D H Lawrence’s
As the 100th anniversary of the first publication of DH Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers is celebrated this month, Blake Morrison, in an article for The Guardian, addresses the “recent dip in Lawrence’s critical standing”.
Although many have bemoaned the cuts Lawrence’s editor, Edward Garnett, made to the manuscript, caricaturing Garnett “as a middlebrow hack who brutally lopped away a tenth of the novel, prudishly censored its erotic passages, and forced Lawrence, in a huff, to take his next novel elsewhere”, Morrison says that Garnett did Lawrence a service. “None of the cuts Garnett made removed the hard veracity of Lawrence’s dialect words – a point in his favour, since other London editors would surely have done so.”
The only scene Morrison is sorry to see cut, is that of the character Paul trying on Clara’s stockings, which could be “a clue to his feminine side, perhaps, or closet transvestism, or masturbatory male heterosexuality, or, on a deeper level, his need to know what it feels like to be Clara”.
Morrison also addresses the feminist critique of Sons and Lovers as expressed by Kate Millett. He does not agree with her view of Lawrence endorsing Paul’s intellectual contempt of Clara. “Trust the tale, not the teller,” Morrison quotes Lawrence. According to Morrison, “the profusion of detail, the use of dialogue, the multiple viewpoints” in Sons and Lovers help the reader to derive more meaning from it than the characters or narrator offer.
Lastly, Morrison looks at Terry Eagleton’s reading of Sons and Lovers, who opined that Lawrence was “not just writing about the working class but writing his way out of it”. Morrison says that the realities of the working class are presented more clearly in Sons and Lovers than in any other novel of its time and, if Lawrence is writing his way out of it, that does not mean he is “dishonouring his caste”. Lawrence writes with insight, “without caricature or condescension”.
‘I tell you I’ve written a great book,” DH Lawrence informed his publisher Edward Garnett, after sending him the manuscript of Sons and Lovers in November 1912. “Read my novel – it’s a great novel.” Lawrence’s immodesty is forgivable: the book had been through four drafts, and after two years of struggle he was hugely relieved to have it finished. The sense of elation didn’t last long. He worried about the title (he had originally called the book “Paul Morel”). He worried whether it might benefit from a foreword (and belatedly posted one to Garnett). He worried about the dust jacket, and arranged for a friend, Ernest Collings, to design one (like the foreword, it wasn’t used). Beneath these worries lay a deeper worry, about the text itself: “I am a great admirer of my own stuff while it’s new, but after a while I’m not so gone on it,” he admitted. He was already on to the next thing (a draft of what would become The Rainbow), and had “scarcely the patience” to correct the proofs. But he was proud when a finished copy reached him in Italy. And the word he used to Garnett recurred, in letters to friends. “It is quite a great novel”; “I remember you telling me, at the beginning, it would be great. I think it is so.”
Lawrence was right. Sons and Lovers is a great novel. A century of readers have reached for the same adjective. FR Leavis did, when he enrolled Lawrence in the “great tradition” of the English novel, comprising Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James and Joseph Conrad. And Philip Larkin did so, too, describing Lawrence as “England’s greatest novelist” and Sons and Lovers as his finest achievement: “Cock me! Nearly every page of it is absolutely perfect.” The perfection wasn’t apparent to those close to Lawrence at the time, including his childhood sweetheart Jessie Chambers, his editor Garnett, and his wife-to-be Frieda, all of whom suggested improvements and left their mark on the finished text. But the reviews were good, and 100 years later the novel’s reputation holds up, despite the recent dip in Lawrence’s critical standing.