- Author: D.H. Lawrence (1885-1930)
- Rank: #92
- Published: 1920
- Publisher: Thomas Seltzer
- Pages: 541 (Penguin)
- First Line: “Ursula and Gudrun Brangwen sat one morning in the window-bay of their father’s house in Beldover, working and talking.”
- Last Lines: ” ‘You can’t have it, because it’s false, impossible,’ she said. ‘I don’t believe that,’ he answered.”
- ML Edition: #68 (three dust jackets – 1938, 1950, 1967)
- Film: 1969 – ***.5 (dir. Ken Russell)
- Acclaim: Modern Library Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century – #49
- Read: Winter, 1996
The Novel: While there are various series’ on the list and books that can be considered part of a series, this is the only out and out sequel on the list. It tells the further story of Ursula and Gudrun, the two sisters who were the subjects of Lawrence’s The Rainbow. It wasn’t designed to be a sequel — it was supposed to be one long work; the publisher, however, decided to publish the two books separately and after the controversy stirred up by the first book, decided not to publish Women in Love at all, leading to a change in publishers and a gap of five years before it appeared. The Rainbow, on its own, is a great novel (it finished at #48 on the Modern Library list) and was a strong contender for my list, but Women in Love is an even better one. My Penguin paperback describes the two as “his greatest novels” but both the Modern Library and I disagree. This is not a slight to Women in Love, though, when you realize that the ML placed Sons and Lovers in the top 10 and it makes my list, though not nearly so high. Still, there are few who can match him and his descriptive use of the English language.
Consider a death scene the way that Lawrence writes it: “He had come to the hollow basin of snow, surrounded by sheer slopes and precipices, out of which rose a track that brought one to the top of the mountain. But he wandered unconsciously, till he slipped and fell down, and as he fell something broke in his soul, and immediately he went to sleep.” Or his description of Ursula’s ambiguous feelings: “She knew what kind of love, what kind of surrender he wanted. And she was not at all sure that this was the kind of love she herself wanted. She was not at all sure that it was this mutual unison in separateness that she wanted. She wanted unspeakable intimacies.” Lawrence’s language is unmistakably his (I think of the opening line of Lady Chatterly’s Lover: “Our is essentially a tragic age so we refuse to take it tragically.” — I had decided in late 1995 that the next novel from my bookcase I would read would be the one with the best first line – it won).
This is the story of those two sisters and the lives they begin to lead: “This was a whole life! Sometimes she had periods of tight horror, when it seemed to her that her life was pass away and be gone, without having been more than this. But she never really accepted it. Her spirit was active, her life like a shoot that is growing steadily, but which has not yet come above ground.” Lawrence’s language, usually thought of for frank sexual description and depiction, is vibrant and alive (so much of this is encapsulated in his poem “Elemental” — if you haven’t read it, get to it). His novels pre-date the Modernist movement of Woolf and Joyce, but he has a similar mastery of the language and like Joyce, often found his books banned for their content (both Lady Chatterly’s Lover and Ulysses were involved in famous trials). But his characters are distinctly his own, often drawn from the poverty-stricken towns of his youth. They are intelligent characters, striving to free themselves from the world that wears them down, to find an artistic freedom that makes the toil of wages irrelevant.
Consider, one final selection from the end of the book, one that seems to sum up both Lawrence’s style and his content all at once: “He remembered also the beautiful face of one whom he had loved, and who had died still having the faith to yield to the mystery. That dead face was beautiful, no one could call it cold, mute, material. No one could remember it without gaining faith in the mystery, without the soul’s warming with new, deep life trust.”
The Film: What do people remember most about this film? That it had the famous male nude-wrestling scene between Oliver Reed and Alan Bates? That it was Glenda Jackson’s first Oscar-winning role, a film that put her on the map in the early seventies when she had never been heard of before? That it was written by Larry Kramer, who later became one of the most famous gay activists and playwrights during the late seventies and early eighties?
All of those are important, of course. The wrestling scene was a good example of Lawrence’s work on film, a perfect summation of the intense physical and spiritual love between Gerald and Birkin that is summed up at the end of the novel. The performance by Glenda Jackson is a magnificent work of acting, winning the Oscar and all three major critics awards at the time (she lost the BAFTA to Maggie Smith for her Oscar winning performance in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie because of the British release date and somehow, against all sanity, lost the Golden Globe to Ali MacGraw for Love Story). She was beautiful and sensual (the first Oscar winning nude scene), yet managed to give us a full sense of Gudrun’s intelligence and individuality. Then there is Larry Kramer, whose Oscar helped propel his writing career, which would include a seminal novel (Faggots) and the first important art work of any medium dealing with AIDS (The Normal Heart).
But the true importance of this film is to give us Lawrence’s work on-screen. There had been a 1960 film of Sons and Lovers and it had been nominated for Best Picture, but it was somewhat sanitized, coming out when the Code was still in enforcement. There is a solid film version of The Rainbow, made in the late eighties. But this is the best of all the adaptations of Lawrence’s work, the only one to truly give us an idea of his literary scope and is a good example of how you can make a very good two hour film out of a 500 page novel.