Following on from reading Peter Linebaugh’s The Magna Carta Manifesto (2008), I read the D.H. Lawrence short story England, My England (1922), believing it to be a rare example of a literary treatment of a common. Peter Linebaugh is, to mind, prone to exaggeration and generalisation to make a point and so I should have perhaps tempered my interest with that caution in mind. England, My England is most definitely NOT about a common, but about a rather awkward man and his rather awkward marriage and it is also about World War I. It does, however, start with a a description of an idealised, rather chocolate box cottage which nestles in the hollow of a heathland common. As soon as the story turns to discussion of his awkwardness, Lawrence leaves the common behind and only returns to the cottage in passing.
That Lawrence begins this rather unpleasant story, which leaves a very bitter taste in the mouth after its nasty conclusion, in such a way is quite deliberate. Consider its opening line: The dream was still stronger than the reality. This determines the way one is to approach this image and what it means. The paragraph closes: Always, tense with anxiety, he saw the rising flowery garden and the sloping old roof of the cottage, beyond the intervening shadow, as in a mirage. For Evelyn is a man who lives in dreams and who abandons his nurturing of his bucolic second home, preferable to the nurturing of his finances, wife and children, only for the equally arbitrary dream of war. That Lawrence describes the garden path in continuation on to the common demonstrates that we are to suppose the image is unified: the cottage, the flowery garden, the rough turf and the bracken of the common are part and parcel of the same mirage. This is a clear stereotype and national/ist cliche, as betrayed from the outset by the title.
So what does the inclusion of a common have to communicate? Firstly, that any idea of radicalism or even necessity (it is shown to be commoned only by a second home owner) is extinguished. This common, and perhaps by extension all commons like it, are merely part of a sentimentalised, middle class view of the English countryside. As such, and in spite of the (unnamed) common barely making it beyond the first page, this is an incredibly useful literary contribution to understanding the co-opting of commons as part of the post-WW1 notion of the land fit for heroes which, argues John Taylor in A Dream of England: Landscape, Photography and the Tourist’s Imagination (1994), ushered in a sentimentalism of the English landscape which persists right up until the present day.