I remember very little from D. H.'s book, Sons and Lovers except that I enjoyed it in High School. So, a few months ago, when it was time to get another couple of books from The List, I picked up Women in Love and The Rainbow, figuring that I was in for a wonderful time.
One nice thing about my excursion into the world of Great Novels, is that I've been exposed to quite a bit of Great Writing. And the problem with learning about Great Writing, is that it starts to expose Bad Writing. And I would say that Women in Love is just plain badly written.
Oh, it has the form of great writing. Vocabulary, sentence structure, paragraph structure - it is a perfect simulation of a work of literature. Evidently a good enough simulation to fool the nine men and one women who decided upon the composition of the Top 100 Best Novels Of All Time. But make no mistake, this book read a lot like the work of a man trying trying trying to write like Virginia Woolf, and failing badly. I was annoyed by Woolf's To The Lighthouse, but its greatness shone through all my displeasure. I knew I was in the presence of true art, and that I was lucky indeed to be a speaker of the same language as Virginia Woolf. D. H. Lawrence writes in the same type of style, only not nearly as well.
FAULTY LOGIC: "Virginia Woolf will have a paragraph where a character suddenly goes from one extreme emotion to a different one for no discernable reason." "Virginia Woolf is a great author." "If I have lots of paragraphs with characters suddenly veering illogically from one extreme emotion to another, then I, D.H. Lawrence, will be great, too."
(By the way, I know Women in Love came out seven years before To The Lighthouse, so don't email me with that fact, please)
The main protagonists, Ursula and Gudrun, are boring, self-absorbed women who think they are a lot more interesting than they really are. Ursula desperately wants to be interesting. Gudrun desperately wants to believe that she doesn't care about whether or not she is interesting. Now, these characters could have been fun to read about with a different author. But Lawrence clearly has been fooled by them; he also thinks they are fascinating people, and he writes as if they were.
I've met women like these two. I've had a long-term relationship with one. (No, Laurel, I'm not talking about you.) I thought she was extremely cool at the time - questioning everything about her society, rejecting all norms that she couldn't justify, and all that. But I was 21. I grew up, and so did she. Ursula and Gudrun are still in the stage of being like that, and D. H. Lawrence (it seems) is still in the stage of thinking people like that are cool.
And now let's look at the men - Gerald and Birkin. They are boring, self-absorbed men who think they are a lot more interesting than they really are. They also are convinced that they are heterosexual. Again, Lawrence is fooled, so he spends many paragraphs rationalizing that although Gerald proposes a sort of marriage to Birkin, they are not gay. And more paragraphs explaining that just because Gerald likes to have men around while he is naked, he is not gay. Lawrence never says, "Oh, they are not gay" of course, its more like "There are perfectly good reasons that these men are like this." I even believed it, until Gerald and Birkin got drunk and decided to wrestle, and one of them said, "This would be better if we were naked" and then they stripped and wrestled ("...bring a couple of sandwiches and a syphon" Gerald asked the butler right before the disrobing) and finally fell asleep in each others arms. I'm sorry - completely straight guys don't do that. I have no problem with them being attracted to each other and in denial about it. But when the author is trying to convince me that they are just "good friends"... that's just silly.
DOUG'S LIFE TIP #238: If a man asks his butler for a couple of sandwiches and a syphon, and then suggests that you get naked with him and wrestle - he is flirting with you.
I don't know anything about D. H. Lawrence's life, and I really am not that interested in the private lives of authors. But this book read like the work of a man trying to convince his wife and himself that he was not sexually attracted to other men. Desperately trying to convince her. Desperately trying to convince himself. And so the whole book struck me as false.
So we have four dull characters, and mediocre Virginia Woolf wannabe writing. Plot? Ha.
There were some parts of the book that I found intriguing. None of them occurred until after the half way point. When Gudrun took a job as a tutor for a little girl, she decided to use the little girl's pet rabbit as a model. There followed a truly hilarious rabbit-scene that read like something out of Monty Python and the Holy Grail: "...the long, demon-like beast lashed out again, spread on the air as if it were flying, looking something like a dragon..."
The character of Hermione made for some very good scenes. Like everyone else in the book, she was unpleasant. But D.H. knows she is unpleasant, and so is able to write her character honestly. There is a wonderful scene where Birkin and Hermione are together, and Ursula comes over to visit Birkin, denying to herself that she has a thing for him. So she walks in, and there they are, giving milk to a cat, and it is clear that Ursula is feeling like a third wheel, but she can't just turn and leave... it is such an awkward moment, and (I can speak with authority as someone who has been in all three of those positions) is written with a complete feeling of Truth.
There was another scene, where Gudrun overheard a table full of people making fun of Birkin (her sister's beau) that approached Truth as well. And thus I had another brief respite from the tedious mediocrity of this novel.
Gerald's father appears as an aside - Lawrence, who doesn't think my time is at all valuable, decides to suddenly impart a bunch of character development to this dying man. And I loved it. I wish the book took place before the four protagonists were born, and was about Gerald's father. That aside should be read by high school students as a mini-history of the promise and betrayal of the industrial revolution. The benevolent patriarchal industrialist, all full of ideals of what is best for his workers, fading through to the ineffectual patriarchal industrialist, watching his successors exploit the workers, justifying their exploitation with lofty words and self-serving philosophy.
...By the way, had I read the blurb on the back, I would have known that this was a sequel to The Rainbow and I would have read the former first. But the blurb on the back also gives away the ending, which is a criminal thing to do. "So, Doug, should I read Women in Love before The Rainbow, or after?" Answer: Read Women in Love only after you have read every other book accessible to you.
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