The Dover D. H. Lawrence Reader ($6) is an anthology including the complete text of one of my favorite novels, Sons and Lovers, the superb short stories, “The Prussian Officer,” “Odour of Chrysanthemums,” and “England, My England,” poems, and the essay, “Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious.”
I recently reread Sons and Lovers, Lawrence’s elegant autobiographical third novel, a study of Lawrence’s parents’ marriage, of the too-strong bond between Lawrence and his mother, and his attempts to break away with other women.
Lawrence is one of the most brilliant, lyrical writers of the 20th century, and his explorations of the relationships between men and women are spot-on. I very much admire his sympathetic portraits of strong women characters: in this novel, there are Mrs. Morel, Paul’s mother; Miriam, Paul’s religious, thoughtful, bookish friend, and Clara, a suffragette who has left her husband. And of course Paul, a charming man with a sense of humor who is also a painter, fascinates all three.
In the first chapter, “The Early Married Life of the Morels,” we meet Mrs. Morel, the bright, quick, pretty middle-class woman who is 31 years old and has been married to a coarse, handsome coal miner for eight years. She loved him deeply, but he is unreliable, often takes a drinking holiday, and squanders their money. She is in charge of the house, but being alone with the children and housework is tedious. She is very attached to her oldest son, William, who is very excited about a local fair. She allows him to go alone, and later takes her toddler, Annie; he eagerly gives her a gift of egg cups painted with roses. She feels heavy and hot, because she is pregnant.
Marriage has not fulfilled her. Her sexy husband too often stays out late.
She went indoors, wondering if things were never going to alter. She was beginning by now to realise that they would not. She seemed so far away from her girlhood, she wondered if it were the same person walking heavily up the back garden at the Bottoms, as had run so lightly on the breakwater at Sheerness, ten years before.
Despite her brooding, she is a great mother to her children. She has two more, the artistic Paul, and the cheerful youngest son, Arthur. The children dislike their father, who is unreliable and sometimes drunk. The intelligent William defends their mother against Morel’s violence. Mrs. Morel is proud of William, a clerk who studies Latin late at night and teaches at the night school. She is desolated when he moves to London and falls in love with a superficial, pretty young woman. After he dies of a sudden illness, Mrs. Morel transfers her affections to Paul.
Lawrence brilliantly describes Paul’s work day in his early teens as a junior clerk in Nottingham at “Jordan and Sons–Surgical appliances.” He soon enjoys his tasks, from writing invoices to wrapping up prosthetic limbs, and on his breaks likes to visit and sketch the women working downstairs. They are all fond of him, especially Fanny, the sweet hunchback who organizes the group purchase of paints for his birthday.
Paul loves women, but none can compare with Mrs. Morel, who very much dislikes his first girlfriend, Miriam, an intense, religious, farm girl who loves books a much as Paul does. Miriam is based on Lawrence’s first girlfriend, Jessie Chambers, who had a strong influence on his writing and gave suggestions for the early draft of Sons and Lovers.
Paul and Miriam meet once a week at the library, sometimes go to chapel together, intensely discuss books, and tramp through the fields and woods admiring beautiful flowers. Miriam and Paul are well-suited intellectually, but Miriam is afraid of sex (and, let’s face it, she is hardly fixed up for birth control). Ironically, years later, she loves him so much that she does have sex with him. After a few weeks of this, he drops her, and moves in on Miriam’s friend, Clara, a statuesque married young suffragette whose breasts and shoulders are beautiful. Clara is all sex, just as Miriam is all spirit. (Clara was based on Louie Barrows, to whom he was briefly engaged.)
It’s the old madonna/whore thing, I know.
When Mrs. Morel is diagnosed with cancer, this is devastating to Paul, Annie, and their younger brother, Arthur. She is terribly ill, and she hangs on and on. The morphia does not really relax her. They cannot believe that she takes so long dying. Eventually Paul and Annie decide to dump a fatal dose of morphia into her drink. She complains that it tastes bitter; it still takes a few days for her to die. Mrs. Morel’s death enables Paul to break with Clara, who has already begun to bore him. She will go back to her husband. But what will the future hold for angry, lonely Paul?
Miriam thinks she might have a chance to win him back.
Oh, why did he not take her? Her very soul belonged to him Why would not he take what was his. She had bourne so long the cruelty of belonging to him and not being claimed by him.
But Paul does not want her much. He will not follow his mother to death; norw Mirism to spirituality; nor Clara to the end of sex.
This is a brilliant, intense, poetic, often frustrating novel. Lawrence gets the difficult relationships just right, but Paul wants just the right blend of emotion and sexuality. He cannot find it.
The ending is ambiguous.
Lawrence has an unfortunate reputation for sexism, but I don’t read it that way. Lawrence draws characters who are fascinating, flawed, and ambivalent about sexuality. Who gets what he or she wants? Rupert and Ursula in Women in Love.
Sons and Lovers is one of Lawrence’s most brilliant novels. I also very much admire his short stories and poems.