In 1913, having recently eloped to Europe with a married woman, DH Lawrence began work on a novel which would encompass his vision of 19th-century English provincial life. Set in the Midlands, it focused on the changing fortunes of the Brangwen family, farmers in a region being slowly overrun by coal mining, and on the associated problems faced by modern men and women as their traditional ties to the land were increasingly severed. As Lawrence wrote at the time: ‘I am so sure that only through a readjustment between men and women, and a making free and healthy of this sex, will she [England] get out of her present atrophy.’
Originally called The Sisters, the manuscript became too big for a single work, and Lawrence turned it into two novels. The first, the story of three generations of the Brangwen family, was published as The Rainbow in September 1915. Two months later in a notorious trial, it was prosecuted for obscenity for its immoral portrayal of sex, and the publisher was forced to withdraw it from sale. Crushed by the trial and filled with despair by the continuing world war he had expected would end in 1915, Lawrence returned to his Brangwen saga in 1916 and reworked the remaining material into a fierce and powerful sequel he eventually called Women in Love.
Determined to make sense of the destruction of the war years, Lawrence struggled through his novel to articulate his vision of marriage and sexual love for the 20th century. Women in Love takes up the story of the two Brangwen sisters, Ursula and Gudrun, now sophisticated, worldly women. It opens with Ursula embroidering and Gudrun drawing as they sit together in the window-bay of their father’s house.
The first words come from Gudrun, who asks her sister, ‘Ursula, don’t you really want to get married?’ Ursula replies that she doesn’t know, ‘It depends how you mean.’ Like most things in Lawrence’s world, marriage no longer has a fixed meaning, and Ursula’s ambivalence to marriage is one of the driving forces of the novel: ‘When it comes to the point, one isn’t even tempted – oh, if I were tempted, I’d marry like a shot. I’m only tempted not to.’
Ursula’s contrariness compels and frustrates her lover, the school inspector Rupert Birkin (based on Lawrence himself). She resists Birkin’s urge to dominate her and there is a chance these two might find the quivering, delicately balance union of independent beings – ‘two single beings constellated together like two stars’ – that Lawrence believed was possible between men and women. But Gudrun’s passionate affair with the mining magnate Gerald Crich is an expression of something much darker in the human psyche and of the broader dissolution of the war years. Their relationship is founded on a shared, magnetic coldness – as a pet rabbit struggles in Gudrun’s hands, Gerald sees, ‘with subtle recognition, her sullen passion of cruelty’.
On finishing Women in Love in November 1916, Lawrence said the novel frightened him because ‘it’s so end of the world …’ As Lawrence’s friend John Middleton Murry acknowledged (despite not liking Women in Love), Lawrence was one of the few writers who ‘struggled with the spiritual catastrophe of the war in the depths of their souls’. Lawrence did not find a publisher for Women in Love until 1920. When it finally appeared in London in May 1921 it was attacked by the conservative, jingoistic newspaper John Bull as ‘a loathsome study of sex depravity leading youth to unspeakable disaster’.
David Herbert Richards Lawrence was born in Nottinghamshire in 1885, the fourth child of a barely literate coal miner and his educated, religious wife. Aged 12 he won a scholarship to Nottingham High School in 1898, but left school at 16 to work as a clerk in a factory. Forced by pneumonia to give up his job, Lawrence found work as a teacher in 1902 and began writing poetry in 1905. Writer Ford Madox Ford published Lawrence’s poetry in English Review and recommended Lawrence’s first novel, The White Peacock, to publisher William Heinemann who published it in 1911.
Soon after, Lawrence fell passionately in love with the German aristocrat Frieda Weekley, who was married to a professor at Nottingham University College. The lovers eloped to Germany before moving to Italy where Lawrence began The Sisters. Following Frieda’s divorce, they were married in London in 1914 in the Kensington Registry Office. Their witnesses were writers Katherine Mansfield and her lover, John Middleton Murry, who moved with the Lawrences to Cornwall. Here Lawrence worked on Women in Love, drawing the charged relationship between Birkin and Gerald Crich from his intense love for Murry. So potent is the homoerotic undercurrent between the two men that in Ken Russell’s 1969 film of Women in Love, the wrestling scene between a naked Alan Bates as Birkin and a naked Oliver Reed as Gerald caused a sensation on its release. (The film also starred Glenda Jackson as Gudrun, for which she received the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1970).
Lawrence and Frieda were expelled from Cornwall in 1917, accused of spying for Germany on the suspicion they were supplying provisions to the German submarines along the Cornish coast, and forbidden to leave England. Disillusioned with England and believing life to be elsewhere, after the war they moved to Italy and never lived in Lawrence’s homeland again. They spent the years until Lawrence’s death in 1930 travelling the world in search of a better life, visiting the United States via Sri Lanka and Australia (where in six weeks Lawrence wrote Kangaroo, published in 1923). In 1925 they returned to Italy, where Lawrence began Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which was published privately in 1928 and banned the same year. He died five years later in Vence, France, aged 44. Lady Chatterley’s Lover only became freely available after 1959 (in New York) and 1960 (London).
Women in Love is an extraordinary novel, for many reasons. Particularly striking are Lawrence’s intense, nuanced probing of human relationships and the dazzling precision with which he observes the natural world and transforms it into a language to evoke the almost inexpressible knowledge of his blood. Here he describes Ursula watching Birkin throw stones into a moonlit pond:
‘Ursula was aware of the bright moon leaping and swaying, all distorted, in her eyes. It seemed to shoot out arms of fire like a cuttlefish, like a luminous polyp, palpitating strongly before her … Then again there was a burst of sound, and a burst of brilliant light, the moon had exploded on the water, and was flying asunder in flakes of white and dangerous fire.’
‘Oh, there is something so loveable about him and his eagerness, his passionate eagerness for life – that is what one loves so,’ said Mansfield of Lawrence. The passionate eagerness of Lawrence the man is everywhere apparent in Women in Love – both in his character Birkin, as well as in the vitality of his writing and the urgency with which he insists on his vision, rhythmically pounding it out like a preacher:
‘And why? Why should we consider ourselves, men and women, as broken fragments of one whole? It is not true. We are not broken fragments of one whole. Rather we are the singling away into purity and clear being, of things that were mixed.’
In 1913 DH Lawrence wrote to a friend: ‘My great religion is a belief in the blood, the flesh, as being wiser than the intellect … All I want is to answer my blood, direct, without fribbling intervention of my mind, or moral, or what-not.’ For Lawrence, sex was the key to understanding life and the universe: ‘I shall always be a Priest of Love and a glad one.’