DH Lawrence Sons and Lovers, first published 1913.

How can you write about a novel such as Sons and Lovers without the weight of a hundred years of critical evaluation and response bearing down oppressively on you? Where do you start – with one’s own immediate personal reaction, or with some consideration of the novel in the context of its place in 20th century literature?
Lawrence famously was the first novelist to write openly and honestly about sexual relationships between men and women. This is a relatively early work however, and there is still much hesitation in his approach. While people have sexual urges, and subsequently sex, it is described largely through suggestion or inference, the literary equivalent of trains going into tunnels. People are deeply moved, feel their hot blood rising, and objects often stand in as representations of their erotic feelings. For example there is an extraordinary scene where Miriam, one of the lovers of the title, turns her attention to some daffodils thus: “To her (Miriam) flowers appealed with such strength she felt she must make them a part of herself. When she bent and breathed a flower it was as if she and the flower were loving one another. Paul hated her for it.” (Page 155). Not too much room for ambiguity to my jaded 21st century eyes there.

“Miriam went on her knees before one cluster, took a wild looking daffodil between her hands, turned up its face of gold to her, and bowed down, caressing it with her mouth and cheeks and brow. He stood aside with his hands in his pockets, watching her…..fondling them lavishly all the while” (page 198). Which I am sure was nice. Her approach to flowers, which decorate the book like a church in August, is summarised earlier:

People constantly behave in an extremely sexual way while continuing to avoid sex itself eg: 
“She (Miriam again) took her finger from her mouth with a little pop, and looked up at him almost challenging. But still her soul was naked in her great dark eyes, and there was the same yearning appeal upon her.” (page 169).
Or later 
“He (Paul) picked up a stick and began to stab the earth with it….He thrust, thrust, thrust at the ground with the pointed stick, digging up little clods of earth as if he were in a fever of irritation.” (page 200). One last example, when Paul is reading the bible to Miriam:
“She sat back on the sofa away from him, and yet feeling herself the very instrument his hand grasped. It gave her great pleasure.”
When the sex does finally arrive, which I can understand to a pre-Great War audience must surely have been shocking, not to mention titillating, it is usually presenting as the exercise of male lust against passive female acceptance. He conjures an extraordinary phrase to describe “married love” on this basis: Being the sons of mothers whose husbands had blundered rather brutally through their feminine sanctities”.

If I were to do a word count I am guessing one of the words that would crop up most frequently in this novel is “hate”. An example is cited above, where Paul, the principal son of the title, hates his girlfriend for liking flowers just a bit too much. But people hate others and things at the drop of a hat, and for apparently little or no reason. We can thus conclude that these are people who are moved to deep emotions signified by their quivering breasts and moody silences. Stella Gibbons parodies this all wonderfully in Cold Comfort farm of course, especially through the character of Cousin Judith, and Seth and his mollocking. And delightfully there is also a Miriam in CCF who bears the fruit of too much blundering through her feminine sanctities.
The handling of the Oedipal relationship between Paul and his mother, Gertrude to remind us of Hamlet’s problems with women no doubt, reminded me of Seth’s comments to Flora that he won’t let women eat him:
“She wants to absorb him. She wants to draw him out and absorb him till there is nothing left of him, even for himself. He will never be a man on his own feet – she will suck him up”. (As Larkin almost said, they suck you up, your mum and dad). (Page 173)

So what is missing from the novel? Well a plot would have been nice, or incidents that appeared connected to the lives of the characters. An ending would have rounded it off. I would have been interested in a description of the mines where Paul’s father works, with perhaps with a bit less about the surgical appliance factory. A believable female character that didn’t swoon over Paul, give in to his sexual desires without any of her own, and then walk away. Oh, and some indication that the world as described was going to come to an abrupt end 12 months later. (To be fair there is a very fleeting reference to the German attitude to war, and Paul’s younger brother, Arthur does join the army, but these hardly give you a feel for a country on the brink of war, and massive social change).
Would I read more Lawrence – I think I have to don’t I?