‘The Prussian Officer’ by D. H. Lawrence

I couldn’t leave D.H. Lawrence out of a collection about sex and death. This is the story of an aristocratic army captain’s growing obsession with and bullying of his conscript manservant. It was first published in 1914, more than fifty years before the legalisation of homosexuality. In some ways its themes of shame and violent repression feel out of step with our times and yet as a story it remains powerful. The atmosphere of claustrophobia is intense. Although they are surrounded by other people, no one can help either of them. I particularly love the contrast between the beautiful landscape – fields of green rye and golden corn with blue mountains in the distance – and the lonely tragedy that unfolds.

First published in The Prussian Officer and Other Stories, Duckworth 1914, restored text based on Lawrence’s manuscripts, typescripts and corrected proofs republished by Penguin Modern Classics in 1995. Read it here

‘The Blind Man’ by D. H. Lawrence

Lawrence’s stories are among the glories of 20th century English prose literature. I always include one or two on the syllabus. ‘Odour of Chrysanthemums,’ ‘The Horse-Dealer’s Daughter,’ and ‘Fanny and Annie’ (also known as ‘The Last Straw’) are some of my favourites. But once I decided to limit myself to one for this list, I knew I had to choose ‘The Blind Man.’ 

Isabel Pervin (based on Lawrence’s friend, the novelist Catherine Carswell) lives in seclusion with her husband, Maurice, a giant of a man who has been blinded in WWI. In the rainy dusk of a November day, Isabel sits waiting for the sound of wheels on the drive. Her cousin and dear friend, Bertie Reid, a nervous and ironic Scots barrister whom she has not seen for some time as she sensed her husband did not like him, is coming to visit. Isabel may connect these men, but the story is about what happens between them. Over the course of the evening, they “become friends,” an experience solidified when Maurice runs his hands over Bertie’s head, and asks Bertie to do the same to him, to touch his scarred eyes. Bertie does so unwillingly—the preternaturally sensitive Maurice doesn’t know of the other’s man reluctance (it’s stronger than that actually, it’s revulsion), unless he does. Everything depends on whether we think his exultant cry that they “know” one another is misguided or domineering. This is a marvelous story about the cruelty of intimacy. It’s also as alive and vivid as only Lawrence can be. In one indelible scene, Isabel seeks out Maurice in the stable. Her light barely breaks the pitch black of the roaring night:

Nothing came from the darkness. She knew the rain and wind blew in upon the horses, the hot animal life. Feeling it wrong, she entered the stable, and drew the lower half of the door shut, holding the upper part close. She did not stir, because she was aware of the presence of the dark hind-quarters of the horses, though she could not see them, and she was afraid. Something wild stirred in her heart.

Feeling it wrong. Presumably the clause refers to Isabel’s sense of the situation, the way the storm is, but shouldn’t be, blowing into the stable thanks to an open door. But maybe it’s a description of how she—and anyone lucky enough to have all their senses—fails at feeling. For me, that’s the quintessential Lawrentian predicament.

First published in English Review in July 1920. Collected in England, My England and Other Stories, Thomas Seltzer, 1922 and then many times, including in Selected Stories, Penguin, 2007. Read the story here