Having only read Lady Chatterly’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence, I thought it was high time I explore something else of his. And since I enjoyed Lady Chatterly so much, I had very high hopes. Hopes that were not entirely fulfilled by Sons and Lovers, a book which I somehow managed to find simultaneously boring and fascinating. Most bizarre indeed.
The marriage of Gertrude and Walter Morel has become a battleground. Repelled by her uneducated and sometimes violent husband, delicate Gertrude devotes her life to her children, especially to her sons, William and Paul — determined they will not follow their father into working down the coal mines. But conflict is inevitable when Paul seeks to escape his mother’s suffocating grasp through relationships with women his own age. Set in Lawrence’s native Nottinghamshire, Sons and Lovers is a highly autobiographical and compelling portrayal of childhood, adolescence and the clash of generations.
This is a book of conflicts. Not only are there the family arguments, the strained relationships, the lover’s tiffs, but there is conflict even in the style in which it was written. There are two main characters in Sons: Gertrude, the mother, and Paul, her son. The book starts off following Gertrude’s story, her pregnancies and subsequent struggles to keep food on the table with an unreliable, alcoholic husband. Halfway through the book, however, the focuses shifts to Paul — the old making way for the new — and the two characters begin to battle with this change of focus.
I have to say that a lot of scenes were unpleasant to read — some struck too close to home. Other scenes are almost boring with their lack of action. But there is something morbidly compelling about the way the book is written, something in the level of detail conveyed that keeps you reading even as you think you aren’t enjoying the story. It’s tough going at times, yes, but despite protests that it’s boring you keep turning the page, and that’s what makes you realize that it’s actually interesting.
There is something voyeuristic about reading Sons because it provides such an intimate look into an unhappy family home and into the slightly incestuous relationship between Paul and his mother. The duality of their love — a love that brings them such great happiness and such bitter torment — is the driver of the story, and the conflict feels very real in a unique and peculiar sort of way. The climax of this conflict is a tragic but expected one, like watching a slo-mo car crash, and I even had a tear in my eye at one point.
But what makes this book worth reading is the passages of sensitive insight, the way Lawrence captures a profound turning point for a character in a few sentences. And the sensual descriptions are pretty powerful too — as in Lady Chatterly, Lawrence makes great use of setting, and the country in particular. Descriptions of flowers and fields and coal mines abound, really giving texture to the society, and I must admit it was fun to recognize the names of some of the villages mentioned.
In sum, it’s definitely not easy reading — perhaps it is best saved for the more experienced Lawrence readers — but considering its autobiographical basis, the historical setting, and the oddly compelling character conflicts, I think it’s worth your time to give it a try.
This book is one of my 100+ Reading Challenge!