As part of our memory theatre project, we have created space for students at Nottingham Trent University to explore their own interpretations of Lawrence’s work. Here Jonathan Lucas explores Lawrence’s use of dialect as part of his final year English dissertation.
DH Lawrence had a special relationship with his native dialect, using the local vernacular speech of the mining community in his hometown Eastwood. Dialect acts as a prominent and dynamic symbol in many of his works, infusing depictions of his childhood experience with a certain raw authenticity that transcends words on a page.
In a late poem entitled ‘Red-herring’, Lawrence describes himself and his siblings as ’in-betweens’ and ‘little nondescripts’ speaking the Received Pronunciation they learned from their mother, Lydia, inside the house and the less respectable dialect, of their father Arthur and the rest of the town, outside it.
The breach between these two forms of speech had a significant impact on Lawrence’s perception of relationships between masculine and feminine, which he expresses in his semi-autobiographical novel, Sons and Lovers. To portray the rift in his upbringing, Lawrence based the characters of Walter and his wife Gertrude on his own parents, featuring intense bi-dialectic confrontations between the two, with Walter speaking in Eastwood dialect and Gertrude speaking in Received Pronunciation.
In both Sons and Lovers and The Rainbow, there is an impulse, largely associated with women, to break out of the parochial community that they feel trapped in. In a community marked off from the wider world through distinctive ways of speaking, characters such as Gertrude provide an alternative to the mould through their speech, mirroring Lydia and her desire to secure respectability for her sons, beyond the community of Eastwood. Lydia’s efforts worked as Lawrence’s ability to code switch from dialect to Received Pronunciation assisted in his transposed success, especially when he won a prestigious Nottinghamshire County scholarship to Nottingham High School, an extraordinary achievement for the son of an Eastwood miner.
Lawrence would go on to travel the world, escaping the mining community that would become the focus of much of his work. His dialect had personal connotations of primitive, masculine energy that he associated with his father – which he makes reference to in his essay ‘Nottingham and the mining country’: “The life was a curious cross between industrialism and the old agricultural England of Shakespeare and Milton and Fielding and George Eliot. The dialect was broad Derbyshire, and always ‘thee’ and ‘thou.’ The people lived almost entirely by instinct; men of my father’s age could not really read.”
The rudimentary essence of dialect is affectionately expressed in the description of the miners in Women in Love: “Their voices sounded out in strong intonation, and the broad dialect was curiously caressing to the blood. It seemed to envelop and run in a labourer’s caress, there was in the whole atmosphere, a resonance of physical men, a glamourous thickness of labour and maleness surcharged in the air.” The physicality of the miners’ bodies is what makes their dialect speech so powerful that it ‘caresses the blood’. The thick dialect courses through the miners’ veins and evaporates in the vibrations of their voices, creating an atmosphere humid with ‘a resonance of physical men’.
The notion of dialect being embedded into one’s blood as a pulse of instinctive life is something Lawrence was vocal about early on in his career, exemplified in a letter when he tells Blanche Jennings that his “verses are tolerable-rather pretty, but not suave; there is some blood in them.” Referring to the integrity within his use of un-refined words and syntax as ‘blood’ highlights how essential Lawrence considered dialect to be in his body of work. In the same letter, Lawrence goes on to say that he prioritises “sincerity, and a quickening spontaneous emotion” in his writing, a sense of immediate passion which is represented through dialect.
Lawrence’s poem ‘The Drained Cup’ ascribes dialect to a woman to show that the raw primitive instinct of his father is not exclusive to males. By using the same deliberately unrefined and explicit language as before, but through a female persona dealing with her lover’s unfaithfulness, Lawrence criticises masculine primitive instinct: “A man like thee can’t rest till the last of his spunk goes out of ‘im into a woman”. This string of monosyllabic words leading to the disyllabic “woman” illuminates how all of the lover’s masculine energy, his “spunk”, is focused towards women, thereby being impotent in the absence of a woman to direct it to.
This is reinforced later in the poem when ‘spunk’ then yields to ‘blood’: “Tha’rt one o’ th’ men as has got to drain-an I’ve loved thee for it. Their blood in a woman, to the very last vain” – this reduces men to their material substance – ‘spunk’ and ‘blood’ are all that men are good for in this instance.
Using dialect, Lawrence expresses the unrestrainable nature of humans, articulating obsessions with immediate and physical reality, exploring the collective primitive instinct that is shared by all but repressed by some and embraced by others – regardless of gendered boundaries constructed by society.
Dialect is the second artefact in the D.H. Lawrence Memory Theatre. Visit our project website to see contextual essays by Natalie Braber