A Neglected Tour de Force: D. H. Lawrence’s “The Captain’s Doll”

D. H. Lawrence’s short stories and novellas seem to hover outside the canon. Everyone has heard of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, but who peruses “Tickets, Please” or The Ladybird? Yet the short works are superior to many of his later novels, among them The Plumed Serpent (1926), in which an English woman falls in love with a Mexican landowner who absurdly declares himself an Aztec god.

The Captain’s Doll, published in 1923, is a tour de force.  In this elegant novella, set in Germany, Lawrence expounds on his favorite theme, the sexual struggle between men and women. He writes with clarity, eloquence, brevity, and not without a tad of malice – a driving force in this novella.   

At the center is a handmade doll, or manikin, designed and sewn by an impoverished countess, Hannele, to distance herself from her lover. Her friend and business partner, Mitchka, is startled by her nerve in making a replica of Captain Hepburn.  The two women sell their handmade dolls in Hannele’s studio, along with embroidered cushions, scarves, and other decorative objects.   Lawrence writes, “The dolls were quite famous, so the two women did not starve.”

The description of the doll hints at the subtle irritation behind Hannele’s love of the captain.

It was a perfect portrait of an officer of a Scottish regiment, slender, delicately made, with a slight, elegant stoop of the shoulders and close-fitting tartan trousers.  The face was beautifully modelled, and a wonderful portrait, dark-skinned, with a little, close-cut, dark moustache, and wide-open dark eyes, and that air of aloofness and perfect diffidence which marks an officer and a gentleman.

Lawrence writes brilliant dialogue, a vehicle for expression of the tension between men and women. In The Captain’s Doll, the dialogue captures Hannele’s hesitancy and and the charming captain’s confidence. Captain Hepburn laughs at the doll – “You’ve got me” – but explains he is late because his wife has been writing letters to the Major-General about rumors of his infidelity. His colonel has advised him to take a month’s home leave.  The captain is unsure if he will go, but has no desire to visit England.

Hannele forgets the doll in her relief.

A glad, half-frightened look came on her face.  
“You mean you don’t want to leave me?” she asked, breathless.

When a marriage is in jeopardy, the wife of course must act. Mrs. Hepburn makes a surprise trip to  Germany and visits Hannele’s studio.  She is utterly crushed when she sees the doll. She wants the doll, but cannot have it.

The real struggle, however, is not between the captain and his wife, but between the captain and Hannele. And like many of Lawrence’s male characters, he harbors cold, unemotional ideas about love: he hates the expression of emotions, and feels divided from humanity. Yet he doesn’t want to be alone. Hannele captured his image in the doll, but is mesmerized by the man.

Parts remind me of Lawrence’s novel, Women in Love,  though Rupert is truly in love and more flexible in his philosophy than Captain Hepburn. Ursula, his lover, ignores Rupert’s notions, focusing on love itself.  But can Hannele do the same?

Lawrence’s philosophy of love and sex dominates his work – The Rainbow and Lady Chatterley’s Lover were banned because of eroticism – but in each book the the characters’ relationships are worked out differently.

I do think The Captain’s Doll would make a good film!

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