At first glance, Mr. Morel might seem a perfect mate for a bookish woman. “Now I’m cleaned up for thee: tha’s no ‘casions ter stir a peg all day, but sit and read thy books.”
Mrs. Morel isn’t much of a reader anyway. The only reason she had time abed that day is that she was about to give birth.
And Mr. Morel taking household work on himself isn’t something he does without a grudge, not even on that single day.
The fact is, married life hasn’t been happy for the Morels. It wasn’t always that way, but now it feels as though it’s always been so.
“As Mrs. Morel saw him slink quickly through the inner doorway, holding his bundle, she laughed to herself: but her heart was bitter, because she had loved him.”
And now, with a child, no — wait — children, it’s not likely to improve. Indeed, Mr. Morel doesn’t even trouble to clean up for his wife on later occasions.
“There was the halt, the wistfulness about the ensuing year, which is like autumn in a man’s life. His wife was casting him off, half regretfully, but relentlessly; casting him off and turning now for love and life to the children. Henceforward he was more or less a husk. And he himself acquiesced, as to many men do, yielding their place to their children.”
When D.H. Lawrence wrote these portions of the novel he was, apparently, basing it on the history of his parents’ marriage.
He showed this part of the manuscript to Jessie Chambers in 1910 (Jessie was the real-life parallel to Miriam’s character in Sons and Lovers).
She felt that it was “story-bookish”. She suggested that he start over and stick more to the facts of his own family history.
“He was telling the story of his mother’s married life, but the telling seemed to be at second hand, and lacked the living touch.” According to Jessie.
Perhaps that’s unavoidable, for if the novel is autobiographical then D.H. Lawrence is Paul Morel (the projected title throughout the manuscript’s history), not Mr. (or Mrs.) Morel.
Paul is not Mrs. Morel’s first child, but he becomes (through a sequence of events) the favoured and readily available child.
“The two knitted together in perfect intimacy. Mrs. Morel’s life now rooted itself in Paul.”
This is a vital source of strength for the mother. “His life-story, like an Arabian Nights, was told night after night to his mother. It was almost as if it were her own life.”
And a vital source of security for the son. “‘I can do my best things when you sit there in your rocking chair, mother,’ he said.”
But with this intensity to their relationship, any interlopers offer, at best, complications, at worst, devastation. The following passage is long, but vitally important to an understanding of the dynamics at work (and it’s referred to later as well):
“Very well,” said his mother cuttingly, “then do as you like.” And she took no further notice of him that evening. Which he pretended neither to notice nor to care about, but sat reading. Miriam read also, obliterating herself. Mrs. Morel hated her for making her son like this. She watched Paul growing irritable, priggish, and melancholic. For this she put the blame on Miriam. Annie and all her friends joined against the girl. Miriam had no friend of her own, only Paul. But she did not suffer so much, because she despised the triviality of these other people.
And Paul hated her because, somehow, she spoilt his ease and naturalness. And he writhed himself with a feeling of humiliation.
Poor Miriam. She quite likely took that personally. But, really, anyone who dared to come between Paul and his mother would have had a rough go, unless Mrs. Morel didn’t see the relationship as a threat in any way.
Mrs. Morel has, however, led a life characterized by disappointments. She wants more than a Miriam-sort for her Paul. And yet wants nothing more than for Paul to simply remain her boy. She has grand expectations.
“But Paul was going to distinguish himself. She had a great belief in him, the more because he was unaware of his own powers. There was so much to come out of him. Life for her was rich with promise. She was to see herself fulfilled. Not for nothing had been her struggle.”
And yet Paul is in his twenties. He might be happy spending some evenings with his mother, still, but he is actively looking for relationships with other women too.
“The days were often a misery to her, but the evenings and the nights were usually a bliss to them both. Then they were silent. For hours they sat together, or walked together in the dark, and talked only a few, almost meaningless words. But he had her hand in his, and her bosom left its warmth in his chest, making him feel whole.”
And what of Mrs. Morel’s struggle then? She adores her son, but she can behave viciously when he does not meet her expectations, as in the longer passage quoted above.
There is an argument to be made that it’s not Miriam who makes Paul Morel “irritable, priggish, and melancholic”, but that it’s Mrs. Morel who makes him so.
And, although the antecedent is clear in the paragraph, one can’t help but wonder whether part of Paul actually hated his mother as much as he seems to hate Miriam in that passage.
At the very least, there are dramatic and contrasting emotions: love and hate are mingled, between parents and children (Mr. Morel plays quite a role in this regard too) and between lovers.
It makes for relational complications and contradictions all around. ”Everyone was mad with happiness in the family. Home was home, and they loved it with a passion of love, whatever the suffering had been.”
Note: If I had it to do over again, this is one novel in which I would read the introduction first, although my spoiler-phobia normally precludes that. But I didn’t find it a pleasurable read. It was on my list of must-reads because a friend absolutely adores his works, but I found it a real struggle. I think I’d have appreciated it more from a literary perspective if I’d known about the autobiographical elements in advance and read more for scholarly reasons than for enjoyment.
Have you read this novel? Or another of his? Or is there an author that you remember loving when you were a student but which, having read many books since, you’re less fond of now?