Nail Your Novel – the DH Lawrence way

‘Try to nail something down in a novel,’ said DH Lawrence, ‘and you either kill the novel or the novel gets up and walks away with the nail.’

(This is the first time I’ve come across a quote that put the words ‘nail’ and ‘novel’ together, so I thought it was worth a mention.)

Lawrence was talking about the influence of a story’s narrative voice, and how it has to be deployed with feints and subtlety. By coincidence, I’d just read his short story The Lovely Lady and badly wanted an excuse to talk through why I like it so much. So as the gods seem to be hinting, here we go.

(If you haven’t read it already, it’s here. It’s not that long and I’ll wait for you.)

Ready?

How’s this for an opening?

The Lovely Lady is Pauline. ‘At seventy-two… sometimes mistaken, in the half-light, for thirty…. Only her big grey eyes were a tiny bit prominent… the bluish lids were heavy, as if they ached sometimes with the strain of keeping the eyes beneath them arch and bright.’

Pauline lives with her son, Robert, and her unmarried and distinctly less favoured niece Cecilia: ‘perhaps the only person in the world who …. consciously watched the eyes go haggard and old and tired….. until Robert came home. Then ping! … She really had the secret of everlasting youth… could don her youth again like an eagle.’ How interesting that she only turns this magnetism on for Robert. Never Cecilia. And how creepy.

Here we have characters we recognise by their familiar vanities – and an off-kilter situation. And it’s all accomplished through simple description. First, we’re shown Pauline (most frequently referred to as ‘the lovely lady’) in a way that lets us know how she sees herself. Then we see Cecilia’s view of her. There’s a lot of unrest here; an unstable situation that can’t last. Simple and masterful.

Characters

We don’t get Robert’s point of view. He is a mute adorer of his mother. And anyway this is going to be Cecilia’s story. Cecilia, by the way, is very quickly abbreviated to Ciss, or perhaps I should say reduced as the narrator informs us the diminutive is ‘like a cat spitting’. Tiny details that reinforce her true place. (But we want this to change.)

They all live in a house that is ‘ideal for Aunt Pauline’ – but living death for the other two. That is just as well because they don’t have the confidence to leave. Cecilia is ugly and tongue tied, and Robert, a barrister, is secretly mortified that he can’t earn more than £100 a year, in spite of his best efforts. (Notice the ‘showing’, not ‘telling’ – we don’t get a sentence saying Robert’s an underachiever. We’re shown what that means and how it makes Robert feel.) By day he is at work. When he comes home at night, the old lady keeps him in awe of her beauty and gay conversation.

It doesn’t help that Robert is ‘almost speechless’. Dwell on those words for a moment: ‘almost speechless’. They reach so much further than ‘quiet’.

Psychological hold

The language drums out the unnatural state of this triangle. Ciss intuits that Robert is never comfortable ‘like a soul that has got into the wrong body’. The lovely lady is only seen by candlelight, when she is radiant in antique shawls. She made her fortune dealing in antiques from exotic countries. Are we treading into vampire territory here? Perhaps, but not literally; this is a psychological hold. The lovely lady steals Robert’s youth to keep up the illusion of her own. Meanwhile Ciss is always sent to bed early and can see the confusion seething in his soul.

Longing

‘Every character should want something,’ said Kurt Vonnegut. Ciss wants to marry Robert, but can’t see how to prise him away and fears her dazzling aunt will live for ever – or at least until Robert is a broken husk. Nudging the vampire idea again, but so obliquely. (And she’s Ciss now; never Cecilia. Her status is so insignificant that the narrator doesn’t use her proper name.)

This talk of the supernatural is also storytelling sleight of hand – seeding suggestions for what comes next. One day, Ciss learns something that may give her a means of escape.

From here, the old woman is no longer ‘the lovely lady’, a legendary and exquisite presence. She is Pauline. Not even Aunt Pauline. Ciss has glimpsed the reedy old woman under the brocades.

The relationships thicken

Ciss’s relationship with Robert deepens and she becomes Cecilia again – although he will not break away from his mother.

The final solution is bizarre, poignant and funny, but it works beautifully because of the structures and influences the author has been weaving while we looked the other way. The nailing that was done with the lightest touch.

Thanks for the pic Editor B  

Your turn – let’s talk about The Lovely Lady – or is there another short story you’d like to give an honourable mention to?

The first edition of my newsletter is out now, including useful links and snippets about the next Nail Your Novel book!  You can read it here. And you can find out more about Nail Your Novel, original flavour, here.

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  1. #1 by journalpulp on July 14, 2012 - 8:58 pm

    What an insightful analysis, what a lovely essay about a lovely story — a story, incidentally, which shows why those who would completely dismiss David Herbert Lawrence (and there are many) do so at the risk of beclowning themselves completely.

    “the swerve of the bone”

    “creamy, clean-shaven face”

    “kingfishers flashed up the little stream … something flashed in her heart”

    “Outside was cold rain”

    Some of DH Lawrence’s animal poems are among the very best in the English language. He is a strange writer. Uneven, difficult to classify, often profound.

    My mother’s name, by the way, is Cecilia. It’s not a name you hear very often. She is Spanish. She does not like people to shorten it. No Ciss. No Cissy. No CC. No Celia. Did you know that Cecilia is a variation on Sheila? In Latin in means blind. In French it means something more like “lighting the way of the blind.”

    • #2 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on July 15, 2012 - 10:14 am

      Ray, how lovely to see you here. I could quote-swap from this story all day, it’s the kind of writing that sets the world back on its axis. Lawrence gets a lot of attention for his subject matter and plots, but I wanted to stand up and say ‘look what’s going on here – learn from him’.

      Cecilia – you Americans often have an exotic streak in your DNA. In Britain, most of us have been here for centuries and we’re as English as the stones. I didn’t know the variations of Cecilia, or its meanings. I’d like to guess Lawrence did, though.

  2. #3 by KJ on July 14, 2012 - 9:16 pm

    Thanks for this analysis! It really helped me understand the point of Lawrence’s initial quote to read the story and then your description of they way the story was crafted. Much appreciated!

  3. #5 by Áine on July 15, 2012 - 7:12 pm

    And in a way Cecilia is undone by her own fear of her aunt and of what she thought initially was a supernatural voice when she attempts to create the fear of the supernatural in her aunt by pretending to be a voice from beyond the grave. While we are thinking about Ciss’s blindness, let us not forget that the name “Pauline” means “the younger.”
    “Things are not always as they seem; the first appearance deceives many.” Phaedrus This aphorism applies to the characters in the story and the story itself. Thank you for bringing us D.H. Lawrence.

    • #6 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on July 16, 2012 - 6:42 am

      It’s so neat, isn’t it, Aine? Cecilia has to feel that fear first for us to then accept that she can do it to Pauline.
      And how brilliant about the name! I’ve been talking about how the names change as each character changes in Cecilia’s eyes, but didn’t think about the significance of the names’ meanings – which, now you say it, must have been another deliberate choice by Lawrence. Thanks for pointing this out!

  4. #7 by HBastawy on July 15, 2012 - 9:19 pm

    I really like the analysis, has been a whiile since I’ve read an analysis like that. The quote is pretty amazing too. ‘Every character should want something,’ I shall remember that.

    • #8 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on July 16, 2012 - 6:45 am

      Thanks – it was such fun to take this story and really grapple with what was going on. But that point about characters wanting something is crucial – once you can identify that, it pulls you through the story. You know what you’re looking for.

  5. #9 by Deb Atwood on July 17, 2012 - 3:30 am

    Yes, the narrator assuming different names is very well done. Reminds me of a story I like by Chopin called “Story of an Hour” (http://www.eastoftheweb.com/short-stories/UBooks/StorHour.shtml) in which Mrs. Mallard undergoes a change and becomes Louise. Very subtle.

    I loved the voice of “The Lovely Lady”–reminded me more of Katharine Mansfield than of D.H. Lawrence.

    • #10 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on July 17, 2012 - 3:28 pm

      Ooh interesting story, Deb. I shall have to check that out.
      Another writer whose use of names I admire is John Irving. He has an interesting habit of repeating a character’s full name – eg ‘Jenny Garp’ rather than just ‘Jenny’. Sometimes he adds a title: ‘the former tight end Roberta Muldoon’, which gives a sense of them as changing creatures connected by the novel’s events and changed by them. Very interesting effect.

  6. #11 by Writerlious on July 17, 2012 - 2:23 pm

    “‘Every character should want something.” This is the best advice ever!

    I think this lesson hit home for me recently when I read George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. Everyone had an agenda, and they often clashed with the other characters’ agendas. It made for a fast-paced, engrossing read.

    • #12 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on July 17, 2012 - 3:30 pm

      Thanks, Erin! I haven’t read Game of Thrones but I have seen the excellent TV adaptation. And you’re right – all the characters want something, or need to protect something, or are looking for something or are in dread of something.

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