A shit book cover, yesterday.
As part of my lifelong project to become well-read before the end of it, I read Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence. I had not read any Lawrence before, so I thought I perhaps ought to. In the sixties, what with the Lady Chatterley trial and the Ken Russell film of Women in Love, reading Lawrence was quite the done thing. These days, you don’t see it happening so much (although I’m sure it still happens behind closed doors), and you can read Cormac McCarthy and people will still think you’re clever.
While Lady Chatterley’s Lover is his most famous work due its one-time illegal naughtiness, I am reliably informed that it’s nowhere near his best. Sons and Lovers is considered his first masterwork, on the other hand, and so seemed a good place to start. To be honest, it wasn’t what I was expecting. Although, like much of his writing, the book does concern itself with sex, Lawrence had yet to achieve the level of frankness he would later become notorious for. Rude encounters are instead buried halfway through long dense paragraphs, conveyed in the delicate phrasing that getting published in 1913 no doubt required.
The story itself is pretty simple. Young man Paul Morel grows up in a mining community near Nottingham where no one says anything nice to anybody ever, but finds he cannot give himself fully to one woman because of his feelings of belonging to his mother. All rather Freudian, obviously, and also a bit Norman Bates, although Morel’s mother at least has the decency to actually be alive.
The work is also rather obviously semi-autobiographical, with the telltale signs of seemingly superfluous details lingered over, and events one would draw attention to if making things up mysteriously skimmed (I, of course, would never lower myself to such a thing).
We get a real sense of the past being a ‘foreign country’, as L.P. Hartley put it. With its temperance societies and expected church attendance, the turn-of-the-century working-class mining community is a long way away from anything that it’s possible to know in Britain today. It takes a fantastically long time for Morel to work out he even ought to be having sex, and even longer to realise he’s having it with the wrong person. A process that takes years then would take a feral fifteen year old a weekend now.
For a landmark work of modernism, I was surprised by how ‘Victorian’ the language at first appeared to be. Adverbs fly everywhere with abandon, and if it reminded me of anything, it was the writing of Arnold Bennett, who was exactly the sort of author, according to the Official History of Literature, that Lawrence was meant to have overtaken.
The difference between the two, however, is in the psychology. In a novel such as The Old Wives’ Tale, Bennett shows how the differing temperaments of two sisters take them down separate paths towards different experiences. In Sons and Lovers, however, experience (notably that of the mother/son relationship) defines temperament. In Bennett, characters are born. In Lawrence, they are made (These days, now we’ve replaced Freudian analysis with theories of the mind that actually make some sort of sense, characters are more or less both born and made).
Overall, I found Sons and Lovers admirable in its sense of purpose and thoroughness in exploring its subject. It is the ultimate Oedipus Complex novel, in the same way you’re not likely to get a book more about what whaling than Moby-Dick. It is, however, a pretty severe read. I couldn’t really say that I have any warm feelings towards it.
But then, it’s not really a novel for now. Today, we’re all too keenly aware of how we’re connected to things. Banks screw up, and we feel the pinch in our pockets. Our government’s foreign policy decisions increase the level of risk at home. Lawrence intentionally kept the bigger social picture out of Sons and Lovers, choosing instead to concentrate on analysing the purely personal. You need calmer times for a novel like that. Maybe I should have read it in the nineties.