Sons and Lovers was D.H. Lawrence’s third novel, published in 1913.
This was a tricky one for me. I reached the end and wondered what it had all been about. I mean I could see what it was about in terms of the story – a middle class woman accidentally marries a miner, falls out of love with him, and then turns her frustrated love on her two sons – so that the young men become so fixated and dominated by their mother that they are unable to form healthy relationships with women of their own age. But beyond that, what was it about? Suffragettes are mentioned, but it didn’t seem to be about the role of women. Politics and miners’ strikes are mentioned, but the book isn’t about those things either. It was all just background detail to this unsettling account of mother attachment.
And yet it was a powerful story… In the end, trying to make sense of it for myself, Michael McIntyre popped into my head. Yes, Michael McIntyre, that very talented comedian who mines his own life, and the life of those around him, for comedy. Embarrassing details of going to the toilet in the middle of the night, or of Mrs McIntyre putting on her tights, an activity which while slinky at first, gets less attractive at the half way point of donning – all of this, unfiltered and unadulterated, is presented live at the Apollo. And of course now that Michael has said it, the audience know exactly what he means. The thing with Sons and Lovers is that D.H. Lawrence does the same thing with offering up details of life usually left in darkness. And the use of aspects of other peoples’ lives is certainly ruthless and uncompromising. Apparently, an unfortunate girlfriend, recognising herself in the character of Miriam immediately sent Lawrence’s manuscript back to him and ceased all contact! But the show that results from Lawrence’s material is less funny than Michael McIntyre’s, and less likely to give that feeling of recognition. All the hectic fluctuations between love and hate, the unhealthy mother fixation, the emotional cruelty, the transference of personal emotional issues on to someone else. I could see D.H. on stage at the Apollo, looking around for recognition in his audience, and having to say:
“Just me then?”
Of course it wouldn’t just be him. Lawrence said the book reflected “the tragedy of thousands of young men in England”. But even so, I think he is describing extremes of experience, rather than overlooked familiar aspects of life. It is hard to immediately recognise much of what Lawrence is writing about. I was looking in on a situation, with some degree of horror.
On the up side, Sons and Lovers is a good novel in the way it presents life as too messy and indefinable to easily conform itself to neat “issues”. The issue of women’s rights for example is there in the book, but it’s set against complex power dynamics in relationships which can show women possessing a profound measure of control over men. I liked that. It seems to me that’s where novels have the advantage over history books, or tomes on politics, sociology or psychology, or whatever it might be. Novels present messy, contradictory lived experience which can’t be easily placed in neat boxes. In being determined to portray the real details of, in Michael McIntyre terms, going to the toilet in the middle of the night, Sons and Lovers does achieve a raw feeling of reality. I didn’t feel it was about anything, except the messy business of life as seen through the specific situation of these characters. And that was fair enough.
For me this was a striking novel, ruthlessly honest about its subject, effective in conveying messy reality. But in many ways, the truth it portrays is particular. Creepy as I sometimes found the book, I told myself that one of the reasons you read is not to see your own experience but to see other people’s, and gain a wider perspective.