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Is Lawrence a Moving Writer, and Does it Matter?

Neil Roberts
p. 9-19

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1If the centrality of emotion in Lawrence seems an unexceptionable statement, when I think about it, I begin to find it less straightforward than it appears to be. I don’t want to present myself as an H.M. Bateman character, “The Man who Disputed the Centrality of Emotion in Lawrence.” But I do want to explore what I think a problematic aspect of this topic. My question, “Is Lawrence a moving writer?” goes back to my student days and a conversation with a friend, puzzling over the fact that, though we both admired Lawrence some way the other side of idolatry, we rarely found his work moving, as we did Tolstoy or George Eliot. Recalling this reminded me of a comment on Lawrence by the British novelist David Storey. An interviewer asked Storey about influences on his work, and I will quote his reply at length, so that you can get the full flavour of his distinctive critical vocabulary:

Well, Lawrence of course. Lawrence was a prick actually, and the more he went on, the more of a prick he showed himself to be. He became self-conscious and started intellectualising and striking attitudes all over the bloody place. After Sons and Lovers, it’s all rubbish ... The Rainbow and all that... He just got taken over by these middle-class pricks all dancing round him. But there’s some fine writing in Sons and Lovers. Re-reading it, I’ve noticed the character of the father... the father is fascinating. Lawrence obviously thought he was a cunt and didn’t want to reveal any of his opinions... so he doesn’t tell you anything about him. There’s a scene where he goes to the pit and tells him about someone’s death. The father just puts his hand over his eyes... doesn’t say a thing... just goes over and leans against the side of the truck. It’s only about three sentences, but so moving... that’s fine writing to me... Lawrence was an emotional writer until he started thinking he was an intellectual[...] (Storey 64)

2Here is the anxiety of influence with a vengeance. Storey is, not coincidentally, himself a miner’s son. His first two novels were realist in mode, but I have always thought his third novel, Radcliffe, was a failed imitation of Women in Love. But Storey is right about that passage from Sons and Lovers. It is a piece of fine and moving writing. It is of course Paul’s announcement of his son William’s death that Walter is reacting to:

“Is it thee Paul!—is ’e worse?”
“You’ve got to go to London.”
The two walked off the pit bank, where men were watching curiously. As they came out, and went along the railway, with the sunny autumn field on one side, and a wall of trucks on the other, Morel said, in a frightened voice:
“E’s niver gone, child?”
The miner’s voice was terrified.
“Last night—we had a telegram from my mother.”
Morel walked on a few strides, then leaned up against a truck side, his hand over his eyes. He was not crying. Paul stood looking round, waiting. On the weighing machine a truck trundled slowly. Paul saw everything, except his father leaning against the truck as if he were tired. (SL 167)

3At one level Lawrence is employing the familiar device of heightening emotion through understatement: the father’s grief is conveyed not by tears, but by “leaning against the truck as if he were tired.” But there is also a deeper and more distinctive effect. Up to this point the episode has been focalised through Paul, but from the moment his father appears, Paul is no longer the focaliser. It is not he who is registering his father’s emotion: he looks around, waiting, he is only interested in getting away; he “saw everything, except his father.” Walter leans against the truck, having no human support. That moment is shared by narrator and reader, and no other character in the novel knows anything about it. The emotion of the scene is thus coloured by the son’s alienation from his father, and the father’s marginalisation in the world of the novel.

4It might be said that this is emotion as aesthetic effect. If David Storey, or I, says that the scene is moving, we are talking about what it makes us feel as readers, not about what the character is feeling, since that remains unknown: it is part of the aesthetic effect that it remains unknown. In that sense it is untypical of emotion in Lawrence, even in Sons and Lovers, where the death of Paul’s mother might seem more characteristic. This is of course a lengthy episode in which varied and conflicting feelings are played out, and I will look at one brief passage, where Paul is watching over his mother’s dead body:

She lay like a girl asleep and dreaming of her love. The mouth was a little open, as if wondering from the suffering, but her face was young, her brow clear and white as if life had never touched it. He looked again at the eyebrows, at the small, winsome nose, a bit on one side. She was young again. Only the hair as it arched so beautifully from her temples was mixed with silver, and the two simple plaits that lay on her shoulders were filigree of silver and brown. She would wake up. She would lift her eyelids. She was with him still. He bent and kissed her passionately. But there was coldness against his mouth. He bit his lip with horror. Looking at her, he felt he could never, never let her go. No! He stroked the hair from her temples. That was too cold. He saw the mouth so dumb and wondering at the hurt. Then he crouched on the floor, whispering to her: “Mother—Mother!” (SL 443)

5The narrative method here is at the opposite extreme from Walter’s response to William’s death. There the narrator was objectively annotating the external signs of Walter’s grief. Here the free indirect discourse brings the narrator close to complete identification with Paul. There is no question of the reader thinking about the quality of Walter’s feeling, and it is unlikely that anyone would dissent from Storey’s opinion that it is a piece of fine and moving writing. This passage is a different matter. The formal identification of narrator and character makes it possible for a reader similarly to identify with Paul, and such a reader might find the passage straightforwardly “moving.” However, by this stage in the novel most readers either recognise that the formal identification doesn’t preclude a critique of Paul’s emotions or, more crudely, are repelled by both character and author. To such a reader Mrs Morel’s youthful appearance in death, rendered with such apparent sentimentality, is a symptom of Paul’s Oedipal relationship to her, and his desire that she should not have had sex with his father. Such a reader may even feel revulsion at the passage.

6For the experienced reader of Lawrence, moreover, the description of the dead Mrs Morel is shadowed by Mrs Crich’s outburst, in Women in Love, about the appearance of her husband’s body:

“Beautiful,” she asserted, “beautiful as if life had never touched you—never touched you.—God send I look different.—I hope I shall look my years, when I am dead.—Beautiful, beautiful,” she crooned over him. “You can see him in his teens, with his first beard on his face.—A beautiful soul, beautiful—” Then there was a tearing in her voice as she cried: “None of you look like this, when you are dead! Don’t let it happen again.” It was a strange, wild command from out of the unknown. (WL 334-5)

7There is no straightforward parallel between the cases of Thomas Crich and Gertrude Morel, but they do illuminate each other. Thomas’s youthful appearance represents his Christian idealism, which survived unscathed his years as a colliery owner, and for which his wife paid the emotional price. Mrs Crich knows this, and so there is no danger of the reader interpreting the scene sentimentally. Gertrude lying “like a girl asleep and dreaming of her love” represents her withholding her adult self from her husband, and the consequent power of Paul’s Oedipal fantasy. Paul is not entirely unaware of this, but his knowledge is swept away by his feelings at his mother’s death.

8For the reader to be straightforwardly “moved” by Mrs Morel’s death, as one is by Walter’s response to William’s death, would therefore necessitate a failure to understand the full meaning of the scene. However, this is not to say that such an understanding excludes any kind of affective response. The narration of Mrs Morel’s death might be all the more painful for a reader who recognises not only that Paul is losing the person he loves most in the world, but that his very love is a disease that threatens to thwart his emotional development.

9Women in Love takes this analytic representation of emotion to the point of defamiliarisation. If Paul’s “Mother—Mother!” is unpleasantly painful rather than moving, Mrs Crich’s “None of you look like this, when you are dead!” is “a strange, wild command from out of the unknown” which the reader may be in a better position to understand than her children are, but which leaves us as emotionally stunned as they are. This defamiliarisation of emotion, and consequent barrier to the reader’s being “moved” by scenes, is characteristic of Women in Love. The representation of Gerald’s feelings about his father’s death contrasts starkly with Paul’s about his mother:

There was no escape—he was bound up with his father, he had to see him through. And the father’s will never relaxed or yielded to death. It would have to snap when death at last snapped it,—if it did not persist after physical death. In the same way, the will of the son never yielded. He stood firm and immune, he was outside this death and this dying.

It was a trial by ordeal. Could he stand and see his father slowly dissolve and disappear in death, without once yielding his will, without once relenting before the omnipotence of death. Like a Red Indian undergoing torture, Gerald would experience the whole process of slow death without wincing or flinching. He even triumphed in it. He somehow wanted this death, even forced it. It was as if he himself were dealing the death, even when he most recoiled in horror. Still, he would deal it, he would triumph through death. (WL 322)

10This has the appearance of free indirect discourse, but there is none of the effect, as in the passage about Paul Morel, of identification between narrator and character. Once we ask ourselves, is this comparison with a Red Indian undergoing torture being made in Gerald’s head, is he conscious of “wanting” his father’s death, we must at least wonder whether Gerald is capable of such ruthless self-analysis. Whereas, in the Sons and Lovers passage, the account of Paul’s emotions is informed by an analysis that the reader brings to it from elsewhere in the novel, here the analysis displaces a direct representation of the character’s feelings.

11As another example, consider Birkin’s response to the deaths of Diana Crich and the young doctor:

“What does it matter if Diana Crich is alive or dead?”
“Doesn’t it?” [Ursula] said, shocked.
“No, why should it? Better she were dead—she’ll be much more real. She’ll be positive in death. In life she was a fretting, negated thing.”
“You are rather horrible,” murmured Ursula.
“No!” I’d rather Diana Crich were dead. Her living, somehow, was all wrong. As for the young man, poor devil—he’ll find his way out quickly instead of slowly. Death is all right—nothing better.” (WL 186)

12Part of the reader’s response is likely to be with Ursula—Birkin is “rather horrible,” his “refusal to mourn” is partly a willed attitude, partly symptomatic of an affective disorder. We might find the author “rather horrible” too, if we suspect that he has conveniently made up Diana’s “fretting, negated” character, not previously evident in the novel. But if we are repelled by Birkin’s words it is surely not because we are any more moved by these deaths, in themselves, than he is. This is not exactly an uncharacteristically self-reflexive moment in Women in Love, but Birkin’s words are drawing our attention, more brutally than we might care for, to the actual function of Diana’s death in the novel. It is not exactly like Breughel’s Icarus, from which “everything turns away/ Quite leisurely” (Auden 124), but it is in the background, and it matters not for itself but because it motivates the compelling account of Gerald’s desperate and fruitless plunges into the “whole universe [...] as cold as hell’ of the lake.

13Much of what is most challenging and distinctive about Women in Love derives from the way in which, as here, Birkin is both spokesman for the novel’s analysis and symptom of what is being analysed, as if the novel is written from within the disorder that is its subject. A parallel and more central instance is his notorious refusal to tell Ursula that he loves her;

“I can’t say it is love I have to offer—and it isn’t love I want. It is something much more impersonal and harder,—and rarer.”
There was a silence, out of which she said:
“You mean you don’t love me?”
She suffered furiously, saying that.
“Yes, if you like to put it like that.—Though perhaps that isn’t true. I don’t know. At any rate, I don’t feel the emotion of love for you—no, and I don’t want to. Because it gives out in the last issues.” (WL 145)

14The reader, like Ursula, is disappointed by the “moving” effect of a declaration of love though in this case sympathetic feeling is present in the form of Ursula’s suffering at having to utter the words, “you don’t love me.” If we felt completely that, in Ursula’s words, Birkin “can’t love,” we would be unable to sustain a sympathetic interest in the development of their relationship: we would want Ursula to get out as quickly as she can. But nor would we be able to sustain such an interest if we believed that Birkin was the spokesman of a transcendent authorial truth—the scene would have no human interest, it would be like a scene out of an illustrative philosophical tale. Ursula’s pain is an important affective element in the scene, but unlike Walter Morel’s pain it is not the point of the scene: an adequate response is dependent on the reader’s ability to qualify sympathy for Ursula and analytically put it in context.

15Finally, let us consider the most important death, and potentially the most affective moment in the novel, that of Gerald, who is not a plot-function like Diana, or a minor character like his father, but one of the book’s most exhaustively rendered consciousnesses. Like Mrs Morel, Gerald’s body is watched over by a man who loved him:

With head oddly lifted, like a man who draws his head back from an insult, half haughtily, he watched the cold, mute, material face. It had a bluish cast. It sent a shaft of ice through the heart of the living man. Cold, mute, material! Birkin remembered how once Gerald had clutched his hand, with a warm, momentaneous grip of final love. For one second—then let go for ever. If he had kept true to that clasp, death would not have mattered. Those who die, and dying still can love, still believe, do not die. They live still in the beloved. Gerald might still have been living in the spirit with Birkin, even after death. He might have lived with his friend, a further life [....]
Gerald! The denier! He left the heart cold, frozen, hardly able to beat. Gerald’s father had looked wistful, to break the heart: but not this last terrible look of cold, mute Matter. Birkin watched and watched.
Ursula stood aside watching the living man stare at the frozen face of the dead man. Both faces were unmoved and unmoving. (WL 480)

16The idea of the dead living a further life in the beloved is surprisingly sentimental, reminiscent of George Eliot’s “O may I join the choir invisible/Of those immortal dead who live again/ In lives made better by their presence” (Eliot 301). It is an idea that is full of strong affective potential, but it is only hypothetical, just as the wistful, heartbreaking appearance of Thomas Crich in death is only mentioned here, to define what Birkin is not feeling, rather than in the narration of his death, which inspires horror rather than wistfulness.

17Birkin is “unmoved,” and the comparison of him to “a man who draws his head back from an insult, half haughtily” typifies the stance of the narrator in all the potentially moving scenes in the novel. Storey is right about Lawrence becoming more intellectual (though not only thinking that he was). When Lawrence said that he would not write in the style of Sons and Lovers again, “in that hard, violent style full of sensation and presentation” (2L 132), he might have added that he would not again make the presentation of emotion an aesthetic effect.

18Coming to the end of my reflections on this question, I acknowledge that by concentrating on Women in Love I have to an extent skewed the answer. There are undoubtedly more moving episodes in The Rainbow, such as Tom cradling the young Anna in the barn while Lydia is in labour, and I’m sure examples could be found from his later work. But even if Women in Love is not Lawrence’s greatest novel there is a sense in which it is paradigmatic of his central project as a writer, and his most intense commitment to that project, so that most readers find all his later novels in some way fall short of its achievement. A refusal to take his characters’ emotions at their own valuation, or to aestheticise them for the reader’s sympathetic identification is crucial to the thought-adventure that makes Women in Love a uniquely challenging and stimulating novel.

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Auden, W.H., “Musee des Beaux Arts.” Collected Shorter Poems 1927-1957. London: Faber, 1966: 123-24

Eliot, George, ‘O May I Join the Choir Invisible.’ The Legend of Jubal and Other Poems.

Edinburgh :Blackwood, n.d.: 301-03

Storey, David, “David Storey in Conversation with Victor Sage.” The New Review. 3, 31, 1976: 63-5

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Neil Roberts, « Is Lawrence a Moving Writer, and Does it Matter? », Études Lawrenciennes, 42 | 2011, 9-19.

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Neil Roberts, « Is Lawrence a Moving Writer, and Does it Matter? », Études Lawrenciennes [En ligne], 42 | 2011, mis en ligne le 16 janvier 2014, consulté le 25 mai 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/lawrence.109

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Neil Roberts

University of Sheffield, UK

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