“Second Best” is a short story written by D. H. Lawrence in August 1911 and initially published in English Review in February the following the year. It reappeared as part of Lawrence’s collection The Prussian Soldier and Other Stories in 1914. The setting is not directly identified, but seems to belong to English countryside based Underwood in which so many of his tales play out.
As tales go, “Second Best” is certainly idiosyncratic and it seems to have a certain feel about it signifying an unspoken shared experience with readers who themselves grew up far away from London and other growing metropolitan areas. Below the surface it is tale of courtship and English manners and likely would not seem particularly unusual to anyone with a similar background. It is that surface area that may be troubling to other readers, however.
A twenty-something older sister and her teenaged younger sibling are sitting near a hedge shortly after the older girl’s return from Liverpool with the news that her intended has gotten engaged to another girl. A mole suddenly appears which the teenage wraps in a handkerchief to take home so her father can kill, but in trying to escape she is bitten and the mole winds up dead at the hands of a walking stick. Thereupon appears the title character; a local boy who has always adored the older girl, but was never measured up in her eyes to her the boy who just engaged. After first chastising him for slipping into lower class accent, the two engage in a discussion—not really even a disagreement—about the necessity of killing moles to stop them from doing damage. The story comes to an end with the older sister having killed a mole which she presents to the local boy when drops by. This presentation becomes the signal for the boy to ask her out and he thus assumes the mantle of first choice in the absence of rivals.
Quite obviously, something is going on here that is readily more apparent to a certain class of Britons than it would have been to others. Perhaps the underlying meaning even crosses geographic borders more easily than class divisions. One gets the distinct impression that such a secret sign that a young woman is making herself available to a young man could be immediately understood in rural New Hampshire more easily than near the docks of Liverpool.
Then again, perhaps Lawrence is appealing to mythic connections that transcend all boundaries and are unique to none. The story is strange, to be sure, but it is difficult to argue against the powerful spell that its very strangeness casts over the otherwise hopelessly mundane events.