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Tuesday 19 June 2012

Doris Lessing on Lawrence's The Fox


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

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  Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes), Quebec: photo by Peupleoup, 2004

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 Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes), Slovakia: photo by Karelj, Summer 2005

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 Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes), Skandinavisk Dyrepark, Denmark: photo by Malene Thyssen, 31 July 2005

File:Rød ræv (Vulpes vulpes).jpg

 Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes), Skandinavisk Dyrepark, Denmark: photo by Malene Thyssen, 31 July 2005


TC said...

Lawrence's 1923 novella may be read in its entirety here:

D. H. Lawrence: The Fox

Conrad DiDiodato said...

Saw a fox once just like this one on my morning run, looking mean & resentful

or maybe he'd just reflected my own smallness (through the eyes mainly)

TC said...

Or possibly your largeness (through his eyes mainly)?

TC said...

To be fair, it ought to be said that after looking at that Surrey fox several times a night over a period of some three to four weeks, I have yet to feel stared at in a mean or resentful way by it.

No, never quite that.

In a fox way, though, yes.

Susan Kay Anderson said...

Lesing's write-up is very full. I remember seeing this movie when I was little. The tree was very disturbing and nightmarish for years to come. I remember how the man was the intruder, although the fox was not an intruder of the same quality. The man was so bulky. I like thinking of Lawrence as shaman. I like thinking of any kind of shaman or animal or animal shaman. I wonder if Banford was the fox in the story.

Nin Andrews said...

Interesting. I have seen so many foxes in my life. They are shy. When I was a girl, one had rabies and there was a lot of excitement -- we had to shoot it. But usually it's the coons and the skunks that get rabies. I've been chased by raccoons with rabies--they scare me.

Not that that is what this post is about. But it's interesting. As to cruelty and animals, I think we used to train animals with cruel techniques. Parenting and animal training techniques seem to soften over time. Don't know if that's an explanation or excuse, but it crossed my mind . . .

I love this post.

Hazen said...

Many, many thanks Tom for this fine essay on Lawrence. This isn’t one to skim or scan quickly, but to ponder. No great artist can ever be summed up, but Lessing comes as close as anyone could. Your post relates to recent new discoveries of cave paintings at various points around the globe, some of them dating back forty thousand years and perhaps more, though the animals most often depicted seem to be horses and bison; the images were ‘interactive’ in way we moderns cannot approach. New studies show that these could have been painted by Homo sapiens neanderthalensis. Neanderthal man has received a bad rap, it seems. They are not a stupid and brutish race, but sensitive people attuned to their surroundings. I say ‘are’ because other studies show that they’re still with us, in our DNA. Who knows, maybe that consciousness touched Lawrence himself.

TC said...

Nin, in the course of looking at about two thousand foxes, I learned that there are entire packs affected by rabies and other diseases (including a large group that inhabited an Alaskan shipwreck site). Also that they are shy and have learned from experience to make themselves scarce when men come round with hounds and/or popguns. Like the raccoon and the badger and at the extreme of this category the honey badger, however, they are fierce survivalists. Long may they prosper, in a good way. A fox way.

Susan, I was going to put up a clip from the film but the only things out there are the "hot girls kissing" scene (available of course in many versions with more vid hits per clip than the Greeks owe drachmas)... and yes, the tree scene. Since that's the one you remember, please consider this clip from The Fox (1967) a mnemonic event. Anything to add variety if not spice to life. Banford is the delicate bespectacled younger woman, played in the film by Sandy Dennis. It's her money underwrites the venture, and her upon who the tree falls, once our Keir (Dullea) manages to whack it down. In the novella as in the film the male intruder effectively kills Banford and then actually does run off with March.

Really the Lawrence tale is worth a read, or a re-read, at any rate I found it so. Intense and instinctive and half bonkers as per the usual, but then that's Lawrence, a real writer, probably they're all nuts. Or else simply crazy like foxes.

And I also think Doris Lessing really understands him, and is quite smart and fair on the subject.

TC said...

Hazen, sorry about that, your comment was being disinfected in the zyklon B blogger holding tank, even as I babbled on here.

I think you're spot on in seeing a survival of a bit of the neanderthal in Lawrence -- perhaps a somewhat confused bit, but still palpable.

Lessing's suggestion that the t.b was related to the sexual obsession is interesting. Something like that happens too in the sad later days of Keats.

Anonymous said...

love the eyes of the fox...!!

Anonymous said...

Fox cat owl all get jumbled together somehow in my imagination

Nothing dog-like about the fox and yes a huge affinity for this creature

vazambam (Vassilis Zambaras) said...

Great post, Tom—reminded me of the time my wife and I came upon a fox cub that was no bigger than a cat as we were driving on a country road at night; the little critter had stopped right in the middle of the road and was waiting for our car to approach. We got out for a closer look and it started to rub up against our legs just like a cat and wouldn’t go away until we did. There was something about that encounter that still makes me feel wonderful every time I look back on it.

Susan Kay Anderson said...

Banford is kind of dumb
like a sacrifice
her hair
wild like
branches and her love
of nature
just too much
standing there
not afraid of the tree
or else placing herself
there in its path.

TC said...

Affinity felt all round then, with this earth-wise creature.

Beautiful story, Vassilis.

Let that fox cub or at least its memory remain safe forever inside this small pleasant fox preserve. With neither a hound nor a gun in sight.

TC said...


That one snuck up on me, sly as a fox.

And Banford...

like a sacrifice
her hair
wild like

Yes, I felt that -- her one really wild moment. While at the same time wanting to cry out a warning. But as Lawrence is always showing, Nature and its workings are always just out of reach of our cries.

TC said...

There's so much sympathetic magic -- and reader involvement -- here.

Poor Banford. Her last wish had simply been to feed those four hungry ducks.

She had no food to give them, still they must have sensed it in her, as others did -- soft touch.

Susan Kay Anderson said...

Lawrence is fearless. He goes beyond and is not afraid to say it, let us see it, let us have more than we thought we wanted. I see that the fox is a beggar, homeless, and a thief. The fox knows what to do but must keep moving. Highly instructive about the fox, the spell of the fox, what the fox sings, and these people? and story that discards the obvious (fox) to go where others would not dare but also becomes mundane? again.

TC said...


Lovely to hear you thinking. What any writer would hope for from any reader.

The life of Lawrence, its places and its meanings, are the subject of this great 1985 documentary presented by the novelist Anthony Burgess. Highly recommended.

Anthony Burgess: The Rage of D. H. Lawrence (1/4)

Anthony Burgess: The Rage of D. H. Lawrence (2/4)

Anthony Burgess: The Rage of D. H. Lawrence (3/4)

Anthony Burgess: The Rage of D. H. Lawrence (4/4)