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THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES
"It is morning again, and she is still here..." wrote D. H. Lawrence of his mortally ill mother to a friend in 1913. "I look at my mother and think 'O Heaven- is this what life brings us to?' You see mother has had a devilish married life, for nearly forty years- and this is the conclusion- no relief." At the time, Lawrence was in the painful process of writing about his mother's life and his own. The book was not a biography but a novel that would be published as Sons and Lovers. In that book Lawrence would be named Paul Morel and his mother, Gertrude Morel.
There are so many parallels between Sons and Lovers and Lawrence's own life as the son of an illiterate coal miner and his educated, socially aspiring wife, that the novel can well be called autobiographical. In an autobiographical novel, the events in the story are closely based on the author's life. Certain events are changed, minimized, or exaggerated, but the core of the novel is based on the author's own experiences. All the major themes, conflicts, and characters of Sons and Lovers have their real-life counterparts in Lawrence's own difficult childhood and adolescence.
David Herbert (D. H.) Lawrence was born in 1885 in the poor, coal-mining town of Eastwood, on which the Bestwood of Sons and Lovers is modeled. Eastwood is near the industrial city of Nottingham in the central part of England known as the Midlands. This part of England is still rich in coal and is heavily industrialized.
When Lawrence was growing up, few members of the working-class in Great Britain had much chance of lifting themselves out of poverty. Many were literate and were treated by the upper classes as little more than beasts of burden. (Such was the case with Lawrence's father, Arthur, the prototype for Walter Morel in Sons and Lovers. He was a coal miner who could barely read.) One of the only ways to better yourself was to be bright and ambitious enough to earn scholarships to high school and university, as Lawrence himself did. You could easily tell what class an individual belonged to by his speech. You'll notice in Sons and Lovers that Walter Morel speaks in a local dialect, whereas his wife Gertrude speaks a crisp, refined English.
The working class had suffered humiliation and subhuman living conditions for years. Finally, some workers began to rebel. They started unions to improve their status, and socialism, a system calling for public ownership of industry and land, became increasingly popular. Rebelling against the male superiority that pervaded English society, women known as suffragists or suffragettes demanded political equality with men. Clara Dawes in Sons and Lovers is one of the "new women" who demand voting rights, equal pay, and sexual freedom.
The relationship between Lawrence's parents, Lydia and Arthur, like that between Gertrude and Walter Morel, reveals the gulf separating the lower and middle classes. Arthur, like most miners (called colliers in England), worked a twelve-hour day underground, exposed to grave dangers and unhealthy working conditions. Miners' lives revolved around the mine (colliery) and the tavern, where after an exhausting day's work the men could forget their troubles with a pint or more of ale. Alcoholism was a serious problem in the mining community. Arthur Lawrence drank heavily, and the tragic effect of an alcoholic father on his family is painstakingly depicted in Sons and Lovers.
Lawrence's mother, Lydia, differed markedly from her uneducated, easygoing husband. She came from a lower-middle-class family that had suffered an economic decline. Lydia's father was humiliated by their fall in social status, and this shame was transferred to his daughter, who vowed that her own sons would succeed. Lydia made sure her children were devout churchgoers and tireless students.
One of the mainstays of respectability in the mining community in Lawrence's time was the Congregationalist Church. This popular Protestant sect believed people were essentially evil and therefore should spend their lives striving for improvement. Working hard and climbing the social ladder were considered divine missions. Being proud of one's individuality was also a part of the creed. From this religious background and from his mother, Lawrence learned the virtue of hard work (he was an indefatigable writer) and perceived his role as writer as a personal messianic mission. While Lawrence was to reject organized faith as an adult, he always had deeply religious feelings which led him to see nature and human beings in a mystical and reverential way. To many, it was Lawrence's strong reaction against the sexually inhibiting and overmateralistic tenets of Congregationalism that led him to an equally strong belief in nature, instinct, and sexuality as man's path to salvation.
Like Paul Morel, young Lawrence appeared to hate his father and worship his mother. In fact, most readers see Sons and Lovers as an extended eulogy to the beloved Lydia Lawrence. Later in life, Lawrence felt he had treated his father too harshly in this novel. In his later novels, Lawrence depicted men like his father as heroic figures. He made them symbols of the dark, instinctual, but potent side of life that opposes the dry intellectualism and industrial mechanization of modern life.
Lawrence hated the industrialism and technology that he felt were responsible for the destruction caused in World War I. He also despised the ugliness of the industrial environment and the workers' surroundings. Like earlier British writers and artists, Lawrence believed that industrialism doomed the worker to a life of dehumanizing ugliness and servility. Through his art, he wanted to bring beauty into the workers' lives. But he didn't believe that art should deal only with the beautiful. He felt that art must have a social and spiritual purpose. He saw his work as a way to criticize, evaluate, and enlighten his times. Lawrence was also an admirer of the Romantic poetry of William Wordsworth and John Keats and the treatises of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the French philosopher of Romanticism. These writers prized nature, instinct, and emotion over rationality and sophistication.
After World War I, Lawrence fled England and embarked on a lifelong quest for cultures still in touch with their natural origins.
When Lawrence was in his teens, he became acquainted with the Chambers family, which is represented as the Leiverses in Sons and Lovers. Their nearby farm, called the Haggs, came to be the Willey Farm of the novel. Lawrence found the Chambers homestead a pastoral haven. There he could escape the drab, dirty tenements of Eastwood, the violence of his drunken father, perhaps even the overprotectiveness of his domineering mother. The Chambers treated Lawrence like one of the family. He roughhoused with their boys and grew close to their daughter Jessie. Like her fictional counterpart Miriam, Jessie loved Lawrence and spent hours walking through the sparkling green countryside with him, where they often stopped to read to one another either poetry or the latest novel by the French author and social critic Emile Zola. Few British authors wrote as frankly as Zola of the horrific conditions of the modern working classes. From Zola, Lawrence may have also gotten the courage to write more explicitly about sex, something that few "respectable" British novelists dared to do.
Sons and Lovers was one of the first British novels to deal explicitly with sexual matters. One of the first "Freudian" novels, it deals with the so-called Oedipus complex, or the sexual childhood attraction of a young boy for his mother. At the time Lawrence was developing as a writer, Sigmund Freud, a Viennese neurologist and the father of psychiatry, was revolutionizing the way the world looked at sexuality. Freud believed that children naturally have sexual drives, and the first focus of these feelings is the parent of the opposite sex. In Sons and Lovers some readers find an abnormally passionate attachment between Mrs. Morel and her sons. Lawrence was familiar with Freud's theories, and they probably influenced his writing of Sons and Lovers. Since the novel's publication, many critics and psychologists have considered it a penetrating study of the sexual dynamics of son/mother love and the way this love might destroy the man who cannot transfer such feelings to a mate.
Because Lawrence's later novels, such as The Rainbow, Women in Love, and Lady Chatterley's Lover, dealt even more explicitly with adult sexual behavior than Sons and Lovers, his work was considered pornographic by many, and these later novels were for a time banned in the United States.
When Lawrence was working on Sons and Lovers (1910-1912), Jessie Chambers contributed many specific details, since the novel was so closely based on their own difficult, intimate relationship. Lawrence completed the novel in 1913, while mourning his mother's death and under yet another female influence, that of the independent and sensuous Frieda von Richthofen Weekley, his future wife. Much of Frieda's personality can be seen in the passionate Clara Dawes, Paul Morel's other love. Jessie felt that her portrayal as Miriam was unflattering. She broke off all ties with Lawrence and even wrote her own version of the relationship in order to vindicate herself.
Sons and Lovers became a popular and critical success for several reasons. Many readers praised its accurate and moving depiction of working-class conditions. They saw in its realistic detail the evidence for needed social change. Others welcomed its erotic frankness and saw it as a revolutionary fictional partner of the pioneering work of Dr. Sigmund Freud. Still others praised the book's personal sides, its sensitive description of a young artist's development.
Others were not so enthusiastic. They were disgusted by its explicit attention to sexual matters. Some thought the author too carried away by mystical ideas and overheated language. They also disliked the character of Paul, who has few of the self-sacrificing, noble traits associated with a hero.
You may have some of the same reactions, both positive and negative, to Sons and Lovers. You may also think the social and sexual problems of Paul and Clara and Miriam belong to a world long gone. But you may also feel that Paul's struggle to grow up is familiar to all young people. You may experience this familiarity as you identify with Lawrence's (and Paul Morel's) own search for truth and meaning in life. The search is still not ended as Paul heads for the city at the book's end.
It's doubtful that D. H. Lawrence ever ended his search. He died of tuberculosis in the south of France in 1930. Although only forty-four years old, he'd written thirteen novels and numerous stories, poems, and critical and travel essays. Both in his work and in his restless travels, Lawrence seems to have fulfilled the promise of his mother's ambitions for him and made up for her drab years with his own exuberance and productivity. At the same time, his friends and colleagues were all struck by this physically fragile man's amazing gusto for life, which he communicated in person as well as in his voluminous writings.
[Sons and Lovers Contents] [PinkMonkey.com]