Men in Love

Paul Delany

Lawrence’s maxim ‘we shed our sicknesses in books’ is usually applied to Sons and Lovers, where he disposed of his nearly fatal over-attachment to his mother. But Women in Love is a cathartic novel too, though here the sickness is less easy to cure. The sickness itself is obvious enough: it is misanthropy, a continuous rage at almost everyone around. If Lawrence did not manage to shed it he at least made his most strenuous attempt in Women in Love to probe, and to judge, the ‘indignant temperament’ that has tarnished his reputation since the Great War.

Early in the novel its hero, Rupert Birkin, rides into London on a train feeling ‘like a man condemned to death’, and the narrator tells us that ‘his dislike of mankind, of the mass of mankind, amounted almost to an illness.’ What the narrator does not tell us – what needs the whole book for an answer – is how that illness should be judged. Is it just a flaw within Birkin, or does the infection come from without, from a pestilent civilisation? Is Birkin spiteful and morbid, like a Dostoevskian hero; or is he a tunnel canary, warning a complacent world that a poisonous element is spreading through its foundations?

Lawrence goes far to stack the dice against Birkin and make him a hero who is hard to like. He surrounds Birkin with intimates – Ursula and Gudrun Brangwen, Hermione Roddice, Gerald Crich – who keep telling him that he is a crackpot preacher who should face up to his own unhappy consciousness. Further, Lawrence excludes from the novel the Great War – the adequate cause of his own despair and potentially of Birkin’s too. The book was mostly written between the Somme and Passchendaele, but Lawrence asked only that ‘the bitterness of the war may be taken for granted in the characters.’

Birkin enraged by ‘the disgrace of outspread London’ is not the same as his creator enraged by the disgrace of the Western Front. Lawrence’s point, of course, was that London and the Western Front were part of the same civilisation, which Birkin feels as a ‘real death’. Flanders may have been, indeed, only a blank slate on which London, Paris and Berlin were expressing their wills: but from the Café Pompadour to Passchendaele is a very long step. Some might say that the war was so futile and destructive that it could only have happened by accident: because they did say it, Lawrence devotes large chunks of Women in Love to arguing that there is no such thing as an accident. Gerald ‘accidentally’ killed his brother, but Ursula doesn’t believe it was an accident, and Lawrence underlines the point by giving Gerald a version of the Kaiser’s line about the war: Ich habe es nicht gewollt.

Lawrence’s project is to justify Birkin’s misanthropy from first principles, as it were, and in a social context where those around him are content to carry on ‘business as usual’. His three intimates, Gerald, Ursula and Gudrun, are at least willing to admit that they are in a personal cul de sac, and to follow Birkin to a clear space above civilisation, in the Alps. The world might be well lost, they concede, if one could only achieve a few pure relationships and leave the masses to writhe in their own dirt. But the marriage through which one can be saved is an esoteric one: husband and wife must keep a fixed space between themselves, and the husband must add to the love of his wife a programmatic intimacy with a male comrade. The novel thus proposes both that the world as we know it is on its last legs, and that ‘triangular’ marriage is the only refuge from the coming apocalypse.

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