Charlotte Reads Classics

Slowly, slowly, she sipped a sentence.

Tag: D. H. Lawrence

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
  • Realism

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.

Reading Sons and Lovers: Men and Women


This week I have been reading Sons and Lovers, with some surprising results. Firstly, I have fallen for this book. I miss it when I’m not reading it and I’ve started looking forward to my commute (I have a new, longer but more picturesque train journey) because it means more minutes I can spend alone in the company of my new book.

This comes as quite the surprise because I have only ever read one other D. H. Lawrence novel – Women in Love – and hated it. I’m not actually sure why I even decided that I should buy another of his books, but there you go. Glad I did.

The beginning of Sons and Lovers follows Mr and Mrs Morel through their early years of marriage. They live in a mining town with young children and not much money. It is quite a depressing beginning to the story – life is a struggle and their marriage is unhappy. They live in a row of houses alongside the other miners and their families, which leads to a very public sort of life. The houses are joined together and people are always out and about in the alleyways that run along the back. There are no truly private spaces.

Whilst there are obvious downsides, like people barging into your house and everyone knowing your business, there is a real sense of community that just doesn’t seem to exist anymore. When Mr Morel is ill and can’t go to work, the rest of the street looks out for his wife and children:

Every Friday, Parker and the other butty put by a portion of the stall’s profits for Morel’s wife. And the neighbours made broths, and gave eggs, and such invalid’s trifles. If they had not helped her so generously in those times, Mrs Morel would never have pulled through, without incurring debts that would have dragged her down.

There is a tendency in hindsight to idealise the period before the First World War as a long Edwardian summer. Being published in 1913 means that the book has none of this golden hue. Life is hard. I have been trying to imagine living Mrs Morel’s life, but I actually felt quite depressed by the prospect. Obviously I can’t imagine it without being influenced by modernity, but I really empathised with Mrs Morel’s moments of despair:

The prospect of her life made her feel as if she were buried alive.

I don’t think we see marriage today as permanently as it has been in the past. Here, Mrs Morel comes to despise her husband (this isn’t a spoiler, I promise! It’s on the blurb!) but her lot is completely tied to his. She has young children, she has no means of making a living – she is imprisoned by his successes or failures.

Books like Sons and Lovers always make me wonder about men, women and relationships. Readers today can appreciate both sides of the marriage because the roles of men and women aren’t as fixed as they were. I can appreciate that having to work long hours in a dangerous and grueling job for very little wages would be both stressful and isolating.

The Morels seem hardly able to connect with each other. She falls out of love, he doesn’t. The time they spend together becomes a pause for her, something to endure before her real life continues. For him it is a gap, an absence, a lack. He needs her for comfort; she needs him for means of living.

“But it’s as well to be a woman as a man,” he said, frowning.
“Ha! – is it! Men have everything.”
“I should think women ought to be as glad to be women, as men are to be men,” he answered.
“No!” she shook her head. “No! Everything, the men have.”
“But what do you want?” he asked.
“I want to learn. Why should it be that I know nothing!”

Next, Part Two, when the children are grown up. It will be interesting to follow the changing attitudes that come with a new generation and the end of childhood innocence.