my mother thoroughly. One after another she discovered his mean dishonesties and deceits, and her soul revolted from him, and because the illusion of him had broken into a thousand vulgar fragments, she turned away with the scorn of a woman who finds her romance has been a trumpery tale. When he had left for other pleasures – Lettie being a baby of three years while I was five – she rejoiced bitterly. She had heard of him indirectly – and nothing good, although he prospered – but he had never come to see her or written in all the eighteen years. (White Peacock 36)

The father is already dead when they reach him. The scene in which Cyril and his mother see the corpse of the dead father is clearly the first version of the climax of 'Odour of Chrysanthemums'. An old woman, the owner of the cottage where he lies dead, is on hand to wail, 'Eh!—Eh! Dear—Lord, Dear—Heart. Dear—Heart!' (White Peacock 43). She is the prefiguration of Mr. Bates's mother in the story. In this early version we get Cyril's response to the corpse rather than the mother figure's. This can of course be explained by the fact that Cyril is the narrator, but I feel it has deeper roots. The final tableau in 'Odour of Chrysanthemums' is absolutely central in Lawrence's experience. The content of Mrs. Bates's reverie in successive versions of the tale is conditioned by Lawrence's own feelings about his parents as he grew older. Lawrence's attitude is implicit in the conclusion of all the versions of 'Odour of Chrysanthemums', but in the early, immature form of the same materials in The White Peacock, Lawrence as Cyril is physically present as well.

Cyril's halting, imprecise response to the sight of his dead father is the embryonic form of Mrs. Bates's powerful inner monologue at the end of the Prussian Officer text of the story: 'My heart was beating heavily, and I felt choked. I did not want to look—but I must. It was the man I had seen in the woods—with the puffiness gone from his face. I felt the great wild pity, and a sense of terror, and a sense of horror, and a sense of awful littleness and loneliness among a great empty space. I felt beyond myself as if I were a mere fleck drifting unconsciously through the dark' (White Peacock 43). Mrs. Beardsall says only, 'Oh, my son, my son!' (White Peacock 57). This should have a familiar ring, but there is an essential difference between this lament and that of Mrs. Morel and of the old mother in 'Odour of Chrysanthemums'. Mrs. Beardsall, unlike the other women, has not lost a son. The sight of her dead husband affects her primarily by way of reconfirming her rejection of him in life and vindicating the bond she has formed with Cyril.

Cyril is not greatly upset either: 'I shivered, and came back to myself. There were no tears in my mother's face, only a great pleading. 'Never mind, mother—never mind', I said incoherently' (White Peacock 43). Mr. Beardsall is dead by page forty of the novel, and life in Nethermere can proceed uninterrupted. In a novel in which Lawrence wanted to show young people growing more or less harmoniously to adulthood, the only way he could transform his own experience into art was by killing off his father. He did exactly the same thing in the earliest extant draft of Sons and Lovers, a version of the novel in which the father accidentally kills Paul's brother, is jailed, and dies after being released (see Lawrence Clarj Powell, The Manuscripts of D. H. Lawrence: A Descriptive Catalogue (Los Angeles, 1937), p. 3). In his early twenties Lawrence felt that his father was responsible for the unhappiness he had experienced while growing up. In The White Peacock, his first novel, he makes his mother a widow without either hesitation or remorse. When Blanche Jennings criticized this scene, Lawrence vigorously defended it: 'the “Father” scene is not ugly and superfluous. I will defend my construction throughout' (Collected Letters 36). Because he was unable to come to terms with his father, all he could do was remove him.

© Keith Cushman
February 2010

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