Saturday, 17 July 2010

Death, Community and the rhythm of Working-Class life

This post will be using a short story by D. H. Lawrence, 'Odour of Chrysanthemums', to discuss some of the fundamental aspects of late Victorian working-class life.

Here is a link to an online version of the story:

Lawrence himself, born in 1885, grew up in the Nottinghamshire town of Eastwood, a community almost completely dominated by mining. His father was a miner, but his mother was a former schoolmistress. Class is a very problematic set of categories and Lawrence, with his mixed background and subsequent success, is too complex to simply label working-class. Much of his work did deal with working-class themes and life however, especially one of his earliest works Odour of Chrysanthemums, which was published in English Review in 1911.

Odour deals with a mother, Elizabeth Bates, and her children waiting for the return of the father, Walter, from the pit, the mother first speculating on his flaws and the problems within their marriage, and then her emotional response to the return of his dead body, covered in coal dust, from a pit accident.

Julie Marie Strange has already explored the themes of death and dying in her work so its not my intention to cover that here. Instead we'll examine Lawrence's short story to see what it can tell us about life in an Edwardian mining community as well as keeping an eye out for some of the dangers in using fiction in historical work.

What struck me first was the arrival of the woman's father on the steam engine. Geographical mobility was often limited in mining communities, leading to at least one child growing up in a Welsh mining town in the Edwardian period recalling to the historian Max Arthur that a social reformer had come to their house to urge their mother to move her children out of the valley to prevent inbreeding. Whilst fears of inbreeding were probably unfounded, census work shows that many working-class families did live in close proximity to their extended family. The father in Odours appologises for not coming to visit on the Sunday, implying he lives close by. It is difficult to tell how true to life this is however, as the family of railway workers could often suffer disruption and upheval caused by the demands of running engines across the country at all hours. What is left in Lawrence's work is a profound sense of isolation on the part of Elizabeth.

Her husband, she suspects, is down at the pub. The Prince of Wales seems an unwelcoming place to Elizabeth and the audience despite its warm and bright windows. 'No, you didn't like [to go in to find Walter] - it's not very nice' agrees Mrs Rigley, the woman who Elizabeth turns to for help in finding her husband. The public house in Lawrence's work appears to have been a male dominated domain. To what extent this was true amongst working-class communities is hard to say, as information on working-class culture is often slim. Middle-class reformers certainly dissaproved, yet the staunchly pro-temperace Seebohm Rowntree, investigating poverty in York in 1899, pointed out that the 'fact of their social attractiveness struck..[me]...very forcibely'. The pull for many working-class men and women, with few other spaces available for social interaction, must have been greater still. The public house was Walter's venue of choice, and whilst there is a tangible sense of suspense as the family wait for his return, there is also a tired resignation born out of familiarity with this behaviour.

Finally, there is a palpable sense of rhythm in the working-class world Lawrence portrays. It is one inhabited by miners tramping back from work, and then later from home to the pub, and of trains thundering past to and from the colliery. This sense of repetition is, I think, an important part of working-class life in the Edwardian age, and one which extended beyond the mining towns of the age. The social commentator Thomas Wright, writing in the 1860s, recalled how he would wake early and freezing on a winter's morning to join the steady trudge down his London street to the factory. Yet this simple schema of work and rest is not the only rhythm present in Lawrence's work; Walter's death, whilst jarring, feeds into a wider pattern of life and death which underlies the unnamed mining community. In the story's final lines Lawrence speaks of the inevitability of death:
'She knew she submitted to life, which was her immedeate master.
But from death, her ultimate master, she winced in fear and shame.'
Lawrence's work has been fundamental in fostering a picture of the bleak and inescapable toil of mining communities that was built upon in Orwell's Road to Wigan Pier. I wonder to what extent the majority of those living in such communities shared these opinions, and whether they felt their lives were dominated by an inexorable pattern of toil followed by death. This is one of the fundamental problems of using literature in history, it is sometimes impossible to know whether the author's views were shared by wider society, especially those which, like working-class communities, leave few sources behind.

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