The review is written on 18th March 2020 at The Buku Project
Note: It is the first day of the partial lockdown imposed on Malaysians by the Movement Control Order which was announced by the Prime Minister on March 16, 2020. Since the announcement, the government has committed many operational blunders, the results of which I fear would strain our already overburdened healthcare system. At the time of writing, two deaths have already been reported in Malaysia since the second wave of Covid-19 emerged, one of which came from the Tabligh cluster responsible for many second-wave cases in the region. The government’s incompetent handling of the pandemic and the confusion that surrounds the partial lockdown have prodded public outrage and widespread panic. I am of course, not unaffected by the current national mood and increasingly need to seek comfort in familiarity. It is against this backdrop that I turned to one of my favourite writers, DH Lawrence, whose novels had never failed to provide some warmth through their themes of personal intimacies and misanthropic isolation.
During the last semester break spanning five weeks between mid-January and late February, I had read all of Lawrence’s short stories thanks to the Kindle version of Delphi’s Complete Works of DH Lawrence. Considering the huge number of short stories written by Lawrence, I have shortlisted six stories that have touched me the most, consistent with the internal motivation that drove this review: my own search for solace and comfort. The six are (i) England, My England; (ii) Horse Dealer’s Daughter; (iii) Samson and Delilah; (iv) The Shades of Spring; (v) You Touched Me; and (v) The Old Adam. Of these six, I have decided to review England, My England, my ultimate favourite due to the characteristics of the protagonist which so painfully resonated with me.
England, My England explores the wartime experiences of the country as seen through the eyes of one man “of the old England”, a “born rose” that clings to the warmth of life despite the insistence of the world to move on to the more productive and mechanised universe. Egbert and his wife Winifred are the usual couple one finds in a Lawrentian story; Egbert was the ineffectual husband who loved his wife with the passion of every inch of his body and Winifred was the wife whose love was more practical and eventually resented her husband’s rootedness and lack of desire to get on in the world. Their contrasting natures were not anathema right from the start. Before the marriage became a failure, Egbert is said to have wanted Winifred so badly — she was the “warm stuff of life” to him. Winifred similarly worshipped Egbert as a higher being — graceful, delightfully spontaneous and passionate.
After the birth of three girls however, their different natures started to pull at each other. Egbert’s carefree existence began to irritate Winifred. Nothing he did was wrong exactly but everything he did was an amateur’s work. He laboured at the garden and around the house and was never idle but there was always something that required further polishing or even fixing. There was also the matter of his ambition, or rather the lack thereof. Being herself raised in a family of enterprising hard-workers, Winifred came to wonder what Egbert lived for. It seemed to her that he stood for nothing and nothing affected him. “He had no ambition whatsoever.”
As for Egbert, he began to notice Winifred’s withdrawal from their initial passionate love and her physical desire for him. The coming of three little girls called for a practical handling of the household and Winifred stepped up courageously, with a self-sacrificing instinct that frowned upon Egbert’s lack of care and concern. They were both stubbornly true to their natures and in no time at all, they reached an impasse. Inwardly, they grew apart although neither could quite figure out the currents that flowed within them until a tragedy changed their lives forever.
One afternoon, Egbert had carelessly, as was his way, left a sickle lying about in the garden after a morning of work and then gone in for a break. Their eldest daughter, Joyce — the apple of her father’s eye — accidentally fell on the sickle while playing in the garden and hurt her knee. The injury turned out to be more serious than was first thought and Joyce eventually became permanently lame. Silent tension arose between the married couple. Winifred blamed Egbert’s carelessness and Egbert suffered under the responsibility of turning his favourite daughter into an invalid. Looming over this tragedy was Winifred’s father whose financial generosity towards the young family throughout Joyce’s recovery was like a daily drip of poison into the marriage. Winifred ceaselessly wondered why Egbert could not be more like her father and Egbert resisted her will to change his quiet and unambitious self. What Winifred saw as a lack of ambition was simply his wish to remain apart from the rest:
“…he had no desire to give himself to the world, and still less had he any desire to fight his way in the world. No, no, the world wasn’t worth it. He wanted to ignore it, to go his own way apart, like a casual pilgrim down the forsaken sidetracks. He loved his wife, his cottage and garden. He would make his life there, as a sort of epicurean hermit. He loved the past, the old music and dances and customs of old England. He would try and live in the spirit of these, not in the spirit of the world of business…”
“…And there it was with Egbert. He couldn’t link up with the world’s work, because the basic desire was absent from him. Nay, at the bottom of him he had an even stronger desire: to hold aloof. To hold aloof. To do nobody any damage. But to hold aloof. It was not his season.”
When England declared war against Germany in August 1914, Egbert naturally opposed the very idea of an impersonal war that involves the killing of men by men who knew nothing of each other. The difference between England and Germany from his individual perspective, was not the difference between a moral good and a moral evil, but simply a difference that was morally neutral. He could not wrap his mind around the notion that a collective can be deemed good or bad; if a man was evil, it would not be due to his nationality. On top of this, the losing of one’s self to the faceless uniform was particularly abhorrent to him. After years of living his life unaffected by the trends of the world, he could not bring himself to be swayed by popular sentiments:
“He recoiled inevitably from having his feelings dictated to him by the mass feeling. His feelings were his own, his understanding was his own, and he would never go back on either, willingly. Shall a man become inferior to his own true knowledge and self, just because the mob expects it of him?”
But for all that, Egbert was just one man and powerless against the will of the world that was set for war. So he enlisted for a shilling a day and soon found himself at the battlefront in Flanders. Since Egbert is supposed to represent the old England in Lawrence’s imagination, it is not hard to foresee what would happen to Egbert. The old England was making way for the new England and so it was that thousands of Egberts have to die to make space for the new, less individual, generation. The description of Egbert’s fate in Flanders is some of the most beautiful description of the loss of consciousness to death I have ever read. Poignantly matter-of-fact and beautifully haunting. It is not just the man’s self that died, but also his body, his senses, his memory, his awareness. The whole of him died.
I could not get over Egbert’s death so easily because I deeply identified with his individuality. I have myself been in his place; existing in discord with everything around me even though I could have done quite well for myself if I had cared to. The problem was I did not. I refused, like Egbert, to fall in with the values of a society simply because I am told to, often by persons I did not esteem highly to begin with. So yes, Egbert’s disappearance into nothingness affected me in a profound way and Lawrence’s masterful description of the descent made me question whether it is ever possible to chart one’s own path in a world that would not leave one alone.
All in all, if you have ever felt forced to play a role that does not suit you, give England, My England and other short stories by DH Lawrence a try. Project Gutenberg has many different e-book formats here. If you are Malaysian, I wish you good health and all the best through the coming days of partial lockdown. Stay home and keep safe!