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D. H. Lawrence’s greatest novel is also his most anti-modern. Written between April and October of 1916 in Cornwall, during some of the darkest days of the First World War, Women in Love  was conceived as a sequel to The Rainbow . (Both novels were brilliantly filmed  by Ken Russell.) Women in Love continues the story of Ursula Brangwen’s life, and the fulfillment she finds in a love affair with Rupert Birkin (who does not figure in The Rainbow at all). This relationship is, in fact, paired with another: that of Gudrun, Ursula’s sister (a very minor character in The Rainbow), and Gerald Crich, Birkin’s best friend. The novel follows the course of both relationships.
The connection between the two novels seems a tenuous one at best, however, and one can read and appreciate Women in Love without any knowledge at all of The Rainbow. This has a great deal to do with the dramatic difference in tone between the two. In a letter, Lawrence described the relationship between the two novels as follows: “There is another novel, sequel to The Rainbow, called Women in Love . . . this actually does contain the results in one’s soul of the war; it is purely destructive, not like The Rainbow, destructive-consummating.”
Women in Love is indeed “purely destructive”: it is grimly apocalyptic and misanthropic. There is little sense of the presence of nature this time: the novel moves almost entirely within the conscious and (more importantly) subconscious minds of its four main characters. And the backdrop is the ugly, human-built mechanicalness of the industrialized Midlands. It is easy to attribute the change in tone between the two novels as due to Lawrence’s horror at the war (“The war finished me,” he later said).
But one must not lose sight of the fact that the two novels do, in fact, tell one continuous story, and that the switch in tone is appropriate to what the second half of the story depicts: the fragmentary lives of individuals struggling to find fulfillment in the modern world. In his “Foreword” to the novel 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.” For Lawrence, as for Heidegger, the war was ultimately just an inevitable extension of the industrial age itself.
At the beginning of the story, Birkin is involved in an unhappy love affair with Hermione Roddice, the daughter of an aristocrat and a thinly-disguised portrait of Lady Ottoline Morrell. Birkin is already acquainted with Ursula professionally, as he is the local school inspector and she the school mistress. After they are brought closer together and love begins to grow between them, Birkin abandons Hermione. The memorable episode that precipitates the final break between them involves Hermione trying to bludgeon him to death with a lapis lazuli paperweight.
However, Birkin’s relationship with Ursula is, from the first, difficult in its own way. Much of the reason has to do with Birkin’s misanthropy and Schopenhauerian pessimism. At some level, Ursula sympathizes with Birkin’s views, but she is put off by his extraordinary vehemence, and, more importantly, seems to feel that if he would admit his love for her and fully surrender himself to their relationship he would be freed from his all-consuming hatred of the world. She is carrying on with life, in spite of everything, and eventually she succeeds in drawing him back into life.
The character of Rupert Birkin is universally acknowledged to be a self-portrait of Lawrence, though it would be dangerous to assume that Lawrence has no critical distance from the character (or from himself, for that matter). Nevertheless, Birkin often speaks for Lawrence. Early in the novel Birkin declares that it would be much better if humanity “were just wiped out. Essentially they don’t exist, they aren’t there.” Later, in conversation with Ursula, Birkin declares:
“Humanity is a huge aggregate lie, and a huge lie is less than a small truth. Humanity is less, far less than the individual, because the individual may sometimes be capable of truth, and humanity is a tree of lies. And they say that love is the greatest thing: they persist in saying this, the foul liars, and just look at what they do! . . . It’s a lie to say that love is the greatest. . . . What people want is hate—hate and nothing but hate. And in the name of righteousness and love they get it. . . . If we want hate, let us have it—death, murder, torture, violent destruction—let us have it: but not in the name of love. But I abhor humanity, I wish it was swept away. It could go, and there would be no absolute loss, if every human being perished tomorrow. . . .”
“So you’d like everybody in the world destroyed?” said Ursula. . . .
“Yes truly. You yourself, don’t you find it a beautiful clean thought, a world empty of people, just uninterrupted grass, and a hare sitting up?”
The pleasant sincerity of his voice made Ursula pause to consider her own proposition. And it really was attractive: a clean, lovely, humanless world. It was the really desirable. Her heart hesitated and exulted. But still, she was dissatisfied with him.
If anything, in his own correspondence Lawrence goes further than Birkin. In a letter to his friend S. S. Koteliansky, dated September 4, 1916, while Lawrence was working on Women in Love, he declares:
I must say I hate mankind—talking of hatred, I have got a perfect androphobia. When I see people in the distance, walking along the path through the fields to Zennor, I want to crouch in the bushes and shoot them silently with invisible arrows of death. I think truly the only righteousness is the destruction of mankind, as in Sodom. . . . Oh, if one could but have a great box of insect powder, and shake it over them, in the heavens, and exterminate them. Only to clear and cleanse and purify the beautiful earth, and give room for some truth and pure living.
Where Women in Love is most interesting, however, is not in such outpourings of venom, but in Lawrence’s attempts to pinpoint why things have gone so disastrously wrong in the modern world. As have many other authors, Lawrence places a great deal of weight on the materialism and mechanism of industrialized modernity. Another, later, exchange between Birkin and Ursula is particularly revealing in this regard. The pair have just bought a chair at a flea market and Birkin states:
“When I see that clear, beautiful chair, and I think of England, even Jane Austen’s England—it had living thoughts to unfold even then, and pure happiness in unfolding them. And now, we can only fish among the rubbish-heaps for the remnants of their old expression. There is no production in us now, only sordid and foul mechanicalness.”
“It isn’t true,” cried Ursula, “Why must you always praise the past at the expense of the present? Really, I don’t think so much of Jane Austen’s England. It was materialistic enough, if you like—”
“It could afford to be materialistic,” said Birkin, “because it had the power to be something other—which we haven’t. We are materialistic because we haven’t the power to be anything else—try as we may, we can’t bring off anything but materialism: mechanism, the very soul of materialism.”
But why did Jane Austen’s England have the power to be something else? And what else did it have the power to be? For the answers to these questions we must, in essence, look back to The Rainbow. Jane Austen’s England still preserved some connection to the land—a sense of belonging to nature. What England then had the “power to be” was nothing grand and idealistic: it had the power simply to be its natural self. The people of Jane Austen’s England made and enjoyed beautiful objects—but these objects were an ornament to a life lived in relative closeness to the earth.
In the industrialized world of 1916, however, objects are all that human beings have. The object of life itself becomes the production and acquisition of objects. This by itself cannot, of course, provide any sense of “meaning in life,” and to fill this void we have introduced idealism and given to our materialism a moral veneer: we are making Progress, alleviating hunger and disease and want, promoting equality, and in general perfecting ourselves and the world through the marriage of science and commerce.