Probably it’s always going to be a mistake to reread a book you loved in your youth. I haven’t read Lawrence for a long time. I believed I had his triumphs and failures pretty clear in my mind. Sons and Lovers, the early stories, The Rainbow and Women in Love all masterpieces; everything that followed going from bad to worse. So it was a shock to discover that Women in Love probably belongs in the latter category. There are, of course, flashes of his unique genius but they are few and far between. As is frequently the case in his later novels Lawrence is here on his soapbox, sermonising and ranting. His fabulous electric insights into the beauty of the natural world are virtually absent here.
There’s something of the angry teenager in Lawrence – he’s always on some protest march and his target is always the established order. The four central characters in WIL, with the exception perhaps of Ursula, come across as outgrown children with relentlessly outsized emotions. Every moment is a dark night of the soul or an epiphany. They simply do not do ordinary emotion. He also has the teenage urgency to exalt his own love over everyone else’s, as if what he knows as love is mysteriously denied to all us mere mortals. “How can I say “I love you” when I have ceased to be: we are both caught up and transcended into a new oneness where everything is silent, because there is nothing to answer, all is perfect and at one.” We don’t though feel this at all. They are just empty words. This is a problem in this novel – the characters do not effectively dramatise Lawrence’s lofty ideas. The novel is all caught up in the subjectivity of its author. Lawrence’s mouthpiece in this novel is Birkin. In every novel he wrote he had to have a mouthpiece and usually this is the character you most feel like slapping in the face.
On the positive side Lawrence can be brilliant at understanding women. Forget the overblown kitsch of the wrestling scene the best moment in this novel is when Ursula gives vent to her rage at Birkin. It’s a brilliant depiction of primeval female fury directed at the cajoling bullying instinct of the male.
I noticed Lawrence has a habit of placing opposition in his character’s feelings. This kind of thing – She was happy and yet she was resentful. He was curious and yet he was bored. They were resigned and yet they were hopeful. He does this all the time. I suppose it does have a place as this novel is about will – the wrestling of one will against another, whether it’s an individual or society as a whole. Lawrence is trying to forge a new concept of will. Ultimately the eternal snow-capped mountains will impede this dawning of a new day in human volition.
One of the reasons I loved this novel in my youth was that I idolised Katherine Mansfield and Lawrence uses her for the character of Gudrun and her husband John Middleton Murray for Gerald.
So, Women in Love: heavy on verbiage, rubbled with repetitive pseudo philosophy, burdened with three of most unlikeable characters you’re likely to meet in a novel all year and yet here and there dazzlingly brilliant as Lawrence was when he stepped down from his tiresome soapbox.