I had always heard the name D. H. Lawrence pronounced with reverence–heck, they even quoted him on Star Trek!–and so I believed he must be a great author. That is, until I was assigned his novel Women in Love in one of my literature courses.
The book was terrible.
I managed to read a grand total of one chapter of it before I said “screw it” and went to look it up in Masterplots (a grad student’s cliff notes) instead. The summary reads like a parody of a “deep” modern novel, and I read it through with an expression something like this:
What follows is the actual Masterplots summary of D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love. I couldn’t make it any funnier if I tried.
Ursula Brangwen and her sister Gudrun first noticed Rupert Birkin and Gerald Crich as the sisters were watching a wedding party arrive at a church. Ursula explained that Rupert, the best man, was trying to terminate his prolonged affair with Hermione Roddice, one of the bridesmaids. Some days later, Rupert came to inspect Ursula’s classroom with Hermione in tow. Hermione, after arguing fiercely with Rupert, invited Ursula and Gudrun to visit her home. Once alone, Ursula inexplicably wept. Gudrun was drawn to Gerald, the bride’s older brother; when the sisters caught sight of him swimming, Ursula told Gudrun that when he was a boy, Gerald accidentally killed his brother.
Let’s pause there for you to take all of that in. I considered bolding the sections I found particularly hilarious, but then I realized I would have to bold the whole thing. Moving on.
When Rupert and Gerald met on a train to London, they discussed whether love was the “center of life”; Rupert expressed his pessimism about humanity. That evening, Gerald joined Rupert and some bohemian friends at a café and slept with a young model after they all retired to her former lover’s flat. In the morning, Gerald joined Rupert and his friends as they chatted, naked, around the fireplace.
The Brangwen sisters became better acquainted with Rupert and Gerald when they visited Breadalby, Hermione’s home. Gerald found Gudrun arousing when the women, in silk robes, improvised a modern ballet. After Rupert and Hermione again quarreled, Hermione tried to break his skull with a paperweight.
Or gentlemen. Whatever.
Some days afterward, Gerald appalled the sisters when he brutally forced his horse to stand as a train passed. Gerald and Hermione later found Gudrun sketching by the lake. Gudrun clumsily dropped her sketchbook into the water. Gudrun, though blaming Gerald, established a silent intimacy with him. Meanwhile, Ursula found Rupert repairing a punt, and, on an overgrown island, they discussed true happiness. Ursula found Rupert’s misanthropic vision of a world rid of humans strangely pleasing. Afterward, having tea with Gerald and Hermione at Rupert’s new lodgings, Ursula objected when Rupert compared a horse’s will to submit to its master to a woman’s will to submit to a man. When she met Rupert alone, however, he avowed that while he does not “love” her, he sought a relationship deeper than love, a “pure balance.” They watched as a cat playfully cuffed a female stray, and Rupert suggested that the cat wanted the same equilibrium, like a star in orbit. Ursula still believed he wants a mere satellite.
When Gerald’s father gave the annual “water party” for the townspeople, the Brangwen sisters took a canoe to a clearing on the far shore. There, Gudrun danced as Ursula sang, and when some cattle appeared, Gudrun brazenly danced before their horns until suddenly Gerald intruded and, alarmed, shooed them off. Gudrun, repudiating his protection, struck his face. As night fell, the couples rowed by lantern light, and Ursula reached an understanding, a shared pessimism, with Birkin. They heard screams; Gerald’s sister had fallen into the water, and her fiancé had dived in after her. In vain Gerald tried desperately to find the pair in the darkness. Birkin assured him that death was better for them. Toward dawn, they found the bodies, the girl’s arms clasped round her lover’s neck.
Birkin later dropped in on Ursula at home. The profound sympathy between the young pair became evident as compared with her parents’ conventionality. After Birkin left, however, Ursula felt a strange hatred for him, even as she felt his possession of her. Still unable to reconcile himself to any marriage, Birkin began to envision some new, freer relationship with women. When Gerald visited, the tenderness between them induced Birkin to invite him to swear blood-brotherhood, but Gerald demurred.
Gudrun had been invited to tutor Gerald’s young sister in drawing, and when they agreed to sketch the girl’s pet rabbit, it scratched Gudrun as she took it from its cage. When it also scratched Gerald, he subdued it with a blow, and they shared an appreciation of the fierce energy in the rabbit’s “madness.”
Near the lake by moonlight, Ursula discovered Birkin talking to himself. Birkin again tried to explain what he wanted: not Ursula’s love exactly, but her spirit. They kissed, despite her misgivings. The next evening, Birkin came to her home to propose, but, instead, quarreled with her father and angrily left. He found Gerald, and the two men agreed to wrestle naked. They fought to complete exhaustion, then they clasped hands as Gerald confessed his love for his friend.
Later, while waiting for Birkin in his lodgings, Hermione advised Ursula not to marry him. Ursula decided that all of Hermione’s ideas were merely abstractions, but after Birkin arrived, Ursula was mortified by the easy familiarity between Birkin and Hermione. She left abruptly as they planned Hermione’s departure for Italy. Soon afterward, Birkin drove Ursula into the countryside to give her three gemstone rings, but when she learned that he intended to join Hermione for dinner, she angrily threw them away and walked off. She immediately relented, and after reconciling, they spent the night in the car in Sherwood Forest.
As Gerald held vigil over his father’s demise Gudrun brought needed comfort, and as he walked her home, they kissed passionately under a bridge. At last his father died, and Gerald hurried to the Brangwen home and stole into Gudrun’s bedroom where he silently made love to her.
When Gerald suggested a double wedding, Birkin argued against conventional marriage, insisting that love between man and man was marriage’s necessary complement. Again, Gerald resisted. When Ursula told her family that she planned to marry Birkin the next day, her outraged father struck her, and Ursula moved in with Birkin that evening. Gerald suggested the four of them go away together.
The couples traveled separately to the Continent, met in Innsbruck, and proceeded to a hostel high in the Alps. In this brilliant, snow-bound, silent world, Gudrun and Gerald immediately began to drift apart.
GET IT? DRIFT???
Among the guests was a German sculpture. Loerke, who, with his aesthetic theory and scorn for opinion and “life,” exercised a perverse fascination over Gudrun. Ursula became repelled, and she left with Birkin for Italy.
Gudrun’s spiritual death is almost as final as Gerald’s physical death. Always inclined toward aestheticism, her friendship with the sculpture Loerke draws her into decadence and depravity. Loerke’s sculpture of Lady Godiva embodies Loerke’s philosophy of art as a self-enclosed, autonomous realm without reference to morality or life. Gudrun succumbs to Loerke’s sterile influence and finally becomes reduced to a cheap artist’s model.
Ursula and Birkin, on the other hand, ultimately reach an understanding that makes there marriage possible. Their relationship is based on polarity; each partner preserves a distinct identity within a balance of opposites. The disastrous opposite to this balance is symbolized by the entwined corpses of Gerald’s sister and her fiancé. Ursula’s independence and assertiveness makes such an end impossible. Her relationship with Birkin is based on more than mere affection; she finds with him a profound bond based on mutual understanding and a shared outlook on the world.
And that is the story of the stupidest novel I never read.
…And neither did my classmates. I told one of them that I had found the Masterplots of it and made a scan, and she said, “CAN YOU EMAIL ME THAT?” Turned out she, too, had given up on the book after approximately one chapter.
We’re literature scholars.