#77 Women in Love, D. H. Lawrence

Photo by Jan Kameníček

If only man was swept off the face of the earth, creation would go on so marvellously, with a new start, non-human. Man is one of the mistakes of creation—like the ichthyosauri.

OUCH. D. H. Lawrence holds back his criticism of neither man nor dinosaur in Women in Love, so I’m not going to bother with reverence either. Lawrence liked ichthyosauri about as much as I liked his book.

We’ll start with the protagonists. Lawrence isn’t the effusive type, and his characters are his favorite victims. Rupert Birkin is described as pale and sickly, while Gerald Crich wears a “sharp impersonal face” and carries himself with “mechanical relentlessness.” Gudrun is said to be “beautiful, passive, soft-skinned, soft-limbed” with a confidence that contrasts with her sister Ursula’s “sensitive expectancy”—but both apparently have the “remote, virgin look of modern girls” (whatever the hell that means). Minor characters include assorted hateful family members, Londoners of the Bohemian variety, an Italian contessa, and a one-time lover of Gerald’s most often referred to as “The Pussum.”

Next up: plot. Women in Love would feel more like a love story if any of the central characters were less frequently disgusted with each other, and the reader with them. The blueprint for romance is, for Ursula and Birkin, classroom tension (they’re both teachers), long-term illness, and sexy forest romps. For Gudrun and Gerald, it’s rowboat flirtations (at least until Gerald’s sister drowns), animal cruelty, and secret nocturnal bedroom visits. High points of the novel are when Birkin’s ex-lover, Hermione, tries to crack Birkin’s head open with a paperweight, and when Birkin and Gerald engage in a naked wrestling match.

Things take a dark turn in the Tyrolean Alps. The couples ski, sled, and toboggan until Gudrun and Gerald pull the “self-destruct” lever on their relationship. Gerald repeatedly fantasizes about killing Gudrun, rather than simply breaking up with her like a sane person. A failed attempt to strangle her at a frosty picnic prompts him to wander off into the snow, and death. (No one is sad, except Birkin, a little.)

Moderate psychosis aside, what best characterizes Women in Love is rambling philosophy and comma splices. The novel is full of characters who initially seem capable of normal conversation, then rapidly spiral into abstract nonsense. Here’s Birkin describing why he decided to copy a Chinese drawing of geese (or was it was a drawing of Chinese geese?):

I know what centres they live from—what they perceive and feel—the hot, stinging centrality of a goose in the flux of cold water and mud—the curious bitter stinging heat of a goose’s blood, entering their own blood like an inoculation of corruptive fire—fire of the cold-burning mud—the lotus mystery.

I have to wonder: Did this actually pass for dialogue in 20th century England—even in the countryside, where people wrestled naked for no reason?

Also: Did the graceless, wooden Birkin, in 1969, become a real boy in the form of Matthew McConaughey?

Probably not, at least to the second question. It’s a well-known fact, anyway, that much of Birkin’s personality and ideology were based on his own author. The only surprise, then, is why Lawrence did not sue himself for libel. Here are his (apparent) thoughts on the human-animal hierarchy:

Nothing is so detestable as the maudlin attributing of human feelings and consciousness to animals.

That is some startling hyperbole right there. Nothing is so detestable? World War I is coming, Birkin. You’re going to feel really silly really soon.

Here are Birkin’s/Lawrence’s thoughts on love (a response to Ursula’s totally accurate accusation that their relationship is one-sided):

The two kinds of service are so different. I serve you in another way—not through yourself—somewhere else. But I want us to be together without bothering about ourselves—to be really together because we are together, as if it were a phenomenon, not a thing we have to maintain by our own effort.

Ah, the British, always confusing romance with snoot.

Here’s what happens when Ursula mocks Birkin for using tedious rhetoric to avoid his real feelings:

“All right,” he said, looking up with sudden exasperation. “Now go away then, and leave me alone. I don’t want any more of your meretricious persiflage.”

This is possibly the best thing anyone has ever said in reality or fiction. Unfortunately, laugh-out-loud moments are few and far between in Women in Love. Lawrence’s primary goal was to examine social conventions, the nature of desire, industrial transformation, and the truth of art.

He also attempted a Christian impossibility: reconciling the erotic and the sacred, going so far as to draw parallels between Birkin/Ursula and Adam/Eve. This plan failed, if the novel’s reception was any indication. An early reviewer famously called it “dirt in heaps—festering, putrid heaps which smell to high Heaven.”

I’d have to agree, but not because I found it offensive. Just overblown and self-important, like Henry VIII or Kanye.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

So there is such a thing as a dumb question.

Favorite Quote:

Do come back and draw the ferrets, they are the most lovely noble darlings in the world.

Least Favorite Quote:

Besides she had a full mystic knowledge of his suave loins of darkness, dark-clad and suave, and in this knowledge there was some of the inevitability and the beauty of fate, fate which one asks for, which one accepts in full.

Read: 2014