Speaking Volumes: The Woman who Rode Away

April 24, 1998

Stephen Jones on D. H. Lawrence's The Woman who Rode Away .

In a house of few books, the one you find hidden away - the one you read - is always going to be the one that stays with you. Particularly if you are nine years old at the time and the book is D H Lawrence's "The Woman Who Rode Away".

I had always enjoyed reading, but the books in our house were paltry fare. So to stumble upon Lawrence's strange, disquieting tale in a back-room cupboard was an unforgettable experience.

Of course, I had no idea who Lawrence was. This was the late 1950, and two years before everyone in Britain would hear about this risque author and his gamekeeper-loving Lady Chatterley.

Literature and eroticism is a heady cocktail at any age. But when the drinker of the draft is prepubescent, still in short trousers...

Amid the forests and mountains of the Mexican interior Lawrence's white woman abandons her home and family and rides off to seek out the mysterious Chilchui Indians. Like many of Lawrence's fictional women, she is dissatisfied with her life and longs for something more.

She finds the Indians, or, more correctly, they find her. Filled with a strange, fatalistic passivity she allows herself to be captured, caged and paraded before the assembled tribe. From early on you know that she is to lose her life, or rather that she will offer it up as a sacrifice in order to renew the potency of the tribe's gods.

There are scenes of disturbing sensuality. The woman's clothes are cut from her limbs, her arms pinioned to her side. Naked she is presented to an old priest who touches her body with moistened fingertips.

To reread it, even to retell it, as an adult is to lose much of that sense of early wonder. Gone is the mounting excitement, the guilt from peering into the faces of others and wondering: do they know what I am reading?

In its place comes detachment, analysis, judgement. True, the story can still disturb. But it is a different sort of disturbance. What is it I am feeling here, you ask? Should I be feeling it? A woman, stretched across a stone altar, sacrificed, murdered by near-naked priests with a flint dagger. And that she should offer herself up for it?

Like so much of Lawrence it attracts and repels in equal measure. On one side are the insights, the descriptive powers, the verisimilitude; on the other is all that elemental stuff - the blood, the earth, the churning of bowels - that at its worst can read like some sort of self-parodic paean.

But then that is the grown-up speaking. To the child there was only wonder, mystery, otherness: the strange new horizons promised by the blending of ritual with desire, sex with death. And all that from between the bland covers of a book, unearthed by chance from the depths of the sideboard one lost afternoon.

Stephen Jones advises students on entry to higher education and lectures in English at South Thames College, London.

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