‘The Odour Of Chrysanthemums’ by D.H. Lawrence

NPG x81934; D.H. Lawrence by Elliott & Fry

The Odour Of Chrysanthemums by D.H. Lawrence, 1911

The magic trick:

Using colloquial speech to differentiate characters back stories

One of the key elements at work here is the notion that Elizabeth Bates is not native to the setting. Marriage brought her to this lifestyle of mine work and poverty. She observes her surroundings with the disdain and impatience of an alien.

Lawrence is very careful to let that idea unfold gradually through the story. He never overtly writes of it, instead making only subtle mentions here and there, and – in a very neatly executed trick – using colloquial language. Elizabeth’s words are quoted as proper English; correct spelling and grammar, etc. The neighbors, including Elizabeth’s mother-in-law, speak with a mangled vernacular – for example: “’E saw ’im th’ lamp-cabin.”

This allows the reader to see that Elizabeth is not quite like her neighbors at all. She does not fit in here. Crucially, this is a point that Elizabeth only fully understands, herself, by the story’s conclusion. Had Lawrence simply told the reader at the outset of the story that Elizabeth was a stranger in a strange world, he would’ve been revealing information that the character didn’t yet know, and that’s never a good strategy. Instead, he allows the reader to take the same journey as Elizabeth through the story, eventually recognizing that she is not truly connected to this community or lifestyle. And that’s quite a trick on Lawrence’s part.

The selection:

“I’ll just step up to Dick’s an’ see if ’e is theer,” offered the man, afraid of appearing alarmed, afraid of taking liberties.

“Oh, I wouldn’t think of bothering you that far,” said Elizabeth Bates, with emphasis, but he knew she was glad of his offer.

As they stumbled up the entry, Elizabeth Bates heard Rigley’s wife run across the yard and open her neighbour’s door. At this, suddenly all the blood in her body seemed to switch away from her heart.

“Mind!” warned Rigley. “Ah’ve said many a time as Ah’d fill up them ruts in this entry, sumb’dy’ll be breakin’ their legs yit.”