by D.H. Lawrence (Woodsworth Editions, 369 pages)
D.H. Lawrence's third novel clearly sets the page for the themes he would explore in later work, most obviously the controversial Lady Chatterley's Lover. A novel that resounds with melancholy, Sons and Lovers is written in the epic mode and largely concerns the struggles of the Morel family in early 20th century England. The central figure is Paul, a stand-in for Lawrence himself, and the novel's focus on Paul's early love affairs apparently also have echos of the author's own early adventures.
That Sons and Lovers can be viewed as partly autobiographical is more an issue for Lawrence scholars - Lawrenceites? Lawrencians? - and its identity as an important early work by a modern master is likewise something that can excite only the true academic. The only issue of importance for the rest of us common folk is whether the book succeeds as an entertaining read. In this respect, the novel flourishes where so many so-called "classics" have floundered. The struggle of the Morels has remained surprisingly relevant in the hundred years since the book was written, probably because their concerns are not tied too tightly into their historical setting. They worry about what all families continue to worry about: money, status, reputation and, most of all, the right marriage.
The title describes both the novel's characters and the problem which dogs Paul Morel for the entire piece. Obsessively devoted to his mother, Paul toys with the emotions of Miriam, a farm girl, and Clara, a married clerk, as he struggles to decide whether he'd rather be a son or a lover. He behaves more or less like a cad, seducing one into sacrificing her innocence and another into betraying her estranged husband. That Morel is never entirely despicable is a credit to Lawrence's skill - Morel is surprisingly sympathetic, although this may be because, as a man, I could relate to his youthful uncertainty.
The women are wonderfully drawn characters, despite falling into the usual female archetypes - the domineering mother (Mrs. Morel), the loyal saint (Miriam), the bad girl (Clara). This is understandable given the era in which Lawrence was writing and, to be fair, all the women do occasionally reveal more complex shades of grey. And Clara is redeemed, despite her transgressions. Still, Miriam remains the faithful lover even long after Paul Morel no longer deserves it, which may have something to do with the fact that she was apparently based on Jessie Chambers, a woman whose relationship with Lawrence was convoluted, to say the least.
It's possible this book will always have more appeal to men: as an account of early sexual longing, the novel is certainly one of the best I've encountered (and achingly accurate). Female readers may also find great insight, since the book does not try to pretend that women do not share these urges. Still, one can't forget that in Lawrence's world, all women are ultimately either someone's wife or someone who wants to be someone's wife. This isn't surprising, given when the novel was written, but the modern female reader should prepare herself for a little frustration.