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1 June 2020updated 17 Jun 2020 3:44pm

From the NS archive: DH Lawrence’s Women in Love is a work of genius from a wild author

9 July 1921: Rebecca West's fierce review of the 1920 sequel to The Rainbow — and the flawed artist of an author.

By Rebecca West

When DH Lawrence’s “Women in Love” was published, Rebecca West, novelist and formidable critic, was tasked with reviewing it for the New Statesman. The book, she thought, was a flawed masterpiece – inevitably so because of Lawrence’s limitations. “The trouble is with Mr Lawrence,” she noted, “that he is so much of a poet that it is difficult for him to express himself in prose, and in particular in the prose required of a novel.” This tone of mixed admiration and stricture was established in the first line of her review – surely one of the great openings to any piece of critical writing.

***

Many of us are cleverer than Mr D H Lawrence and nearly all of us save an incarcerated few are much saner, but this does not affect the fact that he is a genius. It does, of course, affect the fact of his being an artist.

Women in Love is flawed in innumerable places by Mr Lawrence’s limitations and excesses. His general ideas are poor and uncorrected, apparently, by any wide reading or much discussion; when he wants to represent Birkin, who is supposed to be the brilliant thinker of the book, as confounding the shallow Hermione with his power over reality, he puts into his mouth a collection of platitudes on the subject of democracy which would have drawn nothing from any woman of that intellectual level, except perhaps the remark that these things had been dealt with more thoroughly by Havelock Ellis in his essay on the spheres of individualism and Socialism.

He is madly irritable. “The porter came up. ‘A Bale – deuxieme classe? – Voila!’ And he clambered into the high train. They followed. The compartments were already some of them taken. But many were dim and empty. The luggage was stowed, the porter was tipped. ‘Nous avons encore?’ said Birkin, looking at his watch and at the porter. ‘Encore une demiheure,’ with which, in his blue blouse, he disappeared. He was ugly and insolent.”

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We are not told anything more about this porter. This is the full span of his tenuous existence in Mr Lawrence’s imagination. He has been called out of the everywhere into the here simply in order that for these two minutes he may be ugly and insolent.

This is typical of Mr Lawrence’s indifference to that quality of serenity which is the highest form of decency. He thinks it natural that everybody should take their own Grand Guignol about with them in the form of an irritable nervous system and that it should give continuous performances. This prejudices his work in two ways. It makes him represent the characters whom he wishes to be regarded as normal as existing permanently in the throes of hyperaesthesia.

When Gerald Crich and Gudrun stay in London on their way to the Tyrol, her reactions to London, which she does not appear to like, are so extreme that one anticipates that Gerald will have to spend all his time abroad nursing her through a nervous breakdown, which is in fact not what happened.

It also shatters the author’s nerves so that his fingers are often too clumsy and tremulous to deal with the subtleties which his mind insists on handing them as subjects. There is, for example, a scene in an inn at Southwell, where Ursula has an extraordinary crisis of delight at some physical aspect of Birkin. At first reading it appears that this is simply a sexual crisis which Mr Lawrence is describing according to his own well-worn formula, and one reflects with fatigue that Mr Lawrence’s heroines suffer from molten veins as inveterately as Sarah Gamp suffered from spasms, and that they demand as insistently just a thimbleful of union with reality.

But then if one is a conscientious reader one perceives that this is wrong. There is something else. Ursula seems to have caught sight of some physical oddity about him, to have noticed for the first time that he was really Siamese twins.

One thinks crossly, “Unobservant girl.” But if one has a decent sense of awe one realises that the author of Sons and Lovers is probably trying to say something worth hearing, and one reads it over again, and in the end perceives that Mr Lawrence is simply trying to convey that mystical sense of the sacredness of physical structure, quite apart from its aesthetic or sexual significance, which is within the experience of nearly all of us.

Ursula, contemplating her lover’s body, had a sudden realisation that flesh is blessed above all other substances because it is informed by life, that force of which there is such a stupendous abundance on this earth, which has such divine attributes as will and consciousness, which has so dark a past and so mysterious a future. It is a reasonable enough emotion, but Mr Lawrence is so nerve-shattered by these extravagant leaps, which suggest that somebody has lit a little gunpowder under his sensorium, that he is unable to convey the spiritual incident save as a hot geyser of sensation.

But Women in Love is a work of genius. It contains characters which are masterpieces of pure creation. Birkin is not. The character whom an author designs as the mouthpiece of truth never is; always he is patronising and knowing, like “Our London Correspondent” writing his weekly letter in a provincial newspaper. But there is Hermione Roddice, the woman who stood beyond all vulgar judgment, yet could be reduced to misery by the slightest gesture of contempt from any servant because she had no real self and, though she could know, could not be: Mr Lawrence could always conjure imaginary things into the world of the eye, and he makes visible the unhappy physical presence of Hermione, with her long face and her weight of heavy dull hair, her queer clothes, her strange appearance that made people want to jeer yet held them silent till she passed.

In the scene where she sits at Birkin’s table with Ursula and plays with the cat and coos Italian to it, and scores a barren victory by making the girl feel raw and vulgar and excluded by exercise of that static impressiveness which she has cultivated to conceal her dynamic nullity, he discloses the pathetic secret of her aching egotism with a marvellous appropriateness. He has found there the incident and the conversation that perfectly illustrate the spiritual fact he wishes to convey.

There are also Mr and Mrs Crich, the mineowner and his wife, though their creation is not so indisputably pure as that of Hermione. One suspects that they were called into being in consequence of Mr Lawrence’s readings in German philosophy, that they are not only post but propter Nietzsche and Max Stimer. But they are great figures: the father, who loved to give to the poor out of his faith that “they through poverty and labour were nearer to God than he,” until in time he became “some subtle funeral bird, feeding on the miseries of the people,” a creature damp with continual pity; the mother, like a hawk, loathing the rusty black, cringing figures of his parasites, despising him for his perpetual indulgence in the laxer, gentler emotions, and bending over his dead body at the last in bitter contempt because his face was so beautiful, so unmarked by pride or the lordlier emotions.

The persons who are most intimately concerned in the development of the main thesis of the book are not so satisfactory because that thesis deals with love. It is in itself an excellent thesis. It is a stern answer to the human cry, “I can endure the hatred the world bears me, and the hate I bear the world, if only there is one whom I love and who loves me.” It declares: “No, that is not how it is. There shall be no one who loves you and no one whom you love, unless you first get in on loving terms with the world.”

Gerald Crich refuses to enter into an alliance of friendship with Birkin. He, the materialist, has no use for an expenditure of affection in a quarter where there is no chance of physical pleasure, and stakes his all on his union with Gudrun. This concentration itself wrecks that union. She finds him empty of everything but desire for her; he has had no schooling in altruistic love; he does not help her out of her own fatigued desire for corruption and decay, the peace of dissolution; and she breaks away from him. Thereby, because he has staked everything on her, he is destroyed.

It is not really very abstruse, nor very revolutionary, nor very morbid. In Antony and Cleopatra Shakespeare permitted himself to say much the same sort of thing about the quality of love that arises between highly sexual people. But when Mr Lawrence writes of love he always spoils his matter by his violent style. In an exquisite phrase Mrs Mary Baker Eddy once remarked that the purpose of the relationship between the sexes is to “happify existence.” There are times when Mr Lawrence writes as if he thought its purpose was to give existence a black eye. His lovers are the Yahoos of Eros, and though Beauty may be in their spirits, it is certainly not in their manners. This is not represented as incidental to their characters, but as a necessary condition of love. It is a real flaw in Mr Lawrence’s temperament; but it is so marked and so apart from the rest of him that it no more spoils the book than a crack in the canvas spoils a beautiful picture.

There are, of course, many obvious distortions of life in Women in Love which it is easiest to consider as sheer meaningless craziness. There are, for instance, the extraordinary descriptions of the women’s clothes, especially of Gudrun’s stockings. She was more decorative about the legs than anybody has ever been except a flamingo.

There are also incidents that flout probability or even possibility. There is that amazing scene when Hermione, who is supposed to be an effete aristocrat of unimpeachable manners, comes up behind Birkin, who is sitting on the sofa reading Thucydides as good as gold, and hits him on the head with a paperweight of lapis lazuli. This is certainly not the done thing. All this is without doubt not life as we know it, but the smallest reflection shows that it is not crazy and it has a meaning.

The trouble is with Mr Lawrence that he is so much of a poet that it is difficult for him to express himself in prose, and in particular in the prose required of a novel, and that he finds it impossible to express what he wants save by desperately devised symbols. He has felt that there is a quality about many women which makes them wear gay clothes and go actively yet not purposively about the world, and promote events that are never of the highest importance yet often interfere with others that are, which makes them, in fact, build a dome of many-coloured glass to stain the white light of eternity.

He feels that every time that Gudrun appeared she was this quality made manifest to the eye, and he is at a loss how to convey it. In sheer desperation he ascribes to her these astonishing stockings. When one visualises those shapely, coloured ankles moving swiftly on those restless errands of destruction, one perceives that the touch is not meaningless at all, though it is clumsy. And the incident of Hermione and the paperweight also is a desperately devised symbol. He has wanted to express that a woman like her, bitter with a sense of spiritual insufficiency, would in the end turn against the lover whom she had wooed because of his extreme sufficiency, and become envious because she could not steal his sufficiency, and try to destroy him.

In his impatience he has dragged into his novel this very dark scene which, though it is a distortion of life’s physical appearances, nevertheless succeeds in conveying the spiritual truth with which he is concerned at the moment. To object to this on the ground that an author has no right to distort life’s appearances for his own ends is to subject literature to an unreasonable restriction. It is not imposed on the art of painting. The greatest artists, such as Velasquez and Michelangelo, have managed to express their vision of reality without tampering with appearances, but there is also El Greco, whose right to manipulate form for his own purposes no sane person would now dispute.

Those who deny Mr Lawrence’s right to be an El Greco of literature had better not plume themselves that they are actuated by admiration for Michelangelo’s and Velasquez’s fidelity to true form; if they can remain unmoved by Mr Lawrence’s genius it is much more likely that they are actuated by a longing for the realism of Mr John Collier.

Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

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