The Horse Dealer's Daughter by D. H. Lawrence, 1922

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by D. H. Lawrence, 1922

"The Horse Dealer's Daughter" is a story from the middle period of D. H. Lawrence's writing career and was collected in 1922 in England My England and Other Stories. The story is set in the wake of the death of a horse dealer, when life seems to be over for the rest of his family as well. The eldest son plans to get a job by marrying the daughter of a steward of a neighboring estate: "He would marry and go into harness. His life was over, and he would be a subject animal now." The daughter, 27-year-old Mabel, refuses this kind of death-in-life, preferring to follow her beloved mother into death. She attempts suicide, but the young doctor, Jack Fergusson, rescues her from drowning and restores her to life literally. When she kisses him, "this introduction of the personal element" is to him—at first—a distasteful "violation of his professional honour." Her eyes, her drawing him to her, his touching of her shoulder, which seems to burn his hand—all cause him to yield to her, and then he finds he wants to remain holding her "for ever, with his heart hurting him in a pain that was also life to him." She suddenly feels she must seem horrible to him: it is a reaction he did in fact have earlier, but eventually he wants to marry her.

This kind of summary does little justice to the subtleties of Lawrence's story, its psychological shifts, its range of effects. For one thing the story does not have the finished quality such an outline suggests: it begins and ends in medias res, opening casually in the midst of a desultory conversation, turning back in time in the middle to give the previous history of the Pervins, and ending not with the actual wedding or anything about their future married life but with Fergusson's repeated declaration that he wants Mabel, uttered "with that terrible intonation which frightened her almost more than her horror lest he should not want her." The story is open at both ends, with a sense of life going on both before and after, and this gives it a distinctively modern and indeed modernist feel.

What is characteristic of Lawrence, however, is a matter not so much of structure as of subject and style. This is a story about the psychological dynamics of relationships in a family and between a man and a woman. It is a story about love and the links between love and a series of other things: family ties and tensions, power, sex (in its repelling as well as attractive and physical as well as emotional aspects), death, and rebirth. Few writers could handle such large concerns in a short fiction piece without any hint of strain, cliché, or oversimplification.

Lawrence manages to add a compelling sense of truthfulness to the complexities of the central human experiences presented, as when Fergusson at last admits to Mabel that he loves her:

"Yes." The word cost him a painful effort. Not because it wasn't true. But because it was too newly true, the saying seemed to tear open again his newly-torn heart. And he hardly wanted it to be true, even now.

The nuances here persuade the reader of a genuine insight, a fidelity of response to varieties of delicate feelings.

The intensity of the writing matches the intensity of the psychological and emotional themes. The presentation of the drowning scene, for example, uses recurrent references to death in the grey wintry afternoon, blackened by industrial smoke and the grey clay beneath the black water of the pond. The afternoon is referred to as "deadened" and "deadening" as well as "dead," the word repeatedly used of the cold water. Death is also prominent in the story as a whole: particularly striking is Mabel's identification with her dead mother, for "the life she followed here in the world was far less real than the world of death she inherited from her mother." She looks forward to being transformed in death as "her fulfilment, her own glorification, approaching her dead mother, who was glorified." The religious language draws attention to the religious aspects of the story, especially when Mabel's later "transfiguration" is not into death but, rather, into a resurrection, a rebirth she shares with the doctor. As frequently happens in Lawrence's works this is brought about through physical touch, as well as through the power of the eyes, so often referred to throughout the story. Both magnificently combine with the death theme and threat in the sentence, "He could not bear the touch of her eyes' question upon him, and the look of death behind the question." Touching and looking at one another brings the triumph of affirmation to make this not a story of death but of new life through new love.

Lawrence's original title was overtly religious: "The Miracle." In combining so many aspects with such easy mastery, from religious reverence for life down through acute psychological penetration to the little details of characterization such as the animal imagery in Mabel's brutish horsey brothers and her own "bull-dog" fixity and determination, this story is indeed miraculous.

—Michael Herbert

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The Horse Dealer's Daughter by D. H. Lawrence, 1922

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