Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Gregory, o' my word, we'll not carry coals.

Current book: Sons and Lovers
Pages read: 9 - 168

My edition of Sons and Lovers takes a great deal of care to point out the fact that it's the "unexpurgated text." It is, apparently, nearly 80 pages of pure sex longer than the first edition. I've got to say, I don't think any of those 80 pages were in the first 168, or if they were, man, was 1913 a prudish year. (Unexpurgated seems a little tortured of a term for this edition, also. I mean, I see what we're saying - there's a difference between editing and censoring material that might be offensive, and this is edited, not censored - but still.)

Mrs. Gertrude Morel (Clearly, D. H. Lawrence has not gotten over his "I will give all my women horrible names" issue. Remember Gudrun and Ursula Brangwen? I sure as hell do.) is the wife of coal miner (or collier, which they're often called in this book, and never ceases to remind me of Act I, scene i of Romeo and Juliet) Walter Morel, an abusive drunkard who whines a lot and isn't a very good coal miner. They have four children (well, over the course of the first part of the book they go from two to four, actually): William, Annie, Paul, and Arthur. The family lives in one of the company-owned row houses where most of the miners' families reside, and they alternate between poverty and lower-middle class existence based on the demand for coal and how much Walter decides to drink every week. Mrs. Morel and Walter fight constantly, as she is an educated, book-reading teetotaller, and he is an ignorant, lazy drunk. Lawrence relates the story of how they "fell in love" and got married by explaining that Gertrude was under the impression that he was a property-owning, upright young man who was out for one of his very occasional social evenings when the two met, but, in reality, he was a debtor who often drank and danced and happened to be particularly taken with her that evening. Walter, of course, failed to relate these details until several months after their marriage. Anyway, they clearly hate each other, and they stay together because that's what you do in 1913 rural England.

It takes a lot of setup to get us to an understanding of the economic situation the family is in, as well as the abuse and drunkenness, so that background information accounts for a lot of these pages, but finally, the children, especially William and Paul, become the center of the plot. William is quite intelligent, and comports himself well enough in school to get the attention of the masters, earning himself further education. He ends up with a local clerkship and then a London clerkship, and he and the rest of the family are all excited about the money and success he'll be garnering for himself off in the big city. Mrs. Morel, however, has always had a very close relationship with him, and is sadder to see him go than she is happy for his success (which is the mark of bad parent, actually, when you think about it). This is where the Sons and Lovers bit comes in; Mrs. Morel clearly has a relationship with her sons that puts the burden of her emotional needs squarely on them. Her husband has failed to provide her the partnership and support that a marital relationship requires, so she has transferred those requirements to her male offspring. No, Lawrence isn't saying that they're incestuous, but he makes it clear from her involvement in their lives and her emotional campaign to assure that they're completely alienated from their father that the relationship is far from healthy. Don't get me wrong; Walter Morel is clearly terrible, and we pretty much hate him, but there has to be a better way.

Anyway, Paul, once William has gone off to London, takes on the burden of both his mother's emotional needs and providing financially for the family. Walter is still making a salary, but the Morels had come to rely on William's extra income, and now need something more. Since Paul has finished school, it's the perfect impetus for him to get a job. He finds one working for a stocking manufacturer a short train ride away, and soon settles in there fairly happily, though the long hours and sedentary nature of the work (as a clerk who copies and translates letters with orders for stockings) are making him pale and tired.

Meanwhile, in London, William gads about with the social set, spending lots of money, and eventually engages himself to a girl named Lily, who clearly just wants him to buy her dresses and jewelry. Gertrude hates her, predictably, and she is kind of awful when she comes to visit the Morels, treating them all like they're inferior to her and using Annie, William's younger sister, as a virtual servant. The engagement lasts a long time, since William is waiting until he has enough money to actually get married but keeps spending it on Lily. The longer the months drag on, though, the more William begins to regret his decision. Finally, in the midst of trying to decide whether or not to break it off, he comes down with pneumonia and dies of what I'm going to go ahead and call apoplexy, because I can. Paul goes to get his father from the mine and tell him the news so that he can go to conclude William's affairs in London. And that's where we are.

The characterization is the most interesting part of this novel. Gertrude is always called Mrs. Morel, which, though it can be dismissed as the parlance of the time and place, also might serve to represent the fact that she has no choice but to be defined by her marriage. She's odd; she has intellectual values and clear class superiority to her husband, but also a pinchpenny streak and, of course, her over-devotion to her children. Then there's William, who's something of a cad and a bounder, dating lots of girls until he settles down, but who's also highly intelligent and a very hard worker. Paul is a different animal altogether - he's so sensitive to real or imagined slights that he sometimes has difficulty functioning in his surroundings, and he prefers beauty and delicacy to nearly anything else. He has an artistic streak, and dreams of becoming successful enough that he one day has time to paint. The devotion on Gertrude's part goes both ways with Paul - he has promised never to get married, but rather stay with his mother forever. (I swear there hasn't been any incest. Yet.) It's looking like Paul might soon break that promise, however, since he and his mother, not long before William's death, visited a farm owned by some fellow parishioners in their church, and he was clearly taken with the family's daughter, Miriam. Point being, each of these characters is complex, and their traits don't necessarily agree with each other; Lawrence is quite successful at creating ambiguity of character, which is one of my personal markers of true literary talent.

Somehow, despite the fact that I strongly dislike reading about families struggling through poverty, especially with abusive, alcoholic patriarchs, I quite like this novel. Lawrence is just such a good writer, particularly for his period, that I find myself able to look beyond the basic drudgery of the plot and understand the nuances and insights that he's worked so hard to develop. Go, Lawrence.

In upcoming-books-news, it looks like I'm going to have to buy a copy of Orlando, because the Saint Paul library apparently doesn't think it's an important enough novel to have more than one copy of, and the one that they do have is in large print and is consigned to the Bookmobile. Seriously, Saint Paul library, one copy in a system that serves 290,000 people? When did Virginia Woolf stop being one of the most important female writers in English? Did I miss the memo? (You want to know how many copies of The Da Vinci Code they have? Nine. Not counting the eight audio books and the electronic resource copy.)

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