When I began teaching Year 12 Literature I inherited a horrid list of texts. Often the VCE Literature list reflects the interests of old ladies, jaded and bitter about the world. One of the texts I had foist upon me was Thea Astley’s collection of short stories Hunting the Wild Pineapple. It was as horrendous as it sounds. The problem was that the students had bought it and it was in their lockers, some had even read it. But I couldn’t do it. It was repulsive and I felt like the bromine poisoning from the over consumption of pineapple would surely end my Literature journey. So I sent it to the compost and made a late change.
Coming off the bench was DH Lawrence’s collection of three novellas. I actually bought a class set myself and gave them out to the class to annotate and destroy as any good Lit student will do. They were confused but mightily relieved. They saw me as a maverick, taking chances and leaving chaos in my wake. It was like the scene in Dead Poets where they rip pages from the text book. “O captain, my captain!”
Most, I assume, are familiar with DH. Sons and Lovers, Lady Chatterley’s Lover or Kangaroo, but few may have gotten stuck into his shorter works. While not really short stories, each will take you a fair whack to read at a very dense eighty plus pages but the reward is well worth the effort. The collection of The Fox, The Captain’s Doll and The Ladybird comes together as the three stories explore the impact of The Great War on women. Each of the female protagonists find the men they encounter deeply damaged by their time in the conflict and are thus damaged themselves as they struggle to find a way to deal with the way life and their returned men have changed. They have survived the literal fight but are yet to begin the figurative one.
A proto-queer text, The Fox presents a pair of women struggling to manage a farm on their own. They are being ravaged by a fox who is taking their hens. One of the women, March, is quite masculine and takes to hunting the fox at night while the more feminine of the pair, Jill, remains indoors by the fire. March becomes enchanted by the sexual energy of the fox and can’t bring herself to shoot him. When a soldier arrives at the farm, once owned by his grandfather, he comes between the two women, as if a fox amongst the hens. The tension that exists in this love triangle and the allegorical struggles on the farm are marvellous but little can be said without ruining the trajectory of the tale. A terrible 1970s adaptation exists on film but spare yourself until after having read the story. Once finished go back and search for the climactic scene on YouTube—you will know the one I mean by then—it is just so wonderful.
The Captain’s Doll
Hannele is a German Countess with not a penny to her name after the war has ravaged her nation. She spends her days sewing in an apartment with a similarly downcast friend but also busies herself in an affair with a Scottish officer, Captain Hepburn. Hannel is so besotted with her beau that she fashions a doll of him but he does not fancy being controlled or idolised by her. His own wife keeps him under tight control and he desires the freedom his time away from her has shown him is possible and wants none of the encumbrances a committed relationship brings. When Hepburn’s wife arrives in Germany having perhaps heard of his dalliance, he takes a fairly strong stand and flees the two women beginning a ‘sexscapade’ throughout Europe to sew his most wild oats and express his power and dominance over all women who must adore him. Eventually he returns to Hannele, seeing her as one who will worship him and validate his worth, only to find her married but through the use of a handy symbol-laden glacier he claims dominion over her and proves that men of war can conquer the world.
The love triangles continue as Lady Daphne falls for an injured Italian Count Dionys, a prisoner of war, while her husband is missing in action. Dionys is dark and brooding, a man who needs fixing so naturally Daphne is hooked. After the war has ended Daphne’s husband, Basil, returns a scarred and changed man and she longs for the bond she had formed with Dionys. Her husband is no longer the man she married and is weak while the Count is strong and has a sexual power over her that Basil cannot match (I mean just think of the names—isn’t it obvious!). Count Dionys knows that Daphne wants him and manipulates her into choosing him. This is the most internal story of the collection with not a great deal happening but it does provide the clearest commentary on the harrowing effects of war. It is also likely the one you will want to stop part way through but forge ahead and the ending will reward you.
So, three for the price of one. They are no less than what you would expect of DH. I expect an 800 word essay explicating the pre-occupations on my desk on Monday.