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 Prussian Officer' and Other Stories (1914)

E. W. Tedlock, Jr., has written that 'the text published in The Prussian Officer bears frequent, but not severe, revision' of the English Review version (The Frieda Lawrence Collection of D. H. Lawrence Manuscripts: A Descriptive Bibliography (Albuquerque, N.M., 1948), 37) This is an apt description of Lawrence's changes for most of the story, but it is evident that Tedlock did not actually compare the two published versions of the culmination of the story, the laying out and the corpse-washing. The sweeping transformation of the tale is not to be found in the spot revision, although, with some exceptions, this retouching did improve the story. The changes in the story's climax made it into an entirely different work of art.

The first part of the story, even after the last revisions, remains an example of the method of 'accumulating objects in the light of a powerful emotion, and making a scene of them' (Collected Letters 263) that Lawrence said he no longer cared about in a letter to Garnett on 29 January 1914. The climax belongs to another mode entirely. By the time he revised the story, he had written three versions of The Rainbow. Lawrence wrote in January 1913 of his need to 'have a woman at the back of me' (Collected Letters 179), and we have already observed how directly this relationship was incorporated into the revision of The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd in the late summer of 1913. One year later, new attitudes about man and woman, about human existence, and about his art had crystallized to the point where he was now exceedingly sure of them and ready to use them to structure his fiction. The relationship between man and woman is at the center of Lawrence's mature vision; however, even in the most intimate relationship there is always an unbridgeable gulf. It is at this time that this basic assumption underlying his work throughout the remainder of his career emerged in its mature form. It is one of the beliefs that determine the shape and content of The Rainbow.

By the time of The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd, Lawrence was able to view the relationship of his parents with some detachment and equanimity. When he returned to 'Odour of Chrysanthemums' in the early summer of 1914, he was able to go beyond the autobiographical mother-father aspect of the materials. He transcended the earlier terms of the story as he transformed the final confrontation scene one last time. In the Prussian Officer version of the story, Lawrence has passed beyond the personal question of his mother and father to express an insight into man's fate. In the Hopkin proof version of a few months earlier, Elizabeth exclaims, 'What right had I to him!' (H 81). In the Prussian Officer text she asks, 'Who am I?' ('The Prussian Officer' and Other Stories (London: Duckworth, 1914) 308).

The statement at the end of the story is powerful. Where the 'women bowed in primeval awe, while the tears of motherhood rose in each' in the English Review text, we find the following in 1914:

The women stood arrested in fear and respect. For a few moments they remained still, looking down, the old mother whimpering. Elizabeth felt countermanded. She saw him, how utterly inviolable he lay in himself. She had nothing to do with him. She could not accept it. Stooping, she laid her hand on him, in claim. . . . 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. (PO 305)

A scene that was a lesson in personal guilt in the summer of 1913 has now become a lesson in human isolation. One of the failings of the English Review text was that the situation is so taut with emotion that it merits much more than a short sociological treatise at its culmination. The shock Mrs. Bates experiences would be overpowering, and the final version of the story, with its revelation of our irredeemable loneliness, has much more aesthetic aptness. Mrs. Bates's reflection in all the early texts that death has restored her husband to beauty and grandeur is now developed with full metaphysical implications. As J. C. F. Littlewood has neatly put it, Lawrence 'discovered the meaning that had always been waiting to be found in the story' (J. C. F. Littlewood, 'D. H. Lawrence's Early Tales', Cambridge Quarterly, 1 (1966), 123).

When Lawrence wanted to make a point, he rarely resorted to half measures. The last five pages of the story are filled with the wife's realization of her husband's terrible apartness, in life as well as in death. However, in moving beyond the personal implications of the story, he did not neglect to give final justice where justice was due. Where the magazine text speaks of 'the man she had known new-bucklered with beauty and strength', the final text contains an impressive statement of the full dimensions of Mrs. Bates's guilt. Where in the English Review version Mrs. Bates is glad that death has hidden the truth, in the revision she is grateful for the lifesaving truth:

Her soul was torn from her body and stood apart. She looked at his naked body and was ashamed, as if she had denied it. After all, it was itself. It seemed awful to her. She looked at his face, and she turned her own face to the wall. For his look was other than hers, his way was not her way. 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. (PO 308)

In the Hopkin proofs Elizabeth is merely 'coldly grateful' to death, and astonishingly, 'she knew—she was dead' (H 82). Only in the final confrontation with his story does Lawrence realize that the truth liberates and gives renewed life to his heroine: 'coldly' is deleted, 'dead' becomes 'not dead'.

In the magazine text Mrs. Bates weeps 'herself almost in agony' (ER 432), but in the revision she has attained to a knowledge beyond tears and is 'rigid with agony' (PO 308). Only with her husband's death has she learned that they have always been strangers. It is difficult for a man and a woman to be anything more.

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. (PO 307)

There were the children – but the children belonged to life. This dead man had nothing to do with them. He and she were only channels through which life had flowed to issue in the children. She was a mother—but how awful she knew it now to have been a wife. And he, dead now, how awful he must have felt it to be a husband. She felt that in the next world he would be a stranger to her. If they met there, in the beyond, they would only be ashamed of what had been before. The children had come, for some mysterious reason, out of both of them. (P0 309)

The passionate intensity and the accretiveness and repetitiveness of Lawrence's prose at the end of the story are characteristic of his mature work. In this particular context, the prose cannot be quarreled with. Passages of such intensity in Lawrence often seem overwritten. The climax of the English Review text is badly overwritten, but at the time he lacked the experience, both emotional and artistic, to rise to the challenge of the task he had set himself. The passionate, onrushing prose of the last pages of the story perfectly captures the inner experience of the stunned wife as, almost instantly, she is forced for the first time to come to grips with what her life has been.

© Keith Cushman
February 2010

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