Friday, February 7, 2014

David Lawrence gets a job: Sons and Lovers, some thoughts

"What do you want to be?" his mother asked.

"Anything."

"That is no answer," said Mrs. Morel.

But it was quite truthfully the only answer he could give. His ambition, as far as this world's gear went, was quietly to earn his thirty or thirty-five shillings a week somewhere near home, and then, when his father died, have a cottage with his mother, paint and go out as he liked, and live happy ever after. That was his programme as far as doing things went. But he was proud within himself, measuring people against himself, and placing them, inexorably. And he thought that perhaps he might also make a painter, the real thing. But that he left alone.

"Then," said his mother, "you must look in the paper for the advertisements."

He looked at her. It seemed to him a bitter humiliation and an anguish to go through. But he said nothing. When he got up in the morning, his whole being was knotted up over this one thought:

"I've got to go and look for advertisements for a job."

It stood in front of the morning, that thought, killing all joy and even life, for him. His heart felt like a tight knot.
There is a lot about work, and labor, and money, in Sons and Lovers. Gertrude Morel is from a higher social station than her husband, Walter. She fell in love with him at a Christmas party, almost inexplicably, because he had a rich and beautiful laugh and because he danced well even though she never learned a step in her life. Walter is a simple and direct man; he works in a coal pit, hacking away at rock faces underground all the day long, he drinks in the evenings, he comes home to his wife, who is an alien to him, who bears him four children. While she is pregnant with her third child, Gertrude quarrels with Walter and he, drunk, pushes her our of the house and locks the door:
The moon was high and magnificent in the August night. Mrs. Morel, seared with passion, shivered to find herself out there in a great white light, that fell cold on her, and gave a shock to her inflamed soul. She stood for a few moments helplessly staring at the glistening great rhubarb leaves near the door. Then she got the air into her breast. She walked down the garden path, trembling in every limb, while the child boiled within her.
The language in the whole book is like that, a living thing almost, writhing on the page, precise and pointed. Forster said of Lawrence that, as a writer, he walks into your living room and breaks all the furniture. This is what Forster meant. "the child boiled within her," that's great stuff.

After a decade of marriage, Gertrude Morel begins to despise her husband, as do the children, and Walter withdraws from the family into a lonely life of coal mining, drinking, eating and sleeping. He makes his own breakfast, early in the mornings:
He went downstairs in his shirt and then struggled into his pit-trousers, which were left on the hearth to warm all night. There was always a fire, because Mrs. Morel raked. And the first sound in the house was the bang, bang of the poker against the raker, as Morel smashed the remainder of the coal to make the kettle, which was filled and left on the hob, finally boil. His cup and knife and fork, all he wanted except just the food, was laid ready on the table on a newspaper. Then he got his breakfast, made the tea, packed the bottom of the doors with rugs to shut out the draught, piled a big fire, and sat down to an hour of joy. He toasted his bacon on a fork and caught the drops of fat on his bread; then he put the rasher on his thick slice of bread, and cut off chunks with a clasp-knife, poured his tea into his saucer, and was happy. With his family about, meals were never so pleasant.
The family views him as the villain of the piece, but Lawrence can't quite bring himself as author to paint Walter as entirely evil. He is merely low, common, uneducated. He is, more or less, Lawrence's own father, as Lawrence grew up in a collier's rented house on the edge of the coal fields by Sherwood Forest.

Most of the novel, so far (I'm about a third, maybe, of the way through), is centered around Gertrude Morel's point of view. It's a great novel, a beautiful novel, and justly Lawrence's most famous. Lawrence paints a detailed portrait of life, his scenes full of household objects and the minutia of nature, the scents of flowers and the buzzing of insects all vivid but not sentimental, not "Nature" as a person, a force separate from humanity. The forces of nature run through everything, through every character, their forces pushing them along into collision with one another, and Lawrence makes much of tiny moments of solitude in his characters' lives. In the chapter I quote at the start of this post, Paul (the Morels' third child) is looking for a job. He goes off to look at advertisements in the newspaper but before he can force himself to read the employment pages, he sits in a corner of the public reading room and stares out the window, at sunflowers nodding over the top of a wall, at a brewer's wagon driven by a middle-aged man who looks, to Paul, less intelligent than the horse who pulls the wagon. Paul wishes he was stupid, wishes he could know nothing more of life than the desire to drive a brewer's wagon, wishes he was the horse, and so spared the task of finding a place he doesn't want in the world. And then Paul reads the advertisements, and writes his letters of application, and so takes a job working for a manufacturer of artificial limbs. "It seemed monstrous that a business could be run on wooden legs," he thinks. Lawrence's whole world here runs on wooden legs.

16 comments:

  1. "The moon was high and magnificent ..." is that when she walks around looking at the flowers? People keep talking about Lawrence and sex, but I think he was one of the best flower-writers in English.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Yeah, that's the scene. There are flowers (and trees and grasses) all through Sons and Lovers, and also all through Women in Love. And there are also the moon, and the sky, and bodies of water. Lawrence wrote about the natural world really well, really powerfully.

    I think sex is like a character, maybe, or a sort of plague-induced-crisis, in his books. Women in Love is powerfully erotically charged, I thought, but also really weird; the sex is all about domination, power, self-righteousness even. I haven't read Chatterley, but I hear that it's actually pretty silly the way DHL talks about sex in it. I'll have to see for myself some day.

    Sons and Lovers is a great book. A great book.

    ReplyDelete
  3. He has that violent pulpit-delivery force and he uses it on small, still things like violets. Ruskin does the same, come to think of it, when he gets himself behind pebbles and leaves. (I wonder if you could argue that the common aesthetic of both writers lies in that difference of scale and motion: active massive artifice of language and small solitary motionless natural object? And Lawrence puts those small still things inside the language too, when he uses a word like "quite" or "very." "Quite" shouldn't be a strong word but the weakness and prissiness in it seem to excite him. Example: a fretty character in Chatterley's proposing a social-sexual revolution by saying, "'It's quite time man began to improve on his own nature, especially the physical side of it,'" and this being followed up with another character deciding that "[T]he only bridge across the chasm will be the phallus!")

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That bridge comment makes me laugh. "I got yer bridge right here." I'm sure that's not what Lawrence intended. "Pulpit delivery" is good; he's so close to sermonizing sometimes because he's so much a believer in what he's saying, so much an evangelist, so convinced himself. Like, as you say, Ruskin. I've been reading Stones of Venice and thinking about your theory of powerful language surrounding small objects and details. I will have to think more about that. But Ruskin's description of the approach to Venice struck me as a passage Lawrence might have written, especially the lines about vegetation.

      Delete
  4. I'm wondering if you've read John Cowper Powys. They always feel so kindred to me.

    I expect being a poet who dealt so much with the inner and outer nature of plants and animals before Lawrence turned to novels must have made a difference...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I just told Umbagollah on his blog that I have for a long time confused Powys with William Cowper, the guy who wrote poems of everyday life. I like Cowper's elegy to his dead pet rabbit; that's a darned nice poem. I know nothing of Powys. There is also more to read, more to learn, more to know. As I am about to say to Himadri in my reply to his below comment, I need to look into DHL's stories and poetry. I have never read a single poem of his. I'm a Yeats man, mostly.

      Delete
    2. Oh, I am a huge Yeats fan. In fact, the Collected Yeats is one inch from my computer at this very moment. I expect you would like Lawrence's poems if you like "Sons and Lovers."

      I like Powys... Or did. Haven't read him in a while. "Wolf Solent" had a certain kinship with Lawrence. "Glastonbury Romance" I've read a couple of times as well. No other rereads there...

      Delete
    3. Blog question: Okay, you're on blogspot and you have linked replies and sub-replies, whereas mine are just in order by time. Is this something particular to your template, or am I missing something?

      Delete
    4. I just figured this threaded comments thing out last night! On your "my blogs" page, go to "settings" and select "posts and comments." Under Comments set "comment location" to "embedded." Voila! Threaded comments!

      Delete
    5. Thanks! I wonder if complicating things means that one should show fewer posts on a page...

      Delete
    6. Eh, I don't worry about that level of detail. People won't scroll down for more than one post anyway, so it doesn't matter how many posts per page you display, really. So says I, and what do I know?

      Delete
    7. There's a piece by T.R. Wright that refers to Lawrence and Powys both as "Hardy's heirs," which is, I think, a useful shorthand way to think of the similarities between them, their mutual faith in the intense focal power of a location because it is that location. They both acknowledge him too. Powys dedicated his first novel to Hardy.

      Delete
  5. Reading this post reminded me to add "Sons and Lovers" to my reading list. I read it last as a teenager, when I wasn't ready for it, and I didn't quite tqake it in.

    I geet teh impression that Lawrence's writing became increasingly extreme and, frankly, insane with age, EVen so fervent an admirer as leavis described "The Plumed Serpent" as "regrettable". I thoight "lady Chaterley's Lover" was pretty damn silly, to be honest; but I read it at an age when I also read "Sons and Lovers", which is quite clearly a masterpiece but failed to make much of it.

    I'm currently reading "The Rainbow", and am looking forward to moving on shortly to "Women in Love". His short stories and novellas are also often remarkable. Indeed, it was reading teh story "The Odour of Chrysanthemums" last year that convinced me that I really ought to try out his major novels again.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. As you know, I know you're reading The Rainbow. I'm pleased to discover that there's another novel about the Brangwens. I know what you mean about having to slow down with Lawrence, though. I'm just over halfway through Sons and Lovers and it's a lot of work, exhausting to get through a few pages. There is so much density all the time and the ideas all hook into each other but it's not always clear what he's saying; it's like the transcription of a man arguing with himself, convinced that both points of view are absolutely correct.

      I have had little exposure to Lawrence's short works. I need to see about his stories and his poems. His prose style has has a permanent effect upon me as a novelist, I think. I'm a sucker for those English Modernists. It's funny how similar he is to Hemingway in a lot of ways. Prose style-wise, I mean. Though they're both romantics and worried about ideas of manhood, and man in relation to woman. And beards; they both had those big busy beards. Makes you think.

      Delete
  6. You mention a scene from this novel that resonated with me… the scene of his father cooking his bacon, using only his fork to turn it. So many years of getting up before everyone to trudge off to work. OK, commute to work. And… screw it. If you have to explain it, you're ruined it all. To which I think DHL would agree.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Dwight, one of the things I so admire about this novel is that it's all so believable, so lived-in, every scene. We can't put that all down to it being semi-autobiographical, either. Plenty of straight memoir strains credulity just because it's badly written. But I really love that scene with Walter making his own breakfast. I used to work nights, and almost every meal I ate was in solitude, for a good long stretch of time. Being awake in a sleeping house has a feel like nothing else, surely.

    ReplyDelete