My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Lawrence conceived The Rainbow and Women in Love as a unity, a single novel under the title The Sisters or The Wedding Ring. Seeking an escape from the accomplished naturalism of his breakout novel, Sons and Lovers, into something more like myth, tragedy, or prophecy, he wanted to write a mighty book with a mission no less grand than to repair the division between men and women and to restore the wholeness of a society torn by industrial modernity.
In the seven years between his commencement of the novel in 1913 and the publication of Women in Love in 1920 intervenes his elopement to her native Germany with his former professor’s wife Frieda Weekley (née von Richthofen), the censorship and burning of The Rainbow in England, and the Great War. And so if The Rainbow ends on a note of revelatory hope—the potential birth of a new world—Women in Love ends in snowblind Alpine apocalypse, somewhere between the visionary Romantic Frankenstein and the forthcoming modernist summa of Mann’s Magic Mountain.
Women in Love rejoins the Brangwen sisters, Ursula and Gudrun, from The Rainbow, upwardly-mobile and educated young women in a Midlands colliery town, now teaching in the local school. Gudrun, however, has been to an art college in London and mingled with the upper crust, which gives the sisters entrée into the ostensibly classless world of English and indeed international bohemia. (“Class-barriers are breaking down!” one character quips in response to the sisters’ attendance at an artsy party on an aristocratic estate.)
In that rarefied world—for which Lawrence shows little but contempt—they encounter the two men who will complete the novel’s quadrangle of personae: Gerald Crich, a young industrial magnate who owns the local colliery and is determined to organize it on new principles of maximal efficiency and organization; and Rupert Birkin, often said to be Lawrence’s surrogate, a frail world-weary intellectual with a penchant for prophetic speechifying. If The Rainbow was a Biblical saga of three generations, then Women in Love—the slightly longer book—tightly confines itself to these four characters’ relationships over a period of months: the eventually redemptive marriage between Ursula and Birkin, the finally catastrophic love affair between Gerald and Gudrun, and the unconsummated and undefined romance of Birkin with Gerald.
The novel has no plot, really, and is less narrated than dramatized or visualized: a long sequence of symbolic set-pieces. While the content is ultra-realistic—class and gender war in the author’s present—the treatment is mythic. This discordance between homey naturalism and primal symbol is in fact the novel’s stylistic originality, one that looks forward to the magical realist novels of the later 20th century. We are invited to take note both of Gudrun’s signature stockings—a piece of fashion bizarrerie meant to set her apart in the grim colliery town—and of Rupert’s hurling stones at the maternal moon’s reflection or Gerald and Gudrun’s struggle with a large ill-mannered rabbit signifying the dark heart of nature. Lawrence strikes this dual note early in the novel as the sisters walk through the town:
“It is like a country in an underworld,” said Gudrun. “The colliers bring it above-ground with them, shovel it up. Ursula, it’s marvellous, it’s really marvellous—it’s really wonderful, another world. The people are all ghouls, and everything is ghostly. Everything is a ghoulish replica of the real world, a replica, a ghoul, all soiled, everything sordid. It’s like being mad, Ursula.”
The characters, too, have a symbolic dimension, occupying an individual dimension but also standing in for social classes, racial types, and cosmic principles. Ursula and Birkin are Woman and Man in the ideal, able to consummate their natures by casting off all external determinants and becoming pure selves able to join in a perfect marriage. Despite his intense misanthropy, his loyalty to whatever vast inhuman principle subtends mere humanity—he says, “Man is a mistake, he must go”—Birkin speaks for Lawrence’s principle of absolute individuality:
“But I, myself, who am myself, what have I to do with equality with any other man or woman? In the spirit, I am as separate as one star is from another, as different in quality and quantity. Establish a state on that. One man isn’t any better than another, not because they are equal, but because they are intrinsically other, that there is no term of comparison. The minute you begin to compare, one man is seen to be far better than another, all the inequality you can imagine is there by nature. I want every man to have his share in the world’s goods, so that I am rid of his importunity, so that I can tell him: ‘Now you’ve got what you want—you’ve got your fair share of the world’s gear. Now, you one-mouthed fool, mind yourself and don’t obstruct me.’”
The marriage Birkin proposes to Ursula—who had espoused a similarly individualist worldview at the end of The Rainbow—will transcend mere love, mere sex, the unsatisfying union of bodies, because it will join the husband’s and the wife’s souls in a sustaining tension. When Ursula first hears his idea—for context, they are watching Birkin’s pet tomcat bat with its paw at a submissive female feline—she scoffs, to which he replies:
“I agree that the Wille zur Macht is a base and petty thing. But with the Mino [i.e., the tomcat], it is the desire to bring this female cat into a pure stable equilibrium, a transcendent and abiding rapport with the single male. Whereas without him, as you see, she is a mere stray, a fluffy sporadic bit of chaos. It is a volonté de pouvoir, if you like, a will to ability, taking pouvoir as a verb.”
“Ah—! Sophistries! It’s the old Adam.”
“Oh yes. Adam kept Eve in the indestructible paradise, when he kept her single with himself, like a star in its orbit.”
In other words, Ursula protests what she sees as a misogynist sophistry as old as monotheism: a rhetorical justification of male dominance that runs from Genesis to Nietzsche, observable, too, in nature. Yet for Rupert, the will-to-power in the union of man and woman finally consummates itself in a marriage of true minds that has little to do with bodies, and still less to do with the uniting of property or the establishment of a lineage, those traditional biological and social functions of marriage. It’s unimaginable that any of the novel’s main characters would ever have children, not least because—like Milton’s rebel angels—they declare themselves parentless, without history, pure gnostic emissaries of the true god on this alien earth, as Ursula imagines in the late passage that hymns her successful marriage to Rupert:
She wanted to have no past. She wanted to have come down from the slopes of heaven to this place, with Birkin, not to have toiled out of the murk of her childhood and her upbringing, slowly, all soiled. She felt that memory was a dirty trick played upon her. What was this decree, that she should ‘remember’! Why not a bath of pure oblivion, a new birth, without any recollections or blemish of a past life. She was with Birkin, she had just come into life, here in the high snow, against the stars. What had she to do with parents and antecedents? She knew herself new and unbegotten, she had no father, no mother, no anterior connections, she was herself, pure and silvery, she belonged only to the oneness with Birkin, a oneness that struck deeper notes, sounding into the heart of the universe, the heart of reality, where she had never existed before.
But Gudrun and Gerald’s affair is destined to be different. “Destined” is the main word that attaches to Gerald overall. He accidentally shot and killed his brother as a child, though Birkin and the sisters all wonder if there’s any such thing as an accident in a case like that, with Birkin reflecting, “He did not believe that there was any such thing as accident. It all hung together, in the deepest sense.” Later in the novel, his little sister Diana drowns at a boating party, her watery grave another symbol of the “underworld” that threatens to suck the characters down.
After reflecting on Gerald’s ambition to modernize his father’s mining business, to undo his father’s paternalist 19th-century Christian liberalism and treat the workers brutally as mechanisms, the narrator observes, “He was the God of the machine…he had conceived the pure instrumentality of mankind.” No surprise, then, that he cannot love; as an instrument of fate who makes an instrument of others, he can hardly levy the pure decisions available to free souls like Birkin and Ursula.
Lawrence’s initial description of Gerald, which foreshadows his fate, even suggests he stands for some fatality in the northern spirit and of the underworld of nature and animality that menaces our characters with dissolution so often in the book:
But about him also was the strange, guarded look, the unconscious glisten, as if he did not belong to the same creation as the people about him. Gudrun lighted on him at once. There was something northern about him that magnetised her. In his clear northern flesh and his fair hair was a glisten like sunshine refracted through crystals of ice. And he looked so new, unbroached, pure as an arctic thing. Perhaps he was thirty years old, perhaps more. His gleaming beauty, maleness, like a young, good-humoured, smiling wolf, did not blind her to the significant, sinister stillness in his bearing, the lurking danger of his unsubdued temper. “His totem is the wolf,” she repeated to herself. “His mother is an old, unbroken wolf.”
Gerald fails to love two of the main characters: both Birkin and Gudrun. For Birkin, the marriage of man and woman should be complemented by a different but equivalent love of man and man. Lawrence, exegete of 19th-century American literature, was perhaps inspired by Whitman’s distinction between amative love (sexual desire between man and woman) and adhesive love (comradely affection between man and man). As in Whitman, however, this superficial Platonism shades into outright homoerotics. In perhaps the novel’s most famous passage, Birkin and Gerald sportively wrestle naked in a drawing room:
So the two men entwined and wrestled with each other, working nearer and nearer. Both were white and clear, but Gerald flushed smart red where he was touched, and Birkin remained white and tense. He seemed to penetrate into Gerald’s more solid, more diffuse bulk, to interfuse his body through the body of the other, as if to bring it subtly into subjection, always seizing with some rapid necromantic fore-knowledge every motion of the other flesh, converting and counteracting it, playing upon the limbs and trunk of Gerald like some hard wind. It was as if Birkin’s whole physical intelligence interpenetrated into Gerald’s body, as if his fine, sublimated energy entered into the flesh of the fuller man, like some potency, casting a fine net, a prison, through the muscles into the very depths of Gerald’s physical being.
Despite this interpenetration of man and man, however, Gerald doesn’t understand or pretends not to understand Birkin’s offer of love. Likewise, his obsessive lust for Gudrun—in another memorable passage, he sneaks into her family’s house late at night to make love to her after his father’s death—doesn’t end in anything like the utopic marriage of Birkin and Ursula. Rather, when the characters sojourn to the Alps for a Continental vacation, their affair culminates in an attempted murder and a successful suicide.
While the artistic Gudrun is likely the most mobile and talented of the novel’s characters, we are left with the impression that she will never gather herself into the triumphant individuality of Ursula, that she may even lapse to the level of the novel’s comic-relief villainess, Birkin’s ex-girlfriend, the wealthy bohemian Hermione Roddice (essentially a 1910s equivalent of today’s bien-pensant but finally dimwitted and conformist progressive elitist). In a bad sign for Gudrun’s development, she is seduced, as Gerald nigh-murderously complains, by the villain of the novel’s concluding pages: a German artist named Loerke, upon whom Lawrence and his characters heap mountains of scorn.
He was really like one of the ‘little people’ who have no soul, who has found his mate in a human being. But he suffered in his discovery. She too was fascinated by him, fascinated, as if some strange creature, a rabbit or a bat, or a brown seal, had begun to talk to her.
The stunted, trollish Loerke is distinctly implied to be gay, since he travels and rooms with a strapping man, but we are also told that he sexually preys on and abuses teenaged girls, the models for his art. If the narrator compares him to a rabbit, a bat, and a seal—as well, at one point, to a “street Arab”—Gerald and Birkin join in with further elaboration:
“He lives like a rat, in the river of corruption, just where it falls over into the bottomless pit. He’s further on than we are. He hates the ideal more acutely. He hates the ideal utterly, yet it still dominates him. I expect he is a Jew—or part Jewish.”
“Probably,” said Gerald.
“He is a gnawing little negation, gnawing at the roots of life.”
In an essay on the novel from her collection Contraries, Joyce Carol Oates referred to Women in Love as Lawrence’s Götterdämmerung, but considering this extravagant abjection of Loerke—gay and Jewish, verminous and perverse, an inner tooth gnawing away at western civilization—we might less decorously accuse the author of anticipating the Holocaust.
Yet Oates acutely notes that Lawrence has more in common with Pater and Wilde than most classic English novelists and suggests that, in despising Loerke, Lawrence and his male leads are expelling all that they loathe in themselves, from their polymorphous sexual rebellion to their experimental artistic impulse. Loerke preaches a gospel of art, most notably when he and Ursula quarrel over his image of a horse, which Ursula finds too precious and formalist. To her insistence that art and life should be one, he replies with haughty aestheticism:
“It is part of a work of art, a piece of form. It is not a picture of a friendly horse to which you give a lump of sugar, do you see—it is part of a work of art, it has no relation to anything outside that work of art.”
While this is obviously counter to Lawrence’s stated views—in his criticism, he championed Romantic organicism and moral art and rejected the aesthetic school of Flaubert, Mann, and Joyce as stiff and anti-vital—it’s hard not to see a reflection on this very novel’s imagistic and theatrical form in Loerke’s words. Lawrence himself counseled readers to trust the tale, not the teller—and here the tale seems to align itself with its ostensible villain.
If my criticism above implicating Lawrence in the Holocaust was too heavy and moralistic, and it was, I will conclude by suggesting that the novel’s best critics were screenwriter Larry Kramer and director Ken Russell, who adapted Women in Love into a classic film of 1969. The gay and Jewish Kramer and the Catholic Russell revenge themselves on the ultra-Protestant Lawrence’s northern apocalypse by stressing the novel’s painterly pictorialism, often drowned in Lawrence’s prose-poetic prolixity, and the arch wit of its dialogue. Lawrence’s somber Nietzschean homoerotic fascism—as relevant as ever in our epoch of Bronze Age Pervert—melts into a more campy playfulness. Onscreen, the narrative’s sexuality, gay and straight, is unmistakably a matter of bodies in sweltering or shivering contact rather than star-souls in an abstract cosmic collision. And Glenda Jackson’s Oscar-winning turn as Gudrun fills out the character with the knowing sensuality and artistic gift she sometimes lacks in the novel.
I have moods in which I prefer the Lawrence aesthetic and moods in which I incline more toward Kramer/Russell. It is the rare film adaptation of a great novel that almost matches its source material for aesthetic intensity and integrity; but even this is a tribute to Lawrence’s ambition, to the expansive grandeur of his revolutionary vision.