Rating: 3 stars
Oh my good lord, that took longer than it should have. I have mixed feelings about this book. The first half flowed well, but the second half got bogged down in self-indulgent twaddle, with only the odd chink of light to relieve the monotony of Paul Morel’s inner ruminations. I found myself easily distracted over the past week or so, as I ploughed my way through the second half of the book.
My first encounter with D H Lawrence was in sixth form, oh so many years ago, when I read The Rainbow. I remember very little about it, other than that I didn’t really enjoy it, get it, see the point, whatever. Perhaps I was too young and inexperienced in life. Whatever it was I didn’t grasp about the book, it left me with the idea that Lawrence was boring. Oh, the teenage dismissal of everything not understood as boring!
That was over a quarter of a century ago. After reading Parade’s End, and reading up on Ford Madox Ford’s career as a literary agent and publisher, I decided I’d give old D H another try.
I chose his first novel, because why not start at the beginning. In the intervening years I’d added a vague notion that Lawrence was thought to be a misogynist to my “D H Lawrence is boring” attitude. I think because things I read about him often refer to Kate Millet denouncing him as a sexist in her book Sexual Politics (1970). Not being able to remember The Rainbow meant I had no basis to agree or disagree with this depiction of Lawrence.
My first reaction to Sons and Lovers was to think, “Lawrence understands women.” Gertrude Morel is a bold character from the off, and Lawrence expertly captures the strength of her personality, the clash with her husband Walter’s personality, the disappointments both experience with their marriage within the first 36 pages.
Having been surprised by that first chapter, and Lawrence’s even handed portrayal of a relationship in conflict, with blame not laid exclusively at the feet of either person, I decided to read around on the subject of Lawrence’s supposed misogyny. I started with Dr Catherine Brown’s article on Lawrence’s relationship to women. Brown is Vice President of the D H Lawrence Society. I found her article useful as context. Then I read a Guardian article about a manuscript rediscovered in 2013 in which Lawrence suggests that (hold onto your hats) women are people, not lumps of meat. Then I watched this segment from a BBC Culture Show film about Lawrence. I wish it went on longer. It made me think I needed to re-read The Rainbow.
So, my half-hearted, not really real prejudices reset, I continued with Sons and Lovers.
Lawrence writes beautifully. There is a rhythm to his words that makes the story, difficult as it is at times, flow easily. It really struck me, as I read, that the life Lawrence describes is one that has disappeared. As much as this is a novel about family relationships and family dysfunction, it is also a social history of a Nottinghamshire mining village. The small details, such as school finishing early on Fridays so that the children could collect their fathers’ share of the weekly pay, enriched the story for me.
The way of life that Lawrence describes made me think about my grandparents and great grandparents. They were Lancashire mill workers rather than Nottinghamshire miners, but had that same cramped terraced existence and conflict between temperance and letting off steam at the weekend. Gertrude and Walter remind me of the stories my Great Aunt told me about her parents, Polly and Charles – except Polly was the drinker and Charles, the former railway worker who went blind and had to earn pennies playing piano in the local beer house, was the one whose station in life was reduced. As Polly couldn’t cope with the children, my Great Uncle was shipped off to Canada and my Great Aunt and my Gran were sent to live with Charles’ sisters, who were still well to do, until Polly decided they were old enough to come home and go to work in the mills. Presumably to support her drinking. My Gran, according to my mum, having experienced a childhood of piano lessons and pleasure, was bitterly frustrated by her return to make do and mend and working in the mills. I think she started the thread that ran through her making sure my mum got a good education and a job not in the mills, to my mum making sure my sister and I went to university and ended up ‘in the professions’, as she would have put it.
The relationship between Gertrude and Walter is heartbreaking. They are a classic pairing, he the hard working miner living for his weekend fun and distraction, she the hard working housewife with more intelligence than she has an outlet for, frustrated with her lot. The scene where Gertrude and Walter have rowed about his drinking, and he has locked her out of the house, and then he is contrite and brings her tea in bed and tidies the house moved me. Walter loves her. And Gertrude is not satisfied with that.
She wants to change him, unable to accept that she can’t. It’s a curious thing, that. I notice it about myself. I notice it in conversations I have with friends and colleagues about the little things (towels not hung up right, pans and lids not stored in the ‘right place’, squeezing the toothpaste from the middle of the tube) that cloud our view of the other person and the things that should matter more about them. I also have female friends who see their male partners as projects, people they need to shape into someone they see as more socially skilled. Where does that come from?
I could see that Walter’s behaviour towards Gertrude and, by extension, their children, influenced as it was by his friends’ attitudes to women, was enough to make her hate him. I could understand it. I would be disgusted by a man who belittled me because I was a woman. But I could also see that her stubborn refusal to make concessions to who he was or back down on certain things was enough to get his back up and dig his own heels in. In her own way, she belittled him for not being a cultured gentleman. It’s not a good look for a relationship, belittling each other.
The book really made me reflect on the nature of love, and the hard work that needs to go into relationships to keep them alive. The instant Gertrude hardens against Walter and chooses to no longer forgive him for the things that hurt her, indeed chooses to hate him, their marriage is over. They remain together, occasionally unifying for practical reasons, but they live separately. They don’t support or comfort each other. When eldest son William falls in love with the flighty Lily, he sees nothing but her beauty and her fun loving nature. When they are engaged and he wants more from her than fun and beauty, when he wants support and intellectual stimulation, she is unable to offer him those things, and he begins to resent and hate her. Relationships involve compromise, of course they do, and also a certain amount of willingness to change, but if one person is doing all the compromising, to the extent they no longer resemble themselves, or if one person is so uncompromising that they effectively bully the other person into being different, then that’s not a healthy relationship. Gertrude, from the experience of her own marriage, tries to warn William not to make a mistake with Lily, either in trying to change her into someone she’s not, or in marrying her if he doesn’t really love her. Middle son Paul and on-off sweetheart Miriam are early on too wrapped up in romantic notions of love to be able to communicate with each other properly, they are too inexperienced to act on their instincts – Miriam on her passion for this man who accepts her for who she is and tries to help her be that person, and Paul on his revulsion for Miriam’s excess of religious fervour in all things. Paul’s relationship with Clara is a different thing, because Clara is less emotionally open than Miriam, but in the end is the same thing because of Paul’s delusions. Youngest son Arthur and Beatrice are the most straightforward, knowing what they want and knuckling down to married life.
Paul is the star of the show. For Lawrence, at least. Chapter 8, which chronicles the beginning of the love affair between Paul and Miriam, bored me. It was the turning point of the book for me. It reminded me of what I might have disliked about The Rainbow. All that ruminating on whether what they felt was love, all that repression, all that saying and thinking but never doing. It felt self-indulgent. As though Lawrence was describing some unrequited love. I wanted him to get on with it, to move the story along. There was too much mooning around. Chapter 9 was only marginally better, as Paul succumbs to pressure from his mother and distances himself from Miriam. There was still too much self-indulgent wavering and wanting it both ways, though. It didn’t feel honest or objective. I suppose because this is a book about Lawrence as much as it is about the fictional Paul Morel, and Lawrence wants the reader to think he is a great artist with a suffering soul by describing Paul’s vacillations. I enjoy romance when it is underpinned by passion, but this is about a man who thinks he’s better than he is and a woman who swoons and surrenders to emotion as though she’s 16 years old. Dull.
I thought Miriam had it right when she declared Paul to be a 4 year old. He comes across as a prince, spoilt and full of his own importance to the women in his life. He knows very little about himself, and is surprised when Miriam and Clara each hold a mirror up to him. He doesn’t like the reflection he sees and, like a baby, sulks and tants, telling himself he hates them for not being who he wants them to be. The best bit of the book is when Miriam fails to reach the level of devastation Paul has prescribed for her in response to him breaking off their relationship. I cheered for Miriam at that point, when previously I hadn’t cared too much about her.
Paul irritated me throughout. He flips and he flops between Miriam and Clara, making assumptions about what each feels for him. We rarely hear clearly what they actually feel. Only on the occasions when Lawrence allows a chink in Paul’s self-obsession, and one of the women says something so honest it penetrates even his wall of self-belief, do we see beneath the surface. The second half of the book, when it is pretty much The Paul Show with little look in for his cast of supporting characters, was a struggle. I found it easy to do other things, rather than sit down and tussle with my dislike of this central character.
Paul’s relationship with Clara made me think that a lot of men are bullies in relationships. They want things their way, they don’t want the pressure a woman brings to bear on their pursuit of pleasure. Men like Paul want to be the king, worshipped and comforted, but not with any expectation put on them. Their idea of love is perhaps less complicated than that held by women. Women, I think, want communion, recognition, partnership, a sense of progress, that things are growing and developing. I think Lawrence grasps this, even if he skirts around it in his depictions of the women Paul Morel loves. Clara tries to talk to Paul as an adult, to explain her feelings towards him, but it isn’t what he wants to hear, so he silences her and she submits, finding it easier not to bother. In Lawrence’s language, Clara does a lot of submitting. Which is strange for a suffragette separated from her husband and trying to live an independent life to do. Or maybe she is canny, choosing when to pick her battles and when to keep things on an even keel. Maybe she knows that Paul is a tedious little boy dressed up in a man’s suit.
Although this book has improved my opinion of D H Lawrence, I still found it more dull than inspiring. Sometimes you just have to accept that a celebrated author isn’t for you. I understand Lawrence’s significance – he writes beautifully about working class life at the start of the 20th century and is interesting on the gender divide and women emerging from the corner where men had placed them for so long – but when he ceases to observe the external and becomes focused on the internal, he loses my attention. Put more simply, when Lawrence is describing life in a mining village, observing the relationships between the people who live there objectively, the book pulls me in. When his focus is on the dull, vain Paul Morel, the book leaves me cold.