Review | Sons and Lovers: The Biography of a Novel by Neil Roberts


Sons and Lovers: The Biography of a Novel

Neil Roberts, Clemson University Press


As the subtitle to this literary study indicates, Neil Roberts offers a biographical and genetic reading of the emergence of one of the most salient novels in the English language. Roberts’s fine-tuned critical savvy will delight both the lay reader and the D.H. Lawrence specialist as it strikes a fine balance between readability and archival examination of sources.

It’s a well-known fact that although one of the manuscripts is missing, Sons and Lovers went through three major drafts – works in progress known as Paul Morel I, II and III – before reaching its definitive version and title. Roberts deftly guides the reader through the various avatars of the novel, closely examining the changes made by Lawrence himself and offering dispassionate scrutiny of the parts of the novel that were influenced by – and even possibly written by – Lawrence’s two legendary lovers, Jessie Chambers who helped him to free his work from the category of juvenilia, and his dea ex machina the formidable Frieda Weekley who freed him from his youthful inner struggles with the mind/body dichotomy.

As most readers will know, Sons and Lovers is an autobiographical roman à clef. Paul Morel’s parents were modelled on Lawrence’s own parents and the character of Miriam was based on his lover and friend Jessie Chambers. Roberts wrings great drama out of the surprising twists and turns involved in the creative struggle that went into the emergence of these characters. His intimate knowledge of Lawrence’s archive reveals that the grief triggered by the death of Lawrence’s mother caused him to idealize her and demonize his father, a fact that Lawrence acknowledged regretfully after the novel was published.

Chambers was ultimately devastated by the outcome in the final version of the novel which she perceived as a betrayal and a damaging portrayal of their relationship. Throughout her assiduous proofreading, Chambers kept inciting Lawrence to greater fidelity to her perceptions of their early bond, even though their sexual liaison was long over. Her engagement with the writing of the novel was in no small part motivated by the belief that it allowed Lawrence to work through and resolve his Oedipal love for his mother, which she saw as the main barrier between them. By contrast, Lawrence adopted a far looser attitude to his creation, taking the liberty of mixing different time periods and allowing fictional elements to creep into his characterization of Paul and Miriam. Influenced to some extent by French theories of the novel, Lawrence incorporated an element of Flaubertian impersonality which enabled him to blend life writing and novelistic creation.

Roberts provides insights into the reasons for Lawrence’s break-up with Chambers through epistolary evidence and from reading Chambers’s own autobiographical account written twenty years later. We learn, for instance, that Lawrence’s mixed feelings about her derived from the fact that she made him feel deeply divided into the spiritual being who was drawn to her and the sexual being who was left cold by her physical presence. Despite Lawrence’s philandering during the writing of the novel, only in Frieda Weekley was he able to reconcile these warring drives.

Their relationship was deeply fraught for other reasons, however, as Frieda’s marriage left her deeply divided between her attraction to Lawrence and her devotion to her children. While Frieda and her bohemian sisters would have settled for a loose polygamous arrangement, Roberts reveals that Lawrence was in fact surprisingly puritanical and traditional when it came to monogamous commitment once he had found his kindred spirit.

Compellingly sketching in the heart-wrenching conflicts that both paradoxically dampened and energized Lawrence’s life during the writing of Sons and Lovers, Roberts also gives the reader a fascinating portrayal of the cultural background of the period. We learn, for instance, that George Meredith was the archetypal model for the man of letters in Lawrence’s youth and that Lawrence’s erudite lyrical literary style was at least in part motivated by his desire to distinguish himself “as something more than a collier’s son”. His style was in Roberts’s words, “an entry-card to the literary world, […] a dyke more substantial than school-teaching to keep him above the ‘morass’ that threatened him.” The world of letters in the early twentieth century was arguably also not yet ready for the emergence of a hybrid aesthetic such as Tony Harrison’s blending of urbane literariness with the plain working class narrative style.

More than anything, we discover in Roberts’s challenging study that the triumph of Sons and Lovers is due in no small part to the remarks offered by readers such as Jessie Chambers. Roberts puts the novel on the map of those major works that were ultimately collaborative efforts rather than sprung ex nihilo from the isolated labours of a single mind. Lawrence did of course self-edit and even self-censor, but his editors were instrumental in bringing the text to fruition. Roberts reveals how Lawrence’s early work was the product of almost as much editing as the pruning of T. S. Eliot by Ezra Pound, Thomas Wolfe by Max Perkins, Raymond Carver by Gordon Lish and many other authors by their vocational editors, family and close friends.



By Erik Martiny