The Black Dog by A. E. Coppard, 1923

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by A. E. Coppard, 1923

A. E. Coppard's short stories belong more to the tradition of the folktale than to that of modern literary fiction. Coppard's work has its sophistications, but they are not the sophistications of the twentieth-century novel. Though in temperament and weltanschauungvery different from Hardy, there are affinities in the way the two use the materials of folktale and ballad. Coppard's themes are the eternal verities of the folk narrative: love and death, jealousy and suicide. There is a wryness of method and outlook, a refusal to overwrite, which prevents such materials from becoming merely melodramatic. In "The Black Dog" this elemental world is mediated through the presence of a far from elemental protagonist, the Honorable Gerald Loughlin.

Loughlin is a figure both of fun and of pathos. He is "handsome and honest," with a "decent gentlemanly mind." The story begins with Loughlin about to return to London after a stay in the country. He gets as far as the station but then breaks his journey and walks back to the village (a significant pattern of interrupted journeying that will be repeated later). He does so because he has fallen in love with Lady Tillington's companion, Orianda Crabbe. Loughlin's infatuation draws him into a social world of which he has no knowledge and of which he has only the most patronizing and idealized conceptions—conceptions of which experience is gradually to disabuse him.

Orianda is the daughter of an innkeeper (the inn is "The Black Dog" of the story's title) and hurdlemaker. Loughlin's upper-class values leave him almost wholly at a loss to understand the codes of behavior that govern Orianda's environment. There is absurdity in his initial approach to Orianda: "Are you related to the Crabbes of Cotterton—I fancy I know them?" But Orianda refuses to be drawn into Loughlin's world of social connections. Her insistence that she is "nobody at all, my father keeps an inn" is a declaration of truth to self, reflecting the greater strength—and greater truth to her feelings—that we shall see more of later. As Orianda narrates her family history (her mother's running away from her father; Orianda's own theft of money from her father, whom she insists she loves; and her flight to join her mother, whom she finds living with another man), Loughlin is immediately out of his depth. He has no experience of a world where social morality (and social appearance) can so readily be subordinated to the higher values of personal happiness and truth to feeling. His ponderous affirmations—"I am sure life is enhanced not by amassing conventions, but by destroying them"—never ring true, and are the product only of his infatuation. Orianda, on the other hand, finds her new environment with Lady Tillington unsatisfying, since, though "it is polite and soft, like silk," she feels it is insufficiently "barbarous."

Loughlin escorts Orianda back to her father. There is a wonderfully effective moment in the meeting of father and daughter when "his heavy discoloured hands rested on her shoulders, her gloved ones lay against his breast." The two worlds—one open to all the powers of nature and instinct, the other covered up against them—are crystallized in these pairs of hands. Loughlin is inclined to see rural life as a "parade of Phyllis and Corydon." The truth is that Orianda's father has taken a mistress; Orianda sets about getting rid of her and in the process drives her to suicide. Loughlin has earlier been moved to speculate, unconsciously keeping an anthropologist's distance, "Have they no code at all?"

Orianda herself has no illusions and is entirely aware that "this is a very dirty Eden." The decisive moment—at which Loughlin might reenter that Eden from which his adherence to social convention has excluded him—is clear enough. He and Orianda, returning from a picnic, have to cross the river; the bridges are inconveniently far away. The two decide to strip off and swim over, carrying their clothes; Loughlin retires to a discreet distance. He returns, "humming a discreet and very audible hum" as a warning of his approach, to find Orianda "scantily clothed" and lying on the ground. The "Honorable Gerald" (Coppard is wholly alert to the absurd ties of the appellation) can only react in a "decent gentlemanly" fashion: "'I beg your pardon,' he said hastily and full of surprise and modesty walked away."

Orianda, it seems to Loughlin, displays "a contempt for good breeding," while it is clear to her that he doesn't know what love is. She tells him it is "a compound of anticipation and gratitude," but he still does not understand. The anticipation and the gratitude, Orianda has to explain, are "for the moment of passion," and she sounds almost Lawrentian in her mock solemn pronouncement: "Honour thy moments of passion and keep them holy." Loughlin is quite incapable of living by such a code; as Orianda aptly observes, he is a "timid swimmer." Orianda knows she could never marry him, for she would feel like "a wild bee in a canary cage." It is a typical Coppard image, both homely and poetic.

Loughlin packs his bag and leaves, even though Orianda "grew more alluring than ever." The last two paragraphs startle by their abrupt transition to the present tense. The Honorable Gerald Loughlin has left behind Orianda's world. He considers returning, but in the final words of the story "he does not do so." It is "a dirty Eden" he is incapable of regaining.

—Glyn Pursglove