The White Peacock (1911), D.H. Lawrence’s first novel, was inspired by a painting, “An Idyll” painted by Maurice Greiffenhagen in 1891. Lawrence proclaimed that the painting had “a profound effect” on him. He later wrote, “As for Greiffenhagen’s ‘Idyll’, it moves me almost as if I were in love myself. Under its intoxication, I have flirted madly this Christmas.” I explore this effect in the second half of this essay.
Here, there is another painting under scrutiny by Lawrence, in the same chapter (III) as the “Idyll” reference, titled “A Vendor of Visions”, young Leticia (or “Lettie”) Tempest denounces her beau’s brother, George Beardsall, as a provincial. George is part of a love triangle with Lettie and Leslie Beardsall. Lettie, subsequently (and unhappily) marries Leslie, but will remain sexually drawn to George. In the third chapter, they sit in a drawing room where she retrieves her collection of art books.
Prior to this, she has been a tease. She tells George “you are only a boy.” She yields her own sense of feminine mystery in a coy and effectual manner. She is protected by a ring of chaperones and the creature comforts of opulence and tradition. She lacks for naught but experience, to which she flirts with a sensate desire to succumb, yet holds herself back.
Lettie toys with recklessness. She frivolously plays on doomed George’s desire for wanting more out of life. He can never escape her fixed grasp on his heart and his life will never be fulfilled as long as she coyly taunts him with what he will never have.
After she carries in a great pile of art books, he tells her that she is “strong.”
“I know how a man will compliment me by the way he looks at me”–she kneeled before the fire. “Some look at my hair, some watch the rise and fall of my breathing, some look at my neck, and a few–not you among them–look me in the eyes for my thoughts. To you, I’m a fine specimen, strong! Pretty strong! You primitive man!”
But George must reach through the fire to seize the gem. Lettie must reach through the gem stone of George to seize the fire she desires so cravenly.
For Lettie, she feels that her superiority, her cultured upbringing, is a tool that she can yield over George’s haplessness. She is condescending, despite likely knowing that she could just as easily be over her head. The other women present, Lettie’s mother, Alice and Sybil all hint that he is “slow.” There is a distinct feeling of “otherness” here. Alice quips to George, “your people,” as if he rose from some other inferior race that they find charming, like a trained ape juggling balls in a Victorian drawing room.
Lettie sits with George and flips through the pages of an art book. When she arrives to George Clausen’s watercolor of peasants hoeing for turnips, she uses the opportunity to square George off for his seeming lack of culture:
“You’d be just that colour in the sunset,” she said, thus bringing him back to the subject, “and if you looked at the ground you’d find there was a sense of warm gold fire in it, and once you’d perceived the colour, it would strengthen till you’d see nothing else. You are blind; you are only half-born; you are gross with good living and heavy sleeping. You are a piano which will only play a dozen common notes. Sunset is nothing to you–it merely happens anywhere. Oh, but you make me feel as if I’d like to make you suffer. If you’d ever been sick; if you’d ever been born into a home where there was something oppressed you, and you couldn’t understand; if ever you’d believed, or even doubted, you might have been a man by now. You never grow up, like bulbs which spend all summer getting fat and fleshy, but never wakening the germ of a flower. As for me, the flower is born in me, but it wants bringing forth. Things don’t flower if they’re overfed. You have to suffer before you blossom in this life. When death is just touching a plant, it forces it into a passion of flowering. You wonder how I have touched death. You don’t know. There’s always a sense of death in this home. I believe my mother hated my father before I was born. That was death in her veins for me before I was born. It makes a difference–“
George doesn’t know how to respond. He is, Lawrence writes, “like a child who feels the tale but does not understand the words.”
She asks George if he is “bewildered,” and he seems very much so, until she flips the page and he is confronted with “An Idyll.”
“There…” he states, and here the table turns on Lettie, for she has indeed tread too deep into uncharted waters.
Read more from the White Peacock (II).