Sons and Lovers is an autobiographical novel, as autobiographical as Arnold Bennet’s Clayhanger and the first half of Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield. Lawrence was a tortured soul for the full forty-five years of his life. Being highly sensitive, he reacted sharply, suffered intensely. His parents never enjoyed conjugal felicity. The home atmosphere was embittered by their endless bickerings. Repelled by the coarse brutality of his father, Lawrence developed a deep attachment with his mother. She, too, frustrated in her marriage, leaned heavily on her children, in particular on Lawrence, for emotional fulfillment and for the realization of her ambitions. Gradually, there grew an unhealthy inter-dependence between Lawrence and his mother, that rendered him unfit to establish a healthy emotional relationship with other women. Lawrence grew into a self-conscious neurotic. At the age of sixteen, he had met Jessie Chambers. He liked and loved her. But the dark shadow of his Oedipal relationship with his mother did not let him attain emotional fulfillment through Jessie. They hung on to each other for nearly ten years, but finally broke off. The entire experience had been so painful that in order to work out his catharsis, Lawrence had to relive it imaginatively and express it in artistic terms. The result was Sons and Lovers. The major characters of this novel are closely modeled after their originals; major events have been transcribed straight from their life. Thus there is no doubt about the autobiographical content of Sons and Lovers.
There exist certain written documents by Lawrence as well as by his sister Ada that establish the close resemblance of Walter and Gertrude Morel with Arthur and Lydia Lawrence. About his father, he says, “My father was collier, and only a collier, nothing praise-worthy about him. He wasn’t even respectable in so far as he got drunk rather frequently, never went near a chapel, and was usually rather rude to his little immediate bosses at the pit.” Lawrence’s sister Ada remembers him as a handsome, ruddy-faced man with dark flashing eyes and a beard. She also reports that her father had never applied a razor to his face. Thus Walter Morel presents a true picture of Arthur Lawrence.
Like Gertrude Morel, Lawrence’s mother Lydia belonged to a middle-class family. She also was jilted by a refined Youngman in her youth. She met Arthur Lawrence at a party at Nottingham and was attracted by his graceful dancing, his musical voice, his gallant manner, and his overflowing humor and good spirits’. The married life of the Lawrences was quite unhappy. It was an endless battle between Lydia’s sophistication and Arthur’s coarseness, between her middle-class pretensions and his animal-like zest for life. Lydia often infuriated her husband by deliberately talking of poetry and religion, subjects in which he could not participate, and he took his revenge by behaving coarsely at a party or by coming home drunk when money was badly needed. On such occasions they violently quarreled with each other, causing a terrible fright to the children. All this has been faithfully depicted in Sons and Lovers.
Mrs Lawrence, after her disillusionment in marriage, turned to her sons, making husband substitutes of them. As in the novel, Arthur (William) was her favourite, and she had pinned all hopes of a respectable future life on him. But unfortunately, Arthur died in London at a very young age, and in order to fill the emotional void created by this untimely death, she turned to David (Paul). Like Paul, David was sickly and delicate. A serious attack of pneumonia at the age of seventeen brought his mother very close to him. The two ‘realised’ each other and a kind of bond was sealed between them.
Lawrence met Jessie Chambers in 1901. In the novel, she has been presented as Miriam. For some time Jessie was closely associated with its writing. Most of the middle third of the novel dealing with Paul-Miriam relationship was written directly under her supervision and from the notes supplied by her. Jessie was a dreamy girl who (like Miriam) thought of herself as a Walter Scott heroine. She was a year younger than Lawrence. Together they spent long hours reading romantic poetry and their favourite novelists. Jessie offered a very perceptive criticism of Lawrence’s manuscripts and paintings.
Clara, of course, does not have anyone original in real life. It has been pointed out by Jessie Chambers that in the case of Clara, Lawrence drew inspiration from three different women. Still, her portrayal is mainly Lawrence’s own. Other girls at Jordan’s have also been presented with a slight difference. They were not the respectable lot they are made to appear in the novel.
Not only did the characters resembling Paul, Miriam, Walter, and Gertrude exist in real life but also the places and the incidents that took place. Bestwood in the novel is actually Eastwood, the village where Lawrence was born. He had spent here most of his childhood and had minutely observed the mining activity carried on near the village. So in the novel, he has given a very realistic description of the atmosphere including that of the Breach (The Bottoms in the novel)”where blocks of houses had been erected by the mine owners for their workers”.
These examples offer ample evidence to believe that Sons and Lovers is an autobiographical work. And yet it is not an autobiography, it is a novel. Eliseo Vivas has rightly pointed out, “Sons and Lovers is not a mere transcription of events in Lawrence’s life up to the death of his mother. From his remembered experience, Lawrence had first to make a selection. He did not attempt to put into the book everything that he remembered as happening to him or his family and friends. Some episodes he discarded…….” And it is not merely in the selection of a few episodes and the rejection of others that Lawrence applied his authority as an artist; he gave an entirely new interpretation to many of the events. It is on record that Lawrence himself was dissatisfied in his later life with the portrayal of his father. He felt he had done injustice to him. Jessie Chambers was also quick to register her indignation at Lawrence’s treatment of Miriam. She said she had felt ‘bewildered and dismayed’ at the Paul and Miriam portion. “The Miriam part of the novel is a slander, a fearful treachery,” she wrote to Helen Corke. It is clear that Jessie regarded this work as autobiography, whereas Lawrence was writing a novel.
While the earlier assertion that Lawrence was using Sons and Lovers for his catharsis cannot be denied, nor its autobiographical aspect ignored, it should be borne in mind that Lawrence has a definite point of view to project in this novel. He is trying to reinterpret his life as well as that of his parents in the light of that point of view. His theme is man-woman relationship and through the exploration of various kinds of relationships he is trying to determine what destroys and what promotes the mutual harmony of a man and a woman thrown together through love or marriage. The married life of the Morels is wrecked because Mrs Morel fails to respect ‘the divine otherness’ of her husband and tries to dominate him, or rather reform him. The poor fellow just disintegrates. Paul-Miriam relationship fails because Miriam denies the flesh and because she also tries to ‘possess’ the soul of Paul, who is already, inextricably in the grip of his Oedipal love. Paul and Clara fail to achieve happiness together because their relationship is too superficial.
To conclude, we may say that Sons and Lovers should be read not as an autobiography but as a novel that uses autobiographical material to put forward a certain attitude to life, an attitude that the novelist thinks will promote human happiness.
Also read: Symbols in “Sons and Lovers”