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.
Birkin knows his problem, and knows his solution; the action of the novel consists of his efforts – sometimes angry, sometimes yearning – to get his intimates to see the world in the same terms. When Lawrence started to write the book, in April 1916, its theme was openly homoerotic. ‘He wanted all the time to love women,’ Birkin muses to himself.
He wanted all the while to feel this kindled, loving attraction towards a beautiful woman, that he would often feel towards a handsome man. But he could not ... He loved his friend, the beauty of whose manly limbs made him tremble with pleasure. He wanted to caress him.
As the novel developed, Lawrence dropped this opening ‘Prologue’ (conveniently included in this edition) and compromised the sexual issue: Birkin is no longer a half-hearted heterosexual who really prefers men, but someone who wants to run his life on parallel lines – marriage with Ursula, blutbrüderschaft with Gerald. But was the Prologue dropped for artistic, or prudential reasons? Soon after he began the novel, Lawrence told Barbara Low that it was already ‘beyond all hope of ever being published’. When it was published in England, in 1921, Martin Secker cut out several of the milder homoerotic passages still remaining. Lawrence had the Hobson’s choice of either censoring himself, or having Women in Love suppressed completely, like The Rainbow in 1915. He desperately needed enough money to survive in dignity, and a new novel was his only chance of getting it.
Here, therefore, lies the major editorial crux of Women in Love. Did Lawrence’s feelings about homoeroticism change from 1916 to 1919, so that the Prologue became out of date and he freely discarded it? Or did he see that the truth revealed in the Prologue would destroy his career, so that he had to settle for a slanted and diluted version of the story he really wanted to tell? To answer this question would require a close study of Women in Love’s successive revisions, in the context of Lawrence’s life while he was writing it. Unfortunately, the new Cambridge edition is almost useless as an aid for this task.
This edition gives the text of the first American edition, published in November 1920, now corrected from manuscript; to this it adds variants from the British editions of June 1921 onwards. These variants first arose because Martin Secker wanted the novel toned down for fear of another suppression like The Rainbow. Then, after publication, Philip Heseltine threatened to sue over Lawrence’s portrait of him as ‘Halliday’, and Secker agreed to make further alterations – changing ‘fair hair’ to ‘black hair’, and the like. These changes are relevant to the history of censorship and libel in Britain, but not at all to literary criticism of Women in Love. The purchaser of the Cambridge edition thus gets a slightly better text than, say, the current Penguin edition: but only with later variants, which are trivial, instead of earlier ones, which are crucial.
The purchaser also gets, of course, a substantial Introduction and Notes: but here too there is much disappointment. The general editorial policy of the Cambridge edition has been narrowly positivist, and there is a grinding pedantry about too many of the notes. Where Ursula speaks of a ‘Watteau picnic’, the note tells us that in the painter’s outdoor scenes no one is actually shown eating. Later we hear that the stove in the Tyrolean hotel was used to heat the room (lest we wrongly suppose that they fried eggs on it?).
On the other hand, the editors’ conservatism often leads them to withhold or ignore pertinent information. The description of Halliday’s crowd at the Pompadour as ‘half men’ is not referred to Rupert Brooke’s sneering use of the term in his 1914 sonnets. A note mentions Lawrence and Ottoline Morrell’s belief that Dikran Kouyoumdjian was Jewish, but doesn’t say if he really was (probably not). When Hermione hits Birkin over the head with a piece of lapis lazuli, the notes don’t say that in real life it was Frieda who did this (with a stone dinner plate), not Ottoline. The ‘very great doctor’ (page 139) should be glossed as based on Roger Vittoz, who treated Ottoline (and later T.S. Eliot) at Lausanne.
The Introduction also gives us ‘the facts’ at the expense of the meaning. Its history of the novel’s evolution is so bald that an uninstructed reader could scarcely make head or tail of it. Concerning one crucial stage of revision, in 1917, we are told only that Lawrence’s typescript ‘contains heavy interlinear revision ... he added whole pages of autograph revision to supplement the interlinear revision; he also retyped a number of pages.’ About the substance of these changes, or Lawrence’s possible motives for making them, we learn precisely nothing. To understand how Lawrence revised one must look elsewhere – say to Charles Ross’s The Composition of ‘The Rainbow’ and ‘Women in Love’. Ross covers the basics effectively in fifty pages and also reproduces sample pages of the manuscripts, which give a vivid impression of Lawrence’s working habits.
Some of these deficiencies may be made good in a supplementary volume, to be called The Sisters (one of Lawrence’s provisional titles for Women in Love). This will be based on the first complete version of the novel, dating from November 1916. But the present edition will still have the fatal flaw of giving no adequate account of how the 1920 first edition had evolved since April 1916. Birkin’s love for Gerald is at the heart of the novel and over three and a half years of composition Lawrence’s handling of this theme was in flux, as his own emotions ebbed and flowed. In April 1915 he was ‘mad with misery and hostility’ over David Garnett’s entanglement with Bloomsbury homosexuality. A year later came Lawrence’s abortive effort at blutbrüderschaft with John Middleton Murry. In the summer of 1918 Lawrence probably consummated his infatuation with the Cornish farmer, William Hocking; then, just as he was putting the finishing touches on Women in Love, came his involvement with the failing marriage of Godwin and Rosalind Baynes. Lawrence wrote Godwin a crucial letter about the ‘real solution’ to the problem of marriage, which he said could be found in Whitman’s ‘Fast Anchor’d Eternal O Love!’ from ‘Calamus’:
O bride! O wife! more resistless than I can tell, the thought of you!
Then separate, as disembodied or another born,
Ethereal, the last athletic reality, my consolation,
I ascend, I float in the regions of your love O man,
O sharer of my roving life.
Although Lawrence discarded the openly homoerotic Prologue, each successive revision of the novel afterwards, down to September 1919, made Birkin’s love for Gerald more insistent and more specific in its claims. Lawrence kept harping on male love as an antidote to the trials of living closeted with Frieda over the war years. Birkin complains (page 435) about Ursula’s sexual aggressiveness, and tells of his disappointment that they can’t reach orgasm at the same time. The Cambridge editors don’t mention that this passage closely parallels Lawrence’s confession to Compton Mackenzie that he had the same problem with Frieda and had come nearest to ‘perfect love’ with a young coalminer when he was about sixteen.
Both in the novel and in real life, Lawrence’s doctrine at this time was that perfect sexual harmony could not be found in marriage, so that the husband needed the ‘new adjustment’ of passionate love for a male comrade. Lawrence also placed much of the blame on the predatory ‘New Woman’ of the suffragette era (see, for example, Mellors’s denunciation of his first wife’s beaked vagina in Lady Chatterley’s Lover). However, comradely love would eschew penetration, being limited to the intimacies meticulously defined in the wrestling match between Birkin and Gerald. Lawrence further underlined this point by his portrait of degenerate Eros in the character Loerke – who half-seduces Gudrun but is also homosexual and actually prostituted himself as a child.
Women in Love is a difficult text because in it Lawrence insists that the conventional world is doomed, yet cannot fully trust the esoteric relationships that are the only countervailing forces on the side of life. Hence the pathos of the novel, Birkin’s vacillation between hatred of what is and tender care for the alternative world he wants to create. He is as much at the end of his tether as Lawrence himself was in the war years, but more beseeching towards those who may be able to help him. However harsh and indignant Lawrence may have been in his personal relations at this time, he remained willing to expose his doubts in the novel: Birkin is thus a bigger, more generous figure than his creator. Near the end of the book, Gudrun asks Gerald for ‘more loving and less wanting’: Women in Love shows how much Lawrence wished to be like that too, and how little he could, in practice, escape from the wheel of fire to which the war had bound him.
In the fourth volume of Lawrence’s Letters we see him embracing the only solution he had found to the dilemmas set out in Women in Love: restless and endless travel, a complete circuit of the globe from 1919 to 1923, then a prompt departure again from England to the New World. Some of this shifting about was simple expediency. He was in search of a climate that would soothe his tubercular lungs, and had decided also that he must write books with an American setting, since America provided the most reliable market for his writings. But the heart of the matter was his compulsion to ‘break out of Europe. It has been like a bad meal of various courses – Europe – and one has got indigestion from every course.’
Lawrence knew from the start, of course, that travel was only ‘a form of running away from oneself and the great problems’: but it was ‘his destiny to know the world’, and to try and find himself through motion. His great set-pieces of natural description are always lit up by the glamour of first impressions. Probably the finest of these passages is Lawrence’s letter to his mother-in-law about passing the Suez Canal, full of the exultation of having finally put Europe behind him for the first time in his life. But once he had moved into the landscape and made the acquaintance of those who lived there, disillusion soon set in. Neither the Ceylonese nor the Australians had ‘any insides to them’. America was worse: ‘a land of tight, iron-clanking little Wills ... the people charge at you like trucks coming down on you – no awareness. But one tries to dodge aside in time.’
Constant travelling forced Lawrence to rely on Frieda more than ever for companionship. In 1923 they quarrelled over Frieda’s desire to see her children by Ernest Weekley, who were now young adults, and she went off to England by herself from New York. Frieda didn’t understand, Lawrence told his mother-in-law, that ‘today a man needs to be a hero, and more than a husband.’ Hero or not, he gave in after four months and went back – another defeat in their ‘long fight’. By now, Lawrence had invested too much in the marriage to be able to sustain any other life.
Women in Love is filled with yearning that certain doors would open; five years after its completion, it had become clear that they never would. The most moving letters in this volume are both elegies. One was to Willie Hopkin, the staunch old Eastwood socialist: he and his wife had done more to widen Lawrence’s horizons than anyone except his mother, and now Sallie Hopkin was dead at 55. The other letter, written to Murry on the death of Katherine Mansfield, could not hope to console, for the quarrels that had divided them and Lawrence since 1916 were too bitter. ‘I feel like the Sicilians,’ Lawrence wrote. ‘They always cry for help from their dead. We shall have to, cry to ours: we do cry.’ He ended with the closest he could come to an apology: ‘I wish it needn’t all have been as it has been: I do wish it.’ Perhaps Lawrence meant Murry to recall Birkin’s words over Gerald’s body, at the end of Women in Love: ‘I didn’t want it to be like this.’ Perhaps he wanted him to recall Birkin’s next words too: ‘He should have loved me ... I offered him.’