Read D.H. Lawrence’s classic before you become too cynical to enjoy it
“I consider this the best of my books,” wrote D.H. Lawrence of Women in Love in 1917. Now widely regarded as Lawrence’s masterpiece, the novel had a slow start and was only recognised as something of a classic in the 1950s and 1960s, having received substantial support from the famous literary critic F.R. Leavis, who regarded it as the most profound and rewarding of Lawrence’s novels.
A sequel to The Rainbow, Women in Love charts the lives and loves of the Brangwen sisters, Ursula and Gudrun, as they become involved with Rupert Birkin, a school inspector, and his friend, the industrialist Gerald Crich.
When I first read Women in Love a few years ago, I was enthralled. Leafing through it again, however, it seems somewhat absurd, silly even. Perhaps I have learnt to take life, and indeed myself, a little less seriously than I did then; perhaps I am more cynical as well.
Leavis was right in thinking that there is much to be gained from Women in Love. But I think it is also a book that is best enjoyed in youth, at a time when we ourselves are, like Lawrence’s protagonists, overcome with violent emotions and constantly questioning ourselves and the way in which we relate to others.
There is much to criticise in Lawrence’s novel. He is a notoriously difficult writer; sometimes difficult to read, often difficult to like. In Women in Love, he attempts to capture the ineffable, to explore the inner human experience. In this aim he often falls short, resulting in passages that are merely obscure.
Women in Love is remarkable among the novels of its time for the violence of the emotions expressed by its characters, who, forever impassioned, constantly writhe in a frenzy of sexual awareness. The novel is five hundred pages of passionate vehemence. Whether this renders it thrilling or simply monotonous is up for debate.
The now only too familiar feelings of uprootedness and severance associated with growing up are also explored at length. In one passage, Ursula reflects on her past, feeling that she is now separated from it by a great chasm and that her childhood self is “a little creature of history, not really herself”. In another poignant scene, the Brangwen sisters return to their home and sit in their parents’ bedroom, pondering what their parents’ marriage has meant.
Lawrence, though persistently popular, is arguably one of the most controversial authors of the past century. After the suppression of The Rainbow in 1915 for obscenity, he acquired a reputation as a writer of salacious books. For many, Women in Love, published five years later, only served to reinforce this view. One review, appearing in John Bull the year after the novel’s publication, said: “I do not claim to be a literary critic, but I know dirt when I smell it, and here is dirt in heaps – festering, putrid heaps which smell to high Heaven”.
Women in Love requires compassion from its readers. We have to take Lawrence’s novel as seriously as he does if we are to gain very much from it. But, as time passes, I find myself increasingly unable to do so. And besides, can any author, however great, ever expect so much from his readers?