Lawrence, DH. Women in Love. Public Domain edition, first published by Thomas Seltzer, New York, 1920. F; 3/21
After reading The Bad Side of Books and recalling The Rainbow, I wanted to revisit Lawrence’s fiction. Women in Love was apparently his favourite and is a sequel to The Rainbow so I thought I’d give it a try. This was partly motivated by a recent article in the New Yorker discussing Lawrence’s work, particularly its fall from academic respectability in recent decades following strong feminist political reviews in the 1970s and 80s. I’m a bit preoccupied with that shift in general academic opinion as an example of the change in focus in literature and art appreciation from the imagination to political partisanism, which I think is a bad thing. I also think that that change is itself an example of a human failure of insight through which we insist on retrospectively applying present standards and mores to people and events that existed a long time ago in a completely different cultural universe.
Originally part of, but published as a sequel to The Rainbow, Women in Love is the continuing story of Ursula and Gudrun Brangwen, unmarried sisters in their 20s in the English Midlands. The girls are quite different from one another and in this story get romantically involved with each of two quite different men who are friends. Ursula, a teacher, marries school inspector Rupert Birkin, and Gudrun falls into a complicated stormy relationship with rich and personally powerful coalmine owner Gerald Crich. These four characters deepen and develop during major plot events: the terrible drowning of Gerald’s little sister at a public party in a park, Ursula and Birkin’s philosophic differences and sharp arguments, Gerald’s father’s death, and eventually a holiday where they all visit a village in the Tyrolean Alps.
It’s characteristic of the big difference in attitude to sex in the hundred years since Women in Love was published that the book was originally banned and called by a critic “dirt in heaps—festering, putrid heaps which smell to high Heaven”. This opinion of course feels ridiculous today since there is in the story no single description of sex or even nakedness (except possibly when Gerald and Birkin get into a wrestling match), just scenes and suggestions that unmarried couples are sleeping together. I also don’t see in this story, if we imagine ourselves in the cultural climate when the book was written, much if any of what second-wave feminist Kate Millet (Sexual Politics,1970) and many others accused Lawrence and male authors of his era of: paternalism, sexism, chauvinism. I would say allowing for the world Lawrence was writing in that his male and female characters reflect prevailing attitudes and behaviour of his time. For me the fictional characters and their relationships show a nuanced, balanced, and I think beautiful and accurate understanding of women, men, and romantic love as they really do still exist in today’s much different world.
What is Lawrence doing with these four major characters and a few others? Decades of criticism tell us that Birkin was (stood for in a metaphoric autobiographic way) Lawrence himself, Ursula is said to represent his wife Frieda, Gudrun is partly based on Lawrence’s friend author Katherine Mansfield, and Gerald seems to resemble her husband John Murray. But a lot of criticism especially in the 1970s and 80s by authors like Millet which denounces Lawrence as a paternalist and latent dishonest homosexual could I think benefit from following Lawrence’s idea to “trust the tale, not the author”. Analysis of the characters too focused on their alleged real-world sources risks missing surprising and fresh insights in the story’s fictional world. These characters are alive and all run headlong, as young adults always have and will, into the serious sometimes dangerous always emotionally loaded but unavoidable business of romantic love.
Birken is a bright young guy preoccupied with his own intellect. He can’t help seeing love’s danger and risk and so avoids its most powerful emotions by affecting, I would say, a cynical ideology:
I don’t believe in love at all—that is, any more than I believe in hate, or in grief. Love is one of the emotions like all the others—and so it is all right whilst you feel it but I can’t see how it becomes an absolute. It is just part of human relationships, no more. And it is only part of ANY human relationship. And why one should be required ALWAYS to feel it, any more than one always feels sorrow or distant joy, I cannot conceive. Love isn’t a desideratum—it is an emotion you feel or you don’t feel, according to circumstance.
Ursula struggles with this point of view although she’s attracted to Birken and eventually marries him. The narrator describes her radical and unequivocal response to Birken’s denial of what she believes really matters:
And subtly enough, she knew he would never abandon himself FINALLY to her. He did not believe in final self-abandonment. He said it openly. It was his challenge. She was prepared to fight him for it. For she believed in an absolute surrender to love. She believed that love far surpassed the individual. He said the individual was MORE than love, or than any relationship. For him, the bright, single soul accepted love as one of its conditions, a condition of its own equilibrium. She believed that love was EVERYTHING.
In a cathartic scene they are out in his car driving aimlessly and have a terrible argument, she takes off up the road on foot apparently gone for good, but then comes back and the couple reconciles, in a characteristic Lawrence about-face that commands pay attention: there is more going on here than the apparent differences between these two.
Contrary to a critical idea that Birkin (representing in the critics’ minds Lawrence himself) is represented as godlike in his intellectual brilliance and Ursula as a weak feminine slave to tides of emotion, I think they both feel the strength and inevitability of their attraction, and their different ways of dealing with that don’t diminish it. Today we might see their marriage as a contract between equals, whereas a hundred years ago it would have been universally presumed that the man was to be the head of the family and the woman would take her secondary place. That this hierarchical paternalistic sexism is the main thrust of Lawrence’s purpose only makes sense if we are determined in a political direction. I found what was going on between these two completely understandable as a complicated but eventually realistic and dramatically emotional mature romantic relationship.
Whatever else they represent, Gudrun and Gerald are both superficially fabulously attractive. An old coalminer talking to a younger man watching her pass speculates how much of a week’s pay he’d put out for time, a specific kind of time, with her. Gerald was dancing with the teenage daughter of a professor at the Alpine cabin
who was almost dying of virgin excitement… And it made him smile, as she shrank convulsively between his hands, violently, when he must throw her into the air. At the end, she was so overcome with prostrate love for him, that she could scarcely speak sensibly at all.
These two who are cohabitating on the winter holiday represent the kind of unrealistic ideals we may conjure in fantasy. I take their eventual falling out as convincing in its commentary on the hollow juvenile nature of those ideals. Gudrun is a sculptor and, partly from a coquette motivation, partly more seriously because she understands Gerald’s simplicity, appears to be waking up to a love interest of a different kind. She increasingly befriends an older relatively physically feeble German artist who shows her intellectual but romantic intimacy in a way Gerald never could have. Gerald’s freezing to death in the snow leaves the other characters poised to grow into tentatively more balanced if complicated relationships.
Birkin and Gerald are friends, and their intimacy, most strongly in a wrestling match where they are probably naked, is hurled out by critics as evidence of Lawrence’s homosexuality (and his presumed unwillingness to admit it). But even in the 1970s and certainly today homosexuality is completely okay, especially among the left, which most serious feminists are charter members of. But the point is although it may be okay now, it wasn’t then. Somebody like DH Lawrence might have had trouble in 1910 squaring the heterosexuality on display in Lady Chatterley’s Lover with Birkin and Gerald wrestling with their clothes off. Looking at the author’s personal life through a more modern lens doesn’t seem to make sense if we bear in mind his long past cultural truth which we have no way of recovering.
Putting aside the historic DH Lawrence’s sexuality, the two fictional men he created are represented dealing with the ambivalence young (male or female) same-sex good friends confront as they appreciate one another’s erotic potential. They still have to deal practically with the reality of that in their inner and external circumstances. The two male characters approach this issue completely differently but in ways readers today might recognize very well. Birkin at the end tells his wife that he grieves loss of the relationship with Gerald, which would represent two things ambivalently and possibly gone forever: dealing with whatever gay eroticism he was experiencing, and naïve admiration for Mr. Perfect as a “platonic” male friend.
As I see it the experience of a novel like this one is made up of a great writer telling a great story, and the world we readers bring in our imagination. I’m getting old and one thing I really don’t like about that is all the things I’m going to miss that happen after I’m gone. Nobody alive today will experience, and none of us can imagine, the years stretching beyond say 2130. Neither could DH Lawrence writing in 1910 imagine living with a mature successful feminism, nuclear weapons, the rise of modern China, a Donald Trump American presidency, fast and universal world travel and communication, all of which we take for granted.
I’m happy to take old DH Lawrence’s advice to ignore him and focus on his work. And I sense in the presence of an article on that work in the New Yorker and some of the directions of third-wave feminism that we may be recovering a bit of respect for great works of the imagination independent of their fanciful political overtones. 9.2/9.0