The 1958 Modern Library version of Sons and Lovers

Sons and Lovers

  • Author:  D.H. Lawrence  (1885  –  1930)
  • Rank:  #81
  • Published:  1913
  • Publisher:  Gerald Duckworth and Company Ltd
  • Pages:  511  (Penguin paperback)
  • First Line:  ” ‘The Bottoms’ succeeded to ‘Hell Row’. “
  • Last Lines:  “He would not take that direction, to the darkness, to follow her.  He walked towards the faintly humming, glowing town, quickly.”
  • ML Edition:  #109  (six dust jackets  –  1924 / 1927 / 1931 / 1936 / 1958 / 1962)
  • Acclaim:  Modern Library Top 100 English Language Novels of the 20th Century  –  #9
  • Film:  1960  (***.5  –  dir. Jack Cardiff)
  • Read:  Summer, 1996

The Novel: On the one hand, D.H. Lawrence has only two books on the list (less than he landed on the original Modern Library list) and doesn’t even make the top 80.  On the other hand, only 21 authors have multiple novels on the list, only 7 of whom are English.  So Lawrence is on a short list of the greatest novelists to ever arise from that island (the other six are Dickens, Forster, Fowles, Greene, Orwell and Woolf).  His Women in Love has already appeared, The Rainbow came close to making the list and he is also the author of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, one of the few novels to combine literary talent with pure eroticism.  He is one of the masters of the English language, without question (“I wish men would get back their balance among the elements / And be a bit more fiery, as incapable of telling lies / As fire is. / I wish they’d be true to their own variation, as water is, / Which goes through all the stages of steam and ice / Without losing its head. / I am sick of lovable people, / Somehow they are a lie.” – “Elemental”).

This is his masterpiece, the novel that put him squarely on the map, from which he never looked back.  It is his ode to his youth, to the coal town that produced him and ate his parents, to the attempts at love that he left behind.  From the very start, he is able to capture it all in pure poetry: “The sun came through the chinks in the vine-leaves and made beautiful patterns, like a lace scarf, falling on her and on him.”  He even finds scraps of healthy life in the midst of the dirt and the coal: “Mrs Morel watched the sun sink from the glistening sky, leaving a soft flower-blue overhead, while the western space went red, as if all the fire had swum down there, leaving the bell cast flawless blue.”  This is just before the birth of Paul, the protagonist, about whom we learn the following: “She felt, when she looked at her child’s dark, brooding pupils, as if a burden were on her heart.”

We watch as Paul grows up and grows away from his father: “Conversation was impossible between the father and any other member of the family.  He was an outsider.  He had denied the God in him.”  Paul hangs close to his mother though, and it is the tearing apart between him and her as he eventually becomes romantically attached to Miriam that sets the novels actions in motion.  This is Paul’s ascent into manhood, a 19th century Thomas Hardy life seen through the potential of 20th century literary eroticism.

“He loved Miriam with his soul.  He grew warm at the thought of Clara, he battled with her, he knew the curves of her breast and shoulders as if they had been moulded inside him; and yet he did not positively desire her.”  But in the end the love or desire for either one is not enough to save Paul.  He leaves Clara to allow her to return to her husband and when confronted with the possibility of marriage to Miriam “He could not bear it – that breast which was warm and which cradled him without taking the burden of him.”  It is not to be.  “She could not take him and relieve him of the responsibility of himself.”

Wendy Hiller, Dean Stockwell and Trevor Howard as the Morrels in the 1960 film of D.H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers

The Film: There was such potential to get it wrong.  These were still the days of the Production Code, and while it had loosened, it had not loosened to the point where you could faithfully film a Lawrence novel.  Indeed, the film was released in the very same year when Lady Chatterley’s Lover was finally legally allowed to be printed unexpurgated in Britain.  Then, of course, the film was also being made specifically to try and bring in the American teen audience.  “To attract the teenagers again, (producer Jerry) Wald cut out the first half of the novel and concentrated the movie’s ads on the son and his lovers.”  (Inside Oscar, p 317).  So it could have gone so horribly wrong.

But there’s really only one thing they did wrong and it wasn’t fatal.  It was the casting of Dean Stockwell as Paul (something else done at Wald’s insistence to help in the States).  He felt completely wrong, never reached the core of Paul, never seemed like the kind of boy who could have come from that house.  But it isn’t fatal and he isn’t bad, just wrong.  And the rest of the film is so right, from Trevor Howard as Paul’s oppressive father to Wendy Hiller as the all-important mother.  The film did indeed throw out most of the early story of how the Morrels met and married and grew their family, but that’s fine.  To fit a 500 page novel into a two hour film, these things must be done and this one did cut through straight to the heart of the story.  It perfectly re-created on film the coal community, the bunches of houses, the darkness and dirt, the shadows in the house that Paul seeks to escape with his paintings and his lovers.

They were also saved by the good decision of director (and former cinematographer) Jack Cardiff to film in black-and-white, as he felt color wouldn’t capture the gritty feel (a correct move – even if it were filmed today it should be filmed in black-and-white) and the replacement of Joan Collins with Mary Ure.  Mary Ure as Clara is great (she earned an Oscar nomination) and Heather Sears as Miriam is even better.  It’s a shame they couldn’t have found one of the angry young men of British film, a Burton or Harris or Finney or Courteney to play Paul.  But they did everything else so well, it all holds together.