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

Critical materials: from Portraits from Life

From Ford Madox Ford, Portraits from Life (Boston, 1937), pp. 70-2. (Reprinted in Edward Nehls, ed., D. H. Lawrence: A Composite Biography (University of Wisconsin Press, 1957), pp. 107-109.)

Let us examine, then, the first paragraph of 'Odour of Chrysanthemums'.

The title makes an impact on the mind. You get at once that knowledge that this is not, whatever else it may turn out, either a frivolous or even a gay, springtime story. Chrysanthemums are not only flowers of autumn, they are autumn itself. And the presumption is that the author is observant. The majority of people do not even know that chrysanthemums have an odour. I have had it flatly denied to me that they have, just as, as a boy, I used to be mortified by being told that I was affected when I said that my favourite scent was that of primroses, for most people cannot discern that primroses have a delicate and, as if muted, scent.

Titles as a rule do not matter much. Very good authors break down when it comes to the effort of choosing a title. But one like 'Odour of Chrysanthemums' is at once a challenge and an indication. The author seems to say: Take it or leave it. You know at once that you are not going to read a comic story about someone's butler's omniscience. The man who sent you this has, then, character, the courage of his convictions, a power of observation. All these presumptions flit through your mind. At once you read:

'The small locomotive engine, Number 4, came clanking, stumbling down from Selston,' and at once you know that this fellow with the power of observation is going to write of whatever he writes about from the inside. 'Number 4' shows that. He will be the sort of fellow who knows that for the sort of people who work about engines, engines have a sort of individuality. He had to give the engine the personality of a number… 'With seven full wagons' … The 'seven' is good. The ordinary careless writer would say 'some small wagons'. This man knows what he wants. He sees the scene of his story exactly. He has an authoritative mind.

'It appeared round the corner with loud threats of speed' … Good writing; slightly, but not too arresting … 'But the colt that it startled from among the gorse .. outdistanced it at a canter'. Good again. This fellow does not 'state'. He doesn't say: 'It was coming slowly', or – what would have been little better – 'at seven miles an hour'. Because even 'seven miles an hour' means nothing definite for the untrained mind. It might mean something for a trainer of pedestrian racers. The imaginative writer writes for all humanity; he does not limit his desired readers to specialists … but anyone knows that an engine that makes a great deal of noise and yet cannot overtake a colt at a canter must be a ludicrously ineffective machine. We know then that this fellow knows his job.

'The gorse still flickered indistinctly in the raw afternoon' … Good too, distinctly good. This is the just-sufficient observation of Nature that gives you, in a single phrase, landscape, time of day, weather, season. It is a raw afternoon in autumn in a rather accented countryside. The engine would not come round a bend if there were not some obstacle to a straight course – a watercourse, a chain of hills. Hills, probably, because gorse grows on dry, broken up waste country. They won't also be mountains or anything spectacular or the writer would have mentioned them. It is, then, just 'country'.

Your mind does all this for you without any ratiocination on your part. You are not, I mean, purposely sleuthing. The engine and the trucks are there, with the white smoke blowing away over hummocks of gorse. Yet there has been practically none of the tiresome thing called descriptive nature, of which the English writer is as a rule so lugubriously lavish… and then the woman comes in, carrying her basket. That indicates her status in life. She does not belong to the comfortable classes. Nor, since the engine is small, with trucks on a dud line, will the story be one of the Kipling-engineering type, with gleaming rails, and gadgets, and the smell of oil warmed by the bearings, and all the other tiresomenesses.

You are, then, for as long as the story lasts, to be in one of those untidy, unfinished landscapes where locomotives wander innocuously amongst women with baskets. That is to say, you are going to learn how what we used to call 'the other half' – though we might as well have said the other ninety-nine hundredths – lives. And if you are an editor and that is what you are after, you know that you have got what you want and you can pitch the story straight away into your wicker tray with the few accepted manuscripts and go on to some other occupation… Because this man knows. He knows how to open a story with a sentence of the right cadence for holding attention. He knows how to construct a paragraph. He knows the life he is writing about in a landscape just sufficiently constructed with a casual word here and there. You can trust him for the rest.

And it is to be remembered that, in the early decades of this century, we enormously wanted authentic projections of that kind of life which hitherto had gone quite unnoticed. We had had Gissing, and to a certain extent Messrs. H. G. Wells and Arnold Bennett, and still more a writer called Mark Rutherford who by now, I should imagine, is quite forgotten. But they all wrote – with more or less seriousness – of the 'lower middle' classes. The completely different race of the artisan – and it was a race as sharply divided from the ruling and even the mere white-collar classes as was the Negro from the gentry of Virginia – the completely different class of the artisan, the industrialist, and the unskilled labourer was completely unvoiced and unknown. Central Africa and its tribes were better known and the tombs of the Pharoahs more explored than our own Potteries and Black Country.

© Ford Madox Ford
February 2010

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