Years ago, when my friend H and I read D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love, we loved it but could not help but satirize it. Lawrence writes elegantly and brilliantly portrays the women characters, Ursula Brangwen and her sister, Gudrun, but the dialogue is too intense, almost silly.
For a short time H and I called each other Prune, Ursula’s nickname for Gudrun. “Don’t you really want to get married, Prune?” We might quote, laughing.
But we both liked the Brangwen sisters, who are perhaps Lawrence’s most interesting, believable women characters. Ursula, a bored teacher, has had sexual relationships but does not think much about marriage. Gudrun, an artist who has returned from London to the Midlands, is smouldering with boredom: she wants something, but is it marriage?
Lawrence preaches about love and sex in all of his novels. Ursula is drawn to Rupert Birkin, a school inspector who plans to quit his job and travel, but he drones on and on about going beyond love – he doesn’t want mere love – and wants a perfect relationship with a woman and a man. Annoyed, Ursula asks, “Aren’t I enough?” Birkin admits he loves her. They do get married.
Gudrun is arrogant and censorious. She is unkind to her boyfriend, Gerald Crich, the rich, devastatingly handsome owner of a colliery. The two couples, Ursula and Birkin and Gudrun and Gerald, take a vacation together in the Alps. It begins well, but Gudrun’s cruelty to Gerald drives Ursula and Birkin to leave early. Gudrun spends most of her time in the lodge talking to a fellow artist, a misogynistic gnome of a man. Her neglect and mockery of Gerald ends in tragedy. The question: Is Gudrun a killer? Unforgivable, if not quite a murderer.
On a lighter note, Lawrence has an interest in women’s fashion. His description of clothing is a welcome distraction from intensity. Gudrun has original clothes, perhaps inspired by her time in bohemian Chelsea. On a walk to a wedding, Gudrun wears grass-green stockings, a large grass-green velour hat, and a full coat, of a strong blue color. “What price the stockings?” someone calls. Coming out of the church, Gudrun and Ursula recognize Hermione, a rich woman who is a hostess/patron of the arts. Hermione wears odd, expensive clothes: “a dress of silky, frail velvet, of pale yellow color…. Her shoes were of brownish-grey, like the feathers on her hat.”
Gudrun’s colorful stockings always attract attention. Ursula is thrilled when Gudrun gives her three pairs of thick silk stockings.
“I can’t take them from you, Prune,” she cried. “I can’t possibly deprive you of them – the jewels.”
“Aren’t they jewels?” cried Gudrun, eyeing her gifts with an envious eye. “Aren’t they real lambs!”
Lawrence wrote that Thomas Hardy was the best Victorian writer – in fact, the only one he thought worth reading – and we can see Hardy’s influence. Hardy wrote devastating tragedies: he was condemned for immorality. Of course, Lawrence’s books were banned, Women in Love among them. The villain in Women in Love is a woman, though perhaps Lawrence, with his complicated philosophy, would have blamed it on society, or even fate.