I’ve had my second-hand copy of Sons and Lovers sitting unread in a bookcase for several years. The Outmoded Authors Challenge gave me the incentive to read it, one because I was surprised to find D H Lawrence is considered to be outmoded, two because I didn’t have to buy or borrow it and three because it could then come off my to be read list.
When I took off the tatty cover, I discovered that the book inside was not a bit tatty or worn out and as an added bonus it not only contains Sons and Lovers, but also, St Mawr, The Virgin and the Gypsy and The Man Who Died. I’d read The Virgin and the Gypsy a few years ago, but the others were completely new to me.
If you’re planning to read the book, be aware that there are spoilers ahead.
Sons and Lovers is a powerful, emotional novel depicting the struggle, strife, and passion of relationships and their intensity, and possessiveness. Throughout the book Lawrence’s vivid descriptions and observation of the English countryside are so beautiful that I couldn’t stop marvelling at his writing. There are so many examples I could quote. Here is just one:
The sun was going down. Every open evening, the hills of Derbyshire were blazed over with the red sunset. Mrs Morel watched the sun sink from the glistening sky, leaving a soft flower-blue overhead, while the western space went red, as if all the fire had swum down there, leaving the bell cast flawless blue. The mountain-ash berries across the field stood fiercely out from the dark leaves for a moment. A few shocks of corn in a corner of the fallow stood up as if a live; she imagined them bowing; perhaps her son would be a Joseph. In the east, a mirrored sunset floated pink opposite the west’s scarlet. The big haystacks on the hillside, that butted into the glare, went cold.
The story starts with a description of the cottages in ‘The Bottoms’ where the Morrels live in Nottinghamshire overlooking the hills of Derbyshire. Places feature strongly in the novel and for me provided reality and solidity. Lawrence takes the ordinary and it becomes extraordinary. The family conflict between Walter Morel and his wife and sons is one of the main themes. To Walter, his wife is a ‘thing of mystery and fascination, a lady‘ but although at first she thinks he is rather wonderful and noble she soon becomes contemptuous of him and eventually despises him.
Mrs Morel is the dominant character in the Morel family. She is described as a ‘rather small woman, of delicate mould but resolute bearing’. She is disappointed in her life and her marriage and lives her life through her children and in particular through her three sons – William, Paul and Arthur. William, the oldest leaves home, marries and dies young; Arthur, the youngest, joins the army and also marries; but Paul remains at home and is dominated by his mother and her intense, possessive love for him.
Paul is sensitive, torn between his love for his mother and his feelings for Miriam. Miriam ‘is very beautiful, with her warm colouring, her gravity, her eyes dilating suddenly like an ecstasy.’ Her intensity makes Paul anxious and feel tortured and imprisoned. It is a love/hate relationship. His mother thinks that Miriam will ‘absorb him till there is nothing left of him, even for himself. He will never be a man on his own feet – she will suck him up.’
This struggle with Paul alternately loving and hating Miriam continues for seven agonising years. Paul cannot break free either from Miriam or from his mother’s suffocating love. Indeed, he realises that his mother is the ‘pivot and pole of his life, from which he could not escape‘. At the same time this is not enough for him and it makes him mad with restlessness. Although Paul cannot finally break off his connection with Miriam, he and Clara, a married woman who is separated from her husband, have a passionate affair. He still feels a desire to be free. His mother sums him up when she says, ‘Battle – battle – and suffer. It’s about all you do, as far as I can see.’
In parts I found it a harrowing book, in particular the illness and death of Mrs Morel, such a vivid portrayal of Paul’s agony at watching and waiting for his mother’s death. Sons and Lovers is described on the book cover as an autobiographical novel depicting his domination by his mother’s possessiveness. I think that the description of Mrs Morel’s death must also be based on Lawrence’s own experience to a certain extent as well; it is so compellingly real.
There is so much sadness and tragedy and though Paul is lost after his mother’s death he does find hope for the future:
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. ‘ -But no, he would not give in. Turning sharply, he walked towards the city’s gold phosphorescence. His fists were shut, his mouth set fast. He would not take that direction, to the darkness, to follow her. He walked towards the faintly humming, glowing town, quickly.