D.H. Lawrence, “Women in Love”

1920

Originally of a set with The Rainbow, D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love exerted a major influence over later British novelists and critics alike. Lawrence rewrote the novel throughout the war, and its setting is largely that of Europe in crisis, even if we only see it at the level of philosophical thought, rather than physical danger. The characters themselves are types of the war, but they were also all to personal for Lawrence’s contemporaries, and he was sued for libel by Ottoline Morrell (Hermione) and others.

Wikipedia plot summary:

Ursula and Gudrun Brangwen are two sisters living in the Midlands of England in the 1910s. Ursula is a teacher, Gudrun an artist. They meet two men who live nearby, school inspector Rupert Birkin and coal-mine heir Gerald Crich. The four become friends. Ursula and Birkin become involved, and Gudrun eventually begins a love affair with Gerald. All four are deeply concerned with questions of society, politics, and the relationship between men and women. At a party at Gerald’s estate, Gerald’s sister Diana drowns. Gudrun becomes the teacher and mentor of his youngest sister. Soon Gerald’s coal-mine-owning father dies as well, after a long illness. After the funeral, Gerald goes to Gudrun’s house and spends the night with her, while her parents are asleep in another room. Birkin asks Ursula to marry him, and she agrees. Gerald and Gudrun’s relationship, however, becomes stormy. The four vacation in the Alps. Gudrun begins an intense friendship with Loerke, a physically puny but emotionally commanding artist from Dresden. Gerald, enraged by Loerke and most of all by Gudrun’s verbal abuse and rejection of his manhood, and driven by the internal violence of his own self, tries to strangle Gudrun. Before he has killed her, however, he realizes that this is not what he wants—he leaves Gudrun and Loerke and on his skis climbs ever upward on the mountains, eventually slipping into a snow valley where he falls asleep, a frozen sleep from which he never awakens. The impact on Birkin of Gerald’s death is profound; the novel ends a few weeks after Gerald’s death, with Birkin trying to explain to Ursula that he needs Gerald as he needs her—her for the perfect relationship with a woman, and Gerald for the perfect relationship with a man.

Though Lawrence is sometimes read as antifeminist, I treasure his novels because they explore female desire and sexuality at a wonderfully bodily, rather than symbolic, level. They also call attention to the vitality of female friendship and sisterhood, which accords with Woolf’s projects and with Doris Lessing’s, who begins The Golden Notebook with a reworking of Women In Love’s opening scene.

Like Howards End, Women in Love is a novel of ideas. Gerald, often read as an Ezra Pound or high modernist, is an idealist, whereas Rupert Birkin is more of a phenomenologist (or more Burkian?), not indulging sensuality as a hedonist, materialist, or aesthete, but suspending judgment for the sake of experience.

What I most noticed rereading the novel this time was the preponderance of the figurative language “like,” but especially “as if” – sometimes eight or ten times in a single page! Here are some examples from just a page:

[Hermione sang] in her low, odd, singing fashion, that sounded almost as if she were poking fun… [Ursula laughed], because Hermione seemed to be compelling her, coming very close to her, as if intimate with her; and yet, how could she be intimate?… [Hermione] spoke all the while in a mocking, half teasing fashion, as if making game of the whole business” 31.

To be sure, these linguistic figurations are hesitant similes, rather than sure, embodied metaphors, but they are also a clearer laying bare of the imaginative acts of thinking and writing. They form a kind of treatise with the reader, inviting engagement with the idea of the suspension of belief itself. This is compounded by Lawrence’s compound words and kennings – “mystic-real,” etc., highlighting language as an imaginative act as well.

The language even seems to infect reviewers – Walter Kendrick of the New York Times writes that the novel ends “as if Lawrence were annoyed with himself for failing to settle it.” In fact, the ending repeats the phrase as part of its imaginative inconclusivity:

“You can’t have two kinds of love. Why should you!” “It seems as if I can’t,” [Birkin] said. “Yet I wanted it.” “You can’t have it, because it’s false, impossible,” she said. “I don’t believe that,” he answered 473.

The mode of this figuration would stretch from metaphor (it is) to simile (it is like) to fictionality (as if), which seems to me one step away from the subjunctive storytelling of writers like Pynchon. In this way, they give on to a sort of utopian ideal, a fantasy of artistic hope, more than any actual belief that change will really occur. In this way, Women in Love exchanges one kind of idealism (Kantian or aesthetic, killed off in Gerald) for another (sociopolitical, still alive in Birkin).

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