A Lack of Tradition in “Sons and Lovers”






ons and Lovers is considered one of Lawrence’s most conventional novels because of its subject (the working class), plotline (love repeatedly lost and regained, romantic triangles and entanglements, the fragility of the human spirit and family drama) and language (colloquial language and vocabulary, with little to no classical allusion). ‘Conventional’ implies convention and therefore tradition – the way in which things are usually done and have always been done in a particular society. In fact, the influential Cambridge critic F. R. Leavis championed both Lawrence’s artistic integrity and his moral seriousness, placing much of Lawrence’s fiction within the canonical “great tradition” of the English novel. Lawrence is now generally valued as a visionary thinker and significant representative of modernism in English literature. However, hindsight is always 20/20, and Woolf may have felt some animosity towards Lawrence, therefore making her less objective than she may have thought herself to be, because of the seemingly anti-feminist attitudes toward women and sexuality found in his work.

Virginia Woolf objected to Lawrence’s writings because she felt that he “echoes nobody, continues no tradition, is unaware of the past”. However, Woolf was wrong in this assertion. What could be more traditional, more ‘past-aware’ than autobiography? Most, if not all, of Lawrence’s early work is autobiographical, not merely in the generic  sense of drawing on his own life for material, but also in the rhetorical sense: to be about himself. Furthermore, although these works are “about himself”, Lawrence is not probing introspectively, philosophizing the situations he finds himself in, but rather using his experiences to tell the stories of his generation, class, and countrymen.  Lawrence had no artistic commitment to his own life experience for its own sake. It was that past, the very ‘pastness’ of the past, the burden of history and tradition, that infuriated him; he felt the need to draw attention to the dehumanising effects of modernity and industrialisation. In his collected works, Lawrence confronts issues relating to emotional health and vitality, spontaneity, human sexuality and instinct. All of these are traditional human interests, the basis of our art in every sphere.


That said, surely Lawrence was correct in believing that only an insecure artist would seek to look down upon his subject, and that the highest role of the artist would be to state not his own ingenuity and superiority over other men but his sympathy with them.  This being, in and of itself, an effort that will demand a radical and quite startling individualism, that refuses to continue an intellectual or literary tradition in order to draw attention to, and celebrate, the “impersonal and the divine” within ordinary men. Lawrence is sympathetic; he seems to be demonstrating in his very style, in his process of writing, the knowledge that the poet and writer, for all their advanced perception, must lie down “where all the ladders start,/In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.” Lawrence seemed to be writing, out of the abrupt, uncontrollable impulses of his soul, which he refuses to shape into a studied art. He had no interest in “perfection”; he would have scorned even the speculative idea of hoping for either perfection in life or in art—he is too engrossed in the beauty of the natural flux.

So, Lawrence may have broken with the tradition of the introspective, self-absorbed author or artist, who delves ever deeper into themselves in order to find the truth, but he began the tradition of empathy, of chronicling what is happening around one (although this may have no effect whatsoever on you), instead of within one. I include a quote from one of his poems, Nemesis, which is in the collection Pansies:

“If we do not rapidly open all the doors of consciousness
and freshen the putrid little space in which we are cribbed
the sky-blue walls of our unventilated heaven
will be bright red with blood.”


The “impersonal and the divine” is immediately accessible, requiring no torturous effort in order to be expressed. If the artist allows his subject a certain measure of freedom, it will become apparent with the spontaneous flowering of nature itself. Lawrence rejected Woolf’s belief that the artistic act was neither easy nor joyous, but created slowly, torturously, “pulled through only in breathless anguish.” Perhaps because Woolf quite consciously desired “less life and more poetry” in her novels, she made the creative act a strangely perverse doubling back upon itself—as if the artist, like the Puritan, must not enjoy any of his activity for fear of its being somehow wrong. However, Woolf clearly did not take into account that anything is what you make it, and if something is conceived or created under negative circumstances, with pain and difficulty, the results of that labour will never be anything less than death affirming and pessimistic.

In Lawrence’s works, there is a repeating pattern of the spontaneous discovery of humanity, and the recording of the explicit revelation. Not a concept, not an intellectual discovery or deduction, the beauty of the universe was, to Lawrence, a perpetual creation. To him the novel remained the one “bright book of life” because of its vivid portrait of the multifaceted relationships between everyone and everything in life. Lawrence was not interested in that academic, adolescent, and rather insane human concept of “The Perfect,” knowing very well that dichotomies like Perfect/Imperfect are only invented by men according to their cultural, political or emotional dispositions, and then imposed upon others. Lawrence believed that everything changes, most of all, standards of seemingly permanent taste, aesthetic standards of perfection that are soon left behind by the spontaneous flow of life. His ability to show the unique beauty of the passing moment, even the passing psychological moment, is most clearly illustrated in all of his writings, although it is also seriously underestimated. There is a passage from A Room of One’s Own that springs to mind when noting this ability of Lawrence’s, and it is as follows:

“What is meant by ‘reality’? It would seem to be something very erratic, very undependable – now to be found in a dusty road, now in a scrap of newspaper in the street, now a daffodil in the sun. It lights up a group in a room and stamps some casual saying. It overwhelms one walking home beneath the stars and makes the silent world more real than the world of speech – and then there it is again in an omnibus in the uproar of Piccadilly. Sometimes, too, it seems to dwell in shapes too far away for us to discern what their nature is. But whatever it touches, it fixes and makes permanent. This is what remains over when the skin of the day has been cast into the hedge; that is what is left of past time and of our loves and hates.” 

This passage, to me, is Woolf’s version of Lawrence’s ability to make a whim of his own real to others.

I think it is not so much the mere game of tracing influences which is involved as the implied definition of the artist’s status that Woolf took umbrage with. She refused to see Lawrence as an accomplished writer because he had no “writerly blood”, so to speak – no predecessor that was a writer or a noticeable mentor. It is, for literary types, suggesting a claim to the throne when you are a serf. It is sometimes difficult for critics, especially tradition-oriented critics, to understand this. A healthy respect for the great achievements of the past should not be cause to be suspicious of what seems revolutionary and upsetting, contrary to some pre-approved definition of “art”—on the contrary, such new and innovative art should be welcomed, since it expands our grasp of what is known in ways that classical, “correct” art cannot. Furthermore, Woolf was focused on very different priorities to Lawrence – to her, his preoccupation with love affairs and seemingly vain focus on himself and what had happened in his life must have seemed intensely frivolous, and not worthy of any type of respect. There are no deep underlying issues in Lawrence’s work. Every issue is in clear view, with no untangling or deep reading required to reveal it, and this was very contrary to the values which Woolf seems to have held.

Woolf claimed that one should “see the past in relation to the future; and so prepare the way for masterpieces to come”. This would appear to make her somebody who should rejoice in the new tradition of Lawrence’s work, but she was judging “masterpieces” by the terms of the time. In How Should One Read a Book?, Virginia Woolf recommended that readers juxtapose and compare texts from different historical moments, that, for instance, they read Shakespeare’s King Lear and Aeschylus’s Agamemnon side by side. As writer as well as reader she had made this very comparison – of King Lear and Agamemnon – in another essay, entitled On Not Knowing Greek (1925), in which she also juxtaposes Sophocles, first with Jane Austen, then with Marcel Proust. Jane Austen is in turn described, in yet another piece from this period, as a writer who ‘would have been the forerunner of Henry James and of Proust’, had she lived longer. In this instance, although Woolf and Lawrence are from approximately the same period, such comparative strategies would involve perhaps juxtaposing Lawrence with Woolf and more similarities than differences may well be found.

I am not at all persuaded by Woolf’s contention – however, in the same breath I must state that I can understand it. She judged Lawrence by the norms and values of the time, and her perception was the only one she had available. As Lawrence said, in a prefatory note of 1928, “No poetry, not even the best, should be judged as if it existed in the absolute, in the vacuum of the absolute. Even the best poetry, when it is at all personal, needs the penumbra of its own time and place and circumstance to make it full and whole.” Surely this is correct, and yet it is a point missed by most critics, who assume that their subjects are “subjects” and not human beings, and that their works of art are somehow crimes for which they are on perpetual trial. Lawrence may not have followed tradition, but he is traditional because he created a new tradition – that of the empathising author, the people’s poet. Woolf was unaware of the impact Lawrence would have because she was viewing his work in its time, instead of looking back on it and the effect it had on the people who read it. For one man to challenge so many established traditions so that he could speak the truth was incredibly brave, and perhaps even comparable to Woolf’s feminist struggle.

In conclusion, I would like to quote Lawrence, from his work Aristocracy of the Sun; “I am that I am, from the sun, and people are not my measure.”















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