A Modern Middlemarch
In the country all was dead still. Little stars shone high up, little stars spread far away in the floodwaters, a firmament below. Everywhere the vastness and terror of the immense night which is roused and stirred for a brief while by the day, but which returns, and will remain at last eternal, holding everything in its silence and its living gloom.
Sons and Lovers is the unease you feel at night, the light in the morning when you set off for work, and the still and quiet moments with your family. It is the way you question the path you are taking and where you wanted your life to go anyway. It is the mud stuck to your shoe, the wind tangling your hair and the salt on your lips.
Even with all the reading and thinking and discussing of Sons and Lovers that have made up a big part of my life over this last week, this is a novel that defies explanation. It is a gut novel, a spirit novel (and those are my favourite).
To try to make my point, here is a list of things this novel is said to be:
- A record of working class life
- An exercise in self-analysis and psychoanalytic theory
- A depiction of positive/negative roles for twentieth century men and women
- A critique of industrial capitalism and the transition between the agricultural past and the industrial future
Honestly, it is all of these things, but it is none of them too. No one thing gets to the heart of it. When I was reading, I kept thinking that I felt like I was reading a very English novel – it is pastoral, natural, and really the sort of novel that was defined by the nineteenth century. It begins like Middlemarch: Spanning history and geography, social drama and conflict.
What makes Sons and Lovers a modern novel, or more modern than a George Eliot novel, is the content, the time. The world is changing. The traditions are there, the writing on nature is where D. H. Lawrence is his most beautiful. But the bulk of the book is borne out of the twentieth century tribulations of a young creative soul from a working class background. (Hello, Joyce, secretly appearing in all my posts.)
The most interesting parts of this book were the conflicts between different kinds of love – familial, soulful, romantic, passionate, friendship. Paul, the second son, has a relationship with his mother that you could compare to the attachment of a young child. He has no desire to live with any woman other than her.
Lawrence describes the two of them sitting together:
They were both very happy so, and both unconscious of it. These times, that meant so much, and which were real living, they almost ignored.
The mother/son bond is something that critics highlight as an autobiographical element. From reading around a bit, it seems that whilst Lawrence considered the book a tragedy in the classical sense, he was offended by the (inevitable) Oedipal comparisons. I think most of his female characters were quite one-dimensional except for Mrs Morel. He writes the women in the book to be a bit like men, but with absences. A lot of the book was exploring what defines women and men; how are they different and how do they live together.
“Here’s the sea-coast morning, big and permanent and beautiful. There is she, fretting, always unsatisfied, and temporary as a bubble of foam. What does she mean to me, after all?
Yes, sometimes the writing was obvious and a lot of the time I felt like rolling my eyes. Yes, I really think Lawrence was capable of writing women as well-rounded as men and I really wish he had done. Yes, a lot of the time this book made me feel sad.
However. Sons and Lovers, you were such an unexpected joy.
Edit: I read this with o, whose writing is as impeccable as her literary taste. Here is a link to her excellent review of Sons and Lovers.