The centenary of its publication in 1913 has led to re-appraisal of Lawrence’s first great novel. It is typical of its era in portraying a Midlands mining village still largely rural in character, but breaks new ground in taking us right up close to characters who aspire painfully to fulfil their destiny.
Famous for being largely autobiographical, the social realism of ‘Sons and Lovers’ is conveyed with balance, sympathy and even some humour not normally associated with Lawrence.
What makes it more demanding and rewarding is its portrayal of complex male-female relationships centred on Paul Morel, the son of a miner with whom he is out of sympathy. He is correspondingly closer to his mother and, perhaps as a result, less able to find fulfilment either with the spiritual Miriam or with Clara, a strong sensual woman.
Paul is highly intelligent and sensitive, but self-absorbed. The women in his life, and perhaps the reader, can be frustrated by his idealism which has a way of infecting others with his unhappiness. He interprets their responses as possessiveness and seeks to keep free.
The characters’ conflicts are constantly revealed to us, just as the beauties of the natural world are vividly portrayed. Those struggles culminate in suffering which is starkly physical as well as emotional when Paul’s mother slides towards an inevitable death from cancer. Many readers will find those scenes almost unbearably painful.
This is a great book but not an easy read. It rewards open-minded attention but don’t choose it as your first serious novel.