Centenary of the publication of ‘Women in Love’

David Ellis celebrates the centenary of the publication of ‘Women in Love’, arguably D.H. Lawrence’s best novel.

For those who are willing to look hard enough, there is always a centenary lurking. In November of this year, it will be a hundred years since Women in Love was first published. Along with The Rainbow, to which it was joined in its beginnings, this is D. H. Lawrence’s best novel, although not the one by which he is best known. It is true that the chapter in Women in Love in which he attempts to describe sexual intercourse (`Excurse’) is so metaphorical as to be barely intelligible and that when, towards the end of his life, he decided in Lady Chatterley’s Lover to use the four-letter words, he made much more sense. But in general, and in terms of originality or depth of human and social understanding, the earlier novel is far more impressive. In the context of Lawrence’s fiction as a whole, it is what Ulysses became for Joyce or To the Lighthouse for Virginia Woolf.

The way in which Women in Love is written might well be called experimental, although it seems to me misguided to think that we do Lawrence a favour by enrolling him among the modernists. His methods should not have seemed too disconcerting for anyone well-read in the nineteenth-century novel. I can hardly be the first to note the link between the scene, early in Daniel Deronda, where Grandcourt is tormenting his dogs and Gerald Crich’s insistence in Women in Love on holding his highly bred Arab horse close to the level crossing as a train rattles past. These indirect and quasi-symbolic methods for conveying character are common in the great 19th century novelists Lawrence knew well and he develops them considerably in a chapter such as `Water-Party’, or those episodes towards the end of Women in Love which take place in the Alps. Yet partly thanks to a knowledge of Nietzsche and Freud, which may often have come to him second-hand, he was also able to take character analysis into areas largely unfamiliar to his predecessors and (to continue to rely on the spatial metaphor common in these matters) delve deeper than they had been willing or able to go. I doubt however that it is this aspect of his novel which disconcerted some readers at the time, and may have done since, but rather its lack of the conventional plot writers such as Dickens, George Eliot or Hardy regularly supplied. Women in Love is about two young teachers from the Midlands, both versions of the Georgian `new woman’, who are each looking for a satisfactory relationship with a man in a society where the old values are being eroded without any strong sense of what will replace them. Although not set in the period of the First World War, this was when it was chiefly written and Lawrence hoped that `the bitterness of the war’ could be taken for granted in the characters. As for the `story’ in which these characters are involved, there is no more to it than that one of the young women succeeds in her search for a suitable partner, more or less, while the other very definitely does not.

It is part of the rich variety of Women in Love that there are chapters where this question of readers being challenged by the unfamiliar could not apply. In `The Industrial Magnate’, for example, there is an account of how Gerald Crich replaces his father in the running of the family mine and, in the process, abandons a paternalistic model for one based solely on a cash nexus (which Lawrence describes the miners as preferring). There are moments of acute sociological analysis here that might still resonate with those who have ever worked in a business which has been taken over and `restructured’. In a chapter called `A Chair’, one of the teachers has found a man with whom she feels she can live and is shopping with him at a local market for second-hand furniture. The two of them find themselves in competition for the attractive chair of the chapter title with a young working-class couple who are, in the conventional phrase, `having to get married’. Lawrence’s fine description of this couple is in the realist mode of his early short stories, or his memorable account of working-class life in Sons and Lovers.

There must have been a time when it was hard to meet any literary student who had not read Sons and Lovers (partly because it was often a set text in the schools). But this was in the 1960s when Lawrence’s reputation was at its height. It is possible that for a reputation to be maintained, there have to be extra-literary factors at work: that a writer needs what in the theatre used to be called a claque which can cheer for him or her whatever the circumstances, and shout down the opposition. I have friends of Irish descent who re-read Ulysses every year in much the same spirit as Bostonians celebrate St Patrick’s day. To the Lighthouse may not have survived so well if Virginia Woolf had not also written `A Room of One’s Own’. In the 1960s Lawrence would seem to have had two of these factors going for him. In the first place, he was after all the first great British writer to have emerged from the industrial proletariat and wrote so well about his social background as to remind his chiefly middle-class readers of the gross inequalities in British society, and be seen as an ally by those who, within the universities and elsewhere, wanted to do something about them. In the second place, many of his novels would seem to support sexual liberation (a major concern in the 1960s), especially for the women who often figured centrally in them.

Unfortunately for Lawrence, these two extra-literary supports turned out to provide much less reliable help than nationalism and feminism did, and still do, for Joyce and Woolf. When people began to look at his work more closely, they found it was not always on the side of the workers and that, as he developed, his political attitudes often veered towards the right. In the early 1920s, he was imagining in The Plumed Serpent a theocracy with distinctly fascist overtones even though, when he came back from America in 1925 and settled for a while in what was by then Mussolini’s Italy, he had nothing but contempt for Il Duce. In his last years, he showed signs of returning to the socialist ideas with which he had been familiar in his youth but his overall political stance is complicated, to say the least. So too is his stance on sexual liberation, especially as it relates to women. Kate Millett’s blistering attack in 1970 may have contained some crude readings, but it would be hard to deny that it delivered hefty blows to the idea of Lawrence as a champion of female liberation, in all its forms. The many places in his work where that idea seems justified need to be set against the account Mellors gives of his sexual history in Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Before he began writing what became Women in Love, but after Sons and Lovers, Lawrence told a socialist friend that what he would do for women in his writing was `better than the suffrage’, of which he was never a particularly enthusiastic supporter. It would not be surprising if some women readers, having listened to what Mellors has to say, should decide that they were happier sticking with suffrage.

The falling away of Lawrence’s extra-literary support was important because he had never been fully embraced by the literary establishment, even though there was a general agreement that he was remarkably gifted. Its attitude was characterised by Lawrence himself in describing how Ford Madox Ford had once shouted at him on the top of a bus that he had genius. `In the early days’, Lawrence writes. in a wry comment, all Lawrentians remember, `they were always telling me I had got genius as if to console me for not having their own incomparable advantages’. The muted hostility to him of the power-brokers in the literary and also often (as it happened) social world became apparent in the obituaries which appeared when he died in 1930. A great writer of novels and short stories, as well as some splendid novellas and travel books (even some of his plays brush up rather well), Lawrence was also responsible for a good deal of verse. Apart from an excellent collection about birds, beasts and flowers, and some poignant poems written as he was dying, not much of this is of high quality and T. S. Eliot, an alien body who was welcomed into the British elite, is clearly much the better poet. He also thought of himself as a much better thinker. It was Eliot who in 1933 buttressed the Establishment view by talking of Lawrence’s `deplorable religious upbringing’ and, from the heights of his own Harvard and Oxford education, denounced his `lack of intellectual and social training’. This was when he also said, in what must in part have been an allusion to Lawrence’s many and varied discursive writings, that he had `an incapacity for what we ordinarily called thinking’.

In 1936 a collection of Lawrence’s sketches, essays and reviews was published under the title Phoenix. Reviewing this book in Scrutiny, F. R. Leavis called its author `the finest literary critic of our time’. How remarkable this phrase is can only be appreciated by knowing how extensively Leavis’s early work had been dominated by literary criticism of Eliot. To compare Phoenix with (for example) Eliot’s Selected Essays is awkward when literary criticism is only a part of what one finds in the former, but it has now become possible to make another comparison which may seem more appropriate. A collection of Lawrence’s letters appeared in 1932 but all of them have since become available in the eight volumes of the Cambridge edition. If one were to match any one of these against a volume of those letters of Eliot which have only recently been appearing, most qualified observers would surely have to agree that, in terms of psychological insight, breadth of interest, variety of tone or linguistic inventiveness, the contest was unequal. It may appear unseemly and mean-spirited to imagine literary reputation as a competition but as far as the Academy is concerned, where Eliot has done so well, that is of course precisely what it is: a struggle for space and attention. The centenary of the publication of Women in Love is perhaps an occasion to ponder the merits or otherwise of the decline in its author’s fortunes and, as Eliot himself several times suggested, although analysis is one of the chief tools to employ in this kind of task, the other is comparison.

After completing Sons and Lovers, Lawrence said that he would never write in that way again. Although, as `The Chair’ illustrates, he could not quite keep his promise, he is a writer who was always moving on. This can make following his career a bumpy ride, especially after the publication of Women in Love. Not everything to which he turned his hand was successful (The Plumed Serpent is a case in point), and in his discursive writing he was certainly no ordinary thinker, which one would like to believe was what Eliot really meant, although it clearly wasn’t. At times full of insight, humour and originality but at others merely provocative or offensive, he rarely allows his readers to settle down comfortably; yet in fiction, he went on producing remarkable work. Of the many excellent novellas he wrote in the 1920s, one of the best is The Virgin and the Gypsy. If I enjoy reading this tale of sexual awakening and class more than Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which is obviously not without its merit, it may be in part be because of a frustrating feeling that, outside the Academy, that is the text that still keeps Lawrence’s reputation alive. But to work to change this situation so that it is from Women in Love that everything else radiates, might well result in its dying away altogether.

Image: Oliver Reed, Glenda Jackson, Alan Bates, Jennie Linden and Eleanor Bron in the 1969 film version of Women in Love

Credit: Allstar Picture Library Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo