Claire King was born and raised in South Yorkshire. She read economics at Newnham College, Cambridge, and wrote her dissertation on the economic viability of the UK's coal mines. She has lived in France for the last 10 years where she works facilitating collaboration, is the mother of daughters, runs gîtes, edits fiction for The View From Here magazine and writes. Her first novel, The Night Rainbow, will be published by Bloomsbury next February. In this post, Claire discusses D.H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers.
Claire King on Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence
Most of my reading these days is contemporary novels, and there are many, many wonderful books that have inspired and influenced me. It's impossible for me to single out one as particularly liked or admired. So I have decided to write about an older book, which spoke to me just at the right time and in the right place.
I grew up in the mining communities of South Yorkshire. My father had been a collier. My grandfather was a collier, as were several of my uncles, our neighbours and our friends. In the mid-1980s, just when we were in the full throes of the devastating miners' strikes, I was fourteen years old and preparing for GCSEs. In English class we began to read Sons and Lovers.
Poetry had always been my thing. I read and wrote verse prolifically from a very early age. I was also constantly reading fiction of one kind or another, but whereas poetry seemed crafted to evoke an emotional response, most fiction given to children is of the kind that transports you to another world entirely. Sons and Lovers was the first piece of prose that reached down into my gut and gave it a twist.
The ability to transport someone to another world is a great and exciting talent, but for me, when an author can drag you into your own world, forcing you to look at it and evaluate it, that's something even more powerful. I prefer to read those kinds of novels still, which is perhaps why I love contemporary fiction so much.
So there I was in the 80s, a working-class teenager discovering a novel written 70 years earlier by a working-class man, about a working-class family in a setting similar to my own. Despite the generation gap, I could empathize with the tensions between the children and their parents, their desires and frustrations. The characters were recognizable.
The character who interested me most was Paul Morel's mother. Gertrude is not necessarily a strong character but she is a powerful woman. Whereas the role of women is often clearly defined in the masculine environment of a mining community, Gertrude has ambitions, not necessarily for herself but for her children. She knows where her power lies and she uses it. There seemed to be a discomfort in how this was written, reflecting, perhaps, the uncertainty of the age. In those times – as we discussed in class - perspectives were shifting as emancipation of women in Britain increased. 'Really?' I remember thinking, 'Then why has so little changed in 70 years?' Because Gertrude could have been any woman off my street.
Meanwhile, her miner husband is something of a paradox. On the one hand he is portrayed as often drunk and brutal, including a notable moment where he throws a drawer at the pregnant Gertrude as she holds her young son in her arms. But in other places he is drawn sympathetically. Simple but kind and sorry for what his 'manhood' makes him do. And despite his physical presence, he is diminished by his wife. Unlike a typical antagonist in much of my reading until that point - usually sharply drawn villains - Walter Morel's character is full of true-to-life ambiguities, demanding that readers draw their own conclusions.
Our GCSE class were unanimous that Paul Morel himself is no sympathetic character. Having ideas 'above your station' was not suffered gladly where I grew up. And yet how could we condemn him for wanting to be an artist rather than a collier? Somehow we managed it.
As Paul Morel grows older, the repercussions of his childhood are played out in his adult relationships. This was another of the things I found compelling in the novel. Of course it is not necessarily an original idea - how an adult's behaviour is influenced by their formative years - but it was original to me at the time. As a teenage reader of course I had plenty of complaints myself about how my parents were screwing me up. But reading Sons and Lovers made me question who really has ownership for a person's actions. Can you blame your parents? Honestly, I wanted to give Paul Morel a bit of a shake and tell him to get a grip on himself.
Incidentally, as an editor of short fiction I see this theme crop up again and again. I have to say I believe it will be difficult to top the brevity with which Philip Larkin tackled the topic in 'This Be the Verse'.
Looking back at Sons and Lovers 20 years later with a writer's eye is an interesting exercise. Just flicking through the pages - and whilst I hesitate to criticize a great novelist such as D.H. Lawrence - I think there are many contemporary novels with more beautiful prose, fewer adverbs, a clearer viewpoint and much less exposition. But one thing that does interest me is the way the language of sex is crafted. Though sex definitely takes place, it is not explicit; the wording is deliberately vague and glossed over. There is a lot of 'giving' and 'taking'. This also means that in Paul's tender moments with his mother, Gertrude, his ministrations are hard to distinguish from those with his lovers. I wonder, in these days of vividly depicted sex scenes, if the reader loses out on this kind of opportunity to draw parallels and interpret subtleties.
This novel was a pivotal book for me, a transition from childhood to adulthood. It was the first novel I read which did not have a happy ending. Despite Paul Morel's determination to be the author of his own destiny, and his good intentions in the way he will treat women, he carries forward his hostilities 'despite himself' and brings a nasty intellectual sadism to his relationships. As Lawrence warns at the beginning, 'Sometimes life takes hold of one, carries the body along, accomplishes one's history.' The resolution, or lack of it, is a terrible warning. Or that's how I interpreted it. So, there isn't always a happily-ever-after. And if you want one you'd better do something about it.
Finally, I must say that I am fond of this book because of its cheerful and regular use of the word 'nesh', which is common parlance where I grew up, but seemingly not in many other parts of the UK.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]