The sensuous Celtic type: DH Lawrence, ‘Samson & Delilah’

It’s been a busy time at work, and emotionally fraught (a serious family illness), but I don’t want Tredynas Days to languish. Here then is a short piece based on notes compiled for a course I’m teaching on ‘Sense of Place’: it follows on from several recent posts on DH Lawrence’s letters written in Cornwall,mostly from a rented cottage at Higher Tregerthen, near the village of Zennor, west of St Ives.

Lawrence’s story ‘Samson and Delilah’ tells of a Cornish miner who, like many others in the late Victorian period when tin and copper prices fell, emigrated to America, abandoning his wife and new-born baby. Some 15 Years later he returns to the

Tinners Arms

The Tinners Arms as it looked back in August this year

fictionalised Tinners Arms (called in the story ‘The Tinners Rest’) at Zennor, where his wife is landlady. At first she doesn’t recognise him, but when he insists on staying, and that she is his wife, she calls on some soldiers, stationed there – the story is set early in WWI – to restrain him. He escapes and resumes his attempts to win her over, telling her he has amassed £1000 – a fortune at that time (remember he paid an annual rent of £5 on the Higher Tregerthen cottage!)

Probably written in 1916, it was published in March 1917 as ‘The Prodigal Husband’ in the English Review; a revised, retitled version appeared in a collection of his stories, England, My England (1922 in the US, 1924 in the UK) – Online text here; it was made into a short TV play in 1959 and a short film in in 1985. A longer version was an episode in the ITV ‘Play of the Week’ series in 1966.

img_4302Here at the start of the story the protagonist, Willie Nankervis, arrives in the desolate, economically deprived mining village – a hint at why he left there years earlier – on the Penzance to St Just bus:

Tall, ruined power-houses of tin-mines loomed in the darkness from time to time, like remnants of some by-gone civilization. The lights of many miners’ cottages scattered on the hilly darkness twinkled desolate in their disorder, yet twinkled with the lonely homeliness of the Celtic night… The houses began to close on the road, he was entering the straggling, formless, desolate mining village, that he knew of old.

After ordering drinks at the bar Willie encounters a girl working there; we later discover this is his daughter. Note the characteristic ambiguity in the depiction of the Cornish people (in a letter he’d venomously dismissed them as vermin, insects, in response to what he perceived as their passive acceptance of militarism and ‘King and Country’).

She disappeared. In a minute a girl of about sixteen came in. She was tall and fresh, with dark, young, expressionless eyes, and well-drawn brows, and the immature softness and mindlessness of the sensuous Celtic type…

 

She replied to everybody in a soft voice, a strange, soft aplomb that was very attractive. And she moved round with rather mechanical, attractive movements, as if her thoughts were elsewhere. But she had always this dim far-awayness in her bearing: a sort of modesty. The strange man by the fire watched her curiously. There was an alert, inquisitive, mindless curiosity on his well-coloured face.

‘I’ll have a bit of supper with you, if I might,’ he said.

She looked at him, with her clear, unreasoning eyes, just like the eyes of some non-human creature.

‘I’ll ask mother,’ she said. Her voice was soft-breathing, gently singsong.

Not very complimentary about Willie’s womenfolk, is it. But much of the story is narrated from his skewed point of view – but even his ‘alert, inquisitive…curiosity’ is ‘mindless’, to match the girl’s ‘unreasoning’ gaze. None of these Cornish characters emerges with much dignity. Later the focalisation changes to Willie’s wife. Does she really fail to recognise him, like some kind of inverted form of Penelope, faithless to the returning anti-hero who’d abandoned her and her baby?

The story’s title encourages this interpretation, for it draws attention to the central theme of betrayal by the wife of her husband, who is captured by the military; this act deprives him temporarily of his manhood and independence.It’s about one of DHL’s familiar concerns: the struggle, as he put it in a letter from Cornwall, between the old Adam and the old Eve.

It’s a slight story, but interesting as one of his rare pieces of fiction set in the locale where he spent nearly two years 1916-17. Ch. 12 of his novel Kangaroo (1923) is called ‘Nightmare’, and provides a fictional account of those Cornish years, which culminated in his being arrested with Frieda on suspicion of spying for the Germans and banished from the county. His love affair with the Celtic wildness of Cornwall was over for ever. His ‘savage pilgrimage’ across the world began.

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