Reading it Right

“Stick to the facts!” said the dictatorial Thomas Gradgrind in trying to teach their reliability to the schoolchildren in his class, “the little pitchers before him’, in the 1854 novel Hard Times by Charles Dickens.

The question of interpreting a well-publicised fact is very much the centre of the latest find at Beamish Museum, County Durham, a handwritten letter by one of the railway pioneers, George Stephenson.

To be specific, the museum acquired two letters, one from George Stephenson, which I shall detail, and the other letter from George’s son, Robert, who was as much a bridge-builder as a railwayman.

Robert’s letter was dated London, May 12, 1836.  In it were the moans and groans of a rival, Joseph Locke, a former understudy to George Stephenson.

Railway memorabilia, artefacts and relics had always come in piecemeal over the years such as the nature of retrieval for any museum.  Andy Guy, an in-house researcher for Beamish Museum at the time of the letter finds in 1997 said:  ‘they had been with an art dealer who had stored them for years.”

In 1996, I undertook my own research into the railway pioneers; my plan was to write a play with songs.  In the end, there were more songs than drama.  I had written seven song lyrics under a working title:  Coupling/Uncoupling.  Then when I discovered a local newspaper report on the Beamish letter finds, I wrote another song lyric based upon the George Stephenson letter.

The main figure in the letter was his second wife Elizabeth, who was usually known by her nickname Betty.  Her maiden name was Hindmarsh.  She was a farmer’s daughter from a large farm at Black Callerton near Newcastle upon Tyne.  As to George’s love life, her parents were not keen on their daughter marrying a grimy pitman and so they had to meet in secret in the family’s orchard.  The relationship was doomed to failure.  Soon George took a fancy to a domestic servant called Ann Henderson at another nearby farm and it was reported ‘there was no dowry to add to the attraction’.  Still resilient, he next made a move towards her older sister and he married Frances Henderson in 1802.  Robert was born a year into the marriage.  But George’s wife died three years later in 1806.

Meanwhile, as Hunter Davies recounted in his biography on George Stephenson, ‘she [Elizabeth] declared she would never marry anyone else – and she didn’t’.  There was a 13 year gap until he married Elizabeth.  By that time, George was a ‘big catch’ as Hunter Davies goes on to say:

‘… [he was] an important engine-wright, earning over £200 a year, with a large cottage, several hundred pounds in savings and investments, turning down offers and jobs all over Tyneside’.

When the letter in question was written George was living at Tapton House, a Georgian mansion near Chesterfield, Derbyshire, a property he had bought in 1838.  By then George Stephenson was a household name, known for winning the Rainhill Trials with his locomotive The Rocket.  He received dignitaries from home and abroad and many other wealthy friends, but also some hangers-on.  They all had to participate into one of his many hobbies, for he built a contraption for taking the fingerprints of his invited guests and visitors.  Such were his suspicions that his favourite saying ‘Never judge a goose by its stuffin’ I made as the title to one of my song lyrics.

Here is some idea of how was living then as Hunter Davies recalled:

   When his sister Nelly [Eleanor], the one who’d brought up Robert, came down to visit her famous brother, the first thing that amazed her were the number of windows.  She counted 90 – 89 more than the whole family had had when they’d slept, all of them, in one room at Wylam.  It seems a ridiculous size for a canny northerner, with only a wife to help him occupy it, but by now he had rather a large domestic staff, including an old farmer from Killingworth who in earlier years had helped him read and write.

The letter was addressed to a “William Hardcastle, Esq, MD, Westgate Street, Newcastle upon Tyne”, a reply to his recent social visit.  He was a surgeon and physician to George Stephenson and his family.

It must be assumed from the opening paragraph that Mrs Stephenson had left early to go into Chesterfield.  On the way she had stopped by the railway station, but, unfortunately, she had misread the train timetable, and it was made all the more amusing as she was the wife of the famous railwayman.  George wrote:  ‘[She had] only got down to the bottom of the park when the train passed’.  Evidently, Mrs Stephenson had prolonged her shopping expedition in Chesterfield and, considering their visitors, she had decided to buy a basket of strawberries ‘and a most beautiful melon for old Mrs Hardcastle’, which George described in a business-like manner ‘[that it] came under my management after dinner and I assure you it was most luxurious’.  The fact that the melon was bought for Mrs Hardcastle made it clear there was an arrangement to hand over the fruit to the doctor and his wife at Chesterfield station and for them to eat both fruits n their journey back home to Newcastle.

So this opening paragraph was nothing but a confession to Doctor Hardcastle and his wife as to why Mrs Stephenson was unable to meet them as arranged and to tell them about their missed fruit.

But that wasn’t the end of it:  what was essentially a man’s letter to a man and generally patronising to women.

At the beginning of the second paragraph, much longer than the first, it closed the letter.  George commented on his wife’s other shopping in Chesterfield that day with her buying a bonnet for herself, and what turned out to be:

   ‘…  two pounds for such a thing!  I suppose a nice straw bonnet might have been got for 5 or 8 shillings – what a waste of money for taste, and taste for what?  For something for other people to look at, that you don’t care one fig about – comfort and decency ought to be considered but nothing more’.

George ranted on about domineering women in biblical hyperbole, and what would today be described as sexist:

   ‘Eve coaxing Adam to eat the forbidden fruit she engendered into her female offspring the controlling power over man, and I suppose we must quietly bend to their wishes:  to attempt to turn them is like turning the tide in the Ocean’.       

George ended things by carping on again about the cost of his wife’s bonnet, highlighting it with a romantic set of double exclamation marks.

Andy Guy had filed the letter find as The Husband’s Lament and added:  ‘He [George] always had a strong dislike for “showy” dress’.  This may in part be explained by his upbringing.

George had a sense of pride though in things he had done for himself on a practical level.  As Andy Guy noted further about his time at Tapton House.  ‘In these later years, he was interested in growing fruit and vegetables and gave great time and trouble to the problem of producing straight cucumbers’.

It seemed George never lost his inventive spirit and could turn his hand to many things.

As to the letter as a whole, it didn’t have the vocabulary usually associated with a pitman’s background.  George was illiterate until he was 19 and started to have lessons on reading and writing from a Killingworth farmer.  Some of his letters still showed misspellings.  But he got help, for instance, from the likes of engineer Nicholas Wood in the battle over the Safety Lamp with Sir Humphrey Davy, and, of course, living off his son Robert’s knowledge about engineering when he was able to pay for his formal education.  Now George had his Killingworth mentor living in at Tapton House, he could be called upon to help him out, even his signature changed into a well-developed business-like “Geo” and not “George”, something he had continued to do ever since he signed the register for his second marriage.

Overall, the idea of ‘reading it right’ was evident in the secondary source over my interest in writing my song lyric.  The local newspaper report that first gave me the idea was brief and had gaps in the story.  For instance, it read ‘…  Mrs Stephenson [was] buying a bonnet and missing a train after looking at the wrong timetable’.  It begged the question:  Had she missed her own train?  Was she on her own as there was no mention of the Hardcastle couple, and nothing about buying strawberries or a melon?  It was only after my further investigation and re-reading that the truth was established.

Although I wasn’t writing history, I decided to keep to what had actually happened.

My song lyric is part of a set of 11 northern sketches, including Pitman’s Ditty about George’s skills as a shoe repairer.  They are to be performed by schoolchildren at a Newcastle school concert in June 2013 for The Great North Festival, with music by Katie and Rosie Cochrane, the former, an Oxford University music student.  To give it some authenticity, I have based my lyric on the tune to the Victorian comic song by Jacob Beuler:  Shiverand Skakery, The Man That Couldn’t Get Warm.  My song lyric is written with elements of Geordie:

The Tale of Betty Stephenson
The Stephensons they did invite
The Hardcastles, doctor an’ wife
One day to taste their mansion life,
Come taste their mansion life.
The Hardcastles they came by train
To stay wi’ them all day remain
An’ catch the same train back again,
The same train back again.

La, la, la, la, la, la la,
Afore they gan, Betty must gan
To shop in toon an’ buy some scram
Some scram for them – take hyem.

Now to the station Betty’s gyen,
The timetable her eyes would scan
An’ found the train that hyemward ran,
The train that hyemward ran.

She’d warked oot there was time t’ kill,
She’d buy some claes, her husband thrill,
His railway money would pay the bill,
His money would pay the bill.

La, la, la, la, la, la, la,
She’d forget the money that was not hers;
She’d make her George look up t’ her,
Our George look up t’ her.

So to the shops she felt the need,
A draper’s shop her greatest need;
A bonnet that would grace her heid,
A bonnet to grace her heid.

She tried one on wi’ laces fine,
She tried one in another line,
“This’ll look good when I wine an’ dine,
Look good when I wine an’ dine’.

La. la, la, la, la, la, la,
She went to every shop she knew;
An’ that was how her hunger grew,
That was how her hunger grew.

She’d have to leave, she couldna stay,
She bought a melon on her way;
But soon there came another delay,
There came another delay.

For loads of strawberries she did buy,
A basketful to satisfy
The Hardcastles all theirs to try,
For it’s all theirs to try.

La, la la, la, la, la, la,
An’ to the station Betty’s gyen,
To keep on track what she had planned,
On track what she had planned.

She stood upon the platform there,
No Hardcastles or train was there,
No train will come; she felt despair,
Oh, dear, she felt despair.

So what will George, he think of her?
The train she should have knaan afore
Had gyen away some time afore,
Away some time afore.

La, la, la, la, la, la, la,
For Betty she had lived the lie
An’ time how it had passed her by,
How it had passed her by.


The book referred to in my article is George Stephenson:  A Biographical Study of the Father of the Railways, Hunter Davies, Quartet Books, 1975.

The George Stephenson letter appears by kind permission of Beamish Museum, County Durham.

‘Tapton House July 26th, 1844

‘My dear Sir,

‘I hope you and Mrs Hardcastle got safe home – Mrs Stephenson expected to have met you at the Station as you passed, she had unfortunately looked at the wrong time table and only got down to the bottom of the park when the train passed:  she had a basket of straw berries for your party which would have saved you eating I think all the way to Newcastle and a most beautiful melon for Old Mrs Hardcastle which came under my management after dinner and I assure you it as most luxurious.

‘Mrs Stephenson is delighted with her bonnet; but only think of two pounds for such a thing!  I suppose a nice straw bonnet might have been got for 5 or 8 shillings – what a waste of money for taste, and taste for what?  For something for other people to look at, that you do not care a fig abut – comfort and decency ought to be considered but nothing more.  But I suppose from the time of Eve coaxing Adam to eat the forbidden fruit she engendered into her female offspring the controlling power over man, and I suppose we must quietly bend to their wishes:  to attempt to turn them is like turning the tide in the Ocean.  However notwithstanding all their faults they can certainly sooth man when the world frowns upon him:  and I suppose it is best to let them go on having their own way to a moderate degree – but only think of two pounds for a bonnet!!

‘I am my dear Sir,

‘Yours truly

‘Geo. Stephenson

‘Wm. Hardcastle Esq.’

G. F. Phillips

Published in Vintage Script:  The writing magazine for all things vintage historical retro, edited by Emma Louise Oram. Winter 2013.



Yep! Guys ‘n’ gals, Winesburg is a small town in the middle of nowhere, an isolated backwater in the American Midwest, but it’s ours and we need some guy to try and figure us folk out. That ain’t asking too much, goddamit! That’s why we have our own George Willard, a cub reporter at the Winesburg Eagle on our side. No, it ain’t paper-talk! We have our own stories to tell. Okay, our George was a greenhorn at first, but his coming of age was just like it was for us folk, trying to find our true selves. Just think, one hundred of us have confided in him about our hopes and fears and our place in this goddam town. Yep! And I’ve just been talking with two townsfolk about George on the corner of Buckeye Street. Kate Swift our school mom had told him: “You must not be a mere peddler of words. The thing to learn is to know what people are thinking about.” But then, Doctor Parcival surely spoke for us all when he reminded George that “If something happens perhaps you will be able to write the book I may never get written.”

In fact, the book did get written by Sherwood Anderson. He began writing it in 1915 and it was published in 1919 as Winesburg, Ohio. It is a rite of passage book based upon the author’s own childhood experiences of growing up in a real place: Clyde, Ohio. There are twenty five short stories, if you include both The Book of the Grotesque, which acts as a general prologue and Godliness, a Tale in Four Parts.

In the introduction to Penguin’s reissued 1976 collection, Malcolm Cowley refers to the townsfolk as ‘emotional cripples.’ So what kind of truth did they hide behind the facades of Winesburg, Ohio? That was Sherwood Anderson’s raison d’être.

The general prologue acts as a fable ruminating in how the men and women were ‘grotesques’ on account of their misrepresentation of the truth. The storyteller is an old man, the fabulist in this rather self-reflexive story who
had listed hundreds of truths in his book … there was the truth of virginity and the truth of passion, the truth of wealth and of poverty, of thrift and profligacy, of carelessness and abandon [and] his notion that the moment one of the people took one of the truths to himself, called it his truth, and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque and the truth he embraced became a falsehood.’

In the first story, Hands, Adolph Myers, alias Wing Biddlebaum (whose adopted surname is a construct after seeing a freight box of goods at a railway station) was once a young schoolteacher from a town in Pennsylvania and ‘was meant by nature to be a teacher of youth.’ But his reputation preceded him. He had got into trouble at the local school with his fondness for virginal boys; so much so, after ‘a half-witted boy of the school became enamoured of the young master’ the paedophiliac was hounded out of town by an angry band of men. Then, having an aunt in Winesburg, he has spent his twilight years living alone with her and working as a day labourer in the fields outside the town by fruit picking and other odd jobs. George tries to read his mind because the truth of his background sticks to him like a limpet mine that can explode any minute. Here is the ‘pathetic fallacy’ of the character’s mood reflected in the setting:
When the rumble of the evening train that took away that took away the express cars loaded with the day’s harvest of berries had passed and restored the silence of the summer’s night, he went again to walk upon the veranda. In the darkness he could not see his hands and they became quiet. Although he still hungered for the presence of the boy, who was the medium through which he expressed his love of man, the hunger became a part of his loneliness and his waiting.

Two other stories, The Strength of God and The Teacher are interlinked and relate to another quirk of passion. The voyeuristic Reverend Curtis Hartman sees the naked and praying teacher, Kate Swift, as something she is not, when ‘the minister proclaimed the woman George had only a moment before held in his arms an instrument of God bearing a message of truth.’

In Godliness, Louise and Jesse Bentley both suffer for their love of religion in their search for an ideal love and maker. In part four of the story there is the ritual sacrifice of the blood put on the head of the boy, a near killing and initiation into manhood takes place. Then Jesse sums up his grandson David’s disappearance as “… I was too greedy for glory.”

For Doctor Reefy in Paper Pills, the truth is found not in scripture but in his own testament of knowledge and experience. His random thoughts were written down on what are now rolled-up bits of hard paper. Reading them to his wife before her untimely death, they turn out to be delusions of grandeur for
Out of many of them he formed a truth that arose gigantic in is mind. The truth clouded the world. It became terrible and then faded away and the little thoughts began again.

The influence of the past overshadowing the present is a constant theme. In The Thinker, Seth Richmond, living with his mother, has to come to terms with his father’s early death, and their small income, a result of their grandfather’s lack of inheritance, but the truth of the matter was it had been ‘squandered in speculation and in insecure investments made through the influence of friends.’

As is often the case, folks leave for the big cities like Chicago or New York to make money. For instance, this happens to Elmer Cowley, Enoch Robinson and Ned Currie. The latter ends up as lonely as his left behind wife-to-be, Alice Hindman, whose ‘… desire had grown vague. She did not want Ned Currie or any other man.’ The truth was ‘she wanted to be loved’, and yet, she didn’t know how it was exactly going to happen.

For Enoch Robinson, who got married in New York, he fell out with his wife because in his words ‘I wanted her to see how important I was.’ ‘His absurd air of importance’ got the better of him, and with their separation he returned to live in Winesburg, realising belatedly that what he had said to his wife had contributed to his downfall, yet accepting ‘that’s how it is.’ Perhaps he never knew what he really wanted from life.

But for Elmer Cowley, farmer’s son turned merchant, the fact that their business of trading had been ‘queer’ for so long by buying more than their sold, well, it just got to him. The unhappy Elmer would leave Winesburg to make a life for himself and he would do it by proving how bold he was to his father by stealing twenty dollars from his father’s barrel of cash in the family store then tell George Willard to hand them back to him. Not only an act of honour, it shows his willingness to be true to his word. Of course, it also shows his father’s carelessness in choosing an easy spot for cash to be stolen by thieves. So Elmer imagines his future:
He could get work in some shop and become friends with the other workmen and would be indistinguishable. Then he would talk and laugh. He would no longer be queer and would make friends. Life would begin to have warmth and meaning for him as it had for others.

In other stories, Winesburg is a place for outsiders. It is either seen as a sanctuary or retreat or hopefully, a place to cure someone’s habit of a lifetime.

There is Wash Williams, the telegraph operator, who ironically, for a communications guy, is very much a loner. He is described as ugly, his wild imagination, according to George Willard, has made him one of his stand-out characters for he resembles
a huge, grotesque kind of monkey, a creature with ugly, sagging, hairless skin below his eyes and a bright purple underbody.

There is an unnamed stranger with a drink problem (one of three drunkards elsewhere). It appears drink has become a substitute, once again, for someone who needs to be loved. His ‘Tandy’ as he calls it, is that ‘something men need from women and that they do not get.’ Telling this to Tom Hard’s little daughter, the unnamed stranger wonders whether she can be the future healer of his dreams.

Many of the characters feel lonely or abandoned; they have to try and gain the respect of the townsfolk. For Joe Welling, the Standard Oil agent is someone who is always looking to make money on the side from his ideas. With his latest big idea about a new vegetable kingdom he hopes will impress the love of his life, as he tells George Willard;
“Wait till you see Sarah, she’ll get the idea. She’ll be interested. Sarah is always interested in ideas.”
The townsfolk, surprised by his success in courtship, his making of the local baseball team, are awaiting his first tragedy, but to date it has never happened.

George Willard, too, has his own stories to tell. In An Awakening his own demise in love causes him to be confronted by his rival for Belle Carpenter, Ed Handby in a scuffle. Another infatuation, Louise Trunnion tells him a home truth that “You think you’re better than I am.”

This idea of betterment rings true because at eighteen when George’s mother died he knew all about
the eight hundred dollars the dead woman had kept hidden so long and that was to give George Willard his start in the city, it lay in the tin box behind the plaster by the foot of his mother’s bed.

The story that stands out most in this collection is The Untold Lie. It is about two farm hands: Ray Pearson and Hal Winters and told from Ray Pearson’s point of view. When Hal Winters tells his workmate that “I’ve got Nell Gunther in trouble” Ray is also told “… you keep your mouth shut.” For Ray, who has to put up with his wife’s nagging and scolding has a sudden epiphany moment when
the whole world seemed to Ray Pearson to have become alive with something just as he and Hal had suddenly become alive when they stood in the cornfield staring into each other’s eyes.

Thinking about his own relationship compared to Hal’s, Ray concludes with these crucial lines that
What he [Hal] wanted she [Nell] wanted. Why should I pay? Why should Hal pay? Why should anyone pay? I don’t want Hal to be worn out.

In the end, Hal steals Ray’s thunder, keeping a sense of duty and thereby keeping the status quo. But then, had Ray given his advice, either way, it would have exposed the contradiction in how Ray leads his married life.

These Winesburg stories have an overall atmosphere of disillusionment. With their occasional epiphany, the book is not a far cry from their use with the paralysis of Joyce’s Dubliners (1914). Written in the third person, Anderson’s collection of stories is not unlike Knut Hamsun’s novel Mysteries (1892), where the mysteries became the actual interactions between the various characters.

Anderson took the idea a stage further by augmenting his characters’ previously told histories through a central character whose trade was flushing out stories. Here was the sceptical journalist, George Willard, brought up in the family’s ‘shabby hotel’ whose mother only wanted the best for her son, free of their own family’s business failings. Here, too, the towns folks’ truths were felt close-up and predominately through the characters’ colloquial language.

G. F. Phillips



The Embedded Narratives in D.H. Lawrence’s ‘Odour of Chrysanthemums’

For Lawrence, the struggle between the creative and destructive elements in class, gender, work and home are highlighted by possessiveness. Crucially, they are all interlinked to the industrial system of supply and demand. In this respect, an embedded narrative, ever-present, impinges on the lives of Lawrence’s industrial workers, so that the domestic squabbles are nearly always about work-related problems, like money or strikes, or associated problems, as in the working man’s drinking habit at the end of his shift, or after pay-out. Often, these characters live a life of falsehood or misconception, or are victims who have the need to accumulate wealth.

This domestic discord is what makes the embedded narratives in many of Lawrence’s mining stories work, causing tensions between the characters as they look to better themselves, or look to leadership as a way of forgetting or combating their present unsteady predicament. For instance, this idea of bettering oneself is the psychological aspect behind Lawrence’s ‘Fanny and Annie’, in which Fanny believes she can be more than the lady’s maid in her premarital adventure with Harry, the foundry worker. In ‘Her Turn’, the utilisation of money becomes an act of revenge for Mrs Radford.

As is often the case, the stories highlight social divisions. In ‘A Sick Collier’, the neighbourhood gossip sums up Mr and Mrs Horsepool bluntly: ‘she was too good for him’. This is because, as a cook, she is socially superior to a pitman. Then, in ‘Daughters of the Vicar’, the focus instead is on two women – Mary who married for money, against Louisa marrying for love.

Moreover, these relationships are all about power relations as a result of mismatches, some of which are sexual taboos; the modus operandi of Lawrence’s fiction.

More than anything, though, Lawrence speaks up for men over women. Here is the opening scene of ‘Odour of Chrysanthemums’:

It appeared round the corner with loud threats of speed … a woman, walking up the railway line to Underwood, drew back into the hedge, held her basket aside, and watched the footplate of the engine advancing. The trucks thumped past, one by one, with slow inevitable movement, as she stood insignificantly trapped behind the jolting black wagons and the hedge…

From the beginning, Lawrence’s words are deeply ingrained in the ‘entrapped will’ that encompasses the lone woman. The railway crossing itself acts as a division between entrapment and will; she is entrapped by one of the forces of industry, of progression – the locomotive, which has superseded the horse – and it reduces her into submission. The adverb ‘insignificantly’ coldly describes the woman’s entrapment, while the adjective ‘inevitable’ further conveys her fragility, alongside the ‘loud threats of speed’.

Author: D. H. Lawrence.

Later in the story, Lawrence then insinuates these ‘threats’ are all in the woman’s mind. Passing minersD_H_Lawrence_passport_photograph see nothing out of the ordinary about a freight train that ‘trundles’ up to the pithead, yet the woman has seen this as something to fear.

A comparable scene from Women in Love has Gerald Crich control his mare’s nervousness of a noisy passing train. Sisters Ursula and Gudrun Branwen look on with sympathy for the suppressed mare. The figure of Gerald Crich and the bulky locomotive in both ‘Women in Love’ and ‘Odour of Chrysanthemums’ can remind the reader, as David Lodge has said in The Art of Fiction, that ‘industry has been imposed on the countryside by the masculine power and will of capitalism…’

The entrapped woman in the opening scene of ‘Odour of Chrysanthemums’ acts as a counter-point to the masculine power. Further, she is the precursor to the central character, Elizabeth Bates. The entrapped woman has her own embedded narrative; she is a frame figure, someone who leaves the story as soon as she has arrived, and yet, she helps establish a Schopenhauerian air of pessimism in the subsequent main narrative. As cited in Christopher Janaway’s Schopenhauer: A Very Short Introduction, Lawrence, who greatly admired Schopenhauer, utilised the idea that ‘the vanity of women is bad because it is centred entirely on material things and hence society is so very much their element’. In this story, the idea of pessimism is further enhanced by the dishevelled images of chrysanthemums, which signal the theme of decay and approaching death.

Elizabeth Bates’ embedded narrative emanates from her deep consciousness. The reader gradually receives a full, if not unresolved, picture of the divisions between her and her husband, Walter. Overall, self-preservation is the governing factor, and Elizabeth’s claim of love for her husband is sorely tested by his sudden death in a local pit disaster. Through his death she discovers the truth about their relationship and her part in it.

The reader first learns about their domestic discord before the pit disaster, when the driver of the freight train turns out to be Elizabeth’s father. Whilst Elizabeth gives him a cup of tea at the footplate, her father says, “I hear Walter’s got another bout on”. Her bitter reaction is exacerbated by his comment that “it’s a nice thing, when a man can do nothing with his money but make a beast of himself!”

Elizabeth’s father is only saying what she thinks and what she would not dare to say outright. The fact that she and her children must then ‘… await the father’s coming to begin the tea’ is a sign of obedience, routine and social convention within the patriarchal pit community of the time.

BOOK: Lawrence Chrysanthemums

Stylistically, the suspense of his supposed late homecoming from the pit helps support the idea of her entrapment, as dutiful wife and mother, sewing and seeing the children off to bed. Her will is one of inertia, seen, for instance, in the disrupted narrative, which gives way to a lively setting, where ‘all the life of the room seemed in the white, warm hearth and the steel fender reflecting the red fire’. The stark contrast between how she perceives the glow of the fire and its actual heat is symbolic of the way she feels deep-down towards her husband. She cannot feel the fire’s warmth, and there is a sense in which something in her life has made her feel, metaphorically, burnt out.

From this otherwise homely setting of an English hearth, the story that now unfolds is seen from Elizabeth’s point of view. The building up of the coal fire, the dinner and the washing of Walter’s dead body, are all ceremonial rites. The final cleansing of the body is necessary for her to gain self-knowledge of her relationship: ‘She saw him, how utterly inviolable he lay in himself. She had nothing to do with him.’

Despite her active participation in preparing his body for the funeral rite, Elizabeth is beginning to understand that she has lived in a state of blindness and wishful-thinking:… for his look was other than hers, his way was not her way. She had denied him what he was – she saw it now. She had refused him as himself. And this had been her life and his life. She was grateful to death, which restored the truth. And she knew she was not dead.

The points of separation in their relationship are clear in the contrasts – ‘his way was not her way’, and in her realisation that ‘she was not dead’. She has regained her semblance of will, but there is to be no further story, at least, not for them.

Unwittingly, in living a lie all this time, Elizabeth Bates’ tells us more about her part in ‘the entrapped will’ than Walter’s actions do. All along, it is Elizabeth’s refusal to accept the reality of the situation and the inability to confront him on, say, his drinking til late (which would have typically been the obvious excuse for his late homecoming) that contributes to an embedded narrative of misconception. One good example is in the answer to her child Annie’s query at bedtime, about her father still not having come home:

“Never mind. They’ll bring him when he does – like a log.” She meant there would be no scene “And he may sleep on the floor till he wakes himself. I know he’ll not go to work tomorrow after this!”

This is Elizabeth Bates in characteristic mode, avoiding any involvement, maintaining a quiet existence in her relationship with her husband.

However, needless to say, with Lawrence, it is never too late to discover the truth about one’s self or even one’s partner. One can pluck up the necessary courage to overcome some predicament, misdemeanour or moral dilemma. That he achieved it with such intensity of language and distinct polarity says much about Lawrence and his relationship to gender politics.


Gordon Phillips is an Adult Education tutor in Literature on Tyneside. His poems have been published in school textbooks and anthologies. He has written articles, book and theatre reviews for various magazines and has worked on several collaborations with composers. He is a member of The Society of Authors and the Performing Right Society. This piece forms one part of an extensive study of The Entrapped Will in D.H. Lawrence’s Short Stories.

Testing Times in K’s Short Story Metamorphosis

Franz Kafka commonly used the stark letter ‘K’ in his two novels ‘The Trial’ and ‘The Castle’ as well as some of his tiny tales, and I shall use it likewise in this essay. He was completely at home with the idea of perpetuating a disguise, for instance, he had seen his adventures with a village mole through that creature’s point of view in his short story ‘The Burrow’, and in ‘Investigations of a Dog’ the wandering examination of an individual being, all related to the quest for self.

In the same collection the extended title story ‘Metamorphosis’ has the central character faced with a sudden and overwhelming predicament – and what a predicament – for when ‘… Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed into a gigantic insect.’(9) This leap of imagination has a descriptive force usually associated with the opposite form of opening delivery: the direct address of dialogue. Immediately, Samsa had to come to terms with this startling new discovery in his nature, but, at least, he had the reassuring reality that ‘it was no dream.’(ibid)

If this is a turning point for Samsa, it holds an equally important lesson for me as a writer because it is a story that stands out from the very beginning in how to keep focused on any conflict in a narrative; in this case, a conflict both physical and mentally changing, a fascinating dilemma. Further, it is a lesson in how to pace a narrative and how to establish a key to a narrative’s overall design for structure is everything.

Transported into Samsa’s mind, I read his internal thoughts, at once human, but now, outwardly animal. He is the family’s one provider since the collapse of his father’s business. Altruistically, he has a plan to finance his sister’s education so she can learn to play the violin at a nearby conservatoire, thanks to his promotion from humble clerk to commercial traveller. But now he will be late for work, he will be a financial liability.
Samsa’s first signs are one of total confusion, disbelief and fear of something unknown and, therefore, potentially uncontrollable as a means of human insecurity. Having habitually locked his bedroom door, he will have to explain everything not in person, but by proxy, and in a non-human voice to an abjectly bewildered family. He has to emphasise with what his family and associates might think of his calamity rather than the self-oriented way of a commercial traveller’s typical day of trying to sell samples. It is this back and forth of guessed at human communication which is the emphasis of plight in the story: the need to understand each other’s reasons for thinking and doing what they say they will do or have done.

Clarification is ever a hard task throughout the train of events. Everyone who comes into contact with Samsa acts in their own way to his predicament. The doctor, unable to check him over physically, dismisses his case as the result of any illness; the chief clerk finds his employee going from ‘quiet, dependable’ to ‘obstinate’ and, having no sympathy, resorts to telling him some home-truths about his real abilities at work, which this event has helped bring about; his mother, Anna, repulsed, (as they all are) shies away from her son’s predicament at first, then wishes to see him either out of guilt as well as human curiosity over his affliction. Meanwhile, his father, at first calm, becomes abusive and violent towards Samsa, clouting him with a walking-stick the runaway chief clerk left behind in chapter I, and, ending chapter II by throwing grenade-like apples at his helpless employee. The fact that his son may be physically injured does not enter his thinking, for it seems to me, Samsa who had rescued his father financially, is now declassified overnight, as a dangerous threat, the lowest common denominator of all. It is a grave test for all concerned, questioning and threatening loyalties, the rights and responsibilities between work and family.

Often, and this is particularly true of Samsa’s predicament, K has created a ‘what if’ in making all the possibilities of reality that could happen at once. His physical transformation into otherness is at best inconvenient, and, at worse, nauseating in the extreme. It has upset the family daily ritual of meal and work times, the household chores; now all that has become a daily challenge, a two way struggle, between victim and carers, with no apparent end in sight.

This separation is most noticeable through the relationship with his sister, who
‘if he could have spoken to her and thanked her for all she had to do for him, he could have borne ministrations better; as it was, they oppressed him. She certainly tried to make as light as possible in whatever was disagreeable in her task, and as time went on she succeeded, of course, more and more, but time brought more enlightenment to Gregor too. The very way she came in distressed him (54).’

So cut-off as Samsa is from little or no human contact, he relies heavy on eavesdropping to ascertain what they plan to do for him. Each new consolidation of action brings constraints upon him. Things have to be learned all over again, his likes and dislikes of food, for instance, milk had once been his favourite drink. So his sister leaves a selection of food on an old newspaper to determine his new-found taste buds. All this has become a problem because he is talked about rather than talked to so that both sides have to speculate what hitherto has been everyday family knowledge. But abject fear of his existence still lives on, which seems to mirror the human fear of the strange and the unknown or ‘to pass the injured by’ that awaits a Good Samaritan.

It is his sister who shows her true colours in the light of Samsa’s predicament for he overhears how she is praised for her efforts to help her brother with sustenance whereas before he knew his family thought of her as lacking in initiative. Now it seems the family have been taking their son for granted in how they relied on him completely to provide for them all.

The trouble is Samsa hears everything second-hand. There is for him the absence of reciprocal human, yet his eavesdropping has heightened his listening skills and, for me, this merits his continuing survival. He must listen and act upon his family’s decisions. This is particularly true some two months on into the story. Samsa discovers that having no speech input within family life and the drudgery of daily routine has clouded his judgment about how clearing his bedroom would mean more space for his newly formed existence. The fact that his mother and sister were at loggerheads about it make their part in his downfall one of a parallel test of endurance, alongside their need to give Samsa some quality of life. The experience leaves his sister to believe that as she has done the most to help her brother she is the expert in decision-making. On the other hand, his mother worries that clearing his bedroom out is one of forlorn hope and leaving his bedroom intact would somehow make him forget this stranglehold on his body, should he somehow manage to free himself of it.

Nonetheless, his sister wins the argument. This clearance of familiar surroundings, his writing-desk, his tools and chest, are symbolic of all that he loves and is a part of him, and for all their good intentions it will destroy his very soul.

But over ‘the picture of this lady muffled with so much fur’ (40) he has had enough, intervening by flying at his mother and sister to try and get them to change their mind about removing his picture off the wall. Instead, it brings his father into the equation, which through the bombardment of red apples at his son results in his second injury given by his father, this time, on purpose.

What does alter is the provision of work in all this; the servant-girl leaves her service, yet a charwoman is not turned off by events, but then, it answers the question: ‘who could find time, in this overworked and tired-out family to bother about Gregor more than was absolutely needful? (46).
The charwoman then becomes Samsa’s closest helper, which means her words match her deeds, even if she provides him with food in a hurried and anxious state.

By now they have all become more fraught, so much so, that they begin selling the family ornaments, objects full of their pride and sentimental fashion. Ironically, they never think of neglecting their property only their son, their one-time provider. Thinking of finance, they decide to gain extra cash from their precarious living by taking in three lodgers (all well-disguised in beards, may I add). Even though they are outsiders (much like Samsa who has become one within his own family unit) the three lodgers feel no affinity with Samsa, only that he is a source of entertainment, a kind of freak show, much more entertaining, in fact, than his sister’s violin-playing, which for her, is a form of solace.

It is ironic that when Samsa has become so much of a burden that he has outlasted his usefulness in the family it is the most loyal-at-times-sister who first decides: ‘we must try to get rid of it.’(56) Yet Samsa, half human, half insect dies on them, sparing further ordeals. The father then resorts to the social norm of crossing himself and the family follow suit, having all been tested to the limit. The story then ends on the sister’s hopes for her future.

Overall, these testing times are a seminal example of how humans are forced to cope with a dramatic physical change in a human being, not from a tragic high personage to low, but in ordinariness: in this way it resembles the parable.

So, K, the writer of dream, allegory, fable and fantasy highlights the moral code of all the individual characters in the story. Of course, ‘Metamorphosis’ is an extreme example of fantasy, but I think it has some of the hallmarks of Émile Zola’s laboratory technique. What Zola did was to put a character into a given situation to see how he or she would behave or work things out, how they would react to the human condition like a moral dilemma, a given set of circumstances or an abiding issue. This is exactly what K has done. But unlike Zola, K is less interested in character. In ‘Metamorphosis’ even the description of Samsa is mainly told second-hand through the photograph of himself taken while on military service, that he sees opposite his bedroom door in the living room. Above all, K wants me to read his story as a state of mind, more psychological and philosophical than revealing an easily recognisable character. All the while I can see that ‘… Gregor has the chance to test the strength of his new resolutions (28). Elsewhere it is seen in terms of a game. Further, the interaction between the various characters suggests to me they keep testing each other out as when his sister
‘… tried to make as light as possible of whatever was disagreeable in her task, and as time went on she succeeded, of course, more and more, but time brought more enlightenment to Gregor too. The very way she came in distressed him.’(34)

Therefore, because the story is a journey from birth to death Samsa must progress as best he can, always having to overcome these tests put in front of him, to show his worth. But, in the end, Samsa’s testing times are also humanity’s in its quest for identity and its sense of belonging within the context of a hostile universe.

G. F. Phillips
(A version of this was published in Thresholds by the University of Chichester, 2013)