‘Sons and Lovers’: The Unexpurgated Text 
by D.H. Lawrence, edited by Helen Baron and Carl Baron.
Cambridge, 675 pp., £70, September 1992, 0 521 24276 2
Show More
D.H. Lawrence: The Early Years, 1885-1912 
by John Worthen.
Cambridge, 464 pp., £14.95, September 1992, 0 521 43221 9
Show More
‘Sons and Lovers’ 
by Michael Black.
Cambridge, 126 pp., £19.95, September 1992, 0 521 36074 9
Show More
Show More

The novel is a natural vehicle for superiorities. In an age which took competition for granted, the novelist possessed a means of distancing himself, morally, socially and sexually, from his contemporaries; and many of them seized the opportunity, D.H. Lawrence no less than Jane Austen. That establishing and disengaging of the self became in the 19th century more and more a part of the classic writer’s instinct, and merges with the novel’s own unique form of self-therapy. Dickens explores himself through it and Lawrence cures his sickness; Hardy assuages his Biblical ‘astonishment and fear’ at the horror of life: Jane Austen overcomes helplessness, malice and contempt.

Fiction had also taken over the sermon. From George Eliot to the present day, bossing the reader about with your own view of things – no longer with the sermon’s universal assumptions – has been the simplest mode of being superior. But of course the form has its own deep ways of compensating for all this. It overflows, given half the chance, with its own involuntary generosity. Rereading Sons and Lovers is to be filled afresh – more even than at a first reading – with the truth of Leavis’s old dictum that here is ‘where life flows’, as well as with that of Lawrence himself: trust the tale and not the teller. It is not the tale which absorbs one here, however, so much as the closeness and richness of experience that comes fizzing out of words and pages. Lawrence’s message, and even his insight into this classic Oedipal situation, have become as a tale that is told: but the genius of people, place and language is more vivid and compelling than ever, the very top of that abundance and generousness the great classic novel had and ought to have. It exhales a prodigious, at times comically portentous, concentration upon the self, but none of that superiority which has become at once second nature, style and integument to the combative and cosmopolitan literary milieu of Lawrence’s novels.

Suspected as a spy in Metz, the highly sensitive German frontier fortress in which Frieda’s father held a humdrum position as garrison adjutant and engineer, Lawrence sat down to pass the time, while his intended engaged in distracted conclave with her family, by writing some pieces round the incident for the Westminster Gazette. ‘How a spy is arrested’ was set up in type but never printed: the Westminster’s editor, Stephen Spender’s uncle, was mildly pro-German in 1912, and he also turned down a piece called ‘In Fortified Germany’. But the third and fourth articles made it – Lawrence’s debut as a travel writer – and they already exhibit their author’s hedgehog defences against other people’s superiorities. A German officer ‘in a flowing cloak of bluey-grey – like ink and milk’ (a wonderfully characteristic phrase) looks at him ‘coldly and inquisitively. I look at him with a “Go to the devil” sort of look and pass on.’ Much more important to Lawrence than German-occupied Alsace were his own reasons for being there, which overflowed into the piece he was writing. England, he implies, would also give in to the conqueror, ‘Nowadays it is easier not to live than to live... to suffer than to insist.’ The English instinct is ‘to forgo life... I know a certain woman wants to love me. I know I want to love her.’ Was he to renounce her, in typically English way, because ‘there are plenty of well-shaped women in England and Germany who would love me enough in a licentious fashion’? One wonders what an editor not privy to Lawrence’s situation as he was writing made of all this.

As John Worthen justly observes, ‘it is hard to imagine Lawrence writing like this before meeting Frieda or hearing Frieda talk.’ It is also hard to imagine any biographer telling the tale with more dispassionate sympathy and insight than Worthen does: his biography of Lawrence’s early years is a masterpiece of its kind, and by far the most illuminating study of Lawrence we now possess. We are apt to take the elopement for granted as a bold bid for life and freedom culminating in the idyll on Lake Garda. As Worthen shows in detail, it was anything but that. For all Frieda’s ‘splendour’ and emancipated sexual code, it was not principles that counted here but power, just as it would be when the nations went to war two years later. Lawrence as England won this power struggle, refusing to forgo: showing indeed an utter ruthlessness worthy of the German General Staff, or later Hitler himself. Worthen comments with his usual insight that ‘in the hectic muddle and confusion of those days Lawrence had one single advantage: he was the only person who knew exactly what he wanted.’ Lawrence was Machiavel, not derelict: it was a far cry from the abandoned and self-abandoned Paul Morel at the end of Sons and Lovers; and yet Sons and Lovers in its present form would never have existed if it had not been for Frieda, her new perspective upon writing – Lawrence worked on it as he awaited the outcome of the power struggle – and the circumstances of their flight.

Michael Black’s admirable little book in the Landmarks in World Literature series, analysing in close and illuminating detail the plan and growth of Sons and Lovers, and emphasising Frieda’s sense of the novel’s ‘form’, makes the proper companion piece to Worthen. Aldous Huxley called Frieda the stupidest woman he had ever met, and no doubt she was, in his sense: but at this stage of their relationship her intuition had an uncanny understanding of what Lawrence himself hardly knew he was doing, or trying to do. It was she who recognised what she called ‘the amazing brutality’ of Sons and Lovers, the Sophoclean brutality of a relation brought into the open, unmentionable in that epoch of Brushwood Boys and Peter Pans. Jessie Chambers wrote her own version of events in a novel she called The Rathe Primrose (Milton’s ‘rathe primrose that forsaken dies’) which Frieda found touching and ‘lovable’, while even Lawrence said ‘it wasn’t bad’. This ‘faded photograph’, as Frieda also called it, which was never published and which Jessie later destroyed, made Frieda intuit even more forcibly the ‘amazing brutality’ of Lawrence’s own novel, then still at the foetal stage.

Worthen’s blow-by-blow account shows Lawrence using his single-minded determination to betray what he knew to be the wishes and expectations of the woman he loved. Her ideas of their relationship counted for nothing against his will. Both Henry James and Choderlos de Laclos would have deeply admired the skill with which Lawrence exploited his apparent powerlessness in the face of three amoral but powerful and realistic women – Frau von Richthofen and her two daughters – scheming to give him his ‘affair’ and then get rid of him. Their counsels were not divided as to ends, only to means: but while they argued the best way to deal with him Lawrence preempted their schemes by writing to Frieda’s husband, Professor Weekley, back home in Nottingham, telling him he had carried off Frieda, and was to marry her.

After that, there was nothing much the three ladies could do. The initiative, seized by Lawrence, passed to Weekley, who took full advantage of it. Lawrence had deliberately put all the cards in his hands. Oddly enough, both he and Frieda had perfectly good reasons for being in Germany – she to see her sisters and parents, he to visit his uncle and cousin at Waldbröl. Theirs was no romantic elopement: Frieda assumed, as did her relatives, that a discreet ‘holiday’ would take place, followed by the return to Nottingham and the parental happiness which she not only expected but wanted. She had had affairs with the Austrian psychiatrist Otto Gross, and back home with a well-off lace manufacturer, her son’s godfather; and these had ended amicably, without her husband suspecting anything. She had learnt from Gross, who wrote to her in terms which strangely prefigure what Lawrence would write to and about her, to obey every sexual impulse that came her way while at the same time bestowing on her chief lover the absolute sense of Sicherheit that was in her special gift. Lawrence, too, already knew about and wanted this, and was prepared to do anything to get it.

It could and perhaps should be, of course, the gift of a mother to her children. Lawrence needed to take it from the Weekley children and have it himself. He made Frieda reveal to Weekley her past as well as her present infidelity, thus ensuring that he could and would cut her children totally off from her by the terms of a divorce. It is interesting to speculate how a present-day Lawrence would solve this question: Lawrence himself could share Frieda with her casual lovers, but not, or at least not till long after, with her children. What he must have was a ‘counter-mother’, who he need not worship or adore or ‘Love’, as he had done his own mother, but who would give him the same absolute security while dwelling with him in a state of total war, instead of the saccharine peace of his own home circle.

The remarkable thing was that Frieda obeyed him, in that way if in no other, as if assigning the stronger maternal claim to him rather than to her own children, whatever the cost to her other feelings. Guilt takes odd forms, and the pathetic letters from a close woman friend at home imploring her not to leave little Monty and Barbie and Elsie (‘Monty must have a mother to protect him... don’t you remember the night Monty was born?’) may have helped to harden her heart, however much she really did love and need her own children. As Worthen remarks, the battery of letters from Weekley and his family and friends, as well as from her own family, may have driven her to Lawrence. She needed him ‘to overcome her guilt at having made such a dreadful mess of her husband’s life – and of her children’s lives’. She had no humour exactly, but both she and Lawrence had a great instinct for the high comic-grotesque, in their own and others’ lives – a sense both Dostoevskian and Germanic. It must have made them roar when her husband’s sister Maude compared her to the Titanic (which had just gone down), not seeing the mischief she did any more than the iceberg. At the same time, using him as a ‘dose of morphia’ in the midst of all this high drama, she was going to bed with her old friend Udo von Henning. With perceptive venom Lawrence reckoned that she made him ‘more babyfied’. She would not do that to Lawrence: nor would he plead his case, or comfort her, or let her blackmail him with love-possessiveness. He knew now what he wanted from a mother, and it was the exact opposite of what he had got from his own mother in the past.

None the less he had his own kind of guilt – a writer’s guilt. It begins to emerge even in The Rainbow as a kind of pomposity, a determination of superiority which glosses over what he had actually done and what he actually needed. From then on, he would browbeat the rest of the world into seeing him as the only one in step, and make a mystique of the elemental needs of his own individuality. He was indeed exceptional, and so was Frieda: Anna Karenina, which Frieda read compulsively during their early days together, gives an exhaustively accurate forecast of what would happen to most people who chose their sort of situation. And the first and most spontaneous writing that Lawrence came out with at the time – the wonderful travelogue of his and Frieda’s journey down to Garda in Mr Noon – shows a Lawrence without superiorities, the comical and merry youth who used to amuse his friends with spontaneous self-mockery and self-parody. Mr Noon could have been the best thing he ever wrote: but he dropped it after four hundred pages. It was too shameless, too disarmingly personal in its sense of the real relation between Gilbert Noon and Johanna, the ‘livanted’ couple who were Frieda and Lawrence. Their adventures are a comedy of vivid and sometimes ignobly gruesome misfortune, their sex-life is scrappy and unsatisfactory; but they can only enjoy life together, and Lawrence’s quick infallible prose shows us how and why. They are the exact opposite of Mellors and Lady Chatterley.

Nothing could be less portentous than Mr Noon. And Worthen is surely right in taking Mr Noon as the index of Lawrence’s true feelings and responses at the time, and in telling the reader his grounds for doing so. By the time of The Rainbow and Women in Love the journey abroad together, vivid and memorable though it is, has become a sort of mystic pilgrimage, and the relation of Birkin and Ursula is similarly hagiographical. Symbol and meaning have become like the Alps. Such a change of approach may have been necessary if Lawrence was to have the authority he required, and reach the mass audience he wanted: but it involved a very real sacrifice – that of his young authentic being. Imagine Lady C telling Mellors in a fit of pique that she had made love to a friend of his, and being ‘forgiven’, much to her fury, as Mr Noon feels it proper to do when his Johanna makes such a malicious confession? Both Gilbert Noon and Johanna have the true and moving absurdity of life in that situation: Mellors and Lady C have the unintentional absurdity of idealised constructs. Gilbert Noon’s discomfiture when Johanna’s rage and irritation at him is only increased by his ‘understanding’ of her feminine being is one of the funniest things in Lawrence’s writing, and the truest to the sense of self and life which his relation with Frieda at first gave him. The spirit and – more important – the persona of Gilbert Noon is often found in the stories, particularly in ‘The Captain’s Doll’, but it disappears from the novels.

Cambridge have now published the unexpugated text of Sons and Lovers in their edition of Lawrence. Helen and Carl Baron have also produced a less annotated version of the same complete text, before Edward Garnett’s editing of it, ‘in a form and at a price intended for anyone who appreciates great literature’. Garnett’s editing used to be praised for giving the novel proportion, and bringing out its meaning. The Barons, probably rightly, maintain that it weakened Lawrence’s scope and purpose. Garnett cut 2050 lines, about 10 per cent, from the MS; and although their restoration does not make the novel feel any weightier or read very differently, it does shift the perspective a little.

Scenes were trimmed which show Paul’s mother with neighbours and tradesmen – scenes which brought out more fully her subtle social isolation. The family as a whole was more fully represented: Garnett had thought the main character should stand out by himself against a generalised social back ground. The elder brother William’s charm and amorous activity, and his mother’s reaction to them, were more fully documented. As the Barons point out, the title itself implies multiple treatment within a family; it is not just a generalisation. A previous editor, Keith Sagar, found the facetious detail about the elder Morel brother ‘insufferable’: and yet it shows among other things Lawrence’s awareness of different approaches to growing up and falling in love among the males of a family. William is as vivid a character as any in the book, his death one of its most moving moments: it can only help to have more of him.

The same might apply, though with less force, to the deleted passages about the contemporary role of women, and about current debates on science and sociology – passages reminiscent of H.G Wells, whose presence was to reveal itself even more strongly in the first part of Mr Noon. Some of these passages looked forward to Lawrence’s later dogma about the sexes. Paul observes to his mother that he doesn’t think he ‘could be a woman better than a woman is one herself’, and she says: ‘We could do better than men.’

‘Perhaps you could, mother,’ he said.

  ‘Well –!’ she replied, with her little amused sniff... ‘anything that is natural is pleased to be itself. And when a woman wants very badly to be a man, you may back your life she’s not much good as a woman.’

  ‘I hate it when a woman wants to be a man,’ he said.

  ‘It shows her pride as a woman is pretty low,’ she answered. He always came to his mother, making her the touchstone.

No comment on the relevance of the passage seems necessary, but it may have mildly irritated Garnett’s emancipated views on the sex question. Other sexual matters he may not have minded himself, but simply had a professional eye for what could offend susceptibilities at the time. Clara Dawes’s breasts came in for a good deal of excision, and some of the dialogue with her was also cut out. Garnett preferred the novel to concentrate on the treatment of Miriam. One extraordinary Lawrentian touch which he got rid of describes Paul’s behaviour when he stays the night at Clara’s mother’s house, and has faint hopes that Clara may later contrive to come to his room, despite the dragon’s watchfulness. Some of her possessions are in the little room he has been given. Garnett’s text reads: ‘He sat up and looked at the room in the darkness, his feet doubled under him, perfectly motionless, listening.’ After ‘darkness’ the full text has:

Then he realised that there were a pair of her stockings on the chair. He got up stealthily, and put them on himself. Then he sat still and knew he would have to have her. After that he sat erect on the bed, his feet doubled under him.

The Barons seem a bit at a loss as to how to pigeonhole the incident sexually, hesitating between transvestism and latent homosexuality. But it seems quite normal, though probably only Lawrence at the time could have said so. If you want the girl you want her stockings, and if you put the stockings on you want her still more. Whatever he felt about it himself Garnett must have at once seen it wouldn’t do – not for the reading public of the time.

The printers also repunctuated Lawrence’s manuscript, applying their own house-style in about five thousand cases. Not much of this mattered, but sometimes it did. Meaning can depend upon it. Lawrence wrote that ‘Miriam saw what Paul was seeking: a sort of baptism of fire in passion, it seemed to her. She realised that he would never be satisfied till he had it. Perhaps it was essential to him – as to some men to sow wild oats.’ The printer changed that to ‘Perhaps it was essential to him, as to some men, to sow wild oats.’ That makes quite a difference.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences