European Red Fox (vulpes vulpes crucigera), British Wildlife Centre, Surrey: the fox sits in his enclosure; looking, listening, smelling the air: photo by Peter Trimming, 3 January 2011
Lawrence the man and DH Lawrence the writer: both provoked strong reactions in his lifetime, and it all still goes on. He had the defects of his qualities: he had no defects, he was a genius; he is at the heart of English literature; he is secure in his place in world literature; he was a misogynist and a scumbag. But pick up a Lawrence tale and the old magic begins working. I read him as a young woman in the old Rhodesia, and not in the proper order: in wartime one grabs what one can get. It was Aaron's Rod, my first one: and nearly 60 years later in my mind are scenes as bright as they were then. The sounds of water as a man washes, listening while his wife badmouths him, for he is leaving her for ever. Nascently fascist Italy, plagued by gangs of unemployed youths; mountains streaked with snow like tigers; the vividness of it all: I was seduced while resisting the man's message, which seemed to be a recommendation to find a strong personality to submit oneself to. And so with Kangaroo and the Australian bush which I can see now as he described it, dreamlike and spectral, different from the bush I actually saw later. Quite forgotten is the nonsense about the strong leader and his followers, suspiciously like storm troopers.
All his books have it, he spellbinds, he knocks you over the head with the power of his identification with what he sees. It is generally agreed, even by antagonists, that Sons and Lovers and The Rainbow remain unassailable, but that is about it. Then things go from bad to worse, they say, and as for the swooning Mexican rhapsodies -- better forget them. No writer has been easier to parody. I myself have shrieked as loudly with laughter as anyone, even while mentally hearing Lawrence's "canaille, canaille" and his intemperate ranting, for like in any who have a talent for abusing others, he could not stand so much as a whisper of criticism. Amid all this noise it is often forgotten that he wrote fine poems, and that some of his short stories are as good as any in the language.
The story The Fox is quintessential Lawrence, on the cusp, as it were, of the light and the dark. Its atmosphere is so strong one may easily forget how firmly it is set in its time and place. The war is just over, and the soldiers are coming home. It must be 1919 because the great flu epidemic has victims in the near village. We have had another postwar grimness since then: poor food, cold, bare sufficiency, endurance. This one preceded what some of us remember by 30 years. Food is short. So is fuel. The winter is coming. A little farm where two young women are trying for independence is shadowed by the war. They are failing, they don't know how to farm. Emotionally they aren't doing too well either: there is bleakness and fear for the future. Despondency finds an easy entry, and they have a visible enemy, a fox that steals their precious chickens. It is decided this thief must be shot, but he is too clever for them.
This animal obsesses March, the stronger of the two women. From the first, this beast is more than itself. "For he had lifted his eyes upon her and his knowing look entered her brain. She did not so much think of him: she was possessed by him." The biblical echoes here are part of the spell: the fox again and again "came over her like a spell".
Strongly set as this tale is in its social place, we have left realism behind. So it always is with Lawrence's animals. His feeling for them, or with them, is much more than anthropomorphism or the sentimentality these islands are sometimes accused of. The fox is representative of some force or power, alien, inhuman, other, part of all old world, inaccessible to humans. Except of course through intermediaries, like Lawrence, whom it is easy to see in a line of descent from the old shamans, whose knowledge of animals was a reaching out to other dimensions. This fox is demonic. "She felt him invisibly master her spirit."
We are not unfamiliar with special relationships in our mundane world, human with animal -- cats, dogs, horses, birds, even pigs. They are so common we scarcely think about them. But it is odd how the animal world is tamed and domesticated in our homes and often in our hearts. We may imagine that useful space alien reporting that here is a world where humans are surrounded by animals, even submerged in them, often hard to distinguish one from the other. Some scientists say man's friendship with dogs goes back to the dawn of our history: they even suggest that those first human groups who domesticated wolves that later became dogs prospered, and dominated groups who did not, eventually conquering them. There, in the dawn of human kind, it is not only humans we see outlined against the flames of those cave fires, but the dogs. And surely, just outside the circle of firelight, the first foxes. Animals shade off into the wild and the wilderness, in tales and in legends, and the first men probably did not know where their thoughts ended and the consciousness of beasts began.
Reading Lawrence, such ideas have to present themselves. Who, what is this impudent fox?
Perhaps it is that -- coming nearer by thousands of years -- we modern people, who have killed the wild animals that lurked once at the edges of human life, miss them and want them back, and have replaced them with dogs and cats and innumerable tales about wild beasts. I once owned a cottage on the edge of Dartmoor, and the deed that gave me possession said I might keep four sheep on the moor in return for killing wolves and bears that threatened the safety of Queen Elizabeth. The First. Quite close, that was, only a little run of the centuries. So recently was the howling of wolves in people's ears at night; and travellers might have to run from a bear. In Africa now, where humans have not completely triumphed, you feel the presence of animals always, watching you as you move about, aware of you, wary of you. In the English countryside, Reynard, of all the wild animals, must know every movement we make. His eyes are on us, and now in our towns as well. The busy marauders visit our gardens. The fox of this tale knows the ways of the two young women.
Wolves and bears have gone, both of them animals powerful in magic and in folklore, and once their pelts and paws dangled from the shamans' shoulders and headgear, as did the fox's. Lawrence was brought up in a mining town but really he was a country boy: the fields and woods were all around him, and are in what he wrote. No writer has ever identified so strongly with the wild, and with beasts. The old shamans did, the storytellers. For them and for Lawrence an animal was never what it seemed. A white peacock is the spirit of a screeching woman. Who could forget St Mawr, the horse who comes out of some primeval world? Even the pheasants' chicks being raised in the dim and dusky wood are like emanations of the forces of fecundity. And here is the fox in this tale. Into the sylvan scene where two young women are struggling for economic survival, a young man comes, impudent, and daring, like the fox. In fact he is a soldier, from the fighting in Salonika. Soldiers come home from wars to the women who have been holding the fort. Nothing much is made of him, as a fighter, though he does remark that they had had enough of rifles. What we do feel, though, is his restlessness, his homelessness.
March sees him as the fox. She dreams of singing outside the house, which she cannot understand and made her want to weep. She knew it was the fox singing, but when she went to touch he bit her wrist, and whisked his brush across her face, and it seemed this fiery brush was on fire because it burnt her mouth. Any old magical man or woman would have recognised this dream's fear, and power, and warnings, and its deep attraction for the forbidden.
What is forbidden is man, is men, the masculine. The tale is full of the feminism of the time, strong in Lawrence's work, and what a simple and naive feminism it seems now, after nearly a century. The relationship between March and Banford excludes men. Whether or not this is a sexual relationship is not spelt out. Lawrence is hardly bashful about describing explicit sex and this is significant. Or perhaps, as writers often do, he avoids a direct statement so that readers will not focus on something irrelevant. What is important is the emotional relationship. And, too, we should not put our assumptions back into such a different time. They shared a bed, but women often did then. They were solicitous and careful of each other. Don't forget, it was wartime and men were in short supply. Many a female couple kissed and cuddled because of that great absence. And this kind of speculation is probably precisely what Lawrence wanted to avoid.
When the youth announces that March is to marry him, Banford says it isn't possible. "She can never be such a fool." She says March will "lose her self-respect". It is independence she is talking about. Sex, lovemaking, is "tomfoolery". Men's tomfoolery.
But March is drawn to the young soldier, and Banford, who will be left out if March marries, weeps and complains, and the boy hears the weeping and the commotion and learns how much he is seen as an interloper, a thief. He goes off into the dark and shoots the fox.
March dreams again. Her Banford dies and there is nothing to bury her in but the fox's skin. She lays the dead girl's head on the brush of the fox, and the skin makes a fiery coverlet. Awake she stands by the dead fox that is hanging up waiting to be skinned, and she strokes and caresses the beautiful flowing tail. The soldier watches and waits.
So, one thieving fox is dead, but the human fox is alive and determined to have March. He began by coveting the little farm, but now it is the woman he wants. He is in a contest with Banford, and for a while this battle dominates the tale, and March, the contested one, is almost an onlooker. The young man detests Banford. This is a power struggle, naked and cold, like the one between the human world and the fox, ending in its death. There has to be a victim. Banford is a frail thing, dependent on March, and it is clear she will do badly without her.
The tale progresses through scenes where every detail has significance, reminding us of how much we miss in life, how much we don't see. March has been wearing farm clothes, breeches and boots, looking "almost like some graceful loose-balanced young man". Now she puts on a dress and for the first time the young man sees her as dangerously feminine, and beautiful. Bludgeoned and shouted at as we are by fashion, and often by nakedness, I cannot imagine a scene in a modern novel where the putting on of a dress, the revelation of the power of a woman's body, could have such an impact. And March, in a dress, is undermined and made defenceless.
Perhaps what annoys some feminists about Lawrence is that he insists lovemaking, sex, is serious, a life-and-death thing. Well, it used to be that children resulted from the terrible gamble of the genes, and often enough, death, and disease, as we now have Aids. And death ends the conflict in this tale: the rejected woman, Banford, is killed by a falling tree, the young man, the soldier, engineers this death. And so now there is nothing to prevent the banns and the wedding bells and happiness, but this is Lawrence. March is not happy. We are at once in the old Lawrentian situation. The man wants the woman to be passive: like the seaweed she peers down on from a boat, she must be utterly sensitive and receptive. He wants her to submit to him, "blindly passing away from her strenuous consciousness". He wants to take away that consciousness so that she becomes, simply, his woman.
Well, yes, it is easy to laugh. But women do not seem to be particularly happy having their own way -- as Lawrence and the Wife of Bath would put it.
And men are certainly not happy.
I wonder what his prescription would be now?
"The awful mistake of happiness," mourns Lawrence, insisting that things go wrong, if you insist on talking about happiness.
But what do we care about his pronouncements on the sex war? What stays in my mind is the entranced woman, wandering about her little farm in the darkness watching for her enemy the fox, for the white tip on his fiery brush, the ruddy shadow of him in the deep grass, then the struggle to the death between the two women and the young soldier, the long cold evenings of that winter after the war where they watch each other in the firelight. "A subtle and profound battle of wills taking place in the invisible," he says.
In his later life unpleasant tales were told about Lawrence in New Mexico; his treatment of animals could be cruel. Yet he often writes about them as if he was one. Probably he was punishing himself. He was very ill then. I have read theses and tracts, and analyses about Lawrence, which never mention the consumption that was eating him up. Young, it was surely this illness that gave him his supernormal sensitivity, his quickness, his fine instincts. He was fiery and flamey and lambent, he was flickering and white-hot and glowing -- all words he liked to use. Consumption is a disease that over-sensitises, unbalances, heightens sexuality, then makes impotent; it brings death and the fear of death close. "The defects of his qualities", yes, but what qualities.
Doris Lessing: edited extracts from introduction to reissue of D. H. Lawrence: The Fox (Hesperus Press, 2002), via The Guardian, 3 January 2003