Derick K. Ariyam
9 December 2008
D.H. Lawrence, Coal Mining, and the Dehumanization of the Collier
Humming in the background in several of D.H. Lawrence's works are the sounds and voices of the coal mining industry. Although coal production was only one component of the greater Industrial Revolution happening in England during the late 19th century, it was perhaps the most important component. Coal was the main fuel source that powered the revolution: a revolution that transitioned Britain from its longstanding history of agriculture, into the new mechanized life of the factory. Yet while this transition may have been crucial to the modern development of England, it came with heavy human costs.
Of the many different industries at work during this period, coal mining was often considered the most dangerous. In the book, Caverns of Night, a collection of essays and historical accounts of coal mining, William Thesing writes in the introduction that colliers working in mines were “nine times more likely to be killed there than in a factory” (xiv). Thesing goes on to provide some of the specific threats inherent in working in the mines, as well as some astounding statistics that convey the danger of this specific industry. Some of the threats that daily confronted the miner included falling rock, explosions, cave-ins, pollution, and carcinogenic infections like Black Lung (xiv). As a result burns, amputations, and death were a frequent occurrence at the mines. Statistics show that during this period in England, a miner was killed every six hours and severely injured every two hours (Thesing 90).
While the facts and accounts of coal mining that are documented in traditional historical sources are useful, the literary works of D.H. Lawrence can also provide important historical insight into the dangers of this industry. Being the son of coal miner, and growing up in a community that centered on the mines, Lawrence’s firsthand observations of the period are embedded in most of his writings. Helen and Carl Baron, in their introduction to the Penguin edition of Sons and Lovers, writes that Lawrence was an author who “invariably included in his fiction his own experiences and portraits of people he knew” (xvi). This paper takes a close look at two of D.H. Lawrence’s short stories, and two of his novels, and explores the various ways they convey the dehumanizing aspects of the coal mining industry in the late 19th century.
As John Worthen documents in his Biography of D.H. Lawrence, Lawrence’s personal life was intimately connected to the Coal Mining Industry. As a child, Lawrence grew up in Eastwood, Nottinghamshire: a growing collier village where almost all of the male residents worked in one of the ten coal pits in town. Among these Eastwood colliers was his father, Arthur Lawrence: a man who began life as a collier at the age of ten, and would continue to be a collier until the age of 66. Tensions between his mother and father were always high at home. His mother, Lydia, unhappy with the treatment by her husband, would often characterize him to the children as a “drunken ne’er do well” (Worthen, “Early Life” Par. 7). Likewise, the father, as Worthen suggests, would escape the tensions of the household by continuing to drink and perpetuate this cycle. The domestic turmoil that plagued many of the collier households has often been blamed directly at coal mining. For instance, Peter Balbert, in an essay examining Lawrence’s short story “Odour of Chrysanthemums” calls domestic tension in the coal mining region “inevitable” (94). Being situated then at the heart of the coal mining industry, Lawrence witnessed firsthand some of the effects it had on the individual and the family.
Lawrence’s works demonstrate the dehumanization of the coal miner by the industry in several ways. The first way is by using animal and insect analogies to describe the colliers. For instance, in the first paragraph of Sons and Lovers, miners are associated with ants: “the few colliers and the donkeys burrowing down like ants into the earth, making queer mounds and little black places among the corn-fields and the meadows” (9). Aesthetically, the ant simile works on both an explicit and implicit level. Lawrence is drawing explicit attention to the similar working functions of ants building dirt mounds to colliers building pits. Both types of beings can be found working beneath the surface and in groups on some collaborative function. Also, the location of coal pits in the rural fields near farmlands and “corn-fields” are not unlike the ant mounds that can also be found in similar locations. On the implicit level, ants are also typically dark in color (often black) and travel in lines, very similar to the swarthy coal-dusted colliers walking from and into the pits in lines. In addition, the majority of ants are “workers” with a queen at its head, which is similar to the colliers that are all toiling for some larger corporate entity.
Lawrence also makes more subtle associations of colliers to animals. For instance, in Sons and Lovers, Lawrence writes, “Mrs Morel lay in bed, listening to the rain, and the feet of the colliers from Minton, their voices, and the bang, bang of the gates as they went through the stile up the fields” (42). Here, although there is no specific type of animal or insect mentioned, the “bang, bang of the gates” of the colliers in the rain invokes imagery of livestock in pasture. Again, another example of one of these more subtle instances of association is implied by the frequent and casual grouping together of animal and man. Animals, like donkeys and horses, were used frequently in the coal mining industry for their labors. But, when Lawrence uses phrases like, “the few colliers and the donkeys burrowing down,” the colliers and donkeys can be read here as co-laborers of equal rank; there is no clear hierarchal distinction made between the collier and the donkey, but instead both the animal and the man seem to be working for the same master (9).
In addition to attaching animal and instinct associations to the collier, Lawrence also frequently produces a similar effect by removing characteristics seen as human. One interesting way this is done is by extracting the collier from his natural (human) habitat. Like the Marine life that live in water, or the birds that seem so native to the air, humans reside exclusively on the surface of the earth. However, Lawrence destabilizes this assertion. The collier no longer toils under the sun, or in a structure on the surface of the earth as even the Biblical “first humans,” Adam and Eve, once did. Instead, the underground life below in the pit is where the collier spends the better part of his life. In Lawrence’s short story, “Daughters of the Vicar,” the colliers, while mining, refer to the surface as the “world above,” and often wonder what the conditions are like on the surface—”is it raining?…No, snowing” (44). The topside world is described as almost foreign to them. In another place in this story, the collier as a foreigner on the surface is given thought by Louisa, a privileged daughter of the minister, when she sees Alfred Durant, the miner, for the first time in his home: “His black face and arms were uncouth, he was foreign” (47).
But of course, Lawrence as a writer, has always been concerned with what Michael Bell calls the “internal intensity and coherence of the imagined world” (58). What is externally manifested in many of Lawrence’s characters is often merely a symptom of the complex processes at work internally. Likewise, the dehumanizing of the collier takes place on a few levels that lie beneath the surface: emotional responses, intelligence, and individuality—items that have long distinguished humans as a species distinct among animals.
For one, the emotional responses of the colliers are described in less complex terms than several of the other characters in Lawrence’s works. In Sons and Lovers, for example, the reader enters the subconscious thoughts and desires of many of the characters in the story. However, Mr Morel, Paul’s father, isn’t given as complex a presentation. Lawrence’s writing does not enter into the mode of free indirect discourse as frequently with Mr Morel as he does with several of the other characters in the novel. In addition Mr Morel’s dialogue in the story is written in phonetically spelled dialect. The dialect, although functioning to regionalize a character's native place of origin, is a technique that can also be used to impose a deficiency in intellect. In a sense, this can be felt by the reader who is required to ignore standards in spelling and grammar, and instead focus on simply comprehending the speaker. Vivian de Sola Pinto makes similar observations in her book Renaissance and Modern Study, writing in reference to Mr Morel that the reader “seldom get[s] the actual movement of his thought represented in free indirect style. He is allowed to speak only in direct speech that is rendered alien and uncouth” (24).
Another example of emotional complexity being removed from the collier can be found in Lawrence’s short story “Odours of Chrysanthemums.” In the later part of that story, Elizabeth Bates, is confronted with the lifeless body of her collier husband who had recently died in a mining accident. As Mrs Bates washes her husband’s body, she comes to a stark realization that she never truly knew her husband; it was as though she were washing the body of a stranger. Although this can be read in several ways, it may also suggest that while Elizabeth Bates’s husband was a collier, there was “nothing to know”; he was instead devoid of the emotional and individual uniqueness that bear the esse of human.
Individuality itself comes under assault throughout Lawrence’s works. One way this occurs is by the predictable and routine depictions of the coal miners. The average collier would rise early, head to the pit to work, and from there might proceed to the pub. This fairly unswerving pattern (particularly the drinking) is the source of continual grief for collier wives, like Mrs Morel, or Elizabeth Bates, whose frustrations over their husband’s behavioral patterns are given considerable attention by Lawrence. Predictability serves to impair the individuality of the subject. This is further augmented by the fact that not only is the single collier depicted to have a predictable routine, but that every other collier, shares that same routine. Thereby, uniqueness is undermined, and with it, the notion of the “individual.”
Allusions to slavery are also used to further demonstrate the devolving condition of the collier. The pit manger, Tom Brangwen, in Lawrence’s 1915 novel The Rainbow, refers to coal miners as purchased commodities: “They know they are sold...They know they are sold to their job” (324). Historically, slaves were often physically “branded” by their owners as a means of labeling property. A similar type of branding is experienced by colliers as well. For example, in a description of Mr Morel’s body in Sons and Lovers, Lawrence describes it as having “might have been the body of a man of twenty-eight, except that there were perhaps, too many blue scars, like tattoo-marks, where the coal-dust remained under the skin.” Also, in “Odour of Chrysanthemums,” the body of Mr Rigley, a collier, is described as having, “across his temple [a] blue scar, caused by a wound got in the pit, a wound in which the coal-dust remained blue like tattooing.” In these examples, scars and tattoos are indelible marks, or “brandings,” that link the collier directly back to their “owner,” the mines.
In addition, more direct slavery associations are found frequently in The Rainbow. For instance, during a conversation with her uncle Tom and Winifred, Ursula, the novel’s protagonist, is made to understand some of the realities of coal mining. Tom Brangwen and Winfred exchange remarks about the human condition of the collier, and do this in an almost sinister manner—which even Ursula remarks as having a “ghoulish satisfaction” (324). By way of free and indirect discourse, the narrator enters the inner thoughts of Ursula as she listens: “How terrible it was!...human bodies and lives subjected in slavery to the symmetric monster of the colliery” (324). In another part of the same scene, she refers to the coal industry as having made slaves of everyone, not just the collier, calling it “the great machine which has taken us all captives” (324 emphasis mine).
Finally, the subtleness of Lawrence takes on an added dimension during the coal mining conversation in The Rainbow. A “servant” interrupts the group to ask them where they would like to have their tea. The servant here is widower of a collier that has died in the pit, and offers a real-time performance of the “slave” notions being articulated in the conversation. The servant's interruption, as well as Ursula’s inclusion of “everyone” as being captive of the collier, brings into focus another important victim of coal mining: the family.
Coal Mines broke up the solidity of the family unit. Husbands spent an average of 10 hours a day, six days a week, working in the mines (not counting any time spent socially in a public house). And younger members of the family were being prepped to work as early as 10 years of age. While this daily separation of the family may have already been enough to bear—particularly on the wives—the situation was further exacerbated by both the meager wages offered colliers, and the uncertainty of a husband’s or a son’s return home. Lawrence captures these anxieties in several of his works, but quite poignantly in the short story “Odours of Chrysanthemums.” Except for the final few pages when her husband Walter is found and brought home, the majority of this narrative is entirely consumed with Elizabeth Bates’ anxiety over where he might be. (The reader also understands by the frustration mixed in Elizabeth’s anxiety that her husband’s presumed truancy is something that occurs regularly.) And when Elizabeth first hears that something “happened to Walter,” the initial thoughts that enter her mind are financial concerns: “if he was killed—would she be able to manage on the little pension and what she could earn?—she counted up rapidly” (117). Here, the typical human responses of grief and sorrow have been replaced by utilitarian concerns of survival.
A similar reduction of the family unit is described in The Rainbow. Tom Brangwen in that novel describes the spousal relationship between colliers and their wives as unfeeling and inhuman:
Oh, no. Mrs Smith has two sisters who have just changed husbands. They’re not very particular—neither are they very interested. They go dragging along what is left from the pits. They’re not interested enough to be very immoral—it all amounts to the same thing, moral or immoral—just a question of pit-wages. (324)
Love and intimacy between husband and wife are again eclipsed by simple survival. Further, Tom calls the collier’s “home” a “little side-show,” while Winfred responds with an equally bleak rejoinder: “What is he at home, a man? He is a meaningless lump—a standing machine, a machine out of work.” Considered in summary, Winfred’s question is quite poignant: how much dehumanizing can occur before “a man,” is no longer a “man”—and the collier but a “meaningless lump” (323-24).
D.H. Lawrence was a writer that lived during an important period in England’s history. The Coal Mining industry, in which he was intimately connected, was the engine that fueled the greater Industrial Revolution sweeping through all of England, and transforming the country’s economic infrastructure into the modern era. But this progression, of course, came at great costs. While the perils inherent in the coal industry have been thoroughly documented by historical records, D.H. Lawrence’s works provide an added texture to these accounts. In particular, Lawrence’s works reveal in several ways the dehumanizing effect of the coal mining industry. With the skill Lawrence possessed as a writer, he demonstrates this dehumanization through several ways, including animal insect metaphors, the stripping away of human traits from the collier, and through the presentation of the collier as a slave and mechanized unit of labor. Yet it was not only the collier that suffered: the family unit was a victim as well. Lawrence may not have been a “historian” in the traditional sense of the word; however, his writings are useful for what they reveal about his own historical context.
Modern day life in England owes a great deal to the sacrifices made by the colliers and their families in the late 19th century. It is writers like D.H. Lawrence that force us to pause, for a moment, and remember those debts.
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