The modern idea of modernism is already quite old, and traceable back at least to the middle of the 19th century. It has different meanings at different junctures. One period that interests me is the interlude between the two world wars. The atmosphere that followed the carnage of the First World War ─ and for a long time nobody knew that a Second was coming ─ was quite manic, perceived as festive at the time and as hysterical today. The gulch of modernism seemed to run like raving water, as DH Lawrence would say, between the steep and rocky walls of two world wars.

This is the context into which Lawrence’s The Captain’s Doll fits and it is a representative work of its time ─ it was first published in 1923 ─ as much so as the portraiture, literature and to some extent music of the day, of all of which it contains faithful echoes. But like all of the works of Lawrence it quickly establishes itself as timeless, concerning itself, as it does, with the relationship between a man and a woman over several years. In only 64 pages (in my edition[1]) it burrows with Lawrentian acuity to the heart of this relationship and worries away at it like a terrier.

DH Lawrence

Lawrence has the confidence of a man who has trained his reader. Each sentence is a live and sinewy creature, engaging on the one hand with the corpuscles and morsels of words themselves, and on the other introducing the very characteristic tattoo of Lawrentian repetition, a device which enables Lawrence to distribute emphases, and thus keep the reader’s attention, as he goes along. It is a unique instrument and contributes mightily to the impression that this man can compare favourably, if one were so childish as to want to do so, not only with the Bennetts, Hemingways, Fitzgeralds and Waughs of the period, but with the best writers of any and every age.

An example, not quite at random, will suffice here:

So, after a while of this valley of the shadow of death, lurching in steep loops upwards, the motor-car scrambling wonderfully, struggling past trees and rock upwards, at last they came to the end.[2]

A thousand other sentences would have demonstrated the same thing. We have the music of steep loops upwards, the repetition and emphasis of upwards and the poise and musical delivery of the sentence as a whole in its acoustic envelope.

This describes a level of poetic control unusual in most novelists, but what really wakes up a reader within a few initial paragraphs of any DH Lawrence fiction is the expansion of intuitive intensity with which characters perceive each other and are described. As in an encounter group, we are led directly into the realm of what people truly think and feel about each other. This zone of truth is commonly approached much more gradually, if at all, in the work of more circumspect novelists, but Lawrence seldom seems to bother doing anything else. Like Jane Austen, he scarcely indulges in incidental description, preferring to let the reader know quickly what the essential territory is that interests him. There is little distinction between public and private.

In the poverty and reduced freedom of British-occupied post-First World War Germany, a doll-making Countess and her Baroness friend interact with a British Army captain, his wife come to check up on him from England and, briefly, a local German politician, beautifully drawn, who appears as a possible candidate husband for our Countess. I suppose we know from the comic melancholy of the latter that the serious business will always be between the Countess Hannele and Captain Alexander Hepburn, but Lawrence manages to obscure the highly ambiguous outcome up to and including the very final sentences of the story. Will they marry or won’t they? (The Captain’s wife has fallen from an upper window and died, a huge sacrificial benefit to the narrative.)

Most of the drama, when the Captain seeks out Hannele in Austria after an interval of years, follows the escalating upward ascent of mountains towards a solid glacier that sits in a little valley at the summit. Thus the twists and turns of the journey and the excitement of the scenery do duty for Lawrence’s unfolding of the remarkable dénouement, in which a marriage is apparently agreed.

But the essential question for a critic is, what exactly is Lawrence up to in this novella ─ what is the purpose that has brought the story about, what is the itch that drives the writer’s creative agitation? This, it seems to me, has to do with a desire to satirise the faint, bleating amours of the English upper classes. The common and characteristic verbal gambit of Alec is to respond, “Quite,” to the conversations of his wife or his lover. Lawrence has a very good ear for this sort of thing: he has not hung around the drawing-rooms of Bloomsbury and Garsington in vain for all that time, boiling inwardly no doubt, but catching perfectly the self-detaching accents that we hear today in the talk of Mrs Hepburn:

But then, what can you expect, when there aren’t enough men to go round! Why, I had a friend in Ireland. She and her husband had been an ideal couple, an ideal couple. Real playmates. And you can’t say more than that, can you?[3]

The countess is not presented as a complex character. Her moment comes, climbing the mountain, when she arrives at the aperçu that the stony and isolated Alexander wants her to love him. Indeed, the reader is unable, when all is over, to disagree much with this. But throughout the story Hannele’s astonished fascination with this man is emphasised. She doesn’t understand him, cannot read his emotions and finds the experience intriguing.  To this extent, Hannele is the reflecting surface for the drastically limited, and possibly inhuman, emotional life of this crippled man who has never loved anybody, who now proposes a loveless marriage and who is incapable of rising to the existential occasion with any tone beyond that of take it or leave it:

“Very well, then ─ there it is,” he said, rising.

She rose too, and they went on towards where the boat was tied.

As they were rowing in silence over the lake, he said:

“I shall leave tomorrow.”

She made no answer.  She sat and watched the lights of the villa draw near.  And then she said:

“I’ll come to Africa with you.  But I won’t promise to honour and obey you.”

“I don’t want you otherwise,” he said, very quietly.

Lawrence maintains to the end the drama and uncertainty of this exchange.  It is only afterwards that the pieces settle into any kind of order.  Earlier on, one is exposed to the thoughts and feelings of Alexander by the author himself, hovering and fluttering around his character; but in the later passages the Captain is described wholly from the outside ─ through his actions. This, then, may be the point: that not only are the British upper classes incomprehensible to foreigners, especially defeated Germans, but that any particular male member of them is, in precise and elaborated detail, so unalive, so defeated by life, as to be limited and stunted, and even beyond this radically incapable of normal relationships. It may be that all this is caricature, Lawrence’s alienated class consciousness seizing on the movements of the elite like an entomologist as others have done before and since, but it also seems pretty faithful to the clipped and etiolated moeurs of the period as one comes across them, for instance in the Diaries of Evelyn Waugh.

Fortunately, we English love to laugh at ourselves, though England is not what it was. Today we can welcome Lawrence’s astounding, riveting, versatile and fecund critique as a tour de force in the particular genre that he seems altogether to have invented.

[1] Lawrence, DH. Women in Love etc. Heinemann Octopus, 1980.

[2] Op. cit., p. 498.

[3] Op. cit., p. 473.