The Rainbow bored me. A 400 or 500 page book about egocentric women doing not much of anything except talking and talking and talking does not an exciting read make. And let me be clear – by “talking and talking” I don’t mean dialog. I mean waxing poetic about pseudo-philosophical claptrap for pages at a time.
Being 0/2 with D.H. Lawrence, I was not expecting much from Women in Love. But what I discovered is something entirely different, and probably something that Lawrence did not intend. Humor. Why should I be bored when 90% of the novel is just ridiculous?
Now, in the beginning, it really was tedious, and the entire plot appeared to be strapping, young, self-serving intellectual men and the women who they hung out with (sometimes upper crust, sometimes school teachers like Ursula and Gudrun, and sometimes women like Pussum – yes, there is a character named Pussum) sitting around, talking nonsense about the nature of life in the vein of “give me freedom or give me death” – by freedom here meaning the freedom to do whatever it is you want to do. All the pontificating (paragraph after paragraph after paragraph) is variations on that theme: the freedom to love, or not to love, to die for love, to die for lack of love, to run naked through a forest, for men to wrestle naked with other men. You know, all the important stuff.
Ursula is in love with Birkin. Birkin, at first, isn’t in love with her, but then decides he is and asks her to marry him. Then she isn’t sure she loves him, but decides she does and they get married. In there is Hermione, who unfortunately is only present in about half the novel. It seems that Birkin and Hermione had some form of relationship since childhood – you know the type, in which everyone assumes they will be together one day, but just never are officially. Hermione is unpleasant, and Lawrence knows it, and because of that she feels like one of the truly authentic characters. The only scene between Ursula and Birkin that felt real was when they fight about Hermione. Then they make up, and are ridiculous again.
Gudrun, Ursula’s sister, is in love with Gerald. Or something – maybe not love, but she is very attracted to him. Gerald is the son of the mine owner, and seems a class or two above the Brangwan sisters. Gerald is more in love with himself and his maleness than he is with anyone else. But since Ursula and Birkin are together, it made sense for Gerald and Gudrun to be together too. That doesn’t end well, especially for Gerald.
But the elephant in the room is the relationship between Gerald and Birkin. Birkin is very in love with him. Gerald appears to have some feelings for Birkin in return, though Gerald is really only concerned with himself. Birkin wants to be “blood brothers” with Gerald, and talks and talks and talks about a “different kind of love” that can exist between two men, and isn’t possible to have with a woman (an “eternal conjunction”). It appears, though, that Ursula and Birkin’s marriage is the wedge that drives them apart – they know it will never be the same when there are women involved with claims over them, and they part. Birkin’s reaction to Gerald’s death and final dialog with Ursual in the novel is perhaps the only other scene in which I felt there was genuine emotion involved.
”He should have loved me,” he said. “I offered him.”I imagine, if people like Ted Haggard were a bit more honest with themselves (but probably not entirely honest), this is the kind of discussion they would be having with their wives.
“Aren’t I enough for you?” she asked.
“No,” he said. “You are enough for me as far as a woman is concerned…Having you, I can live all my life without anybody else, any other sheer intimacy. But to make it complete, really happy, I wanted eternal union with a man too, another kind of love,” he said.
“I don’t believe it,” she said. “It’s an obstinacy, a theory, a perversity…you can’t have two kinds of love. Why should you!”
It seems as if I can’t,” he said. “Yet I wanted it.”
“You can’t have it, because it’s false, impossible,” she said.
“I don’t believe that,” he answered.
With Women in Love, Lawrence has built an entire novel around the celebration of maleness and male physicality, with Gerald as the ideal (Gerald being based on Katherine Mansfield's husband). It contains what might be the most graphic descriptions of the male body – as in “glistening, muscular thighs” – outside of romance novels with Fabio on the cover. It’s RIDICULOUS. Gerald’s blood is constantly being “penetrated.” Women’s passion for their men are always insatiable. Quotes like this illustrate my point:
How perfect and foreign he was—ah how dangerous! Her soul thrilled with complete knowledge. This was the glistening, forbidden apple, this face of a man. She kissed him, putting her fingers over his face, his eyes, his nostrils, over his brows and his ears, to his neck, to know him, to gather him in by touch. He was so firm, and shapely, with such satisfying, inconceivable shapeliness, strange, yet unutterably clear. He was such an unutterable enemy, yet glistening with uncanny white fire. She wanted to touch him and touch him and touch him, till she had him all in her hands, till she had strained him into her knowledge. Ah, if she could have the precious KNOWLEDGE of him, she would be filled, and nothing could deprive her of this.Seriously – that text is from a novel that is considered one of the masterpieces of 20th century literature. Seriously.
But in the end, I understand the appeal this novel could have for people. I feel as if had read this when I was 12, or 14 years old, and the ideas about freedom that are espoused here was still pertinent to me, I would have enjoyed it more, gotten more out of it. But I’m a cynical-almost-30-year-old, and to me these themes feel run-of-the-mill. His ideas about love and relationships and personal freedoms that his characters pontificate on ad nauseum have been echoed by every writer, filmmaker, and musician throughout the 20th century.
While I don’t believe Lawrence should be considered the best wordsmith, or the best storyteller, or plot maker, he pushed the envelope of acceptability within Edwardian society. It may seem ho-hum today, when it’s no longer (in most instances) shocking to the general public to read about young folks hooking up before they’re married, or two men being in love, but I can see some old woman sitting in her parlor, in a bustle or shirtwaist or whatever it was women wore back then, and “tsk tsking” about Lawrence’s immorality. The 1960s eliminated a lot of what made Lawrence unacceptable.
But something struck me the other day as I was nearing the end of this novel, and thinking about Birkin and Gerald – mostly Birkin, though, since I have no sympathy for Gerald. Had I been a gay youth in Lawrence’s time, I would have felt comforted by Women in Love, knowing that there are others out there “like me.” It’s unfortunate that there are instances in which gay youth still feel ostracized and marginalized in the same way, and for them it’s good that people like Lawrence, and Jeanette Winterson, and Radclyffe Hall, and others are accessible. It’s also unfortunate that today, people still feel the need to deny who they truly are in order to be accepted in their families, their community, their occupation, and in society in general. I thought about Ted Haggard a lot while reading Women in Love.
Women in Love was certainly better than I expected it to be. I get why it should be included on any list of important 20th century novels, not because it’s a better novel than others, but because it matters. I feel like Lawrence and I have made peace, and there is a lot more of him to be read over the next few decades. Moving out of the Modern Library list, I feel 1 for 3 isn’t a bad place from which to move forward.