I first read Lawrence’s debut novel The White Peacock (1911) about five years ago. I remember being struck by the vivid descriptions of landscape and what felt like a reference to a flower, plant or tree on every page. Flowers will feature in some capacity as an artefact in the Memory Theatre and so I recently reread the book, but this time with a highlighter. As Cyril Beardsall drags you across the fields of Nethermere, you’re presented with a sensory overload that at times felt like it may induce hay fever. Here’s one such example:

“The evening scents began to awake, and wander unseen through the still air. An occasional yellow sunbeam would slant through the thick roof of leaves and cling passionately to the orange clusters of mountain-ash berries. The trees were silent, drawing together to sleep. Only a few pink orchids stood palely by the path, looking wistfully out at the ranks of red-purple bugle, whose last flowers, glowing from the top of the bronze column, yearned darkly for the sun.”

My intention is to create a YouTube video to capture the breadth of such references but given that there are so many, they need to be categorised and ordered first. This is going to take a while and so it’s another project on the backburner. In the meantime, I came across this description of September in the novel which was begging to be made into a short video:

“I was born in September, and love it best of all the months. There is no heat, no hurry, no thirst and weariness in corn harvest as there is in the hay. If the season is late, as is usual with us, then mid-September sees the corn still standing in stook. The mornings come slowly. The earth is like a woman married and fading; she does not leap up with a laugh for the first fresh kiss of dawn, but slowly, quietly, unexpectantly lies watching the waking of each new day. The blue mist, like memory in the eyes of a neglected wife, never goes from the wooded hill, and only at noon creeps from the near hedges.”

John McCarthy, who previously created our Suez Canal video, was up for making another and so eagerly got to work on it, spending a day in a forest to capture the necessary shots. My brief was to create slow lingering shots so that Lawrence’s evocative descriptions took precedence; to not be on the nail when matching images to text but rather to capture the mood and feeling of the season. I find myself swaying as I type this. Once more he’s done a smashing job.    

Lawrence was born on 11 September 1885 and each September sees a variety of events hosted as part of the D.H. Lawrence Festival – of which I am a council member. This year this includes a Lawrence/Leavis Day of talks followed by a birthday lecture by Keith Cushman entitled: ‘Affirmation and Anxiety in Lady Chatterley’s Lover’. As with any work you produce, being time specific is one way of generating interest.

The quote also means a lot to me because of the references to ‘the corn still standing in stook’. I grew up in a mining village south east of Nottingham and our street backed right out onto corn fields. My childhood was spent getting scratches from corn and dodging Combine Harvesters whereas my fiancé would help her father erect stooks when he worked seasonally as a farm labourer.

One of our favourite activities in summer is to laze about in fields listening to birdsong and watching the farmers cut the hay when they know there’s a few days of sunshine and it can be safely left out to dry. On such occasions we’ve witnessed an owl meandering low through the fields on the hunt for field mice and counted the vast array of plants and flowers growing in the hedgerow. All of which helps transport us momentarily from the 24/7 thrust of technocratic culture into a simpler and calmer world where it’s ok to pause and observe. And because of Lawrence, I now want to know the name of every plant and flower I’m looking at. This is what good literature does. It broadens your horizons, it makes you restless and inquisitive, it helps you see the world in a different light.   

Further reading

  • If you want to know why you shouldn’t mess about with Combine Harvesters read Joe Speedboat by Tommy Wieringa
  • For information about the D.H. Lawrence festival see the dhlawrencesociety.com
  • If you want to learn how to identify wild flowers visit nhbs.com
  • Melissa Harrison’s podcast The Stubborn Light of Things is a good starting point for learning more about nature visit melissaharrison.co.uk
  • For an interesting interpretation of Lawrence’s first novel see ‘(R)evolutionary Fears and Hopes in The White Peacock‘ at Études Lawrenciennes

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