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 Widowing of Mrs Holroyd

The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd, probably the best of Lawrence's plays, is also fascinating as a case study of the way in which Lawrence assimilated and transformed his experience into art. The play uses not only the standard Lawrence mother-father materials but also the experience of his elopement with Frieda in 1912. The culminating act of the play is a reworking of 'Odour of Chrysanthemums'.

Elizabeth Holroyd is the Elizabeth Bates of the piece. The conflict with her husband is so intense that in Act I Mr. Holroyd brings home two tipsy tavern wenches. There is a gentle, young mine electrician in the play, though, and in Act II he proposes to Mrs. Holroyd that they run away together. When Mr. Holroyd comes home drunk, his wife locks him out at first—just as the drunken Morel locks out his wife in Sons and Lovers. When she lets him in, he passes out in a drunken stupor, and Blackmore and Mrs. Holroyd declare their love over his recumbent body. Blackmore proposes that they go to Spain—just as Lawrence took Frieda von Richthofen Weekley from England and went with her to Germany (and just as so many Lawrence stories and novels end with the lovers planning to set out for another country). Blackmore is twenty-seven and Mrs. Holroyd thirty-two: Lawrence was twenty-six and Frieda thirty-two when they eloped. Blackmore furthermore proposes that they take the children with them: Frieda's loss of her children was perhaps her greatest unhappiness and certainly one of the leading sources of friction in her marriage to Lawrence.

Act III of the play is essentially a dramatization of the short story. Most of the characters and a good deal of the dialogue are borrowed. Nevertheless, the third act of The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd is a remarkably transformed 'Odour of Chrysanthemums'. The translation from prose to drama would ensure this even if Lawrence's conception of the materials had remained the same. His sociological disquisition would have been difficult to dramatize, but we can be sure that he had no desire to retain this material from the English Review text of the story. The mother-feeling is another element that has disappeared. Lawrence had a new attitude toward his parents by the time he wrote The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd, and the corpse-washing scene in the play receives an entirely different treatment.

In The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd Lawrence believes that the main character is guilty of having driven her husband to drink and, in effect, of having destroyed him. Mrs. Holroyd married her husband primarily because of his 'muscles and his good looks' (The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd (New York: Mitchell Kennerley, 1914), a bond between them that quickly became insufficient. Once again we have the collier and the collier's wife who has married beneath herself, but this time the wife must bear much of the blame for the failure in marriage. Lawrence's sympathy has begun to swing decisively to his father, which marks one of the great turning points in his artistic growth. In The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd he confronts the dead body of his father and weeps over a man destroyed by a woman who never tried to understand him. Frieda mentions the shift in Lawrence's attitude toward his parents in Not I, but the Wind: 'In after years he said: 'I would write a different Sons and Lovers now; my mother was wrong, and I thought she was absolutely right.'' (Frieda Lawrence, (LL (Toronto, 1934), 56).

This shift in attitude is crucial to the meaning of the play. Lawrence spells out the difference in class and education of husband and wife, the main source of their deadly friction. A typical exchange is found in Act I:

H: You think you're something, since your uncle left you that money, an' Blackymore puttin' you up to it. I can see your little game. I'm not as daft as you imagine. I'm no fool, I tell you.

Mrs. H: No, you're not. You're a drunken beast, that's all you are. (WMH 32)

At the beginning of Act III, while Mrs. Holroyd and her mother- in-law are waiting for the collier to come home, they have a sharp exchange in which the mother-in-law accuses Mrs. Holroyd of ruining her husband because of her overweening pride. The old woman charges her daughter-in-law with having a 'stiff neck' and thinking herself 'above him' and says that the cause of the marital problem isn't 'all on his side' (WMH 70, 71). 'And 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?' (WMH 72). Even the six-year-old daughter suggests that 'if you said something nice to him, mother, he'd happen to go to bed and not shout' (WMH 64).

The bringing in of the corpse after these words from the old woman and after the previous day's decision to escape to the continent is a shattering experience to Mrs. Holroyd. Lawrence makes it clear that she is feeling guilt rather than mother love. There is no question about the source of Mrs. Holroyd's grief in her speech to her dead husband, the powerful climax of the play:

My dear, my dear—oh, my dear! I can't bear it, my dear—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! (She weeps bitterly, so her tears fall on the dead man's face; suddenly she kisses him) My dear, my dear, what can I do for you, what can I? (WMH 89-90)

'Well, I hope you'll be true to his children at least, Lizzie' (WMH 92), says the collier's mother, returning with clothes to bury him in, and the two women begin to undress the corpse for washing as the curtain falls.

The demands of writing for the stage cannot account for the radical reinterpretation of the 'Odour of Chrysanthemums' materials. Lawrence had sent the completed English Review text to Austin Harrison in April 1911, just four months after the death of his mother. Lawrence met Frieda Weekley in April 1912 and eloped with her to Germany on 3 May. During the rest of 1912, while he and Frieda grew into their relationship, Lawrence revised Sons and Lovers with Frieda's help. He always insisted that he had never read Freud before writing the novel. This is perfectly credible, for his own life had produced a more than adequate experience of the Oedipus complex. Frieda, however, had read Freud, and her help with the revisions probably focused the Freudian outlines of the work more sharply. More importantly, in reducing Lawrence's past to clinical terms, she must have aided him immeasurably in getting perspective on his relationship with his mother and thereby distancing it. By November 1912 he was expounding the novel in Freudian terms—the famous 'split' theory—and generalizing Paul Morel's story into 'the tragedy of thousands of young men in England' (Collected Letters 161).

From the beginning, Frieda helped Lawrence lay to rest the ghosts of his childhood. In doing so, she was also sure to be altering his attitude toward his parents. And if this attitude was altered, any reworking of a story like 'Odour of Chrysanthemums' had to be significantly different.

Lawrence first wrote The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd before the middle of December 1910. In August 1913 he wrote Edward Garnett about his need to revise it: 'I have been very busy reading the play to Frieda. It wants a lot of altering. I have made it heaps better. . . . What a jolly fine play it is, too, when I have pulled it together' (Collected Letters 218). If a play including projections of his parents was first written in 1910, it is not surprising that Lawrence would feel it needed 'a lot of altering' when he reread it in August of 1913.
The year 1912 was a busy one for Lawrence. In November of that year he completed Sons and Lovers, which he had first begun in October 1910. He also wrote most of the poems of Look! We Have Come Through! during this year. These poems chart the gradual progression of his relationship with Frieda in a frankly autobiographical way. By 1913 one would expect to find Frieda in Lawrence's more purely imaginative writing as well. This is precisely what happens in the revised, final version of The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd. He grafted this new experience (in the form of the relationship between Blackmore and Mrs. Holroyd) onto a story he had already written and knew could be made into an effective play. But in returning to 'Odour of Chrysanthemums', he did much more than add this new experience. The relationship had changed him in such a way that he needed to reshape the entire story. Mrs. Holroyd feels guilty when she confronts the corpse of her husband because Lawrence was now able to take a more dispassionate view of his dead father. His father may have caused his mother to suffer, but her guilt was equal. Instead of siding entirely with the mother, he has grown to the point where he sees the relationship as a vicious spiral in which the misunderstanding and cruelty were mutual. This considerable advance is intrinsic to the ending of the play.

© Keith Cushman
February 2010

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