For the past three weeks I read Women in Love by D. H. Lawrence. It is longer than the last of his novels I read, Sons and Lovers, yet in spite of the assertion that Lawrence made himself where he considered Women in Love his best work, I found this novel tedious and an effort to plod through. With only two Lawrence novels to go by, I can only offer an unscholarly opinion, however I do believe that Lawrence excels in writing dialogue. The pages can’t turn themselves fast enough when the main characters, sisters Ursula and Gudrun Brangwen, and their respective lovers, Rupert Birkin and Gerald Crich are talking to one another.
Romantic rivalry is the subject of many conversations and the Brangwen sisters’ confrontations with rival girlfriends are biting yet succinct and loaded with squinted venom. Hermione is a former mistress of Rupert’s who’d like nothing more than to claim him as her own. Situations which find the two women in the same room are filled with icy tension and steeled determination not to throttle the other. At one point in the novel where the two women come to a mutal understanding, Lawrence writes:
“Hermione looked long and slow at Ursula, seeming to accept confirmation from her. Then the two women were silent. As soon as they were in accord, they began mutually to mistrust each other. In spite of herself, Ursula felt herself recoiling from Hermione. It was all she could do to restrain her revulsion.”
In a later meeting, Hermione taunts Ursula by carrying on a lengthy conversation with Rupert in Italian, a language Ursula does not speak. Hermione uses flowery romantic terms of endearment which achieve the same effect as if she had walked over to Rupert and planted a kiss on him. Although the Italian is not literally understood by Ursula, the meanings of Hermione’s phrases are nonetheless perfectly conveyed by the way they are delivered. Ursula naturally feels excluded and she is angry with Rupert for virtually abandoning her:
“When she got outside the house she ran down the road in fury and agitation. It was strange, the unreasoning rage and violence Hermione roused in her, by her very presence. Ursula knew she gave herself away to the other woman, she knew she looked ill-bred, uncouth, exaggerated. But she did not care. She only ran up the road, lest she should go back and jeer in the faces of the two she had left behind. For they outraged her.”
Women in Love contains many passages in French, German and Italian, which speaks to the educated audience Lawrence was writing for. Often Ursula and Gudrun would lapse into French if they felt that English offered but a lacuna for the perfect phrase. If the reader could not understand these passages then a foreign dictionary would be crucial in order to understand the progress of the story. Simply ignoring the foreign terms would leave the reader lost.
Ursula confronts Rupert when he claims that she is jealous of Hermione. The best line in the whole novel is found at the end of her retort:
“‘I jealous! I–jealous! You are mistaken if you think that. I’m not jealous in the least of Hermione, she is nothing to me, not that!’ And Ursula snapped her fingers. ‘No, it’s you who are a liar. It’s you who must return, like a dog to his vomit.'”
There is more sex in Women in Love than Sons and Lovers, but even then it is shrouded in euphemism. There is a lot more in terms of sexual tension and sex play, especially for 1921 England. Multiple references to men’s “loins”, their “marvellous flanks and thighs” and “the smitten rock of the man’s body” made the reading experience borderline erotic. The most erotic passage of all however was not a sex scene, but an episode of nude jiu-jitsu between Rupert and Gerald. Rupert reveals to Gerald that he used to do “some Japanese wrestling”. Gerald takes an excited interest:
“‘Then we’ll try jiu-jitsu. Only you can’t do much in a starched shirt.’
‘Then let us strip, and do it properly.'”
The men talk about this form of “Japanese wrestling” and Rupert describes watching two men wrestle:
“‘But when they are hot and roused, there is a definite attraction–a curious kind of full electric fluid–like eels.'”
Gerald asks a butler to bring in some refreshments. Yet the homoerotic tension is so thick he can’t bear the interruption when the butler returns:
“The man brought in the tray and set it down.
‘Don’t come in any more,’ said Gerald.
The door closed.
‘Well then,’ said Gerald; ‘shall we strip and begin? Will you have a drink first?’
‘No, I don’t want one.’
‘Neither do I.'”
The full-body sweaty redness that ensues could have been lifted from a gay porn screenplay. It was the highlight of the entire novel.
At one point in the novel, Gerald sneaks into Gudrun’s house at night while she and her family are getting ready for bed. The description of his silent steps, of creeping against the walls and his mortal fear that he will be discovered by family members who are still milling about had me transfixed. I could not put the book down as I accompanied Gerald on his stealthy entry. Lawrence conveyed so much, so well that I could not believe that the entire episode lasted only two pages.
Lawrence has a habit, which I noted throughout the entire novel, of repeating descriptions. He will use a phrase to describe something, then repeat the same phrase word for word in the next sentence. For example, Minette, a young woman with infantile habits who frequents the same nightspots as Gerald and Rupert, is called “inchoate” three times over two pages. Other overused descriptors are “paradisal” and “unutterable”. One might get the impression that Lawrence had no imagination for finding alternate ways to express himself. This is not characteristic Lawrence at all, as his gift of description made Women in Love a delight. Lawrence could turn even gloomy English greyness into a spectacular burst of modifiers, as shadowy misty mornings paint the surroundings in the same dull, yet vibrantly picturesque hue. Such contradictions are classic Lawrence. I feel that one reason it took me so long to read Women in Love was on account of its enjambed contradictions. My obsession of a reading habit meant that I had to reread passages over and over again (in effect, I do feel as if I read the novel twice) to ensure that I knew what was going on. I appreciated the contradictory wordplay after a while and allowed myself to fall into the beauty that is D. H. Lawrence.