A Hundred Years On,
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This review is from: Sons and Lovers (Audio CD)
'I have been reading "Sons and Lovers" and feel ready to die. If Lawrence had been killed after writing that book he'd still be England's greatest novelist.'
So wrote Philip Larkin, aged nineteen, in a letter to his friend Jim Sutton. In similar vein, after Lawrence's death in 1930, E.M. Forster called him 'the greatest imaginative novelist of our generation'. To many readers in first half of the twentieth century, Lawrence appeared as a shattering natural phenomenon, like a volcano or an earthquake.
Published in the early months of 1913, Sons and Lovers is now a hundred years old. So much has been written about the book that further comment seems redundant, but it is perhaps worth asking how the novel strikes the twenty-first century reader who is simply looking for pleasure (as opposed to the student who is force-fed the work as part of a school or university course.)
The book presents a history of the working-class family, the Morels, over a period of about twenty-five years. Gertrude Connard marries a miner, Walter Morel. At first she has a passion for her husband; however gradually her affections are transferred to her sons; and so strong is the bond between mother and sons that they find it difficult to establish relations with other women.
Lawrence is superb on the shifting emotional dynamics within the family; the Oedipal character of the relations between Gertrude and her sons may not be universal, but it certainly does occur. (Travelling by train in England about ten years ago, I was startled to see one woman giving her sons, who were perhaps four and six, long tongue kisses.)
Nor has the documentary value of the book diminished. There are other accounts of mining life (such as Orwell's 1937 essay) but most are written from an external, journalistic perspective; as the son of a miner, Lawrence wrote from the inside. Coal, and the communities it supported, has now vanished from British life, and memories of what it was like to work in a mine, or come from a mining family, are rapidly fading. Others are better placed than I am to comment on the accuracy of Lawrence's depiction of that life, but it feels completely authentic.
Some qualities are not to modern taste. Throughout, the tone is serious, even earnest; there is a distinct absence of irony or humour. Today, we hope that novelists will be, among other things, entertainers, and we might see Lawrence's lack of tonal variety as a flaw.
There is also the question of the book's length: 423 pages in the first edition. One can see that the slow development of the narrative was important to Lawrence's artistic purpose in depicting the gradually evolving emotions of the characters; and it may be that the fault lies with today's fruit-fly attention spans rather than Lawrence's prolixity. Still, with 423 pages he makes a demand for several days of the reader's life; it is asking a lot.
Finally, there is the question of sex. The sexual revolution of the sixties (for which Lawrence was partly responsible) has perhaps made it more difficult to appreciate his books. In taboo-ridden Edwardian England, there was undoubtedly too little public discussion of sexual matters. Lawrence's insistence on the artist's right to treat this theme openly was revolutionary and shocking. From the perspective of sexualised culture of the twenty-first century, the question is whether we discuss such things too much; many are nostalgic for the discretion and decorum which Lawrence despised. (Hence, for example, the popularity of Wodehouse.)
Lawrence may not be as attractive today as his contemporaries Forster, Ford Madox Ford and Joyce; still, he survives. Sons and Lovers is read with vim by the actor Paul Slack in this recording from Naxos Audio.