I’ve always felt that if you’re going to read D. H. Lawrence, you should start with Sons and Lovers, his seminal tale of passion, domestic conflict, working-class aspirations, and poverty. Set in the Nottingham coalfields at the turn of the last century, it’s a story of becoming – becoming a man, an artist, a lover. The hero, Paul Morel, is closely based on Lawrence himself. Like Paul, Lawrence’s father was a semi-literate miner who married an educated woman who quickly became dissatisfied with her husband and placed her hopes and aspirations on her children – her sons in particular. As one of her biographers has said, “She needed her children to make up for the disappointments of her life.”
Lawrence began working on this, his third novel, at a time when his mother was ill with cancer (she died before it was finished) and he used it to lay out in detail his admiration for his mother, her contempt for his father – which was shared by her son – and their deep, abnormally intense relationship: “[S]he was the chief thing to him, the only supreme thing”. At one point, near the end of the book, he stoops to kiss her and she cries, “I’ve never had a husband – not really.”
But back to the story. Gertrude Coppard, the refined daughter of “a good old burgher family”, meets and falls in love with a rough-hewn, handsome, and engaging young miner named Walter Morel. He quite literally sweeps her off her feet; they marry, move into a rented house, have children. Very soon, she sees her marriage as a crashing failure; they have little money and nothing in common. To her chagrin, she, who had reason to expect more out of life, has been reduced to the meagre existence of a miner’s wife.
She shifts her affections to her son, William, who is so attached to his mother he is burdened with guilt when he attends a fair without her. Eventually he leaves for London, where he does well and is engaged to be married to a pretty but shallow young socialite. When he dies of pneumonia, his mother is understandably devastated – she’s lost everything that made her life worth living.
Almost everything. Because there’s still Paul, who is as handsome and bright as his older brother but is also gifted with a sensitive, artistic nature. She turns her attention to him, monitoring his every move, encouraging his artistic endeavours and urging him to believe in his art. It goes without saying that she’s not going to be fond of any young woman who threatens this relationship. When his friendship with the beautiful, sensitive, and spiritual Miriam Leivers grows into a love affair, platonic though it is, Mrs. Morel sees it as a threat:
“She is one of those who will want to suck a man’s soul out till he had none of his own left,” she said to herself; “and he is just such a gaby as to let himself be absorbed. She will never let him become a man; she never will.”
Which is ironic when you consider that if anyone is determined to keep Paul under her thumb and stunt his manly growth, it’s his mother.
Paul’s feelings about Miriam waver. In their passion for nature and books, they are soulmates. There are ideas he can share only with her. But Miriam isn’t interested in a sexual relationship. She wants to live her life, with him, on a higher, spiritual plane, and he often feels suffocated to the point of hating her. Through her, he becomes friendly with another woman, Clara Dawes, who is estranged from her husband. Clara intrigues Paul partly because of her beauty – she’s tall and blonde, rather statuesque – and partly because of her reputation as a suffragette. Clara is older than Paul, and sexually mature. Wary of each other at first, they eventually become lovers. With her, he experiences physical passion for the first time but eventually concludes that Clara really still “belongs” only to her husband.
I was an English lit major back in university, and my fourth year was dominated by “the men”: Lawrence, Hemingway, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald. Lawrence came first, coming to maturity before the First World War, but he set the tone. At the time, I remember being impatient with him, for all kinds of reasons. First of all, I disliked the way he hated his women in between bouts of loving them. And while I appreciated – and still do – his superb descriptions of the open, hilly countryside of his childhood, his worship of nature-with-a-capital-N felt overblown . . . overwritten. Anthony Burgess calls him an animist, “as prepared to believe in the Aztec Quetzalcoatl as in the Greek Aphrodite”. In his biography of Lawrence he refers to his “mysticosensual relationship between man and the earth – specifically, Laurentian man and the Laurentian earth – a little hard to accept and rather easy to parody”.
When it comes right down to it though, I think the sexual intensity of the mother-son relationship that lies at the heart of the novel embarrassed me. A kind of psychological incest is hinted at – if there is such a thing. As a child Paul loves to sleep with his mother, which isn’t that unusual, but as adults they behave like sweethearts. He swears he loves her above any other woman, she is his only love. Her sons, first William and then Paul, are her surrogate husbands; they will never be able to truly love any woman as long as she is alive.
Reams have been written about Paul Morel and his mother and I’m sure none of it would come as a surprise to the author. Psychoanalytic theory was in its infancy but Lawrence would have been aware of Freud’s Oedipus complex, and he certainly understood that his relationship with his mother was unusual. When she was dying he wrote to a friend:
“We have been like one, so sensitive to each other that we never needed words. It has been rather terrible and has made me, in some respects, abnormal.”
The death of his mother leaves Paul adrift, bereft of any kind of rudder . . . totally without purpose. He has broken off his relationships with the two women who loved him – Miriam who wanted to sacrifice herself for him and Clara who desired a mature, stable relationship. As he leaves Miriam for the last time, he wonders where he will go. He calls out for his mother – “She was the only thing that held him up, himself, amid all this” – and you feel he’s dangerously close to giving up entirely.
Thankfully, he doesn’t. In the final paragraph of the book, Paul makes the decision not to give in to “the darkness”, and walks resolutely toward town.