“A Modern Lover” by D. H. Lawrence

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?

JWH

10 thoughts on ““A Modern Lover” by D. H. Lawrence”

  1. Well – let’s see – the problem is I read volumes of short stories and don’t remember them by name of the story.

    1. Dubliners (James Joyce)
    2. Cat in the Rain (Hemingway)
    3. The Lottery (Shirley Jackson)
    4. The Turn of the Screw (Henry James)
    5. The Old Man and the Sea (Hemingway)
    6. The Yellow Wallpaper (by Charlotte _____?)
    7. The Nose (Gogal)
    8. Haruiki Murakami (author of many short stories, volumes)
    9. Margaret Atwood (” )
    10 . William Faulkner (” )
    11.- ? – I could go on with Margaret Atwood and that other woman from Canada ( Nobel winner) and the woman from India now in US, and Raymond Chandler and Maupin and Russian classics like Chekov.

    That’s off the top of my head. (no peeking at anything). I really enjoy short stories and feel like I should read more. I wrote a few in my youth. and a college professor told a class one time that a good short story needs to be read at least 5 times to get a solid grip on what’s really going on in its most minimalist of ways – but that might be an exaggeration? – .
    **
    It’s absolutely true that classic literature is amazing from a historical point of view. For me it can be like getting a bird’s eye view of a place and an era – love it!
    **
    Do I feel the urge to buy a volume of shorts? I think so…

    1. Becky, you are one of the most prolific and wide-ranging readers I know, so I’d expect you’d be able to whip out a number of short story titles off the top of your head. But it looks like you had trouble too. I’d discount “The Old Man and the Sea” and “The Turn of the Screw” because they are novellas often published as single works which make them easier to remember. And you couldn’t remember specific stories by Joyce, Atwood, Murakami, and Faulkner.

      I have the same problem if I don’t list science fiction. I have a hard time remembering 10 classic stories. “The Dead” by Joyce. “The Woman Who Rode Away” by Lawrence. “The Occurrence at Owl Creek” by Bierce, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Cxxxx County” by Twain, “The Bear” by Faulkner… I should be able to remember a Fitzgerald story, but can’t, only vague impressions – “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz.” Oh, “The Gift of the Magi” by O’Henry. “To Light a Fire” by London, or was it, Kipling? “Death in Venice” by Mann (but was it a stand-alone novella?)

      Remembering classic short stories is much harder than remembering novels.

  2. In the last 5 years, short stories have experience a resurgence – any number of collections published, across a wide variety of genres. I can recommend William Boyd, and Ken Liu.

  3. A couple decades ago, my friend Jeff Meyerson told me he read a short story every day. That intrigued me so I started reading a short story every day…and 20. years later I’m still reading a short story each day. D. H. Lawrence was more of a novelist than short story writer. There are some writers who excel at the short story format: W. Somerset Maugham, Henry James, Flannery O’Connor, and Arthur Conan Doyle are favorites. I’m very fond of Jack Vance’s SF short stories especially “The Moon Moth.”

  4. Jim, your math is impeccable. True, there are times when I read more than one short story per day especailly if I’m reading something like THE BEST SCIENCE FICTION & FANTASY OF THE YEAR: Volume 13 edited by Jonathan Strahan with the super cool Jim Burns cover!

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