Women in Love

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Women in Love

by D. H. Lawrence


A novel set in in England and Austria jyst before or after World War I (1914-18); published in 1920.


The sisters, Ursula and Gudrun Brangwen, are attracted, respectively, to Rupert Birkin, a school-inspector and misanthropic philosopher, and Gerald Crich, the son of a wealthy coal-mine owner. Ursula .snd Birkin end up happily, if unconventionally, married, but Gudrun’s affair with Gerald falls into a destructive spiral, ending in Gerald’s death.

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

The Novel in Focus

For More Information

D.H. Lawrence, son of a coal miner and a former schoolteacher, was born in the English Midlands in 1885. Lawrence attended Nottingham High School as a scholarship student and later Nottingham University College, where in 1912 he met and eloped with Frieda von Richthofen, the aristocratic German wife of one of his teachers. In 1913 he published his great autobiographical novel Sons and Lovers, and began work on a long novel with a female protagonist, to be called The Sisters. Eventually this project split in two. The first half, now called The Rainbow, was published in 1915, and immediately suppressed for obscenity. The second half, Women in Love, was rewritten between 1915 and 1917, during World War I—a period of intense bitterness in Lawrence’s life. Because of the fate of The Rainbow, and because of the threat of libel suits, Women in Love was first published privately in the United States in 1920, and only later published in England. After the war Lawrence and Frieda wandered the world, searching for a congenial culture and a climate that would be favorable to Lawrence’s tuberculosis. Lawrence died in Vence, France, in 1930. His Women in Love, though focused on personal relationships, reflects a broader disillusionment in postwar British society.

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

World War I—the Great War

Lawrence wrote in the Foreword to the first American edition of Women in Love: “it is a novel which 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” (Lawrence in Farmer, p. 485). At one point, Lawrence thought of calling the novel Dies lrae, the “Day of Wrath.” Mark Kinkead-Weekes perceptively calls it “a ‘war novel’ no less for being set in a world apparently at peace,” because the impulse to violence is so near the surface in all of the characters (Kinkead-Weekes, p. 334).

The Great War of 1914-18, which we now call World War I, caused “bitterness” in many, many people besides D. H. Lawrence. It ended a long period in which Europeans had allowed themselves to believe that civilization had reached an unprecedented pinnacle, and that moral progress would inevitably accompany material progress. The novelist Henry James wrote, “The plunge of civilization into this abyss of blood and darkness . is a thing that so gives away the whole long age during which we have supposed the world to be, with whatever abatement, gradually bettering” (James in Fussell, p. 8). But beyond any abstract significance, there were the brute facts of the war itself, its unprecedented and futile waste of human life. The industrialization of warfare had made “battles” and battlefields obsolete, and produced two evenly matched forces, equipped with punishing artillery, machine guns, and poison gas, but unable to defeat each other. For four years, the trenches faced each other for 400 miles, from the North Sea to the Swiss border. Most of the time, Fussell reminds us, the soldiers spent “sitting or lying or squatting in place below the level of the ground”; but even in these “quietest times, some 7,000 British men and officers were killed and wounded daily” (Fussell, p. 41). In a major assault, as at the Somme River in France on July 1, 1916, 60,000 (half of the attacking force) could be killed or wounded in one day (Fussell, p. 13). Moreover, until near the end of the war, all of the major assaults, on both sides, failed, either because of poor planning or because the decimated armies could not hold on to their conquests. People joked, half-seriously, that the war would still be going on in 1950 (Fussell, p. 73).

Lawrence had opposed the war from the start. He even planned to collaborate with Bertrand Russell, despite their very different philosophies, on an antiwar magazine. But as Paul Delany points out in D. H. Lawrence’s Nightmare, he did not take the professed causes of the war very seriously, or even hold for long to the socialist view that a corrupt ruling class was to blame. “What really mattered,” to Lawrence, explains Delany, “were the deep currents of emotion in the masses of all European countries that made them eager to join in. Fundamentally, this had to be a collective desire for death” (Delany, p. 29).

As the war dragged on, conditions at home worsened. Universal conscription was introduced, and the Defense of the Realm Act permitted the government to take action against dissidents with only the barest semblance of due process. That Lawrence had a German wife—a cousin, moreover, of the notorious German aviator, the Red Baron—did not help. The Lawrences were interrogated by the police a number of times, and finally evicted from their home in Cornwall, for fear that they were signaling to German submarines. Lawrence was repeatedly called up for humiliating draft physicals, though he was always let off on the grounds of incipient consumption (which, of course, he did not want to admit he had). Looking back on this period later, Lawrence saw it as the end of all that was valuable in English civilization. “It was at home the world was lost. . At home stayed all the jackals, middle-aged, male and female jackals. And they bit us all” (Lawrence in Fussell, pp. 89-90). Lawrence shows a fury here that, the historian Paul Fussell reminds us, was not unique; it was shared by many disillusioned soldiers returning from the war front, who regarded the smugly patriotic stay-at-homes as their exploiters and oppressors. None of this is explicit subject matter in Women in Love. The war is clearly not going on during the novel; whether it takes place before the war, or in some putative after, we cannot tell. Only once, at the very end—when Ursula contemplates Gerald’s corpse, and Birkin’s hopeless sorrow—is the war evoked: “Ursula could not but think of the Kaiser’s: “Ich habe es nicht gewollt” [I didn’t want this]” (Lawrence, Women in Love, p. 581). Here the frame is broken, and Lawrence’s intent becomes clear: the real and the fictional tragedies are interchangeable both victories of the collective desire for death.

Coal-mining towns

Great Britain ranked highest in the world in coal output in the early lCOOs, and coal was the country’s major male employer. In 1911, 24.5 percent of the British male workforce consisted of miners. Gerald Crich’s father in Women in Love owns a coal mine. Such a father would in reality occupy a central position in local society. Lawrence’s own father worked for the mine owner Thomas Barber of Barber Walker Company in Eastwood in Nottinghamshire. A charitable business magnate, Barber apparently took a somewhat paternalistic interest in the miners’ lives. He contributed to religious denominations in the community, encouraged his company managers to involve the miners in sports, ran an Ambulance Training Corps for the local youth, and otherwise promoted a sense of belonging to the company. He was an ostensibly benevolent mine owner, and there were a few more like him.

Below the mine owner were managers and engineers, and beneath them were “butties.” Until the middle of the nineteenth century, a company would sink a shaft into earth, then contract with a butty to provide the working capital to operate the mine; the butty would hire, supervise, and pay the work force, often in goods rather than cash. Among the richest in town, the butty commanded an interest in local shops where the miners would spend their pay. The power of the butty diminished as the century wore on, and mining methods changed. A so-called “little butty system” gained prominence. Longwall mining involved 30-50 méter stretches of the face of a mine, which were worked in teams of about ten men. In charge of the men was a little butty, a supervisor who no longer paid for the running of a mine pit as in the past nor had any say in how it was worked. All that the little butty controlled was a small gang of men whom he recruited and paid from the contract price for working his stretch. There was a concomitant drop in the butty’s status. Now he was not part of the genuine middle-class, but he anyway retained a higher status and income than ordinary miners, who showed continuing resentment for the butties. Lawrence’s father was a little butty for the Barber Walker Company.

Other changes transpired in Nottinghamshire and other mining regions from the nineteenth century into the early twentieth century. New industries and developments in transportation transformed the village into the town and a town like Nottingham into a modern metropolis. In the coalfield districts, the majority of the inhabitants became occupants of medium-sized towns. The transformation was riveting: “From an agricultural community to a village of skilled workmen and from such a community to a village and factory town and finally to a fully urbanised and partly suburbanised area… . These changes have forced upon the workers a paroxysm of social readjustment” (Gilbert, p. 169).

Helping the miners cope with the readjustment to changing work patterns was the union, or Nottinghamshire Miners’ Association (NMA). The union hired a small group of paid officials, not more than six in the lÇlOs, and its early leaders were proponents of conciliation rather than conflict. Most of the unions’ leading personalities were butties, and they identified with conservative or right-wing politics. In fact, a vice-president of the NMA in 1919, William Holland, was also leader of the right-wing political group known as the British Workers’ League (BWL).

The right wing thrived in the Barber Walker Company mine pits, where Lawrence’s father worked. At the Moor Green pit, a butty named Joe Birkin enjoyed extremely close relations with owner Thomas Barber. “Major Barber,” recalled Birkin wistfully during a 1926 labor dispute, “was a coalowner, but he was a gentleman in every sense . if only all the coalowners … had the same feeling for justice” (Gilbert, p. 183).

The Women in Love character Thomas Crich is clearly modeled on Thomas Barber, and the reforms that his son Gerald introduces were actually going on in Lawrence’s time:

New machinery was brought from America… . [A] the control was taken out of the hands of the miners, the butty system was abolished. Everything was run on the most accurate and delicate scientific method, educated and expert men were in control everywhere, the miners were reduced to mere mechanical instruments. They had to work hard, much harder than before, the work was terrible and heartbreaking in its mindlessness.

(Women in Love, p. 304)

Lawrence, in his editorial voice, calls this kind of automation “the first great phase of chaos, the substitution of the mechanical principle for the organic” (Women in Love, p. 305).

Changing sexual roles

The status of women was changing enormously in Lawrence’s lifetime. According to literary historians Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, the years 1900 to 1920 saw in America, a “1000 per cent” increase in the number of women enrolled in public colleges, and the increase in England was “almost equally impressive” (Gilbert and Gubar, vol. 1, p. 33). In addition to the advances in education, the era of the First World War (1914-18) called for massive numbers of women to enter the work force, filling previously male-occupied places in industry. As a result, men often felt as assaulted on the home front as they were on the military front itself’ (Gilbert and Gubar, vol. 1, p. 34). All this advancement was capped by what people of the time perceived as ultimate triumph for females: women’s winning the right to vote in England and in America. Women were becoming prominent in many disciplines—the arts, psychology, anthropology. Research in anthropology, some of it conducted by women, encountered evidence that, in prehistory, a Great Mother goddess had preceded the patriarchal gods. Thanks to Sigmund Freud and Havelock Ellis, among others, there was “a radical alteration in the very conception of female sexuality” (Gilbert and Gubar, vol. 1, pp. 34-35). Much on the public mind, in place of the old image of women as angel in the house, contentedly nurturing her husband and raising their children, was a stereotype of the New Woman—professionally ambitious and willing to consider sexual relations outside of marriage. As Women in Love begins, Ursula and Gudrun are having a cynical conversation about marriage that would have fit the stereotype perfectly. The sense of “male dispossession” and anxiety in the face of these changes is, Gilbert and Gubar argue, one of the great and neglected themes of modernism—the literary movement that had gained currency during their time.

Lawrence himself makes an interested, mixed case in this regard. As a child, he identified with his mother much more than with his father. Also, in the first flush of his marriage with Frieda, while he was writing his initial novel about Ursula Brangwen, The Rainbow, Lawrence felt “that men should go to women to get their ‘souls fertilized by the female’ . in order to access a vision, one that ‘contains awe and dread and submission’ on the part of the man, ‘not pride or sensuous egotism and assertion’” (Nixon, p. 15). But by 1915, the marriage with Frieda was going less smoothly, and, Gilbert and Gubar argue, Lawrence was participating in a general male feeling that women who benefitted economically by the war—or even more, those who tried to shame men into fighting—were essentially vampires. Gilbert and Gubar quote a poem of Lawrence’s from 1915: “Why am I bridegroom of War, war’s paramour? …/And why do the women follow us, satisfied,/Feed on our wounds like bread, receive our blood/Like glittering seed upon them for fulfillment?” (Lawrence in Gilbert and Gubar, vol. 2, p. 262). By 1922, when he published Fantasia of the Unconscious, Lawrence was convinced that the culture had become feminized, and that the man who saw his “highest moment” as “the emotional moment when he gives himself up to the woman” (as Lawrence himself had earlier) was risking not only his manhood but even his life (Lawrence, Fantasia, p. 98).

[I]n certain periods, such as the present, the majority of men concur in regarding woman as the source of life, the first term in creation: woman, the mother, the prime being… . Man has now entered onto his negative mode… . This being so, the whole tendency of his nature changes. Instead of being assertive and rather insentient, he becomes wavering and sensitive. He begins to have as many feelings—nay, more than a woman. . He worships pity and tenderness and weakness, even in himself. In short, he takes on very largely the original role of woman. Woman meanwhile becomes the fearless, inwardly relentless, determined positive party. She grips the responsibility. The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world. Nay, she makes man discover that cradles should not be rocked, in order that her hands may be left free. She is now a queen of the earth, and inwardly a fearsome tyrant. She keeps pity and tenderness emblazoned on her banners. But God help the man whom she pities. Ultimately she tears him to bits.

(Lawrence, Fantasia, pp. 98-99)

These are the ideas that Lawrence first tries out in Birkin’s mouth in the Women in Love chapter “Man to Man.” It is no wonder, then, that Birkin is reluctant to say that he “loves” Ursula in the conventional, romantic way. Meanwhile, Gerald, who accepts the outward “pity” and the hidden power-struggles of conventional love, is indeed torn to bits.


Only 20 years had passed since the trial and imprisonment of the playwright Oscar Wilde for sodomy (see The Importance of Being Earnest , also in WLAIT 4: British and lush Literature and Its Times). Yet the same scientists who broached a new view of female sexuality also opened male homosexuality to public discussion. It was not the taboo subject it had been in Wilde’s time; sometimes such relationships were even publicly avowed, especially in the Bloomsbury circle surrounding Lytton Strachey, Virginia Woolf, and John Maynard Keynes. Lawrence is known to have been deeply shocked by his encounter with this milieu on a visit to Cambridge in 1915. Yet he himself clearly considered a world of men by themselves an alternative to the dangers he saw in heterosexuality. He had strong ho-moerotic feelings toward John Middleton Murry, to whom he proposed blood-brotherhood, as Birkin does to Gerald in the novel. He may even have had a physical relationship with a young farmer in Cornwall (Delany, pp. 309-15). He wrote a Prologue to ’Women in Love in which Birkin is quite conscious of his physical desire for men, and then omitted it from the final draft. Cornelia Nixon has suggested, in Lawrence’s Leadership Politics and the Turn Against Women, that Lawrence’s ambivalence explains many of the more controversial aspects of Women in Love: the emphasis on ideal male bonding; the distrust of conventional heterosexual lovemaking, and the hints about anal intercourse; the animus against openly “decadent” characters like Loerke.

The Novel in Focus

Plot summary

Ursula and Gudrun Brangwen are living with their parents and teaching school in the mining town of Beldover. After gaining some reputation as a sculptor in London, Gudrun has returned home for uncertain reasons. They have a conversation about marriage. Gudrun is more drawn to the idea of a “highly attractive individual of sufficient means,” but both agree that they cannot imagine the daily proximity of “any man one knows” (Women in Love, pp. 54-55). Dissatisfied with the conversation and with each other, they go out to observe the wedding of the local mine owner’s daughter, Laura Crich. Watching from the adjoining churchyard, Gudrun feels immediately attracted to Laura’s brother Gerald, “a young, good-humored, smiling wolf’ (Women in Love, p. 61). Ursula is more intrigued by the wedding guest Rupert Birkin, a school-inspector, though he for the moment is clearly attached to Hermione Roddice, a local noblewoman and patron of the arts. Back at the wedding reception, Birkin shares with Gerald’s mother his conviction that “not many people are anything at all” and that “it would be better if they were just wiped out” (Women in Love, p. 73). He is aware of a strong mutual attraction between him and Gerald, yet they can’t seem to help arguing—first about patriotism and war, then about the need for social rules and conventions. On both issues, Birkin takes an anarchist position; Gerald argues that without rules “We should have everybody cutting everybody else’s throat in five minutes”; Birkin suggests that “That means you would like to be cutting everybody’s throat,” or perhaps even that Gerald “desires to be murdered” (Women in Love, p. 82). Birkin remembers that Gerald did, in fact, accidentally kill his brother, as a boy, and wonders whether anything truly happens by accident.

Over the succeeding weeks, the characters continue to run across each other. Birkin and Gerald meet on a train to London and discuss a newspaper article that calk for a strong leader to save Western civilization. Birkin confesses that he feels only a deep monogamous relationship with a woman would set him spiritually on track. Gerald proceeds to follow Birkin into the bohemian world of the Pompadour café. There he meets and has a brief affair with a model nicknamed “The Pussum,” who seems to be involved in a strange power struggle with her former lover, Halliday.

The noblewoman Hermione invites the Brang-wen sisters, along with Gerald and Birkin, to a weekend party at her country house, Breadalby. But before much can develop, Hermione, who senses Birkin’s imminent rejection of her, and his disgust with her wilful, to him almost insane, self-control, attempts to murder him by slamming a lapis lazuli paperweight down on his head. Birkin deflects the blow with a book, then wanders out, stunned, into the countryside. He lies down naked in a thicket, and has a brief vision of how he could live happily in a world without human beings. When he gets home, he is ill for a week or two.

Ursula and Gudrun encounter Gerald while waiting for a train to pass. Gerald has ridden his mare right up to the crossing; when she is frightened by the train and tries to bolt, he forces her to stand, using his spurs. Ursula screams at him to stop; Gudrun seems to experience a kind of ecstasy, though afterwards, “like a witch,” she cries out, “I should think you’re proud’” (Women in Love, p. 171).

In the meantime, Birkin, having recovered, is furnishing a mill-house he has rented in the country. Ursula comes upon him during an afternoon walk. He confesses to her his feeling of his own failure to live and his fantasy of a depopulated earth. Ursula feels at once drawn to his “quick” and “alive” energy but put off by his need to preach and save the world; she brashly sticks to her belief in love, and in “just be[ing] oneself, like a walking flower” (Women in Love, pp. 186). Hermione interrupts them; she has come, with Gerald in tow, to help with the furnishing. Ursula is piqued by her continued prominence in Birkin’s life, and withdraws. But soon after, Birkin invites Ursula to tea at his rooms in town. He proposes a kind of “strange conjunction,” a “star equilibrium,” with her, but still avoids using, and mocks, the terms of romantic love (Women in Love, p. 210). She accuses him of really wanting male supremacy—a “satellite,” not a love star (Women in Love, p. 210). But when she tells him her past history, the tension breaks; they end up embracing.

The four protagonists meet again at the annual “Water-Party” that the Crich family gives for the whole community. Gerald has his hand bandaged; he has caught it in a machine. The Brang-wen sisters are immediately put off by the crowd; Gerald lends them a rowboat to escape to the far end of the lake. There, Gudrun does a “eurhythmic” dance while Ursula sings. A cluster of cattle come up to watch, and Gudrun starts to dance, provocatively, in their direction. Just then, Gerald and Birkin arrive, and Gerald drives the cattle away. Infuriated by his interference, Gudrun slaps him across the face. “You have struck the first blow,” he says. “And I shall strike the last,” she replies (Women in Love, p. 237).

But after nightfall, out rowing, Gudrun begins to feel that she is in love with Gerald. At that very moment, a cry rings out. One of the younger Crich daughters has fallen into the water. A young doctor dives in to try to rescue her. Gerald himself dives in many times to rescue his sister but is hampered because he has an injured hand, and there is utter darkness under the surface. Finally everyone gives up hope, and Birkin is commissioned to open the sluice to drain the lake. Ursula comes with him, and they make love, but a voice in his mind protests, “Not this, not this” (Women in Love, p. 255). The next day, the bodies are recovered; it is clear that Diana Crich has embraced and drowned the doctor, her would-be rescuer. All that day, Ursula waits for Birkin to come to her. But when he does arrive, it is too late, and he is clearly becoming ill again. She is repelled, and passes into a “pure and gem-like” hatred of him (Women in Love, p. 268). During his illness, Birkin, in turn, reaches a pinnacle of misogyny. Woman, he concludes, “had such a lust for possession, a greed of self-importance in love… . Everything must be referred back to her, to Woman, the Great Mother of everything”; “the hot narrow intimacy between man and wife was abhorrent” to him; “he wanted something clearer, more open, cooler, as it were” (Women in Love, pp. 269-70). When Gerald comes to visit him, Birkin proposes that they swear blood-brotherhood to each other, but Gerald temporizes, saying he does not understand the idea.

In die meantime, Gerald’s father is dying of cancer. He worries particularly about his youngest daughter, Winifred; at Hermione’s suggestion, Gudrun comes to Shoitlands, the Crich’s estate, to be Winifred’s art teacher and unofficial companion. The first time she encounters Gerald, he rescues her when she is trying to subdue a rabbit for Winifred to sketch. Both are badly clawed, and feel a “mutual hellish recognition,” looking at each other’s wounds (Women in Love, p. 317).

After Birkin recovers from his illness, he goes away to the South of France. Not knowing he has returned, Ursula stumbles on him at the millpond one night. He is throwing stones at the moon’s reflection on the water, and cursing the Great Mother goddess. When Ursula comes out of hiding and asks him to stop, their mutual affection returns. The next day, he decides to ask her to marry him. Unfortunately, he encounters her father first, and tells him his intentions. When Ursula returns, the cantankerous Will Brangwen asks her “what do you say”; she flies into a rage and accuses them both of “wantIing] to bully me” (Women in Love, pp. 338-39).

Birkin leaves and goes straight to Shortlands, where he finds Gerald in a state of profound ennui; the purposelessness of his life, apart from work, is beginning to dawn on him. Agreeing that they both need a drastic break of some kind, Birkin offers to teach Gerald Jiu-jitsu. They wrestle until they pass out against each other’s naked bodies. Afterwards both feel relieved but slightly embarrassed; Birkin says, “We are mentally, spiritually intimate, therefore we should be more or less physically intimate too—it is more whole” (Women in Love, p. 351).

Birkin and Ursula go for a drive. When she finds out that he has to get home for a dinner with Hermione, they have a violent quarrel. He gives up his dinner plans, and they drive on aimlessly, suddenly completely at peace with each other. They stop for tea at an inn; Ursula kneels and caresses the backs of Birkin’s thighs. Birkin proposes that they both resign from their jobs so that they can start a completely new life. They end up spending the night in the open in Sherwood Forest, in an “unspeakable communication in touch” (Women in Love, p. 403).

As Thomas Crich nears his end, Gerald finds that Gudrun is the only person he can turn to for sympathy. Three nights after his father’s death, he cannot stand being alone. He walks to Beldover, sneaks into the Brangwen house, and finds Gudrun’s room. She lets him stay and make love to her. Afterwards he falls asleep, “perfect as if he were bathed in the womb again,” but she is awake and despairing, “left with all the anguish of consciousness” (Women in Love, pp. 430-32).

Birkin and Ursula decide to get married. Gerald considers marrying Gudrun too, but cannot quite make up his mind. The four spend Christmas together at a ski resort in the Tyrol, despite Gudrun’s fear that, since Gerald and Birkin have planned this together, they are “arranging an outing with some little type they’d picked up” (Women in Love, p. 468).

On their way to Austria, Gerald and Gudrun stop in London, and go to the Pompadour café. They encounter the model, Pussum, confirming Gudrun’s worst suspicions about Gerald’s relations with “little types.” But when they overhear Pussum’s former lover Halliday making fun of a letter from Birkin in Birkin’s high-sounding prophetic mode, Gudrun snatches the letter away, and runs from the restaurant. On the boat crossing the Channel to mainland Europe, Ursula and Birkin both feel they have indeed embarked on a new life, “like one closed seed of life falling through dark, fathomless space” (Women in Love, p. 479). At Innsbruck, Austria, they rejoin Gerald and Gudrun. The four ascend into a beautiful but inhuman landscape, where “the last peaks of snow” are “like the heart petak of an open rose” (Women in Love, p. 491). The German guests at the inn welcome them heartily; after a boisterous party, Birkin and Ursula are inspired to sexual experiment, to “mocking brutishness” (Women in Love, p. 505). But Gudrun is beginning to feel afraid of Gerald’s intrusion on her self-conscious inner world.

One of their fellow guests is a little German sculptor named Loerke. He is a believer in art for art’s sake, but also something of a Futurist, who holds that “art should interpret industry, as it once interpreted religion” (Women in Love, p. 518). Though he apparently has a male lover, Leitner, he immediately focuses on Gudrun. The women spend hours talking with him, though Gerald hates him, and Birkin dismisses him as “the wizard rat that swims ahead” in “the river of corruption” (Women in Love, p. 523).

Ursula decides that she cannot stand the atmosphere (climatic or emotional), and she and Birkin leave for Italy. Left alone, Gerald and Gu-drun’s relationship deteriorates rapidly. She accuses him of wanting her rather than loving her; though he cannot contradict her, he feels that “a strange rent had been torn in him . he had been torn apart and given to Gudrun,” and that he cannot give up this “cruelest joy” (Women in Love, p. 543). As she seems more and more clearly to have an understanding with the sculptor Loerke, Gerald begins to fantasize about killing her. She decides to leave. On the day before her departure, Gerald comes upon her and Loerke having a picnic in the snow. He knocks Loerke down and begins to strangle Gudrun. But when Loerke breaks his concentration with a sarcastic remark, Gerald lets go and wanders away. He climbs higher and higher into the mountains, with no destination. Finally, feeling that “somebody was going to murder him” and “he could feel the blow descending,” he collapses and falls asleep in the snow (Women in Love, pp. 574-75).

When his frozen body is discovered, Gudrun summons Birkin and Ursula back from Italy. Birkin is in despair, feeling that if Gerald had accepted his offer of love, it would have saved him. He reassures Ursula that “You are enough for me, as far as woman is concerned,” and that “We shan’t have any need to despair, in death,” but the novel ends with them disagreeing about his wish for “two kinds of love” (Women in Love, pp. 582-83).

Birkin—character or mouthpiece?

Women in Love still has the power to provoke deeply polarized reactions in its readers, for its ideology as much as for its art. Those who hate the novel tend to consider Birkin the authorial voice, even in his most neurotic, misanthropic, misogynist pronouncements. They see Ursula as capitulating to him and forfeiting the potential for an independent life that she developed in The Rainbow (Adelman, pp. 508-510).

Those who love the novel tend to feel—often after repeated readings—that it is a work in which even negative characters like Hermione and Loerke are sometimes right and that the polarities are too profound ever to be resolved in one direction. As Birkin himself says, in a self-dissatisfied moment, “There wouldn’t have to be any truth, if there weren’t any lies” (Women in Love, p. 322). From this point of view, Birkin profoundly needs the correction he gets from Ursula, and both are changed by the end of the book. If Ursula adopts some of Birkin’s opinions, Birkin learns from her how to live in the moment, to set aside his need to be right when the urgencies of human interaction demand it.

One episode that particularly reveals the unresolved tensions between the different views Lawrence’s characters espouse is that of the horse and the train. When Gerald forces his mare to stand still at the crossing, it seems a precise analogue to what he has done in his industrial reforms. The natural, organic impulse—whether in the horse, or in the miners—is completely sacrificed to the imposed order of the machine. This is how Ursula understands it. Moreover, Gu-drun’s conflicted, but partly ecstatic, reaction underlines an important concept in the novel: that sadomasochistic sexuality and the power relations of industrial society are connected. In Lawrence’s view, both are manifestations of a collective desire for death.

When Birkin, however, first hears the story about the horse and train, he sides with Gerald. The whole scene appeals to his anti-sentimental, hierarchical side, and to his desire for male supremacy. “Nothing is so detestable as the maudlin attributing of human consciousness to animals,” he says, and later adds, gratuitously, “And woman is the same as horses. . With one will she wants to subject herself utterly. With the other she wants to bolt, and pitch her rider to perdition” (Women in Love, pp. 201-2). When Birkin says this, we are in for some surprises. First, Hermione agrees with him and draws an analogy to her own reliance on rigid self-control in dealing with her inner chaos. Then, Ursula and Hermione join forces, for the only time in the novel, expressing mutual distrust for Birkin’s “criticism and analysis of life,” his inability to “see things in their entirety, with their beauty left to them” (Women in Love, p. 203). It is a criticism that the plot seems, at least partly, to bear out; it is only when Birkin lets go, acts on impulse and risks himself in the face of setbacks rather than insisting on dominance that his relationship with Ursula begins to succeed.

A further plot-irony makes clear the relevance of all this to Gerald’s eventual fate. When we next see him, he has his hand bandaged from an industrial accident. Hermione’s analogy has proved accurate, though not quite in the way she meant it: the excessive need for control will ultimately turn against the other within the self, as well as external others, animal or human. That is, this need will lead one to wreak havoc on oneself. The industrial accident reveals Gerald’s unconscious self-destructiveness; and surely it reflects Lawrence’s own diagnosis of the illness of the entire culture, in the light of the War. In the culture, as in Gerald, the loss of a sense of cosmic connection, through excessive reliance on reason and power, leads to a failure of the will to live, which leads, in turn, to the need to murder or be murdered. The “substitution of the mechanical principle for the organic” is, to quote Lawrence’s dictum again, “the first great phase of chaos” (Women in Love, p. 305).

Sources and literary context

Just how far Women in Love was taken as a roman ä clef, a portrait of literary London with identifiable characters, may be judged from the lawsuits it almost spawned. To this day, the character Pussum is called “Minette,” in some editions because an ex-friend, Philip Heseltine, had a mistress who was nicknamed “The Puma.” The alteration, plus fifty pounds, kept Heseltine from filing a lawsuit against Lawrence (Kinkead-Weekes, p. 698).

The case of Lady Ottoline Morrell was more serious, and actually delayed publication by three years. Lady Ottoline was famous, a patron of the arts and liberal causes. She had an affair with the philosopher Bertrand Russell, and the guests at her country house, Garsington, included Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, and E. M. Forster, as well as the Lawrences. She and Lawrence’s wife Frieda had quarreled by the time Lawrence rewrote Women in Love; and she felt her manner and dress, as well as her public role, were cruelly caricatured in the figure of Hermione. Lawrence responded that obviously Hermione wasn’t Ottoline, since he and Ottoline had never had an affair. (In the novel Birkin, presumed to have been modeled on Lawrence, does have an affair with Hermione.) But to the real-life Ottoline, the very suggestion that they might have had one only made matters worse.

That Birkin is essentially Lawrence, no one has ever questioned. Ursula plays the role in his life that Frieda played in Lawrence’s; and when Ursula is angry, she doubtless shows some of Frieda’s “God Almightiness” (Kinkead-Weekes, p. 72). But her background is that of Lawrence’s ex-fiancée, Louie Burrows. All in all, it seems fairest to call her an imagined character. The disastrous attempt of writers John Middleton Muny and Katherine Mansfield to live with the Lawrences in Cornwall doubtless stands behind the foursome plot. But Gerald, like Ursula, is an invented character; all he has in common with Murry is that both refused the offer of blood-brotherhood. Gudrun, on the other hand, may be quite a close portrait of Katherine Mansfield, the great short-story writer. Both have a gift for satire that miniaturizes, in their art and conversation. Mansfield wrote some witty remarks about Lawrence himself: “the ‘dear man’ in him whom we all loved is hidden away … like a little gold ring in that immense German Christmas pudding which is Frieda” (Mansfield in Delany, p. 229). Like the character Gudrun, Mansfield could be fiercely loyal; in fact, she snatched a book of Lawrence’s poems out of the hands of two aesthetes who were making fun of it, at the Cafe Royal. Also like Gudrun, she was sexually unconventional. She left Murry for a brief affair with the painter Mark Gertler, the inspiration for the sculptor Loerke in Women in Love.

With Gertler, as perhaps with Lady Ottoline, Lawrence ended up making savage fictional use of someone he had initially liked personally. Lawrence’s first response to Gertler’s painting “The Merry-Go-Round” was to call it “the best modern picture I have seen”; like the frieze for the factory in Cologne created by Loerke in the novel, the painting shows how “the machine works [man], instead of he the machine” (Women in Love, p. 519). But, as Lawrence clearly understood, the intent of “the combination of blaze, and violent mechanical rotation … and ghastly, utterly mindless human intensity of sensational extremity” was satire, not, as in Loerke’s case, affirmation of industry (Lawrence in Delany, p. 259). That the men in the painting were soldiers made it specifically a satire on industrialized warfare. That Gertler, a German-Jewish artist, was not allowed to exhibit it, filled Lawrence the war-protestor with fellow-feeling. Why, then, does Loerke come across as such a negative character? Perhaps Lawrence was still angry at Gertler on Murry’s behalf; or perhaps his “Day of Wrath” simply needed a wide panoply of damned souls.


Lawrence, no doubt anticipating that the pre-publication scandals surrounding the book would affect its reception, wanted no review copies sent out in England—a request that his publisher only partly respected. Lawrence was largely right in his fears. In the Times Literary Supplement, the poet Edmund Blunden, now a protege of Lady Ottoline’s, found that Lawrence’s “conception of love” was one of “jubilant brutality,” and that Hermione alone stood out as a figure of “immense dignity” (Blunden in Farmer, p. liii). John Middleton Murry, who had even more of a vested interest, wrote that Lawrence had “murdered his gifts,” that the characters were indistinguishable, and that “they writhe continually, like the damned, in a frenzy of sexual awareness” (Murry in Kinkead-Weekes, pp. 671-72). Other reviews dismissed the novel humorously; one even called for its suppression. “Apart from the purely hostile reviews,” Fanner and his co-editors tell us, “the early notice . was characterised by a sense that Lawrence was more a poet than a novelist, more interested in philosophy and sex than in writing convincing fiction. The extraordinariness of the book was seen as an effort (and as a failure) to enliven psychological drama” (Farmer, p. lv). The most positive reviewer, Rebecca West, thought Lawrence successful in conveying “the spiritual truth with which he is concerned at the moment,” though at the cost of a “distortion of life’s physical appearances”; she did, however, allow that the novel was “a work of genius” (West in Farmer, p. lv).

The American reviews were, on the whole, more positive than the British. John Macy, writing in the New York Evening Post Literary Review, saw Lawrence as a “tragic poet.” If the emotions of his characters were “more frequent and more violent than the ordinary human soul can enjoy or endure,” still Lawrence knew “what goes on inside the human head”; and even his outward portraiture had “a fidelity not surpassed by [British novelist] Mr. [Arnold] Bennett” (Macy in Kinkead-Weekes, p. 657). This was about as good as it got, in 1921. It would be a few years before some critics, beginning with F. R. Leavis, agreed with Lawrence’s own assessment: “I consider this the best of my books” (Lawrence in Farmer, p. xxxix).

—Alan Williamson

For More Information

Adelman, Gary. “The Man Who Rode Away: What D. H. Lawrence Means to Today’s Readers.” Tri-Quarterly 107/108 Winter-Summer 2000: 508.

Delany, Paul. D. H. Lawrence’s Nightmare: The Writer and His Circle in the Years of the Great War. New York: Basic, 1978.

Farmer, David, Lindeth Vasey, and John Worthen, eds. Women in Love, by D. H. Lawrence. The Cambridge Edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Fussell, Paul. The Great War and Modem Memor. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975.

Gilbert, David. Class, Community, and Collective Action: Social Change in Two British Coalfields, 1850-1926. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992.

Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. No Man’s Land. 2 vols. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988-89.

Kinkead-Weekes, Mark. D. H. Lawrence: Triumph to Exile, 1912-1922. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Lawrence, D. H. Fantasia of the Unconscious and Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious. London: Penguin, 1977.

____. Women in Love. Ed. Charles L. Ross. London: Penguin, 1986.

Nixon, Cornelia. Lawrence’s Leadership Politics and the Turn Against Women. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.

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Women in Love