Wednesday, May 12, 2021

A D. H. Lawrence Women in Love note dump with some more general observations - the struggle to get out

I meant to write some kind of D. H. Lawrence summary whatnot after my “Lawrence-influenced writers of the 1930s and 1940s” mini-series.  This, a little late, is that.  I made the mistake of reading some of my earlier writing about Lawrence, where I found that I already wrote most or all of what I wanted to write this time.  Reminder to myself: no one remembers or cares.

Half of my motive is found in the notes I took on Women in Love (1920) and never used, just amazing  things.  Some are single-sentence distilled Lawrence:

He took off his clothes, and sat down naked among the primroses, moving his feet softly among the primroses, his legs, his knees, his arms right up to the arm-pits, lying down and letting them touch his belly, his breasts.  (Ch. 8, “Breadalby”)

It was evident she had a strange passion to dance before the sturdy, handsome cattle.  (Ch. 14, “Water-party”)

Ursula was afraid that he would stone the moon again…  “Why should you hate the moon?”  (Ch. 19, “Moony”)

Many readers may well hate this sort of thing.  “’Was it hate?’” Ursula’s moon-stoning companion answers, a good question. 

But there is also some good nature writing, and some interesting aesthetic theorizing, sometimes combined:

The heavy gold glamour of approaching sunset lay over all the colliery district, and the ugliness overlaid with beauty was like a narcotic to the senses. (Ch. 9, “Coal-dust”)

A number of lines, as with that last phrase, feel like self-description, or even self-critique (“’Women and love, there is no greater tedium,’ he cried,” Ch. 30, “Snowed Up”).  Meta-fiction:

He turned in confusion. There was always confusion in speech. Yet it must be spoken. Whichever way one moved, if one were to move forwards, one must break a way through. And to know, to give utterance, was to break a way through the walls of the prison as the infant in labour strives through the walls of the womb. There is no new movement now, without the breaking through of the old body, deliberately, in knowledge, in the struggle to get out.  (Ch. 14)

Sorry, I was wrong, there is lots of aesthetic theorizing, often explicitly that, like in the bonkers scene like where a group of nude men stand around a West African statue of a nude woman and baldly debate its status:

“Why is it art?” Gerald asked, shocked, resentful.

“It conveys a complete truth,” said Birkin.  “It contains the whole truth of that state, whatever you feel about it.”  (Ch. 7, “Fetish”)

That last line fits well with my own changing notions of Lawrence, and to be honest with art in general, that fussing much over whether I like or love or hate something is not interesting.  Following “the struggle to get out,” to express some kind of (personal and partial, not whole) truth, is of sufficient interest, even when the results violate good taste and good sense.

Lawrence sometimes writes well, and often badly*; sometimes likable and sometimes loathsome.  I take his greatest innovation to be the introduction of some unusual, even extreme, psychological states to English fiction.  The co-existence of love and hate is especially important, whether between lovers or parents and children.  Lawrence freed a number of later writers to represent more oddballs.  He made fiction broader.  Sometimes he seems to believe that his weirdos are typical, which can be exasperating.  His great “men versus women” theme brings out his best and worst ideas.  “Men, and love, there was no greater tedium” (see above).  I think one reason his writing about animals, in fiction or poetry, seems especially good is that even when it is about sex it gives him some distance.

Is this really any kind of summary?  Reading a lot of Lawrence has helped me understand other writers, and even his more dubious works have always given me something to think about.  Good enough.

* Lawrence sometimes uses rhetorical constructions that signify good writing to me, and often uses signifiers that I think of as “bad writing.”


  1. I think that is good enough, if it makes you think about certain elements. I think I know what you mean about his writing. It’s uneven, some very good bits next to wonky style.
    There’s a lot of nudity in his books. Some of it is a bit comical. Not sure why but the idea of the naked guy in the primroses made me grin. The choice of flower name probably contributed to that. I remember enjoying his letters. He has so many ideas on everything.

  2. While it's often true that "no one remembers or cares," it's also true that, as a character says in the novel I just finished reading (Great Circle), "no one sees most of what we do. No one knows more than a tiny fraction of what we think. And when we die, it all evaporates.” But writing it down means something.

  3. Comical, yes, whether intended or not. The primroses, the cattle, add an element of the ridiculous, comic intrusions. Cold Comfort Farm has fun with this side of Lawrence.

    I need to train myself to be more repetitive. A glancing reference to something I wrote ten years ago is not exactly clear writing, even if it is clear enough to me.

  4. I know that you claim not to be a big fan of Hardy's prose, but I've always believed that Lawrence would not have been possible without Hardy. Try "The Woodlanders" and see if it isn't very like Lawrence (without the male breasts). Lawrence makes explicit what Hardy fought his whole career merely to suggest. To love Hardy you must take the grating with the glorious. Lawrence is much the same, although I find much less gloriousness in him than I do in Hardy. I'm not sure that Little Father Time is any worse than John Thomas.

  5. I am not a big fan of Lawrence's prose, either. Or so I claim! But yes, Hardy, one of Lawrence's few real precursors.

    Who is John Thomas? I see, we're in Chatterley world. Presumably he is the Woodlanders-like wood-god. I have not read Chatterley. I have no doubt I would agree with you, though.

    I am losing interest in loving any writer, to be honest. Love always seems to take care of itself. I want to be able to write decently well about writers I don't love.

    1. You really must read Lady Chatterley's Lover--I think you would be fascinated by the blending of economics and erotics. And, while John Thomas is definitely a character in the book, he is not a person.

    2. Someday, I hope. And maybe also The Plumed Serpent, which sounds close to insane. And some of the travel writing, the Sardinia book at least.

      And, since it came up in the comments, I wonder what Lawrence's translation of Bunin is like.

  6. That last line fits well with my own changing notions of Lawrence, and to be honest with art in general, that fussing much over whether I like or love or hate something is not interesting.

    I understand what you're saying, but that seems to me a station along the road to the scholarly attitude of "quality is irrelevant, only theoretical analysis matters," which is how you get a huge history of Russian literature that devotes only a few lines to Bunin, the greatest prose writer in the language, because there's nothing theoretically interesting to say about him. I'm pretty sure Lawrence wouldn't want you to be indifferent to love and hate.

  7. Oh that is true. Sorry, David!

    Your first supposition is also likely true, although my sense is that a good critic or scholar can do more than one thing at the same time. Quality, for instance, can be relevant for some purposes and irrelevant for others.

    I am moving specifically to book bloggers - more "this book is good, and here's why" and less "I love this book, and here's why" would lead to better criticism.

  8. Ah, now I get it, and I agree. There's way too much love/hate on the internet, and too little analysis.

  9. "I love this book!" is a great way to kickstart a post - anything to get writing - but the argument usually turns out to be "I love this book because it is the kind of thing I love."