The way Lawrence can impose the cage of working life over me decades beyond the grave is impressive and nuanced, whilst offering the moral of the old fable that eudemonic happiness lies in having lived well and not in having spent well. However the most fearful aspect of this story lies not in what Lawrence tells us, but what he doesn’t.
We begin the story with a young couple in love, as is typical to our subject, but by the end they are deluded and embittered. If this were even a novella, the plot would have one trajectory for our dampened idealists and it would be down into conflict, the depths of which are trusted by Lawrence to our own imagination.
A more externalised instance of this sense of social immobility arrives in ‘The Man Who Loved Islands’. A story triaged by way of the protagonist living on three separate islands, it is a character study focusing on isolation and disillusionment. As the story progresses the description phases from being functional and grounded in reality, to pervading a sense of intensifying unreality. Having failed to successfully manage and finance the running of the first island the protagonist recedes to a second, smaller island and enters a loveless affair which bears a child. In turn, he retreats from this situation into a third, completely remote island which becomes buried under snow, the sea described in ways resonant of chasm and void. It feels like a retreat into the protagonist’s psyche, almost Freudian in its composure. First he failed in his professional endeavours, then in his personal life. He arrives at a point on the last island where he has lost his motivation to live and aspirations to succeed, avoiding human contact and finally becoming trapped, unable to escape. The final line of the story alludes to the cold weather as being a force beyond his control, but it is a metaphor not for all his failings, rather his failure to try to recover from them and reassert control.
This story could resolve with a redemptive final act from the protagonist or an attempt by one of the people he has met along the way to possibly rescue him, but it doesn’t. The story ends with him trapped in the snow, on an island far from the shore. It’s important to note that, throughout, our protagonist hsn’t been driven by anything evil and has done nothing criminally wrong.
Lawrence’s chief domain across his body of work is perhaps his honest portrayal of human behaviour and that shines through here. This character could have done better, but he didn’t and now he is alone. Social isolation is at best a temporary discomfort and at worse a traumatic event which can lead to doubts over one’s purpose and identity and this story ends with a man who initially knew exactly what he wanted becoming a husk who has cornered himself in solitude. This, like with ‘Things’ and ‘The Rocking Horse Winner’ provide a more allegorical angle on fear. It is not the things that go bump in the night that are coming to find you, it is yourself.
Growing up in the shadow of D.H. Lawrence makes reading his work all the more textured. His books are not taught in school back in Eastwood, or at least they were not when I was taking my GCSEs.
He is not buried in the family plot at the local cemetery, instead making his final resting place in the USA after passing away in France.
It is clear that there was some isolation, loneliness and pain in his initial life experience which is perhaps displayed more vividly in the stories mentioned here than the better known novels he produced, driving him away from his roots.
Eastwood is now, as it was more so in Lawrence’s time, built on mining heritage, beautiful countryside and working class families. Perhaps it is this pastiche of community spirit and natural beauty that gave Lawrence some inspiration for his most famous works. But, as candlelight always leaves a shadow, the arguments and troubles arising from the pits and pubs may just have given Lawrence insight into that other side of human nature… where fear lies, within.
Jordan Whatman (pictured, left, outside the Lady Chatterley pub in Eastwood) is a writer based in Nottingham. He studied Philosophy and International Relations at Nottingham Trent University and currently works for a local authority. He recently completed the manuscript of a science fiction novel. Previous writing has included match reports for Nottingham Forest Football Club in a local fanzine, as well as contributing to Horla.