Isn’t it strange how memory works?
Or, in my case – doesn’t work?
Apparently, I’ve already read this week’s book. I was looking for another book when I found it sitting there, on one of my shelves, looking at me. I took it from the shelf. The edges of the pages have turned an autumnal shade of golden yellow; the spine is covered in creases. Some of the pages bear marks in the corners from where I’ve folded them over to mark my progress. My name is written inside the cover in faded blue ink.
But, if I’ve read this book, as the creased spine would suggest…why can’t I remember anything about it?
I look at the cover and a few vague thoughts come back. I read it for University, probably when I was nineteen. And I didn’t like it. There was something about this book that left me feeling horrified, disgusted. I wonder if there’s something else I can read instead for 1913, but haven’t left myself enough time to find another book. It’s now or never.
Scowling, I open the book and begin to read.
But this time, things are different. I’m not horrified. I’m not disgusted. I’m fascinated. Everything has changed. I’ve changed.
I finally understand.
Sons and Lovers
by D. H. Lawrence
Published in 1913
All week, I’ve been dreading sitting down to write this review. I have no idea where to begin…
Sons and Lovers, written by D. H. Lawrence – his first major published work – is a long, complicated book. My copy clocks in at four hundred and sixty-something pages. Which doesn’t sound like a lot…but when you consider all the passion, pain, hate and awkwardness that Lawrence manages to pack into these pages, you’ll understand why Sons and Lovers is such an arduous, yet rewarding read. Nothing about this book is straightforward. Even just trying to explain what Sons and Lovers is about is fraught with difficulty…
To begin with, Sons and Lovers is the story of the Morel family. However, after a period of hovering, moth-like, above the whole family, the narrative soon settles on the shoulders of Paul Morel, the second-eldest son of the family. It’s the story of a family, a man – and it’s also the story of working-class England at the beginning of the Twentieth century. It’s a study in psychoanalysis (that is, the particular branch of psychology pioneered by Sigmund Freud) and, in a way, it’s also an autobiography…
While Sons and Lovers is, essentially, Paul’s story, it begins before his birth, focusing on Paul’s mother, Gertrude Morel (yes, Gertrude). Once, she loved her husband, a coal miner, very much. However, having moved to a tiny, uncomfortable house in a mining town, the man she loved has become a violent drunk, and she has come to hate him – even though she’s pregnant with Paul, their third child. Every day, she struggles to feed her children, while her husband spends all his money down at the pub after work.
The Morels have four children – William, the eldest of the family, Annie, Paul and Arthur. As William grows older, the relationship between him and his mother becomes twisted and strained. His mother loves William far too much; as if, disappointed by her husband, she’s turned her affections to her son instead.
William, though he flirts like crazy with as many women as he can, is unable to fall in love. It’s not helped by his mother constantly insulting his girlfriends. William eventually becomes engaged to Gypsy; a beautiful, yet dim-witted party girl (think Paris Hilton). The battle of wills that ensues between mother, son and fiancée is fierce. William loses, humiliating his bride-to-be in front of his family before exiting the story entirely – I won’t tell you how.
Now, it’s Paul’s turn. Eagerly, he moves into the burning spotlight of his mother’s adoration, and the rest of the novel centres around Paul.
The relationship between Paul and his mother is intense and excruciating. She uses guilt as a weapon against him, keeping him tethered to her, greedily wanting Paul all to herself. When they go out together to the city, Paul fancies his mother is his lover, showing her off proudly.
But, before too long, Paul discovers that there are other women in the world besides his mother. In particular, the hauntingly beautiful Miriam Leivers, a farmer’s daughter. They fall deeply, profoundly in love, but Paul is unable to give Miriam what his mother already possesses – his complete soul.
He meets Clara, a married woman separated from her husband. Paul’s love for Clara is sudden and strong. Though the two women are similar, Paul isn’t interested in Clara’s soul at all. He’s more interested in her body. Her soul already belongs to another man.
Two women, and Paul can love neither of them entirely. At least, not while his mother has her hands clasped firmly around his heart…
If you’re thinking that Sons and Lovers sounds uncomfortable – that’s because it is. If you’re looking for a nice book to read, you might want to try something by Jane Austen. The spiritual (thankfully not literal) incest between mother and son will have you squirming in your seat at times. The Morels are not your average family…but there are elements of the Morel family that you won’t be able to deny exist in your own family. And the awkwardness isn’t just confined to the Morel family. Pretty much all of the relationships described in Sons and Lovers are twisted, strange, slightly wrong.
There are many awkward moments in Sons and Lovers, but I was never so distressed I wanted to stop reading. The way Lawrence describes these domestic scenes is so compelling, you can’t close the book, walk away and leave it. Yes, it’s uncomfortable, but it’s like watching a soap opera – you can’t tear yourself away.
And then, there are the characters. Oh, the characters. There are so many little touches here and there that make them unique – Miriam’s perpetually sad, brown eyes, the way Walter Morel speaks in a rough, old-fashioned dialect, Clara’s arms. And then, of course, there’s Paul himself. He’s an artist, and it’s his unique way of seeing the world, his artistic vision and drive towards beauty and perfection that makes Sons and Lovers such a treat to read. He sees the world as a collage of little details, meshing together to create one big picture. The way he loses himself in small things is so lovely. I know Paul says some stupid things throughout the course of the book, and he doesn’t always make the best decisions – but I don’t care. I think he’s one of the most memorable characters I’ve ever encountered. I’ll never forget him.
(Um. Well, not again, anyway…)
And, just in case you’re wondering – yes, there are sex scenes. This is, after all, a D. H. Lawrence novel. Lawrence’s descriptions of sensuality in Sons and Lovers aren’t tawdry, and they don’t lumber the reader with too much information (which is why I’m not a fan of romance novels – they leave nothing to the imagination). They’re passionate, simple and beautiful. If only more contemporary authors could write love scenes like Lawrence…
Sons and Lovers is, for me, at least, a book about the blurring of boundaries – the boundary between classes, between men and women, between generations, between body and soul, city and country, between sons and lovers. Where does one end and the other begin?
As I said at the beginning of this review, there’s so much going on in Sons and Lovers. I hope I’ve come close to explaining what this book is like. It’s awkward, sad, passionate – and uplifting. It’ll mess with your head; your heart. I can’t belieeeeeeve I somehow managed to completely forget reading Sons and Lovers. How could I?
I guess this is the kind of book you simply need to have lived a little to really begin to understand. It’s no wonder a shy, inexperienced nineteen-year-old merely flipped through the pages, reading, but not really understanding what was happening…
This time around, Lawrence’s words, characters, emotions resonated in my mind. I’m so glad I creased the spine of Sons and Lovers one more time…
Official Book to the Future Rating:
Superawesome! – Awesome – Okay – Blah – Superblah!
Should I read it?
What? Didn’t I make it clear enough? Read this book! Yes, it’s long, yes, the language can get a little curly at times, yes, there are a few episodes that might not seem important to the overall plot of the book – and yes, it’s confronting. But stick with it!
(Just don’t do what I did, and read it on the train with an old woman reading over your shoulder…)
In a word: