When I set forth to select books for my reading list, I immediately set upon D. H. Lawrence as the author who wrote a work when he was roughly my age. Instead of settling on the famous (infamous?) Lady Chatterly’s Lover, I focused on Sons and Lovers, although its title gave me a sense of misgiving more worrisome than the former choice. While I will stand and fight for the right of every story to be told until my dying breath, I had no desire to read a raunchy book dripping with incest. Not my cup of literary tea, to say the least.
I can say that I was equally relieved and repulsed by turns. While never sinking to the depths my imagination kept picturing, enough instances struck cords with me to leave me uncomfortable, for entirely different reasons.
The story begins with Gertrude Morel, who married beneath her (so she maintained) and became the wife of a coal miner. Some women would buckle down and make the role their own. Others would despair entirely and use their limited power to dissuade the husband to some other form of work – to make his way better in the world. Gertrude chose to set her dreams on her sons.
I won’t lie. I spent most of the novel either disgusted, crying in despair or shaking with disbelief. I was prepared for some amount of discomfort, but the overbearing, repeated denial of what should come naturally destroyed me with every turn of the page. No one told me Lawrence wrote so well about the hit or miss (mostly miss) of love, about the constant blind struggle for something we don’t even understand. He hit every mark and I was both horrified and in awe. I knew I was reading a true story even before I learned that it was an autobiographical novel, because I had felt all of those same wounds myself.
First Gertrude sets her sights on William, the eldest. Her life is no longer the vision she planned for herself, so she lets William make her happy. When this manifested as trinkets won in foot races and moments spent over tea it seemed safe. But it soon became clear that Gertrude was more than William’s mother. She was his everything. In a relationship where a soul is captured so completely, there is no room to share.
Paul, the second born, was spared from this for a time. However, my heart sank as I realized that he was next – that Gertrude’s need to be affirmed and admired and coveted and kept and attended above all else and all others would not stop with her firstborn. When Paul met Miriam I felt the first bit of hope I allowed myself to see since turning the first page. She was strong. She would not let Gertrude win.
I hung on to that relationship more than I admitted even to myself, because I knew it well. Miriam’s deep seated, almost sacred knowledge that Paul’s soul would return to hers in the proper time was a mantra I repeated to myself daily. I felt that struggle in my chest. Paul kept coming back to Miriam even when it bothered his mother, so I held firm to Miriam’s own clinging hands as if they were my own. We would not let that woman have her way.
In that way, no matter what happened I comforted myself that there were other chapters. It was not over until the last page, so I needn’t worry. I saw Miriam’s tenacious stubbornness and had faith that she would act as I would, and not give up. Even when Paul said things – many things – that I had heard myself from my own Pauls. The longer I read the more my eyes opened wide in terrible fascination. Love is the same story told over and over, even and especially when it is in vain.
Like a fox hunt, the ending came abruptly and painfully and I was left wondering what happened. The characters, bless their hopeless hearts, left me in just the manner I feared but hoped they would not leave. And it broke my own in a way that hit far too close to home. Sometimes all of the effort we put in does not matter. Love, as it was explained to me in a conversation while I was in the middle of this emotional upheaval, is a matter of chemicals and timing and chance. And while I was angry – so angry – and sad, so bitterly sad – I knew I could not fix it. And as so often happens with me, reading about the struggle of two people I now held very dear made me think about my own actions in similar circumstances. Would I have done anything differently? Could I have made the right choices, if indeed such choices existed?
Finally, far from numb but wishing with my whole self that I was capable of feeling so, I came to the conclusion that this was the sort of love story we need in the world. Happily ever after works well in its own way, but there is little room for that sort of thinking in real, actual lives. So many things could have gone differently. They would have to, in order for happiness to bat last. But that is not always in the cards.