Saturday, 19 April 2014

Sons and Lovers, by D. H. Lawrence.

Nearly two years ago I read D. H. Lawrence's Women in Love, and still to this day I believe it is the worst classic in the Western Canon. Unsurprisingly, I regretted having The Rainbow and Sons and Lovers on my Classic Club list, and until this week I've been unable to even contemplate reading them. Fortunately, Charlotte mentioned that she was thinking about reading Sons and Lovers, and we decided that this week we would have a little read-along. So we did, and we both have finished it. I have Charlotte to thank for two things: one - for getting me to read it, and two - for the fact that I enjoyed it (more on that later). Before I go on: here is Charlotte's review.

It's D. H. Lawrence's third novel, published in 1913, and is described by Lawrence himself (in a letter to his editor Edward Garnett) as being about, 
... a woman of character and refinement goes into the lower class, and has no satisfaction in her own life. She has had a passion for her husband, so her children are born of passion, and have heaps of vitality. But as her sons grow up she selects them as lovers — first the eldest, then the second. These sons are urged into life by their reciprocal love of their mother — urged on and on. But when they come to manhood, they can't love, because their mother is the strongest power in their lives, and holds them.
It is too easy, at this point, to bring up Sigmund Freud, who, by the time Sons and Lovers had been published, had began writing about the Oedipus complex. In Freud's words (from The Ego and the Id, 1923):
The sexual wishes in regard to the mother become more intense and the father is perceived as an obstacle to the; this gives rise to the Oedipus complex.
David Herbert Lawrence.
It is for this reason some regard Sons and Lovers as one of the first (if not the first) English Freudian novel. Yet Lawrence (in 1913), denies having read Freud and his interest in him did not come until a few years later when he, Lawrence, wrote Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious (1921) and Fantasia of the Unconscious (1922). His reaction to the Freudian psychoanalysis of Sons and Lovers by Alfred Booth Kuttner (1916) was one of anger:
I hated the Psychoanalysis Review of Sons and Lovers. . . . My poor book: it was, as art, a fairly complete truth: so they carve a half lie out of it, and say ‘Voilà.’ Swine!
To say, therefore, that Sons and Lovers is to be understood in a Freudian framework does not do it service and, clearly, it annoys Lawrence! So for this reason, this will be all I have to say on Freud, though it did have to be mentioned.

Earlier this week I also finished Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage (1915), and I'm in the middle of a review. A little reading around brought me to this quote from Maugham:
Few misfortunes can befall a boy which bring worse consequences than to have a really affectionate mother.
The setting for the Morrel's home in
Eastwood, Nottingham
It has been an absolute coincidence, but I have to say reading Sons and Lovers with Of Human Bondage in mind (and vice versa) has been quite illuminating. This quote from Maugham could happily be applied to Sons and Lovers, and the work of the two authors have at least partly been inspired by their relationship with their mothers: Lawrence was very close to his mother Lydia (like Paul Morel of Sons and Lovers), and Maugham was traumatized by the early death of his mother Edith (as was Philip Carey of Of Human Bondage). A psychoanalysis of the two works would be a fascinating read, but I have to wonder exactly how illuminating it would be to analyse literature in such a rigid framework? Freud is clearly a consideration, so too is some basic biographical information on D. H. Lawrence, but still neither allows me to get to the essence.

Sons and Lovers is a rich, dark, and beautiful book. At first, however, I did not like the beginning, and it's a credit to Charlotte that I persevered. It begins by describing the mother, Gertrude Morrel, and the cottage where she, her husband Walter, and their children William, Paul, and Annie live. Lawrence writes,
"The Bottoms" succeeded to "Hell Row". Hell Row was a block of thatched, bulging cottages that stood by the brookside on Greenhill Lane. There lived the colliers who worked in the little gin-pits two fields away. The brook ran under the alder trees, scarcely soiled by these small mines, whose coal was drawn to the surface by donkeys that plodded wearily in a circle round a gin. And all over the countryside were these same pits, some of which had been worked in the time of Charles II, the few colliers and the donkeys burrowing down like ants into the earth, making queer mounds and little black places among the corn-fields and the meadows. And the cottages of these coal-miners, in blocks and pairs here and there, together with odd farms and homes of the stockingers, straying over the parish, formed the village of Bestwood.
I have to be honest, I couldn't get past the first sentence. "Hell Row" lacks subtlety to the extent that it pained me, still scarred as I was from Women in Love. I read the first chapter, then, with some irritation. Fortunately, Charlotte posted about the first part, saying that she had fallen for it; I wanted to see what she saw, and furthermore, I don't believe I've ever disagreed with her about a book (given how peculiar one's taste in literature can be, this really is quite something). So I restarted it, forgive the first sentence, and remembered that many of my favourite authors can, at times, be like bulls in a china shop. And I felt it more, that haunting quality it has, this darkness in the beautiful Nottingham countryside that Lawrence describes so well. 

First edition of Sons and Lovers.
Following the death of her elder son, Gertrude effectively transfers her love and affection for him on to Paul, the second son. This may sound as though I'm undermining it: I criticised Romeo Montague for doing precisely the same thing, moving his obsession from Rosaline to Juliet in an afternoon, however 'transference', another term from psychoanalysis, is an important part of Sons and Lovers, however distasteful Lawrence found it when applied to his work. Romeo was a passionate young man, but the relationship between Gertrude and her sons is unhealthy. Paul and Gertrude are close, excessively close; she is described at times like his "sweetheart". This leads to a wealth of contradictions: he loves her, and he does not, he is happy, he is not, he wants to please, and he wants to rebel, but from what, it seems, he is not sure. This confusion and his ultimate desire to please and satisfy his mother leads to a series of painful and disastrous relationships. Paul does not simply change into a lover when he is with his own "sweetheart", he remains too a "son", and the boundaries of "sons and lovers" are hopelessly and catastrophically blurred.

It does not matter what we think, what we would do, or what we hope Paul will do. I think many of us know the pains of wanting to please our parent or parents even in our adulthood; disappointing a parent may cause us sadness, however willing we are to do so, or we may have a fear, a great fear: there are some of us still who will avoid doing so at all costs. Paul is one such person. Disappointing or causing any kind of sadness to his mother doesn't make him sad, it causes him a great anxiety that he cannot shake off. No one wants to live a life that pulls us from one awful extreme to the other, no one wants to hurt, so I don't think it does any good to wish that Paul would "get over it". Sons and Lovers, therefore, has a horrible inevitability. We watch and hope, but like a Hardy novel there are other forces at work. They are internal though: this is not fate, this is not the hands of the gods, it is Paul himself. His instinct is confused and broken, and Lawrence chronicles this. He is hurt, and he hurts others along the way. 

It is, as I say, an unhealthy novel, but like Nabokov's Lolita it manages somehow to be alluring and beguiling. Lawrence writes of a working class family living in a perfectly ordinary end of terrace house, but the interior lives are far from ordinary. I was fascinated by this novel, and to those who have only read Women in Love, I urge you not to be put off reading Sons and Lovers.



  1. Excellent post! Much to say! Firstly, we have excellent reading taste and I really value your opinion, I don't think I would have got around to this book for ages had we not properly decided to read it.

    I think the idea to analyse it through psychoanalysis is interesting but like you say would be impossible to only read it within the framework. By its nature it is never objective - what you or I would analyse also speaks to our psychology.

    I like your comparison to Lolita, I hadn't thought of it like that but yes, the inner life of an unhealthy relationship...

    1. I wouldn't mind reading that article Lawrence objected to. I should have linked it in the post - it's Sons and Lovers: A Freudian Appreciation by Alfred Booth Kuttner, and it can be downloaded from here.

  2. What makes your review so perfectly suited to Sons and Lovers is all in the detail. You've really captured how rich and complex this novel is and that is a tribute to Lawrence himself.

    1. Thank you :) It wasn't an easy book to write about, was it?

  3. Whoops, this wasn't supposed to be in separate comments. Anyway, I thought this book was completely fascinating and I am so glad and obviously surprised that we both found beauty in it too!

    1. Yes, and it gives me hope for The Rainbow! :)


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