The Virgin and the Gipsy by D. H. Lawrence. Recommended.
Discovered in France after D. H. Lawrence’s death and never finalized by the author, The Virgin and the Gipsy is the fairy tale-like story of Yvette Saywell, a 19-year-old rector’s daughter chafing against the moral “life unbelievers” that make up her family.
Although the “virgin” of the title, Yvette is no demure maiden. She is temperamental, strong willed, and aware of her father’s “degrading unbelief, the worm which was his heart’s core” — just as her fallen mother was. She enjoys being contrary and openly contemptuous of her middle-class, overtly moral, covertly disturbed family. Her every exposure to life leaves her harder; “She lost her illusions in the collapse of her sympathies.” She loathes the rectory “with a loathing that consumed her life.”
The most hated person in the Saywell family is the rector’s ancient, blind mother, called “The Mater” or “Granny.” Yvette hates her. Her sister Lucille hates her. Their aunt Cissie hates her. She is compared to a toad, a reptile, a fungus. Like the toad that snaps its jaws on all the bees exiting the hive and devouring all life around it, The Mater, who gave literal life to the family, absorbs the entire family’s energy and life force. The gardener smashes the toad with a stone in oblique foreshadowing of The Mater’s fate.
Yvette is keenly aware of her status as a “moral unbeliever” (like her mother, who ran off with young man when Lucille and Yvette were children) and her virgin power. When she finds herself in the company of a virile gipsy man and his “lonely, predative glance,” she finds herself in his virile power, “gone in his will.”
The gipsy represents her “free-born will,” which separates her from the rest of the Saywells. He is an outsider, “on an old, old war-path against such as herself . . . Yes, if she belonged to any side, and to any clan, it was to his.” Under the influence of the absent mother, an adulterous couple she encounters, and the defiant gipsy who “endures in opposition,” Yvette is forced into a confrontation with her sneering father — a confrontation that brings out his hidden evil and self-righteousness.
The Virgin and the Gipsy is an odd novel, much of it written in the style of an adult fairy tale. “The Mater could be a variation of “The Wicked Queen,” while “She-who-was-Cynthia,” the “white snowflower” of a myth or tale, blooming in perpetuity, could be the prodigal Princess whose transformation into a degraded nettle threatens the self-satisfied and lethal stability of the Saywells. The deluge that puts an end to this uncomfortable status quo is at first mysterious in origin, purging the world as it does on a clear, sunny, rainless day. The gipsy could be the Prince or the traveler, come from afar and finally fulfilling his role in the tale as rescuer — literally and figuratively.
Lawrence was known for rewriting and editing many times over, and clearly The Virgin and Gipsy lacks his revision. Yet its themes of female sexuality, male power over it, the immorality of conventional morality, and the sacredness of vitality that are explored in depth in Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Women in Love, are here presented in a beautifully distilled form — perhaps more haunting for its very simplicity.
18 August 2003
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf