Discuss the position of women in Edwardian England with reference to D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers.
D.H. Lawrence, often considered a modernist novelist, starts his career as an Edwardian writer. He is greatly influenced by the works of authors like H.G. Wells, Arnold Bennett and John Galsworthy; these novelists play a large role in his life by helping him find his own style of writing and the sort of novels he wishes to write. Lawrence aspires to write openly about the sexual matters, and therefore, in his works, he addresses the same audience as that of Wells, Bennett and Galsworthy.
The Edwardian period marks the emergence of the modern woman, a concept which is prevalent in the several novels of that time. Lawrence harbors an interest in this new female figure, as the idea allows the writers to further expand the scope of feminism and sexuality in their works, giving them the space to create strong female characters, who not only defy gender norms, but are also unconventional in their attitude with respect to the sexual relations.
Jane Eldridge Miller aptly describes the modern woman, stating, “By challenging conventional beliefs about the nature and role of women, she (modern woman) gave novelists the opportunity to escape not only from the traditional courtship and marriage plots but also from Victorian proprieties that prevented novelists from depicting women as complete – and sexual – beings.”
In terms of reading the text, the modern woman embodies the greatest change from the Victorian era, as it provides a space for the candid presentation of the sexual relations between a man and a woman, in the novels.
The Edwardian era is a time of radical change and it becomes fundamental in the lives of women, who are – becoming more independent, receiving new opportunities with respect to education and employment, and also gaining more agency in terms of taking their life decisions.
The one factor largely responsible for the rise of modern woman is the suffragette movement, which started in the nineteenth century, and gains momentum during the Edwardian period. The movement becomes highly organized, more aggressive and public, ultimately leading to the spread of feminist ideas in the twentieth century.
Further, Miller mentions how the modern woman in Edwardian England could be anyone – young, old, married, unmarried or divorced, of any class. But what all of them have in common is the discontent with the conditions of their lives and the consciousness that these conditions are because of them belonging to the female sex. And born out of this consciousness is their ambition – to gain agency, to get an education and work, as well as the feminist ideas.
With this context of Edwardian era set in place, the novel begins by introducing the readers to the character of Mrs. Morel, who has been married for eight years, has three children and doesn’t seem particularly pleased with the idea of moving into the Bottoms. As Mrs. Morel’s marriage progresses, she becomes more and more unhappy with her marriage and her husband, “She despised him and was tied to him”. (9) She is sick of the constant “struggle with poverty and ugliness and meanness”. (9) The marriage which, in the beginning, appeared to be a good prospect is now more of a burden to her. She feels dreary with the oncoming of her third child (Paul) and seems to be suffocated by her current circumstances.
Gertrude Morel is a figure who fits somewhere in between the Victorian woman and the modern woman, she simply cannot be classified into one category. What makes her a modern woman is her headstrong nature and her definite set of principles, she is a woman who runs her house as per her own discretion. Mrs. Morel’s refusal to give up either on her children or her life till the very end, shows her persevering streak. The joining of Women’s Guild – a little women’s club, which discussed the benefits of the Co-operation and other social questions – also hints at her being partly modern.
However, within Mrs. Morel, the Victorian woman is more prominent. When it comes to her husband, she is in conflict and often contradicts herself too. She despises her husband and everything he represents, but at the same time she doesn’t leave him behind, because somewhere in her heart she still loves him. Not only this, Mrs. Morel is also economically dependent upon her husband and follows the conventional standards of a good housewife. The failure of her aspirations in her marriage causes her to project the same aspirations onto her children, to the extent that her love becomes “cancerous” for them, as noted by Ashok Celly.
Her disapproval of Lily, Miriam and Clara also stems from the same cancerous love; she believes that her sons would become distant from her, once they get married. And in this, she represents the common fear of a Victorian mother, who would rather have her child attached to her than share him with his wife.
Therefore, one can say that Mrs. Morel ultimately succumbs to some of the traditional notions of a good Victorian woman.
As the narrative of the novel further progresses, Miriam is introduced to us as a fourteen year old girl, with a dark rosy face, short black curls and as someone who is “fine and free”. She is apparently scornful of the male species, yet in Paul she sees a “new specimen” and gets attracted to him in the initial stages of their meetings only. With respect to Miriam, there can be two different perspectives, one which sees her as more or less an extension of Mrs. Morel, and another which sees her as a figure of modern woman.
Aruna Sitesh talks about how Miriam translates everything into a religious fervor, including the learning of algebra. She believes that Miriam’s repressed passion behind her spirituality is a sublimation of her passion. Miriam is afraid of her sexuality and hesitates in getting into an intimate relationship with Paul. However, despite her fear, she gives herself to Paul, considering it a sacrifice for his sake. And her surrender to Paul’s wish, despite her own reluctance alludes to her conformist views, which were prevalent in the Victorian times. Miriam’s character in itself is quite contradictory, as, even when she desires to be liberated from the binding holds of the patriarchal society – for which she works hard, leading her to eventually become a teacher – she still somewhere depends upon Paul.
While on the other hand, Miller looks at Miriam in a different light; she considers her a modern woman, which might not be obvious to all. Miriam wants education, to become free of her father and brothers. Her desire to have agency is evident when she says to Paul, “I want to do something. I want a chance like anybody else. Why should I, because I’m a girl, be kept at home, and not allowed to do anything · it’s not fair, because I’m a woman.” (170) Miriam’s willingness to talk to Paul about sex, her “unabashed attraction” to him and eventually her sexual relation with him is seen by Miller as a characteristic of a bold Edwardian woman. Similarly, her desire to live her own life – to finish her education and be independent – before getting married is an archetype of a modern young woman.
Miller asserts that the excessive spiritual fervor seen in Miriam is more from Paul’s perspective than the readers and we must, therefore, make an effort to see her outside of those ordained boundaries. She insists that Miriam’s fear of sexual intercourse escalates from her lack of information about birth control as well as an apprehension of pregnancy and not, in fact, from her overtly religious beliefs.
Hence, in the character of Miriam we see the traces of an inner conflict, represented by her contradictory thoughts and actions. Towards the culmination of the novel, Miriam becomes an independent woman and is happy with her life, but despite that she tethers herself to Paul, believing that one day he will return to her. And this, in the end, somewhere overshadows the modern woman she has come to represent.
However, the character most inspired by the idea of a modern woman is Clara Dawes – a veteran suffragette, who’s not only living separately from her husband, but is also economically independent, someone who’s not afraid of voicing out her opinions and rejecting the conventional sexual morality. Clara is shown to be comfortable with her body and does not seem to shy away from sexual intimacy, unlike Miriam. As per Miller, Clara being a suffragette is neither contradictory nor irrelevant, instead it opens up another dimension to the narrative of sexual initiation. She interestingly portrays Clara’s presence as a continued reminder of the fact that the novel is taking place in a time of feminine protest and social unrest.
Although Clara fits within the facet of a modern woman, yet like every other character in the novel, she is paradoxical in her nature. Even though she lives an independent life, but after meeting Paul, she comes to depend upon him. Ironically, while she is seen standing up for women’s rights, she is not able to take a stance against Paul’s mistreatment of her at several times. She bears with this almost abusive streak of Paul, without any complaints. Also at the end of the novel, her decision to go back to her husband, Baxter Dawes, is actually the classic resolution of any problem related to the failed marriage of that time. Miller rightly says, “Her return to Dawes primarily demonstrates that Clara is not a paragon of feminism, but that, like Paul, she is complicated and contradictory.”
One of the less celebrated characters of the novel- Annie Morel, the sister of Paul Morel, is not given a huge role, but it is essential to reflect upon her position as a modern woman. She is a strong female, who pursues her education and career before getting tied into marital nuptials and in this respect, she turns out to be more rational as compared to Clara and Miriam. Annie doesn’t compromise with her life and leads it as per her own desires, unlike Miriam and Clara, who bend their ideas and beliefs in order to fit Paul in their lives. She also seems to be the one woman in the novel who gets a somewhat happy ending – Clara’s future appears to be uncertain, Miriam still hopes for Paul’s return to her, while Mrs. Morel dies in a miserable state. Her character remains mostly consistent throughout the novel, and doesn’t appear to be much contradictory. One can attribute all this to the lesser focus given by Lawrence on her character and therefore its appearance as seemingly perfect; but if seen from a different perspective, one can surely look at the wider potential of her character as a modern woman.
Her most defining characteristic as a modern woman is her success in life, in terms of her social and familial aspirations. Mrs. Morel is always seen having high expectations from her two sons, William and Paul, she believes that they would achieve something really big in their lives. “The thought of being the mother of men was warming to her heart.” (37) But she doesn’t share the same thoughts for her daughter. However, as it turns out, it is Annie who is more successful and happy in her life as compared to her brothers; William dies despondently, while Paul’s future seems to be bleak. Annie’s happy ending might not appear to be a big deal, but it still gives the reader some hope- an emotion that the novel otherwise seems to be deficit in. Therefore, Annie deserves to be an equally modern woman as compared to Miriam and Clara, if not more; as she not only fights against the odds that a masculine world possesses but also comes out accomplished.
Hence, Sons and Lovers, becomes an autobiographical novel, where Lawrence represents in the characters of Clara, Miriam and Mrs. Morel the influence of strong women in his own life. He perfectly captures the realities of time and space during that period, within all his characters, but when read within the context of female figures, it becomes all the more relevant. However, the fact that Lawrence actually works for women’s rights, as asserted by several critiques, cannot be ascertained due to his portrayal of contradictory characters, who at one level seems to be championing for female equality and at other, succumbing to the orthodox conventions.