I wrote this essay in 2016–O brave old world!–for Open Letters Monthly (of blessed memory–how I miss it). You can still find it in the OLM archives, but when I heard that Karen and Simon had chosen 1920 for their latest Reading Club project, I thought I’d dust it off. Women in Love is my favourite book, and I never miss a chance to talk it up. Thanks to Karen & Simon for their indefatigable hosting of these events. And thanks to the old gang at Open Letters: Sam Sacks, John Cotter, Steve Donoghue, Greg Waldmann, and, especially, Rohan Maitzen. They made this piece better.
D. H. Lawrence’s masterpiece, Women in Love (1920), is one of the great novels of the twentieth century. It’s also intense and uncompromising, to the point that it daunted even its author. To one of his most supportive friends, the Scottish writer Catherine Carswell, Lawrence admitted, “The book frightens me: it is so end-of-the-world.” Indeed, its working title was Dies Irae (Day of Wrath). Yet the book isn’t apocalyptic. Its grim fascination with endings is balanced by a joyful appreciation of beginnings. The letter to Carswell continues, “But it is, it must be, the beginning of a new world too.” Perhaps that’s why my students love the novel so much. After all, it’s about young, intelligent, talented people figuring out how they want to live in the world, and what they will have to change to make that happen. But you don’t have to be a student to enjoy Women in Love. There’s nothing dutiful or high-minded about it. You’ll race through it, I promise, caught up in its passion, its intensity, its extraordinary prose. Reading it, you’ll feel alive.
That aliveness might be a reaction against the terrible war during which it was written. Although the novel is set in the English Midlands in an unspecified year before WWI and so doesn’t concern the war itself, Lawrence wished “the time to remain unfixed, so that the bitterness of the war may be taken for granted in the characters.” That’s a strange thing to say: it only makes sense if war — or at least its emotional effects, like bitterness — is a natural state of affairs. And that’s in fact true of this novel. The characters might not actually be at war with each other, but they are always at loggerheads. The novel thrives on these arguments: disagreement is a moral force in Women in Love, its highest value.
At the center of those disagreements are two sisters, Ursula and Gudrun Brangwen, a teacher and an artist, respectively. Early in the book, they meet two men who are close friends: Rupert Birkin, an inspector of schools, and Gerald Crich, an “industrial magnate,” heir to a large mining company. As the novel begins, Rupert is extricating himself from a relationship with Hermione Roddice, an avowedly modern and progressive Baronet’s daughter. Eventually Birkin leaves Hermione for Ursula, and Gerald and Gudrun get together. The foursome, sick of England, travel to a snowy valley in the Tyrolean Alps. In this “cradle of snow,” ominously described as “the navel of the world, where the earth belonged to the skies, pure, unapproachable, impassable,” their relationships end badly.
Although the ending is quite dramatic, Lawrence is not much interested in plot. Instead he cares about ideas, specifically, ideas about human relationships. What does it mean to be involved with another person? What characteristics would an ideal relationship have? How do individual relationships combine to create society?
The novel launches us into these considerations from its first sentence: “Ursula and Gudrun Brangwen sat one morning in the window-bay of their father’s house in Beldover, working and talking.” Whereas Lawrence’s earlier novels (The White Peacock and Sons & Lovers) emphasize work, this one emphasizes talk. And talk isn’t just a way of passing time while the day’s work gets done. It’s the main attraction — and a lot rides on it. In this first conversation the sisters consider marriage: is it something they want? Is it anything they could even imagine for themselves? Is there any way for them to avoid it? What begins as speculation rapidly dissolves into enmity and resentment. Marriage, children, managing a household: these conventional female roles seem absurd. But their absence is frightening. The sisters find themselves “confronted by a void, a terrifying chasm, as if they had looked over the edge.” The impasse is only surmounted, ironically, by their decision to watch the guests arriving for a nearby wedding. Standing in the throng outside the church, the sisters catch their first glimpses of Rupert, Gerald, and Hermione. The wedding symbolizes the social norms the characters reject but are nonetheless drawn to. They want to be modern, but they can’t just ignore the past. The uncertainty of their position — knowing that established ways of living are impossible yet not knowing what to replace them with — is what Gudrun responds to when she cries in frustration, “Don’t you find, that things fail to materialize? Nothing materialises! Everything withers in the bud.”
We soon learn that for things to blossom they must be subject to conflict. Despite its title, Women in Love is characterized more by anger, even hatred, than love. It might not be surprising that these self-styled modern women loathe the provincialism of the Midlands, the violent bluster of their father’s patriarchal values, and the contempt they feel emanating from the local miners and their families. But a lot of the time they also hate each other. Even though Gudrun is the one who proposed looking at the wedding as a way to ease the tensions between them, she feels “a friction of dislike” when Ursula readily agrees. The novel captures this ambivalence through competing similes: “The two sisters were like a pair of scissors, snipping off everything that came athwart them; or like a knife and a whetstone, the one sharpened against the other.” In the first, the sisters are a team; in the second they are at odds. Yet in both the relationship is antagonistic, whether they’re fighting the world or each other.
Every important relationship in Women in Love is like this, equal parts attraction and repulsion. These conflicting emotions are invariably expressed violently. Consider a famously tempestuous scene between Hermione and Birkin in which she comes across him in her boudoir, absorbed in a book. Realizing that he is as shut off from her as he is in his reading, Hermione is overcome with rage:
A terrible voluptuous thrill ran down her arms — she was going to know her voluptuous consummation. Her arms quavered and were strong, immeasurably and irresistibly strong. What delight, what delight in strength, what delirium of pleasure! She was going to have her consummation of voluptuous ecstasy at last. It was coming! In utmost terror and agony, she knew it was upon her now, in extremity of bliss. Her hand closed on a blue, beautiful ball of lapis lazuli that stood on her desk for a paper-weight. She rolled it around in her hand as she rose silently. Her heart was a pure flame in her breast, she was purely unconscious in ecstasy. She moved towards him and stood behind him for a moment in ecstasy. He, closed within the spell, remained motionless and unconscious. Then swiftly, in a flame that drenched down her body like fluid lightning, and gave her a perfect, unutterable consummation, unutterable satisfaction, she brought down the ball of jewel stone with all her force, crash on his head.
Hermione wants to be recognized by Birkin as his intellectual equal but the harder she tries the more he disparages her. Their relationship is excruciating. He doesn’t know how to escape her smothering attentions except by retreating into cold detachment. She exasperates him, and everyone else, by always having to know better, but she also suffers cruelly from his disdain and unwillingness to make a clean break. No wonder she is reduced to a desperate, literal attempt at cracking his exterior. No matter how sensual this moment — “the flame that drench[s] down her body like fluid lightning” is obviously orgasmic — what Hermione really wants is to get inside Birkin’s head. The crash of paperweight against skull is really a clash of ideas. Hermione and Birkin’s psychosexual troubles stem from their competing world-views. They are not alone in subordinating sex to philosophy. Everybody in the novel upholds an ideal way of being in the world. Hermione has her need to know and grasp everything; Gerald his love of domination and the will-to-power; Gudrun her elitism; Ursula her ironic deflating of any self-satisfied philosophizing; and Birkin his misanthropic insistence that the human species is at best a nuisance and at worst a menace to be exterminated. In Birkin’s view, the only hope for humanity lies in relationships of tense equilibrium between like-minded souls, like the one he offers Ursula and which he calls “a perfect union” and “a sort of ultimate marriage.”
As this catalogue suggests, the novel offers a bewildering set of arguments about how to live. But if we think that our job as readers is to choose the best one — that is, if we think we’re supposed to side with one character over another — we’re missing the point. Women in Love is dialogic. What matters is not that one set of beliefs triumphs over another but that these beliefs continually do battle. The novel’s highest value is contestation itself. That’s why it’s filled with so many fights. Characters are always being roused to sudden passions. Nothing is worse than indifference. Reading Women in Love you need to be prepared for wild swings of emotion. Birkin will interrupt a seemingly friendly conversation with Gerald to proclaim, “I rather hate you.” A pages-long bare-knuckle argument with Ursula end abruptly when Birkin, who has been fulminating against the idea that love is a kind of fusion, accepts a flower from Ursula: “It was peace at last. The old, detestable world of tension… passed away at last… they were at peace with each other.” “Peace at last… they were at peace with each other.” Like so many other, this passage demonstrates the novel’s most obvious and contentious stylistic trait: repetition. Remember how often “consummation” and “voluptuous” and “ecstasy” appeared in the paperweight passage. Fittingly, Lawrence’s repetition has incited strong reactions. In her memoirs, Ottoline Morrell — who had been a friend and patron of Lawrence’s before a bitter quarrel ended their relationship permanently — recalls reading the manuscript of Lawrence’s previous novel, The Rainbow:
I was shocked in reading it by what then seemed to me to be the slapdash amateurish style in which it was written, and the habit he then began of repeating the same word about ten times in a paragraph … reading very loose sloppy writing gives me always a feeling of great discomfort, almost shame.
Her reaction to the manuscript of Women in Love was even stronger. “Lawrence has sent me his awful book,” she wrote to the philosopher Bertrand Russell. “It is so loathsome one cannot get clean after it.” Morrell’s forceful response — her shock, her discomfort, her almost-shame, her feeling of having been dirtied — is even more over the top than Lawrence’s prose. (It didn’t help that Lawrence based the character of Hermione on her, a fact she noticed immediately.) What Lawrence wrote in a short Foreword attached to the first edition of Women in Love might have been written in response to criticisms like Morrell’s:
In point of style, fault is often found with the continual, slightly modified repetition. The only answer is that it is natural to the author: and that every natural crisis in emotion or passion or understanding comes from this pulsing, frictional to-and-fro, which works up to culmination.
It’s characteristic that even when he’s writing about his sentences Lawrence seems to be writing about sex. But that’s not because he’s obsessed with sex, as his frankness and impatience with prudishness has sometimes led him to be described. It’s not that everything in Lawrence is about sex; it’s that even sex in Lawrence is about arguing. The “pulsing, frictional to-and-fro which works up to culmination” describes the principle of contestation that characterizes every meaningful relationship in the novel.I believe that Lawrence’s repetition enacts his theory of relationships. In the scene with Hermione and her paperweight, for example, almost every word is repeated, but these repetitions don’t simply reiterate. Instead, they introduce variation. “Voluptuous,” for example, modifies first “thrill,” then “consummation,” then “ecstasy”; the metaphor of flame shifts, first describing Hermione’s heart (“her heart was a pure flame in her breast”), then something more general that it is hard to name — perhaps her way of bringing the paperweight down on his head, or perhaps her entire mode of being (“in a flame that drenched down her body like fluid lightning”). Repetition is Lawrence’s way of dramatizing shifting emotional responses, of making us feel the uncertain, unfinished, even self-contradictory qualities of his characters. That’s because repetition always appears in the guise of continual refinement or qualification. Something has to be said but there is no definitive way of saying it.
Seen in this light Lawrence’s style offers an extraordinary balance between artlessness and carefulness. The former risks clumsiness, the latter artificiality. Some of Lawrence’s contemporaries — James, Joyce, Woolf — are heirs to Flaubert. They strive for the perfection of le mot juste. Lawrence is not like that, and indeed formal perfection of all kinds is suspect in this novel. Birkin describes the neoclassicism of Hermione’s country house as “a snare and a delusion… a horrible dead prison.” Artlessness keeps things alive, ensures emotional truth. But artlessness that doesn’t attend to form at all is simply shapelessness. Too many of Lawrence’s readers have failed to see that attention and thereby missed Lawrence’s interest in structure. Earlier I quoted Morrell’s criticism of Lawrence’s style, her rejection of what she called “very loose sloppy writing.” To my mind this description reads as an unacknowledged expression of her own anxiety: the only reason you might feel shame over what appears to be loose and sloppy writing would be if you were frightened by its vulnerability, its willingness not to conform to accepted standards of literary decorum. Lawrence is loose, yes, out of a belief that truth is only caught on the wing, that imperfection keeps things alive, but he isn’t sloppy. Even his critics admit that his writing can have electrifying power. Morrell, for example, was also alive to its pleasures. Lawrence’s writing, she admitted, contains “passages of such intensity and such passionate beauty that they never leave one’s memory.” Women in Love is filled with such passages. Here’s one I love. It’s the opening of a chapter called “Diver”:
The week passed away. On the Saturday it rained, a soft, drizzling rain that held off at times. In one of the intervals Gudrun and Ursula set out for a walk, going towards Willey Water. The atmosphere was grey and translucent, the birds sang sharply on the young twigs, the earth would be quickening and hastening in growth. The two girls walked swiftly, gladly, because of the soft, subtle rush of morning that filled the wet haze. By the road the blackthorn was in blossom, white and wet, its tiny amber grains burning faintly in the white smoke of blossom. Purple twigs were darkly luminous in the grey air, high hedges glowed like living shadows, hovering nearer, coming into creation. The morning was full of a new creation. When the sisters came to Willey Water, the lake lay all grey and visionary, stretching into the moist, translucent vista of trees and meadow. Fine electric activity in sound came from the dumbles below the road, the birds piping one against the other, and water mysteriously plashing, issuing from the lake.
In his appreciation of Lawrence, Out of Sheer Rage, the essayist Geoff Dyer says that Lawrence was the kind of person who knows the name of every flower, every tree. We see that knowledge here, the sense of being rooted in a particular place (for example, in the reference to dumbles, Midlands idiom for a little valley with a stream). But Lawrence, who spent the last decade of his life restlessly travelling through Australia, Ceylon, Mexico, and the American Southwest, doesn’t simply chronicle provincial English life. Nor does he unthinkingly extol nature against the depredations of modernity. Lawrence doesn’t love birds and flowers more than mines and dams, and in fact he uses the language of the second to describe the first: recall the “fine electric activity” of the dumbles. What he admires is nature’s ceaseless change, all those high hedges “glow[ing]” and “hovering” and “coming into creation.” The incessant coming into being of new life is the reason the passage’s phrase “a new creation” isn’t a solecism. Purple twigs notwithstanding, this isn’t a purple passage, though one thing we might say about Lawrence’s writing is that you have to risk some purple passages to write ones that shimmer with the intensity of the ones I’ve quoted here. “Darkly luminous”: this isn’t just a paradox, but rather an example of what the critic James Wood calls Lawrence’s “anti-pictorial” style. Yes, the scene is vivid, glowing even. We can just picture it. But Lawrence’s language is as antagonistic to simple depiction as his quarrelling characters are to each other. In phrases like “darkly luminous” Lawrence shows us, says Wood, that language “at its densest becomes its own medium, like night. At such moments one feels language’s lack of transparency as a new kind of visibility; and this also enables us to see the old transparency as a new kind of obstruction.”
In its preoccupation with the new, Lawrence’s novel shares something with the literary modernism with which he is sometimes aligned. Lawrence is an uneasy modernist, however. He is less concerned with sensation and perception than writers like Woolf and Mansfield, more invested than they in a tradition of literary realism he nonetheless contests. The works of Lawrence’s contemporaries, no matter how brilliant, sometimes feel to me like period pieces. But Lawrence feels vital, relevant, not just modern but contemporary, and in Women in Love most of all.Nowhere is this more evident than in its preoccupation with forms of life. By that I mean both the biological quiddity shared by all living beings and the structures that make up human society. The first is evident in the novel’s vivid descriptions of something like a life force, as when a rabbit resisting capture is described as a “black-and-white tempest,” “lunging wildly, its body flying like a spring coiled and released, as it lashed out.” The second is evident in the array of possible permutations for human relationships. Just when we’ve convinced ourselves that Birkin and Ursula’s relationship is the best because it’s the most balanced, if not the most harmonious, we’re forced to revise our ideas completely. In the novel’s final pages, Birkin realizes that his “sheer intimacy” with Ursula needs “an eternal union with a man, too: another kind of love.” Ursula rejects this claim, saying. “You can’t have two kinds of love” and the novel finishes with one of the great unresolved endings in fiction, another version of the “terrifying chasm” that Ursula and Gudrun faced in the opening scene. Women in Love, then, is a queer novel, not just in the sense Lawrence’s contemporaries would have used it (strange, odd) but in our own. It refuses normative sexual relationships and personal identities, whether through the same-sex love Birkin evinces for Gerald, or Ursula’s tortured relationship with her sister, or Gudrun’s eventual refusal to enter into any kind of relationship at all. How to live, how to be alive; who can you love, what makes something living: these are Lawrence’s great concerns, and in this age of same-sex marriage and animal rights activism they feel like our own.
It’s easy to speak of writers as rebels or misfits. But Lawrence truly was out of step with his time. That was especially true during the war. Just weeks after its publication in September 1915, his previous novel, The Rainbow, which he rightly considered the pinnacle of his career to that point, was banned for obscenity. This was the great trauma of Lawrence’s life. All copies were pulped, and for the next five years Lawrence, whose poor health precluded him from regular work, who had no inherited wealth to rely on, who lived only on the income brought in by his writing, who owned almost nothing, not even any copies of his own books, couldn’t find anyone willing to publish him. He and his wife, Frieda, a German national — a woman who left her respectable husband to be with him at the price of never seeing her children again — were suspected of being spies by British authorities. He was at odds with the jingoistic nationalism of the time. And his masterpiece, which he recognized Women in Love to be, languished in obscurity, not published until 1920 and even then only in the US and only in a private, limited edition. Yet he knew what he had done in writing it and took great joy in it. “It is the book of my free soul,” he told a friend. To read it is to experience that freedom. In its time this extraordinary work went through extraordinary difficulties. But perhaps its true time has finally come. What Gudrun fears — that things wither in the bud — is certainly not true of this brilliant bloom of a book.