Let us begin with this unusually malicious squib from the British novelist Toby Litt: “With D. H. Lawrence the questions have always been How can something this good be this bad? And, more perplexingly still, How can something this bad be this good?” Mr. Litt is witty and perhaps unfair. D.H. Lawrence justifiably holds a secure place in the canon. And it is the critical consensus, not to mention Lawrence’s own view, that Women in Love is the very best of his works.
In 1915, Lawrence published The Rainbow, a study of three generations of the Brangwen family, some of whom we have met in Women in Love. Although no more than a few Novel Club members would be shocked by anything in The Rainbow, it was the subject of an obscenity trial; it was banned, and all unsold copies of the novel were seized and burnt. All this caused some difficulties in the publication of the sequel to The Rainbow, so that our current volume, which Lawrence had interestingly originally planned to title The Wedding Band, was not to be published until 1920, by private subscription, in the United States. Lawrence is a remarkable prose stylist, and an enormously engaging writer. There is hardly a page in Women in Love that is without interest or charm. You can open it at random, and you will immediately find yourself involved, impressed, and never, never bored. If you underline the sentences that contain something remarkable, whether in terms of prose style, striking images, felicitous language, interesting ideas, striking or dramatic descriptions, et cetera, et cetera, you will find that your pages have many more sentences underlined than not, and it is above all this dramatic richness of the text that makes this such a great novel. It is a long novel, but not a too long novel, and a true Lawrentian might wish it even longer. Even the parts of the book which might have been excised without too much harm to its main structure, such as the description of the London demimonde in “Crème de Menthe”, or the section on the death of Gerald’s father, or the parts of the story concerning Winifred, are not unwelcome, because they are every bit as absorbing as the rest of the text. Of which writers can it be said that there is pure gold on every page? Three that come immediately to mind are Shakespeare, Nabokov, and D.H. Lawrence. This is a book that bears reading and rereading.
Despite its title, this novel is not exactly about women, and not exactly about love. It is much more a book about men and hatred. If you will circle the words “hate, “hatred”, and their Lawrentian corollaries and variations like “rage”, and “opposition”, you will see that these terms occur with alarmingly greater frequency in the text than the word “love”. The closest thing we have to love, as the term is usually used, is the relationship between Rupert and Gerald. Their genuine fondness for one another is a refreshing respite from the strained mixture of love and hatred that characterizes relationships between Hermione and Rupert, Rupert and Ursula, and Gerald and Gudrun. One of the saddest things in this sad book is that Rupert and Gerald’s relationship is never realized, never is sexually consummated, never amounts to much in the end. At the very end of the novel, we share Rupert’s disappointment in this touching exchange between Rupert and Ursula: ‘He should have loved me,’ he said. ‘I offered him.’
She, afraid, white, with mute lips answered:
‘What difference would it have made!”
‘It would!’ he said. ‘It would.’
Unfortunately, the closest Rupert and Gerald come to expressing their homosexual love is the wresting scene in “Gladiatorial”. Looking closely at this scene may illustrate the great and the not so great aspects of Lawrence. Try this:
“So the two men entwined and wrestled with each other, working nearer and nearer. Both were white and clear, but Gerald flushed smart red where he was touched, and Birkin remained white and tense. He seemed to penetrate into Gerald’s more solid, more diffuse bulk, to interfuse his body through the body of the other, as if to bring it subtly into subjection, always seizing with some rapid necromantic foreknowledge every motion of the other flesh, converting and counteracting it, play upon the limbs and trunk of Gerald like some hard wind.” I think we can agree that this is very well done. But as we move forward, Lawrence, as is his wont, goes over the top. (Omitting some sentences to save time).
“The earth seemed to tilt and sway, and a complete darkness was coming over his [Birkin’s] mind. He did not know what happened. He slid forward quite unconscious, over Gerald, and Gerald did not notice….He came to consciousness again, hearing an immense knocking outside….When he realized that he had fallen prostrate upon Gerald’s body he wondered, he was surprised. But he sat up, steadying himself with his hand and waiting for his heart to become stiller and less painful. It hurt very much, and took away his consciousness. Gerald, however, was still less conscious than Birkin. They waited dimly, in a sort on not-being, for many uncounted, unknown minutes.” The two men have wrestled one another into joint unconsciousness. It is meant to be dramatic, but it is really too silly to take seriously. And, unfortunately, there is a certain amount of Lawrence that is hard to take seriously, a certain amount of philosophizing and phrasifying that lend themselves to parody. You will remember that in “Gudrun in the Pompadour”, Halliday mockingly reads aloud from a letter from Birkin, and an offended Gudrun walks off with the letter. Now presumably, the point here is the vileness of the Halliday and Pussum crowd. But consider what the letter says: “There is a phase in every race when the desire for destruction over-comes every other desire. In the individual, this desire is ultimately a desire for destruction of the self. It is a desire for the reduction-process in oneself, a reducing back to the origin, a return along the Flux of Corruption, to the original rudimentary conditions of being. And in the great retrogression, the reducing back of the created body of life, we get knowledge, and beyond knowledge, the phosphorescent ecstasy of acute sensation.” This sounds like a parody, and the reader may be tempted to be more sympathetic to Halliday than to Gudrun here. And the reader might ask himself: How can something this good be this bad?
The relationship of Rupert and Ursula is the most satisfactory, or perhaps we should say the least unsatisfactory, of the relationships in the novel. The two start with the usual Lawrentian hatred, rage, and violent opposition of clashing wills, and somehow – we are not quite sure how – make a transition to marriage, and, we presume, to a kind of love, though not, to be sure, to a self-sufficient and complete kind of love. At the very end of the novel, Rupert laments that he was not able to find eternal union with a man, which, we presume, in conjunction with an eternal union with a woman, would constitute complete, real happiness. Given the difficulty of finding in this world a single eternal union, much less a multiplicity of eternal unions, we can see that there is a certain darkness to the Lawrentian universe.
That darkness infuses the tragedy of the life of Gerald Crich. It is universally accepted that Lawrence means Rupert Birkin to represent himself, but perhaps Gerald is an idealized Lawrence, or perhaps just an idealized man. In any case, it appears that Lawrence is as infatuated with Gerald as Rupert is. Gerald is handsome, strong, athletic, self-assured, rich, virile, successful, and well bred. He is well educated, well traveled, successful with women, and, judging from Rupert, with men. We even learn, from an author whose interest in women’s and men’s clothing has no bounds, that Gerald is well dressed, down to his pearl studs and silk underwear. On several occasions, we see more than a hint of sadism in Gerald; his treatment of his mare inspires some of Lawrence’s most breathless prose:
“Gudrun was as if numbed in her mind by the sense of indomitable soft weight of the man, bearing down into the living body of the horse; the strong, indomitable thighs of the blond man clenching the palpitating body of the mare into pure control; a sort of soft, white magnetic domination from the loins and thighs and calves, enclosing and encompassing the mare heavily into unutterable subordination, soft blood-subordination, terrible.”
From the beginning, the relationship between Gudrun and Gerald a deadly contest between their wills, filled with anger, even hatred. When Gudrun strikes Gerald in the face in “Water-Party”, “…she felt in her soul an unconquerable lust for deep brutality against him.” And then Gerald “became deadly pale, and a dangerous flame darkened his eyes. For some seconds he could not speak, his lungs were so suffused with blood, his heart stretched almost to bursting with a great gush of ungovernable rage. It was as if some reservoir of black anger had burst within him, and swamped him.” How Lawrentian can you get?
There is to be little development in the relationship from here on. Gerald and Gudrun are locked in a struggle to the death. The change of scene to the Alps seems to inspire Lawrence, and there is some exquisite prose towards the end of the novel. Gudrun’s flirtation with the strange artist Loerke brings matters to an intolerable intensity, and the near murder of Gudrun, and Gerald’s suicide complete the sad story of Gerald, a story which might well be viewed as a sort of classical tragedy.
How to sum up this remarkable volume? Lawrence is a superb artist. He is perhaps less solid as a psychologist, and as a philosopher. Despite its flaws, Women in Love is a splendid novel. I am giving 6 to 5 odds it will be chosen as the favorite novel of the 07-08 season.
Questions on Women in Love
Lawrence is said to be unpopular in some feminist circles. Comments?
Are the female characters in Women in Love as well drawn as the male characters? Does this relate to question #1?
Is the relationship between Gerald and Gudrun thoroughly credible?
There is more in W i L than loins, bowels, and black rage. Lawrence undertakes discussions on economics, labor history, social relations, and a number of other topics. Is W i L a novel of ideas? If so, does it succeed as a novel of ideas?
Where does W i L rank in world literature?
PS: Ken Russell’s 1969 screen adaptation of W i L is available on DVD and well worth seeing.
Joyce Carol Oates’s 1978 essay “Lawrence's Götterdämmerung:
The Apocalyptic Vision of Women in Love”, is available at
http://jco.usfca.edu/womeninlove.html, and well worth reading.