My rating: 4 of 5 stars
In 2015, Marianna Torgovnick pronounced it “Our D. H. Lawrence Moment” in The Chronicle of Higher Education and even slightly repented that she had been too credulous about feminist critiques of the author. This year, Tomiwa Owolade, writing in the Evening Standard, reviews a recent biography of Lawrence and notes that several more works on the author are newly in print or are forthcoming—all by women. What accounts for the ongoing renaissance of this famously troublesome modernist, hailed in the middle of the 20th century as a sexual prophet and then widely derided as a misogynist and fascist?
Sons and Lovers (1913)—not Lawrence’s first novel, but regarded as his first major one—suggests what is perennially untimely in the author’s work. It is a semi-autobiographical Bildungsroman, half a naturalist family saga and half a symbolic psychological study of its budding protagonist, Paul Morel. As Geoff Dyer observes in the introduction to the Modern Library edition, the novel “now seems to begin directly from where Jude the Obscure left off. It starts, literally and metaphorically, in the nineteenth century and grows into the twentieth.”
Like Thomas Hardy, Lawrence opens by describing the landscape that will condition the development of his hero: in this case, a mining village in the English Midlands, the pastoral countryside pitted with smoking and profitable shafts into the underworld. Then he narrates the courtship and marriage of Mr. and Mrs. Morel, the former a rough collier of partial French lineage, the latter a Puritan-descended and educated woman charmed by the working-man’s glimmers of gallant energy (“his face [was] the flower of his body, ruddy, with tumbled black hair, and laughing alike whatever partner he bowed above”).
Their marriage soon founders on Morel’s spendthrift drinking, selfish emotional remoteness, and even occasional physical brutality, though Lawrence, mitigating the class condescension implicit in such a scenario, also registers Morel’s bemused good intentions as well as the way his educational and cultural limitations poignantly exile him from the more refined family circle of his wife and offspring. Mrs. Morel remains married to her husband, but she puts her love and her energies into her four children and resents her husband’s attempt to initiate his sons into his own coarse masculinity, as when he gives their eldest child, William, his first haircut, in a passage marked by the novel’s floral motif:
When she came downstairs, a great fire glowed in the grate, the room was hot, the breakfast was roughly laid, and seated in his armchair, against the chimney-piece, sat Morel, rather timid; and standing between his legs, the child—cropped like a sheep, with such an odd round poll—looking wondering at her; and on a newspaper spread out upon the hearthrug, a myriad of crescent-shaped curls, like the petals of a marigold scattered in the reddening firelight.
Our protagonist is the couple’s youngest son, Paul, born at perhaps the nadir of Mr. and Mrs. Morel’s relationship. Lawrence’s plainspoken probing at hidden thoughts, even in the novel’s more conventional first half, conveys Mrs. Morel’s maternal despair and hope even as it intimates Paul’s exceptionality:
Once more she was aware of the sun lying red on the rim of the hill opposite. She suddenly held up the child in her hands.
“Look!” she said. “Look, my pretty!”
She thrust the infant forward to the crimson, throbbing sun, almost with relief. She saw him lift his little fist. Then she put him to her bosom again, ashamed almost of her impulse to give him back again whence he came.
“If he lives,” she thought to herself, “what will become of him—what will he be?”
Her heart was anxious.
“I will call him Paul,” she said suddenly; she knew not why.
The reader knows why: to Mrs. Morel, her Puritan father had been “the type of all men,” and he “drew near in sympathy only to one man, the Apostle Paul.” His grandson will prove to be an apostle of a different creed, one faithful to the mother’s worship not of a distant spiritual God but of the natural sun in the natural sky. Paul grows to be an almost morbidly oversensitive boy—one comic passage stresses his intimidation by the gruff colliers and the working world of men in general when he goes to collect his father’s paycheck—reared determinedly by his mother to advance in culture and class out of the literal and figurative paternal pit with its grime and squalor.
In adolescence, Paul begins a relationship with his neighbor Miriam Leivers, the daughter of a religious farming family, tormented by her tough brothers and regarding herself as “a princess turned swine-girl.” Miriam is spiritually intense and intellectually ambitious; like Mrs. Morel, who regularly attends proto-consciousness-raising sessions with the other wives of the mining village, she resists the limitations imposed on women in the period: “But Miriam almost fiercely wished she were a man. And yet she hated men at the same time.” Paul volunteers to tutor her in French and algebra, but resents what he judges some rarefaction or weakness in her character and treats her cruelly; at one point, he even throws a pencil in her face during a tutoring session. Yet Paul, ambitious to become an artist, shares intellect and sensibility with Miriam as with no one else in the book, not even his mother, and the scenes where they commune with each other and with nature and art on walks in the countryside recreate the fresh, overwhelming mystique of first love:
If he brought up his sketch-book, it was she who pondered longest over the last picture. Then she would look up at him. Suddenly, her dark eyes alight like water that shakes with a stream of gold in the dark, she would ask:
“Why do I like this so?”
Always something in his breast shrank from these close, intimate, dazzled looks of hers.
“Why do you?” he asked.
“I don’t know. It seems so true.”
“It’s because—it’s because there is scarcely any shadow in it; it’s more shimmery, as if I’d painted the shimmering protoplasm in the leaves and everywhere, and not the stiffness of the shape. That seems dead to me. Only this shimmeriness is the real living. The shape is a dead crust. The shimmer is inside really.”
And she, with her little finger in her mouth, would ponder these sayings. They gave her a feeling of life again, and vivified things which had meant nothing to her. She managed to find some meaning in his struggling, abstract speeches. And they were the medium through which she came distinctly at her beloved objects.
Yet Mrs. Morel dislikes Miriam because she construes the girl as a rival for Paul’s affection. Never having attained satisfaction in marriage, she has used her sons as surrogate spouses. After William, her beloved eldest son, dies, she fixates on sensitive Paul. In a notorious passage that follows a fight between Mrs. Morel and Paul over Miriam and then a more physical combat between Paul and his father over the old man’s drunken violence, mother and son share a more than parent-child affection:
“I can’t bear it. I could let another woman—but not her. She’d leave me no room, not a bit of room—”
And immediately he hated Miriam bitterly.
“And I’ve never—you know, Paul—I’ve never had a husband—not really—”
He stroked his mother’s hair, and his mouth was on her throat.
“And she exults so in taking you from me—she’s not like ordinary girls.”
“Well, I don’t love her, mother,” he murmured, bowing his head and hiding his eyes on her shoulder in misery. His mother kissed him a long, fervent kiss.
“My boy!” she said, in a voice trembling with passionate love.
Meanwhile, Paul—now in his early 20s—has been working in town at a medical supply manufacturer (where “[t]he girls loved him and were afraid of him”) and has met an older married woman, Clara Dawes. Both Clara and her estranged husband, Baxter, work in the same factory with Paul, which proves awkward when Paul begins taking Clara out and is challenged in a pub and then again in the office by the incensed husband. Clara is a feminist and suffragette; the novel implies that her failed marriage reprises that of Mr. and Mrs. Morel, as the intellectually advancing women of the working class can find no true affinity with their stubbornly troglodytic husbands. Mrs. Morel accordingly prefers Clara to Miriam, despite the potential scandal that her son’s new girlfriend is already married.
By this time in the narrative, Paul has slept with both Miriam and Clara. In the case of Miriam, it proves a disaster (“She lay to be sacrificed for him because she loved him so much. And he had to sacrifice her. For a second, he wished he were sexless or dead”), and Paul brutally abandons her after fervently seducing her. “See, you are a nun,” he writes to her, convinced that he cannot fully love her since their relationship, dematerialized by her spirituality, is one between souls but not bodies. With Clara, he discovers the transpersonal raptures of sex, which connects him to all of nature, to the truth of the “shimmer” inside reality he had earlier praised to Miriam: “He was Clara’s white heavy arms, her throat, her moving bosom. That seemed to be himself. […] There was no himself.” But sex cannot bring him closer to either of the two women, because he cannot combine sex with love. Lawrence diagnoses this problem as common to the working-class men of his generation. Because their mothers intimately reared them to be cultivated parvenus in contempt of their fathers’ laboring physicality, they can only experience the feminine as maternal idealism incompatible with nature, lust, and the body:
A good many of the nicest men he knew were like himself, bound in by their own virginity, which they could not break out of. They were so sensitive to their women that they would go without them for ever rather than do them a hurt, an injustice. Being the sons of mothers whose husbands had blundered rather brutally through their feminine sanctities, they were themselves too diffident and shy. They could easier deny themselves than incur any reproach from a woman; for a woman was like their mother, and they were full of the sense of their mother.
Toward the end of the book, Mrs. Morel expires at length of cancer, her slowness in dying a further example to Paul of her domination over his life. Eventually, in a scene where Lawrence fearlessly portrays the mixed feelings and twisted ethics of real experience, Paul and his sister conspire to hasten the mother’s painfully protracted end:
That evening he got all the morphia pills there were, and took them downstairs. Carefully he crushed them to powder.
“What are you doing?” said Annie.
“I s’ll put ’em in her night milk.”
Then they both laughed together like two conspiring children. On top of all their horror flicked this little sanity.
With his mother, the center of his life, now gone, Paul sinks into depression. He organizes a reconciliation between Clara and Baxter Dawes and has a final parting with Miriam; he contemplates joining Mrs. Morel in death, as she had fantasized of returning him to nature when he was a newborn, before he resolutely triumphs over his incestuous obsession in the novel’s final lines:
“Mother!” he whimpered—“mother!”
She was the only thing that held him up, himself, amid all this. And she was gone, intermingled herself. He wanted her to touch him, have him alongside with her.
But no, he would not give in. Turning sharply, he walked towards the city’s gold phosphorescence. His fists were shut, his mouth set fast. He would not take that direction, to the darkness, to follow her. He walked towards the faintly humming, glowing town, quickly.
All the language with which to dismiss Sons and Lovers, and Lawrence in general, comes too easily in the present moment to be trusted, which is paradoxically why the author is resurgent today.
On aesthetic grounds, this early novel’s aforementioned mix of naturalism with psychological modernism creates disunity; the style that predominates in the narrative’s second half, with its claustrophobic, perseverating focus on Paul’s love life and his debilitating sexual abstraction, suffers when compared to Lawrence’s omniscient ability to conjure a whole world in the earlier chapters. And for a book about characters obsessed with religion, art, and politics, we rarely hear them discuss ideas. Where are Paul and Miriam’s aesthetic disputes, or Paul and Clara’s debates on the woman question? Such dialogues would be more rewarding, given the social world the novel started in, than Lawrence’s almost wholly psychological approach as the narrative goes on. Yet the text’s gradual transition from late-Victorian to modernist literary modes, almost from Hardy to Woolf in the space of a single book, makes it, if not a perfectly unified work of art, then a landmark in the history of fiction.
As for Lawrence’s lethal seriousness, his soberly puritanical anti-puritanism, his weighty Protestant sermons urging pagan ecstasy, this must simply be accepted as a condition of his aesthetic. To accept such lines as “‘Your face is bright,’ he said, ‘like a transfiguration'” is even to liberate ourselves from a literary landscape where every artistic gesture must be qualified by extreme, embarrassed self-consciousness. And Lawrence rewards our acceptance with his energetic recreation of a way of life and a way of seeing that life we’d otherwise never experience. Anthony Burgess summarizes the novel’s productive self-division in another essay included in the Modern Library edition, referring to Lawrence’s labeling the story “a tragedy”: “the elements of pity and terror almost justify Lawrence’s description of it as a tragedy, though there is more of a Sophoclean starkness in his plot summary than in the fluorescent, leafy, pullulent book itself.”
This edition also collects Kate Millett’s famous feminist excoriation of Lawrence from her 1970 book Sexual Politics, the critique that diminished his posthumous midcentury reputation as sexual prophet and great novelist. For Millett, Sons and Lovers is a portrait of the artist as young male vampire, sucking the life out of and then discarding women one by one until, in a parodic reversal of maternal nurturance, he kills his own mother by poisoning the milk he feeds her. Millet achieves this interpretation by tendentiously paraphrasing the narrative and therefore neglecting the omniscient narrator’s irony toward the often callow and hysterical Paul and complex in-the-round portrayals of the female principals, especially Mrs. Morel. This is not to say that Lawrence sympathizes with feminism—he mostly doesn’t and seems to sympathize with it less and less as the book goes on—but it is to say that a novel is not a tract, and that the author’s clear-sighted excavation of male subjectivity itself makes critical comprehension available. This, it seems to me, is the most we should ask of imaginative writers.
From gender to class, even Millett allows that Sons and Lovers is “probably still the greatest novel of proletarian life in English.” Dyer writes in his introduction of his own Lawrence-inspired lateral move from working-class boyhood to bohemian adulthood (his parents, like Mrs. Morel, had hoped for middle-class respectability instead), and I suspect many readers will likewise sympathize with Paul’s flight, not least in this moment when universities are, in their bureaucratic way, codifying “first-generation college student” (and I am one) as an oppressed identity category.
Sons and Lovers is a Künstlerroman in which we hear strangely little about art. But one passage gives the key to Lawrence’s method:
He loved to paint large figures, full of light, but not merely made up of lights and cast shadows, like the impressionists; rather definite figures that had a certain luminous quality, like some of Michael Angelo’s people. And these he fitted into a landscape, in what he thought true proportion. He worked a great deal from memory, using everybody he knew. He believed firmly in his work, that it was good and valuable.
This memorializing of peoples and landscapes, this granting of light to substantial figures, of substance to luminous bodies, validates Lawrence’s faith in the novel as “the one bright book of life,” superior to all other discourses in its unique circumspection of the variable human totality. Despite all ideological reductions—his or our own—such a vital conviction, especially when it animates a novel, is enough to account for Lawrence’s lively appeal to today’s audiences.