Her hair fell across her face, as she tried to sip from the hot cup.
--The Virgin and the Gipsy
You will play with sex, will you!
It is the established opinion, since its publication in 1930, that The Virgin and the Gipsy is one of D. H. Lawrence's most successful albeit minor works of fiction. Representative praise of this novella ranges from the early and unqualified enthusiasm of F. R. Leavis, who deems it "one of Lawrence's finest things," to the more balanced and detailed considerations by H. M. Daleski, Keith Cushman, and Daniel Schneider. The various approaches of these critics all emphasize, in different ways, the work's anticipatory evocation of several coordinate preoccupations and patterns in a later novel, Lady Chatterley's Lover. In the earlier and shorter fiction's portrait of a cautious and deracinated male, a frustrated and vulnerable female, and a sensual connection between them that crosses class and culture--in short, in such crucial correspondence there remains much to ponder in the consistent development of Lawrence's doctrine and technique during the last few years of his life. With a similar inclination to link this novella to that more celebrated and explicit longer work, Julian Moynahan explains how The Virgin and the Gipsy superbly reflects Lawrence's view of the "aetiology of the diseased condition of life" (Moynahan 215); more recently, John Humma elaborates on the relevant themes of social pathology and instinctual malaise by isolating the trope of "inside and outside" in the tale, a metaphoric counterpoint used by Lawrence to chart a syndrome of maladjustment, repression, and failure that inhabits the claustrophobic Saywell home as well as the more sprawling anterooms of the decorous Chatterley estate (Humma 78).
Often accompanying such praise and placement by critics of The Virgin and the Gipsy, however, is a defensive acknowledgment of the work's purportedly minor status--that is, of its relative lack of complexity, bulk, and interest next to the earlier major novels, and of its alleged transitional function merely as a prelude to the issues Lawrence would explore more memorably in Lady Chatterley's Lover. Indeed, Harry T. Moore grudgingly regards the work as a success but considers it "among the lowest of Lawrence's fictional achievements"; to this pioneering critic and biographer, it functions only as an unimportant diversion for Lawrence, a minor piece that both recalls "The Horse Dealer's Daughter" and prepares for the Sleeping Beauty motif that receives full development with Oliver Mellors and Connie Chatterley (Moore 333, 416). Similarly, another influential and early Lawrence scholar, Graham Hough, dismisses this novella with the condescending evaluation that is still the consensus judgment today; while he briefly compliments the work for its focus and consistency, he finally judges it "no more than a preliminary working over of Lady Chatterley material" (Hough 188). Even more suggestive is the continuing history of minimal concern by most critics with this fiction, with many, commentators, even in major and comprehensive studies of Lawrence, electing to scarcely even mention it.(1)
It is certainly true that The Virgin and the Gipsy, viewed as either a short novel or a long tale, must lack the scope and ambition of Lawrence's longer fictions. It is also clear that this work provides a transparent and less intense treatment of several themes and metaphors that have central importance throughout Lawrence's career. As I attempt to demonstrate in this essay, it is precisely such transparency of artistic technique and fairy, tale starkness of theme that contribute to its significance in the Lawrence canon; these qualities of unencumbered philosophy and elemental design offer provocative and interrelated clues from 1925 about Lawrence's physical and spiritual condition, sexual confidence, and creative ability as he begins the last five years of his life. …