by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, April 25, 2019
I recently read “A Modern Lover” by D. H. Lawrence. Twice. This short story was first published in 1933 three years after Lawrence’s death but probably written in 1909, evidently a minor work. Is there anything about this story I can recommend? People read so few short stories nowadays why even mention one unless it’s a perfect 10?
I’m now reading one or two short stories a day. I admit, most of them are science fiction, but I’ve changed my time machines coordinates from the future to the past because I’ve become fascinated by the history of short stories. This once popular art form is in decline, like opera and poetry. If you ask the average person to name the ten famous short stories I doubt you’d get many answers.
“A Modern Lover” is about a young man, Cyril Mersham, who grew up in rural England coming home to see his old girlfriend, Muriel, after living in the city. I have to assume the story is inspired by Lawrence’s own experiences – Cyril is about the same age as Lawrence when he wrote the story. Cyril had been close to Muriel and her family, spending much time with them, but has slowly seen them less as work and new experiences kept him away. He had been loved by both Muriel and her family, but they were turning cold to him on his infrequent visits because they knew he would eventually stop coming.
In the story, Cyril returns realizing that Muriel was the one woman he had been able to communicate with on a deeper level. He wants to have sex with her, but not commit to marriage. She knows this. In the story, Cyril meets Muriel’s new boyfriend Tom when he comes to visit too. Cyril upstages Tom by being both generous and kind to him, pretending he is out of the picture, yet showing Muriel what she would be missing. Tom is steady, has a good job, would be a dedicated husband, a better practical choice. Cyril slyly shows Muriel how Tom would be boring.
At the end of the story after Tom leaves, Cyril tries to convince Muriel to pick him but won’t promise marriage. Muriel says no, claiming women don’t have the same freedom as men.
It would be fun to take a current issue of Cosmopolitan back in time to let Lawrence read, so he’d know what women would become. That’s the payoff of reading “A Modern Lover” – it gives us a sense of how much things have changed. There are no televisions, radios, or phones in this story. No electricity. It shows how families entertained themselves during their evenings about a century ago. “A Modern Lover” shows how far we’ve come regarding gender equality. But it also shows just how much we’re the same in communicating between the sexes.
I’m currently listening to an anthology of 19th and early 20th-century short stories. They sparkle with details of the past. We so easily forget how fast even a little time changes us. My mother’s mother was born in 1881, my mother in 1916. These short stories describe their world in ways old photographs, genealogical research, and history books can’t.
It’s a shame that short stories aren’t popular anymore. Why do we spend so many hours in comic-book fantasies? Why do we binge-watch endless contrived thrillers on Netflix? Why do we love period television shows and movies written by people with no connection to the past when we could be reading fiction written in the past by people who experienced what is being described?