Sons and Lovers by DH Lawrence

The battlefield of love…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Gertrude and Walter Morel are an unequal match: she, the educated daughter of “burgher stock”, he, a miner in the Nottingham coal fields. Their attraction is one of physical passion, which soon burns out. Gertrude comes to despise the very things that she once found irresistible in Walter: his animalistic physicality and domineering masculinity. She turns away from him and invests her love in her children, especially her two oldest sons, William and Paul. As they grow into manhood, Gertrude treats them in turn almost as surrogate husbands, and exerts such a hold on their affections that each finds it hard to develop relationships with women. The book follows Paul through his childhood, adolescence and young manhood, and the three women who vie for his love.

In her arms lay the delicate baby. Its deep blue eyes, always looking up at her unblinking, seemed to draw her innermost thoughts out of her. She no longer loved her husband; she had not wanted this child to come, and there it lay in her arms and pulled at her heart. She felt as if the navel string that had connected its frail little body with hers had not been broken. A wave of hot love went over her to the infant. She held it close to her face and breast. With all her force, with all her soul she would make up to it for having brought it into the world unloved. She would love it all the more now it was here; carry it in her love. Its clear, knowing eyes gave her pain and fear. Did it know all about her? When it lay under her heart, had it been listening then? Was there a reproach in the look? She felt the marrow melt in her bones, with fear and pain.

This is one of the first adult books I read, way back in the dark ages, and I loved it as passionately as Gertrude loved her sons, re-reading it several times over the space of a very few years. I deliberately haven’t revisited it since my late teens, having a growing fear that Lawrence is one of those writers best read at the time of raging adolescent hormones, when all his angsting about his characters’ never-ending sexual obsessions and hang-ups resonates most strongly. Although I didn’t react to it with quite as much emotional intensity on this re-read, I’m glad to say it holds up to a cynical adult gaze very well.

Book 52 of 90

It’s wonderfully perceptive about Gertrude and Walter’s marriage and the quiet battlefield it becomes. Paul, who is a lightly fictionalised version of Lawrence himself, is firmly on his mother’s side throughout, as are all the children. This is understandable since Walter alternates between affection and bullying towards them and their mother. But I must admit to having a considerable amount of sympathy for Walter, and this, I think, must be a tribute to the honesty of Lawrence’s writing. Walter is what he is – a brash, crude, physical, working man at a time when the husband expected to be treated as head of the household. Gertrude, when her passionate attraction to his maleness wears off, seems to want to change him and, by showing her discontent, does, though not in the way she intended. In the early days of their marriage he shows kindness to Gertrude again and again, and she rejects him, scorns him. Would he have taken to drinking with the men night after night if she had made their home more welcoming to him? Would he have bullied her and the children if she had not made it so clear that he had no real place in their lives other than as provider? If she had not shown her contempt for their father so openly, would the children have avoided and feared and despised him? Perhaps Walter would have turned out as he did regardless, but I felt he was never given a chance – he had all the physical strength, but Gertrude’s bitterness and sense of her own innate superiority were the stronger forces in all their lives.

Paul’s own feelings (and therefore presumably Lawrence’s) are increasingly ambivalent about his mother as he grows into manhood. He loves her – that is without question. But as he finds himself struggling to develop satisfying relationships with the women with whom he becomes involved, he knows that this is at least partly due to the influence and pull of his mother’s overweening, almost romantic, love for him. Of course, this being Lawrence, this psychological question plays out largely at the sexual level.

Miriam and Clara are the two women who love Paul, though Lord alone knows why. With Miriam, it’s all about his artist’s soul; his relationship with Clara is pretty much purely physical. He treats both women appallingly, but frankly, they’re both so pathetic I couldn’t get up much sympathy. Muriel especially would be enough to drive any man to drink, with her constant flower-sniffing and soulful eyes and desire to sacrifice herself in a quasi-religious way on the altar of love. Here’s a woman who can make sex such a monstrous aberration from the pure holiness of existence that it wouldn’t take many of her to ensure the extinction of humanity. Clara on the other hand has zero personality (but beautiful arms and, I regret to say, bouncy breasts). She exists merely as the adjunct of the men in her life – her husband and Paul, her lover. When we meet her, we are told she is an early feminist, but we see no signs of that in her behaviour.

DH Lawrence
Photo credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

It would be easy to accuse Lawrence of misogyny in his handling of these two characters, and I was tempted to do so. Two things save him, I think. The first is that, although they were apparently based on real lovers of Lawrence’s, they come over more as representations of Paul’s narcissistic struggle with his own desires than as real women in their own right. Miriam and Gertrude are fighting for his soul, while Gertrude is more willing to accept the physicality of his relationship with Clara, feeling that less of a threat to her hold over Paul. The second is not my own thought – it comes from the insightful introduction by David Trotter in my Oxford World’s Classics edition, who points out that in female modernist writings of the same era, the male characters are often equally underdeveloped, there for the sole purpose of allowing the women to explore aspects of themselves. Once I recognised the truth of that, I was more willing to forgive Lawrence. However, from a purely literary point of view, I felt the Miriam stuff went on for too long and became tediously repetitive, hence the loss of half a star.

On every side the immense dark silence seemed pressing him, so tiny a spark, into extinction, and yet, almost nothing, he could not be extinct. Night, in which everything was lost, went reaching out, beyond stars and sun. Stars and sun, a few bright grains, went spinning round for terror, and holding each other in embrace, there in a darkness that outpassed them all, and left them tiny and daunted. So much, and himself, infinitesimal, at the core a nothingness, and yet not nothing.
“Mother!” he whimpered—“mother!”

The writing is always good and often beautiful, and Lawrence has the ability to create an emotional intensity that, while it can feel a little overdone at times, nevertheless sheds light on some of the essential truths of the human condition. There are scenes I have never forgotten from those early reads, and I found them just as powerful still. It makes me and my inner teenager very happy to be able still to say – highly recommended!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link – none, sorry. Can’t find this edition on the US site.

41 thoughts on “Sons and Lovers by DH Lawrence

  1. I read this in my teens too but don’t have the recall or remembered feelings you’ve managed to hold onto. This is probably about my (lack of) memory rather than my experience of the book at the time. I do remember I read other Lawrence books for a while, so it must have appealed. Time for a revisit!

    • If I loved a book in my teens, I tended to re-read it till it fell apart and as a result I often remember them much better than more recent once-only reads. I was an intense child! 😉 I also went on to read other Lawrences but none of them ever affected me the way this one did, though some of his poetry did (unusually – I’m not much of a poetry fan). I’m not sure, even though I enjoyed this re-read, that it’s inspired me to re-read any of his others…

    • I read loads of his stuff in my teens but this is the only one that I fell completely in love with so I was so relieved that adult me enjoyed it too! I’m always a bit scared to re-read books I loved when I was young in case I end up destroying the memories…

  2. What a thoughtful, interesting post, FictionFan! It’s a clear case, too, of the impact of one’s opinion of the characters. I think if one has even a little sympathy for them, the story resonates more. I know it does with me. And I think that’s especially important here, where sometimes the characters behave really badly. What interesting questions, too, about the relationship between mother and children and father and children. That alone makes the story worth the read, for my money.

    • Thank you – glad you enjoyed it! 😀 Intriguingly I still sympathised with and disliked the same characters on this re-read as way back in my teens. It was always the marriage between Walter and Gertrude that fascinated me rather than Paul’s narcissistic search for sex – oops, I mean love. I think because it was so unusual to read about people of my own working class back then, or at least written by someone who actually came from that class himself. I recognised so much in the way they lived and interacted. I’m glad the re-read held up – I’d have hated to destroy my memories of this one…

  3. I’ve been reluctant to read any Lawrence, as for some reason, I have always associated him with overblown symbolism and problematic depictions of women. Having said that, I had similar reservations about reading Dickens, and while not exactly problem free, he is now one of my favorite authors. Maybe I should set aside my own pre-conceptions and give Lawrence a try, and this appeals to me far more than Lady C’s lover.

    • I did read loads of other Lawrence back in my teens, including Lady C, but none of the others had anything like the impact of this one on me and I don’t have much desire to re-read any of them. I certainly wouldn’t describe him as a one hit wonder, but I think this one is head and shoulders above all of his other stuff, except perhaps some of his poetry which also affected me deeply as a teen. So if you do decide to try him sometime, this is undoubtedly the one I’d recommend.

  4. Another one I’ve managed to avoid. I often wonder what kind of English major I attained, simply because there were so many of the classics we weren’t required to read (and what kid is going to willingly seek out books by the masters if they don’t have to, especially when there are so many other more contemporary reads available??)

    • There are just so many classics – far too many for anyone to read them all. I haven’t read nearly as many American classics as you, obviously, and my Scottish classics reading is abysmal, but all these English classics were the ones we were guided towards at school and university, and I admit I still love them best, presumably because of that early influence.

  5. Not a book I’ve read and (sorry!), not one I’m sure I want to. Your review does make my wonder, though, how much the circumstances of my childhood and adolescence played in the books I chose to read during those years. Both parents died when I was young and perhaps that influenced my reading? It’s an interesting thought!

    • Oh, I’m sorry to hear you lost your parents so early – that must have been difficult. My own parents were much less of an influence on my reading than my older siblings and my teachers. I was very lucky at school to have a series of English teachers who pushed all kinds of books my way once they saw I was a reader. Including this one! But Lawrence is definitely not for everyone, so it’s not a book I’d force on anyone who wasn’t keen…

  6. Fantastic review, that’s an interesting thought about the underdeveloped female characters and one I shall bear in mind. I need to re read Lawrence, I’m glad he stood up to your cynical adult gaze!

    • Thank you! Yes, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to compare Lawrence to the female modernists but once it had been drawn to my attention I could absolutely see that they are opposite sides of the same coin. That’s why I love these OWC editions – the introductions always add to my reading experience… 😀

  7. This was the best of the Lawrence novels I read though it was so long ago I can’t remember any details about it. Lawrence is one of those authors that seems to have fallen out of fashion but I’m not sure why

    • I absolutely understand why lots of people don’t get on with him – he can be hard-going and I found Paul especially would have benefited from a swift kick up the rear! I read lots of his stuff back in my teens but this one was head and shoulders above the rest for me, mainly for the depiction of Gertrude and Walter’s marriage – I’m not tempted myself to re-read any of the others.

  8. Well the sounds of this one is a bit…creepy. I mean, we’ve all seen helicopter parents at work, but this mother seems too much!!! It never ends well when parents transfer their emotions about each other to their kids 😦

    • Yes, there’s undoubtedly something far too intense about her love for Paul and indeed his feelings about her. There are bits that made me uncomfortable but it is deliberate – I think Lawrence was well aware that their relationship wasn’t altogether healthy. He wrote it just after his own mother died, and his conflicted feelings come through very strongly…

    • Interesting! It’s been a while since I read The Goldfinch so I can’t remember it very clearly, but I don’t remember spotting a connection at the time. Haha – I’d read it again to find out if only I hadn’t disliked it so much the first time.,. 😉

  9. I’m still wondering about re=reading S & L – if only there were more hours to read! Glad your re-read was good. Reading a biography of Lawrence by John Worthen I was struck by how much of himself and his relationships he put into his novels. Worthen says that characters we take today as fictional are composite and sometimes close portraits or -reinventions. He was a restless soul, unable to settle and torn between wanting and not wanting to be in places or with people.

    • It is quite a hefty one, but I found that it was a reasonably quick read except for the interminable stuff about soulful Miriam in the middle, which dragged! Yes, this one in particular is so close to his own story that it’s really as much autobiography as fiction, and I find it very hard to think of Paul as anyone other than Lawrence himself. I think that actually adds to the discomfort caused by his overly close relationship with his mother, especially since he wrote this just after his own mother had died.

  10. For reasons lost to time I worked my way through all of Lawrence’s novels back in the day and got nothing from any of them. (Other than being able to say I’d read them 🤦‍♀️) Clearly I wasn’t ready! And I’m not sure that I’m ready to try again yet either. Which is just as well since there really are not enough hours in the day. But I’m glad this one held up for you. There are several books I’m wary of re-reading for fear of disturbing deep and happy memories.

    • Hahaha – funnily enough I was talking to my brother last night about how I’m enjoying Conrad now after writing him off as awful in my youth – so many books are age dependant! Lawrence never did much for me either with the exception of this one – I read several of the others but have no desire to revisit them. But I was glad this one still worked for me even if not with the same intensity – re-reading old favourites is always fraught with danger… 😀

    • Haha – I did get a little tired of the breast references, I admit, but her beautiful arms got a bit tiresome too… 😉 If you ever give in to temptation, this would be the one I’d recommend – I read several of his other books back in the day, but none of them had the same impact on me.

  11. Oh, you made me laugh: “Here’s a woman who can make sex such a monstrous aberration from the pure holiness of existence that it wouldn’t take many of her to ensure the extinction of humanity.” I’m glad you added the insights about his female characters. It makes sense. I remember how “old” I thought I was when my aunt told me I was old enough to read Lady Chatterly’s Lover. Oh, my. Perhaps 16. I haven’t read anything of his since, but I have Sons & Lovers somewhere in a box. Not sure if I’d go out of my way to dig it out, but perhaps when I am old and in need of a little steamy prose. Then, I may choose someone else at that point…..

    • Hahaha! I can’t remember what age I read Lady C at – a bit older than that, I think, maybe 18 or 19. And I still had to hide it from my parents! Truthfully, I didn’t think it was even a tenth as good as Sons and Lovers. In fact, I felt that about most of his other stuff – in S&L, although sex is a Big Issue, all the stuff about families and the sort of rising out of the working class is more important. If you ever decide to try him again this would definitely be the one I would recommend.

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