An introduction to Women in Love

Neil Roberts situates Women in Love in its historical context, and describes how the novel both is influenced by and seeks to move beyond 19th-century realism.

Women in Love is D H Lawrence’s most ambitious and experimental work, which attempts a radical critique of the modern world, and particularly modern British society, at the moment at which that world was coming into being, in the middle of the First World War. Early in 1913, after finishing the autobiographical novel Sons and Lovers, his first major novel which was to make his reputation, Lawrence made several false starts on a new work. At one point he abandoned a novel that he cared deeply about because he thought it would be unpublishable, and embarked on another that he variously described as shorter, lighter and even a potboiler. However, this too developed into ‘an earnest and painful work’.[1] It was called ‘The Sisters’ and it was, far from being short and light, to develop into Lawrence’s two most ambitious novels, The Rainbow and Women in Love, which together total more than 900 pages. In 1915 he published The Rainbow, but it was immediately prosecuted, ostensibly for obscenity but certainly in part because of its criticism of militarism. One reviewer wrote ‘A thing like The Rainbow has no right to exist in the wind of war’.[2] The novel was suppressed and every available copy destroyed. This was one of the great crises of Lawrence’s life. Publishers became wary of him, and Women in Love, though substantially complete by 1917, was not published till 1920 by a small avant garde American publisher, and not in England till 1921.

In the midst of war

In a foreword to the novel (not published till after his death) Lawrence wrote that it ‘took its final shape in the midst of the period of war, though it does not concern the war itself. I should wish the time to remain unfixed, so that the bitterness of the war may be taken for granted in the characters’. It is apparently set in a world of country house parties, avant garde bohemians and unrestricted continental travel, that is untroubled by the holocaust that swept over Europe between 1914 and 1918. But the consciousness of the novel, and especially that of the character closest to Lawrence himself, Rupert Birkin, is profoundly affected by that holocaust. This explains apparently extreme statements such as, ‘They say that love is the greatest thing. They persist in saying this, the foul liars, and just look at what they do. I abhor humanity, I wish it was swept away’. Statements such as this are more comprehensible when we realise that they were written in the year of the Somme.


Women in Love is a modernist novel with roots in 19th-century realism. One important aspect of it, most clearly represented in the ‘Industrial Magnate’ chapter portraying Gerald Crich’s modernisation of the mines, is a critique that looks back to the industrial novels of Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell. The novel’s settings, which include the mining town, the home of the colliery owner, the aristocratic country house and bohemian London, suggest a breadth of canvas that emulates such great Victorian novels as Bleak House and Middlemarch. Lawrence was powerfully impressed by Anna Karenina, perhaps the greatest of all realist novels, and the structure of Women in Love – two relationships, one of which ends tragically, the other more hopeful; contrasting male heroes, a tragic man of action and a more contemplative man who is a distanced portrait of the author – follows that of Tolstoy’s masterpiece.

Towards the other great 19th-century Russian, Dostoevsky, Lawrence felt an aversion, but he was perhaps a deeper and more significant influence. Dostoevsky anticipated modernism by emphasising the interior and unconscious aspects of his characters, who often behave in outrageous and irrational ways. In The Possessed, for example, the hero suddenly gets up and bites someone’s ear at a social gathering. This dramatisation of irrational motives is very similar to episodes in Women in Love such as Hermione’s attack on Birkin with a paperweight and Gudrun striking Gerald when he remonstrates with her for frightening his cattle.

Moving beyond realism

In Sons and Lovers Lawrence had written one of the great realist novels, but he wanted to move beyond realism and especially the realist conception of character, which he thought was determined by a ‘fixed moral scheme’. In defence of his new approach he wrote, ‘You mustn’t look in my novel for the old stable ego of the character. There is another ego, according to whose action the individual is unrecognisable, and passes through, as it were, allotropic states … of the same single radically-unchanged element’.[3]

Consider the opening of the novel. The Brangwen sisters, Ursula and Gudrun, are shown sitting ‘working and talking’. The ‘work’ they are doing is embroidery and drawing, like many leisured women in 19th-century novels, and their talk, again like many heroines before them, is of marriage. But they are not leisured women – they are schoolteachers in the first age of female emancipation – and their talk of marriage culminates in the very modern exclamation, ‘Isn’t it an amazing thing, how strong the temptation is, not to!’ The mode of this chapter is predominantly realistic, but if we settle into the expectation of realism we experience some disconcerting jolts. The colliery owner Gerald, for example, is introduced as follows: ‘[He] was of a fair, sun-tanned type, rather above middle height, well-made, and almost exaggeratedly well-dressed’. This is conventional realism, giving us the character’s external appearance as anyone might see him. Immediately, however, through Gudrun’s eyes he is transformed into ‘an arctic thing’ whose ‘totem is the wolf’, and Gudrun experiences a ‘paroxysm’ (or outburst of emotion). The description of Gerald becomes symbolic, starting off a train of symbolism that culminates in his death in the Alps. And Gudrun’s response seems excessive. As often in this novel, it is hard to know how conscious the thoughts and feelings attributed to the character are supposed to be. This is an example of Lawrence undermining ‘the old stable ego’ of the character.

Another way in which the novel departs from realism is that the narrative proceeds, not by cause-and-effect action, but by a series of symbolic scenes that reveal the characters to themselves and to each other. Typical examples are Gerald forcing his mare to stand by the passing train, Birkin stoning the reflection of the moon, Gudrun dancing in front of Gerald’s cattle, Gerald and Gudrun being attacked by a frenzied rabbit. The novel proceeds by a series of emotional pulses, emanating from scenes such as these. The scene with the horse and train is an outstanding example of Lawrence’s art:

The locomotive, as if wanting to see what could be done, put on the brakes, and back came the trucks rebounding on the iron buffers, striking like horrible cymbals, clashing nearer and nearer in frightful strident concussions. The mare opened her mouth and rose slowly, as if lifted up on a wind of terror. Then suddenly her fore feet struck out, as she convulsed herself utterly away from the horror. Back she went, and the two girls clung to each other, feeling she must fall backwards on top of him. But he leaned forward, his face shining with fixed amusement, and at last he brought her down, sank her down, and was bearing her back to the mark. But as strong as the pressure of his compulsion was the repulsion of her utter terror, throwing her back away from the railway, so that she spun round and round, on two legs, as if she were in the centre of some whirlwind. It made Gudrun faint with poignant dizziness, which seemed to penetrate to her heart.

At one level this is a striking visual allegory of the domination of nature by the machine. Note how the train appears to act of its own accord, with no mention of a driver. But there is also a psychological level, and it is the fusion of these levels that makes the scene so powerful. Note also how the ‘wind’ encompasses both the horse and Gudrun. It seems important that the horse is female, and there is a strong suggestion of sadism in Gerald’s ‘face shining with fixed amusement’. He later explains that it is necessary to train the horse to tolerate the proximity of machinery, but this rational motive doesn’t exhaust the meaning of the scene: the link between his industrial role and his attitude to women is focussed in a single action. It is also revelatory of Gudrun. Whereas Ursula feels pure revulsion and hostility, there is a strong suggestion of a sexual response in Gudrun: this is one of the scenes in which her bond with Gerald is established, and its destructive nature suggested.

These symbolic scenes are linked by narrative passages that often take the form of explicit discussion of the novel’s themes – the relations between men and women, industrialism, individuality versus social being, among many others. Since one of the central characters, Birkin, bears a resemblance to Lawrence, this can easily make the novel seem didactic. In Chapter 16, for example, there is a long meditation on sexual difference that sounds very much like one of Lawrence’s essays. But it concludes, ‘So Birkin meditated whilst he was ill’. Even the most didactic-sounding passages are contextualised and dramatised, and the awareness that Birkin is ill when he is having these thoughts distances them. The book concludes with an argument between Birkin and Ursula, the couple who have established the most apparently successful relationship in the novel, about whether that relationship is sufficient for them both, or whether Birkin is reasonable in hankering after a complementary relationship with a man (after having unsuccessfully attempted such a relationship with Gerald). The concluding words are:

‘You can’t have it because it’s false, impossible,’ she said.

‘I don’t believe that,’ he answered.

Birkin may literally have the last word, but it doesn’t cancel Ursula’s: the question is left open.


[1] The Letters of D H Lawrence: Vol. I, Spetember 1901 – May 1901, ed. by J T Boulton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), p. 536.

[2] James Douglas in The Star, quoted in Mark Kinkead-Weekes, D H Lawrence: Triumph to Exile 1912–1922, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 277.

[3] The Letters of D H Lawrence, Vol. II, June 1913 – October 1916, ed. by G H Zytaruk and J T Boulton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), p. 183.

  • Neil Roberts
  • Professor Neil Roberts is Emeritus Professor of English Literature at the University of Sheffield. His main interests are in nineteenth and twentieth-century literature. He is the author of Ted Hughes: A Literary Life; D.H. Lawrence, Travel and Cultural Difference; and A Lucid Dreamer: The Life of Peter Redgrove as well as books on George Eliot, George Meredith and contemporary poetry. His latest book, Sons and Lovers: The Biography of a Novel, is due to be published in 2016.

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