Sons and Lovers: a century on

'I tell you I've written a great book," DH Lawrence informed his publisher Edward Garnett, after sending him the manuscript of Sons and Lovers in November 1912. "Read my novel – it's a great novel." Lawrence's immodesty is forgivable: the book had been through four drafts, and after two years of struggle he was hugely relieved to have it finished. The sense of elation didn't last long. He worried about the title (he had originally called the book "Paul Morel"). He worried whether it might benefit from a foreword (and belatedly posted one to Garnett). He worried about the dust jacket, and arranged for a friend, Ernest Collings, to design one (like the foreword, it wasn't used). Beneath these worries lay a deeper worry, about the text itself: "I am a great admirer of my own stuff while it's new, but after a while I'm not so gone on it," he admitted. He was already on to the next thing (a draft of what would become The Rainbow), and had "scarcely the patience" to correct the proofs. But he was proud when a finished copy reached him in Italy. And the word he used to Garnett recurred, in letters to friends. "It is quite a great novel"; "I remember you telling me, at the beginning, it would be great. I think it is so."

Lawrence was right. Sons and Lovers is a great novel. A century of readers have reached for the same adjective. FR Leavis did, when he enrolled Lawrence in the "great tradition" of the English novel, comprising Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James and Joseph Conrad. And Philip Larkin did so, too, describing Lawrence as "England's greatest novelist" and Sons and Lovers as his finest achievement: "Cock me! Nearly every page of it is absolutely perfect." The perfection wasn't apparent to those close to Lawrence at the time, including his childhood sweetheart Jessie Chambers, his editor Garnett, and his wife-to-be Frieda, all of whom suggested improvements and left their mark on the finished text. But the reviews were good, and 100 years later the novel's reputation holds up, despite the recent dip in Lawrence's critical standing.

To anyone of my generation, that dip is a puzzle. In the early 1970s, when I was studying at Nottingham University, Lawrence was hot. (I can't pretend that my main reason for choosing to go to Nottingham was that Lawrence had been there before me, but I'd been a fan of his work since filching a copy of Lady Chatterley's Lover from my mother's bedside cabinet at the age of 14.) Partly it was the films: Ken Russell's Women in Love appeared in 1969, Christopher Miles's The Virgin and the Gypsy in 1970. Partly it was his pertinence to feminism: Kate Millett's Sexual Politics put him at the centre of undergraduate debates about misogyny, patriarchy and the myth of the vaginal orgasm. Partly it was his politics: was he a hero of the sexual revolution or a fascist and colonialist? The attacks on him grew fiercer as the years went by, but to me the difficulties he posed were evidence that he mattered. From Nottingham I went on to write an MA thesis about him at McMaster University in Canada, which boasts a Lawrence archive. The thesis doesn't bear rereading, but the best of Lawrence, including his poetry, travel books and essays, remains as fresh as ever. Surely he cannot remain unfashionable for long.

For those new to his work, Sons and Lovers is the place to start. Though it came after The White Peacock and The Trespasser, it reads like a first novel. This isn't only because it's life writing, recreating scenes from the author's own experience. Nor is it because the story concerns childhood and adolescence and all that go with them, including fear, shame, self‑consciousness, emotional hypersensitivity, sexual awakening, and the hubristic certainty that (as Paul Morel puts it) one is "going to alter the face of the earth in some way". There's also the freshness and intensity with which Lawrence presents the Morel family – as if this was the only family in the world where the parents don't get on, the father drinks, the mother resents her son's girlfriends, money is short, art and literature become a refuge, and so on. At 27, Lawrence was well-educated and widely read, but the style of Sons and Lovers is wonderfully unknowing – no distancing English irony breaks the spell. Irony wasn't in Lawrence's nature, and at the time he wrote the book he didn't have the leisure for it anyway.

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