Monday, 13 April 2009
17. D.H. Lawrence - 'Tickets, Please' (1919)
'From village to village the miners travel, for a change of cinema, of girl, of pub.'
(D.H. Lawrence, England, My England, Penguin, 1966, p.42)
And finally I get round to reading some DHL, my dad's favourite prose writer (appropriately picked for his birthday), and who was rather in fashion in the 1950s and 60s in literary circles in a way that is simply not the case today; just look at the generally unfavourable reactions on the ILX - I Love Books forum, or the lack of TV literary adaptations, even in comparison to Trollope and Thackeray, let alone Hardy, the Brontes, Gaskell, Dickens or Austen. He is I am sure more read than Galsworthy, Shaw or Bennett, Anthony Powell or Angus Wilson, but not necessarily by that much.
Hardy is probably the closest reference point for me, having recently read Under the Greenwood Tree. Like that oddly upbeat novel, this is a tale of an England beyond Bloomsbury or the metropolitan. It is industrial England as particularly manifested in the Midlands, presumably Lawrence's Nottinghamshire. And it is a new vision we are presented with; the emancipations and profound dislocations wrought by WW1 are being felt here. Lawrence attempts to portray the effects of modernity - or the modern way of being - on a relatively realistic Midlands community. Rather than in the troubled idyll of Hardy's Wessex we are 'in the sordid streets of the great town.' (p.41) Whilst the city is not depicted at length, the mechanised life experienced by the characters is akin to urban life, the mode of existence that spread throughout the twentieth century and still seems to many an ideal.
Lawrence uses an extraordinarily long sentence to open the story, and his quixotic temperament seems to infect the story, with its movement from verbose sentences, myriad clauses setting out the full scope of the tramways' passage, towards shorter, sharper action and dialogue, as the narrative develops.
The community is disparate, forged through the happenstance of work. Whilst DHL professes elsewhere to despise work, making the non-Labourist point that a revolution should banish toil and money forever, the vivid, complicated scenes he sets in motion revolve around a workplace. It would not be a work approved of by William Morris or G.K. Chesterton, perhaps; the dangerous, hardy, racketing passage of the tramways through the Midlands - with generally young men and women making up the workforce, conducting and driving. The men at work on the trams include those too crippled for active service in WW1 and the 'delicate young men, who creep forward in terror.' (p.42)
Lawrence captures the new sorts of people who emerged from Britain's industrial revolution; they seem beyond 'towing the line' in terms of work, as the process of work in this environment is shown to be pretty anarchic - yet they forge their own way and maintain an order of sorts, Annie for example able to 'hold her own against ten thousand.' (p.43) There is a roughness in these characters suggesting Lawrence sees them as forces of nature, as much animal as human, and he does not hesitate to use such metaphors as these: 'Strange wild creatures, they hung on him and rushed at him to bear him down.' 'He lay at last quite still, with face averted, as an animal lies when it is defeated and at the mercy of the captor.' (p.51) And indeed, John Thomas displays an ambiguous, fox-like cunning to emerge from his seeming defeat as a potential victor. (pp.52-4)
Etiquette, manners and social position seem wholly irrelevant in the milieu that DHL establishes; this world exists as it is. The primary concern is about primal interactions between the genders, perhaps loosed, perhaps constrained, by the new industrial age. The work enables John Thomas Raynor to encounter many available females of a young age, yet he is trapped by his profligacy with them; a revenge is plotted and carried out in the climactic passage. Yet this is hardly a simple tale of feminism, expressing a new confidence in women to stand up to their oppressors; it could be read any number of ways: Lawrence is careful to leave things ambiguous and ambivalent. Much depends upon how one views the idea of commitment; JTR embodies the presumed masculine impulse to want women as 'nocturnal presences', whereas Annie wants a deeper relationship rooted in the everyday: 'Here she made a mistake. John Thomas intended to remain a nocturnal presence; he had no idea of becoming an all-round individual to her. When she started to take an intelligent interest in him and his life and character, he sheered off. He hated intelligent interest. And he knew that the only way to stop it was to avoid it. The possessive female was aroused in Annie. So he left her.' (p.46)
I am sure that feminists would take issue, yet Lawrence hardly insists that one takes John's side, although the resolution might make one think this, with the female tram workers hypocritically 'anxious to be off'. (p.54) The overall effect is of a very individual voice making clear his contrarian nature; in its depiction of the battle of the sexes, DHL is intrigued yet impatient for things to improve.
The sense of ownership inherent in marriage is not supported at all, instead subtly derided with the choice that JTR is presented with. DHL insists upon an intrinsic difference between men and women, a 'realism' different from the Bloomsbury privileging of androgyny; 'Lawrence criticized equality as an ideal, but not because he wanted property and power to be distributed unequally. He wanted them abolished or, better, outgrown. For capitalist and patriarchal ideology he had only contempt. For socialist and feminist ideology he had instead fraternal impatience, precisely because they seemed to have no higher end in view than more property and power for their constituencies. The undeniable justice of this demand did not, he believed, make it any less a dead end.' http://www.georgescialabba.net/mtgs/1986/05/a-fool-for-love-dh-lawrence-at.html
As with the previous story surveyed, Google Images does not throw up the cover from the copy I am reading; the sixties Penguin edition of England, My England is a composite image of three photographs from the contemporaneous Granada Television series of adaptations of DHL's short stories - a series my dad remembers as important. Lawrence's 'The Fox' was adapted by Norman J. Warren for a fascinating curio of late-70s horror, Prey (1977). Obviously there were the Ken Russell adaptations, but also less widely noted is the influence on British 'kitchen sink' films, novels and plays of the 1956-63 period; Barstow, Waterhouse, Sillitoe and Storey clearly draw influence from Lawrence's battle of the sexes - women as making the best of life as it is, men dreaming of life outside society. Oddly, 'Tickets, Please' was originally published, three years before collected within E,ME, in the Strand, which would still be publishing Sherlock Holmes for around a decade. This sense of several worlds colliding is what makes the immediate post-WW1 period and the 1920s as fascinating a time as the 1970s.
DHL is perhaps a truly revolutionary writer in the sense that he is attempting to envisage an existence where pecuniary and worldly advantages are not important for men and women. He does not want, or indeed depict, merely incremental change to the existing capitalist system, but tries to shatter it for ever. He does this without imagining a utopian enjoyment of work and fellowship as William Morris does, but through what he perceives as innate natural connections and disjunctions. Forces of nature and self-expression are to supplant the forces of Kapital. Lawrence is perhaps so unfashionable because his idiosyncratic world-view does not fit into either the Labourist or Neo-Liberal paradigms that most in Britain have believed in, post-WW2. A free Communism, an essential non-western anarchism beyond the compromises of society or Kapital? One can see the appeal to a generation coming of age in the 1960s. This is an intriguing story, and makes me want to read more of this very curious writer - Katherine Mansfield's short story has a sophisticated appeal that is clearly more universal today than this in its aestheticism. There is rawness in this, DHL playing with inarticulacy, upon what are perceived as fundamental rather than whimsical differences between the genders.