Born in 1885 in Eastwood, Nottinghamshire, England, the fourth child of a failed schoolteacher and an illiterate coal miner, David Herbert Lawrence was a frail and delicate child who deeply sympathized with the struggles his mother endured in her unhappy marriage. Many of the female characters in Lawrence’s fiction mirror his mother: sensitive women who are shackled to coarse husbands and suffer from the difficulties of supporting a family in the harsh labor conditions of the day. Like Elizabeth Bates, the protagonist in “Odour of Chrysanthemums,” Lawrence’s mother, Lydia Beardsall Lawrence, spent many nights lamenting her choices in life, particularly her marriage to a man who made the village pub, not the family home, his primary after-work destination.
Through a combination of hard work, savings, and scholarship assistance, Lawrence completed high school and eventually college, while at the same time beginning to explore his interest in writing. Eventually, he became a poet, a dramatist, a critic, an essayist, a novelist, and a short-story writer, and his works provoked high praise and controversy during his lifetime and beyond. His first novel, Sons and Lovers, was published in 1913, followed by The Rainbow in 1915. Deemed obscene, copies of The Rainbow were seized by authorities, foreshadowing the controversy that many of Lawrence’s literary creations would go on to provoke. His best-known novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928), was initially published privately. In 1960, when it was released by a mainstream, commercial publisher, it was overwhelmed by scandal and an obscenity trial. Such controversy often overshadowed the less sensationalistic, less sexual aspects of Lawrence’s work, selling short his deft portrayal of individuals governed by circumstances beyond their control. His sensitive explorations of the natural world stood in sharp contract to the mechanized world of industry and its rules regarding human conduct and relationships.
Many critics view Lawrence’s short stories, including “The Horse Dealer’s Daughter” (1922) and “The Rocking-Horse Winner” (1926), as his greatest literary accomplishments. “Odour of Chrysanthemums,” among Lawrence’s most highly regarded, was completed in 1909. The writer Ford Madox Ford first published it in the June 1911 issue of the English Review, the influential literary magazine he edited. A longer version was published in The Prussian Officer and Other Stories (1914). This version, referred to in this note, features an expanded final section in which Elizabeth confronts the illusions and failures of her life after washing her husband Walter’s dead body. This version emphasizes Elizabeth’s harsh realizations about her own responsibility in the shortcomings of her marriage. Much has been written about the connection between Elizabeth’s difficult conclusions and the bittersweet liberation Lawrence felt after his mother’s death in 1910.
In “Odour of Chrysanthemums,” as in many of his other prose works, Lawrence writes about a world he knew intimately: the hardscrabble existence of the miners in Nottinghamshire, who performed dangerous work to support their families. As in other works of Lawrence’s fiction, a life-altering event, in this case a miner’s death, serves as a turning point and leads the protagonist to reassess all that has led to such a tragic moment. In writing the story, Lawrence drew from not only his own childhood experiences but also his evolving perceptions of his days growing up in Nottinghamshire. Although Lawrence’s fiction is not wholly autobiographical, Lawrence used fiction to confront his own tenuous relationship with his father and move closer to understanding the sacrifices that Arthur Lawrence made on behalf of his family. Like Elizabeth in “Odour of Chrysanthemums,” Lawrence was able to embrace a more nuanced understanding of human relationships and the ramifications of environment, choice, and consequence.
Lawrence, who was antimilitary, and his wife, Frieda, whose father was German, were viewed suspiciously in wartime England during the early 1900s, and they left in 1917 under orders from the government. For years, they traveled extensively, returning to England only rarely. Lawrence died in France in 1930.