Neil Roberts. Sons and Lovers: The Biography of a Novel.
Neil Roberts's Sons and Lovers: The Biography of a Novel is a thought-provoking and meticulous investigation of the writing process of Sons and Lovers. The book title, "the biography of a novel," is already intriguing--a biographical approach to Sons and Lovers is nothing new, but Roberts goes a step further than what the existing biographical works on Lawrence's early writing have achieved. By placing "the writing at the centre," instead of the author, Roberts pays attention to the particularly dialogic nature of the writing process of Sons and Lovers. Roberts carefully analyzes letters and manuscripts written during the process of revision, tracing the changes made between drafts. Understanding "the stages of composition as life events," Roberts shows us "that the novel was shaped by literal dialogues" that were "much more immediate" than the past experience Lawrence turned into the novel. Most importantly, Jessie Chambers's constant engagement in the process of the writing in the
form of letters and comments and D. H. Lawrence: A Personal Record, her memoir of Lawrence and his early years, allow us to look at the ongoing struggle and conflicts that existed while Lawrence tried to complete the novel and how they left traces not only in the surviving drafts but also in the final version of the novel.
Roberts's work is in line with Lawrence studies that have a biographical perspective. John Worthen's D. H. Lawrence: The Early Years and Helen Baron and Carl Baron's research on letters and manuscript as well as Helen Baron's edition of the second draft, Paul Morel, are indispensable resources for such an approach. Roberts's book, however, provides a fresh perspective to the practice of the biographical study of literature by displacing the author from the central position. By shifting the emphasis from the author to the writing, Roberts calls for a reading that resists the assumption of the single, authoritative perspective of the author governing and presenting a finalized interpretation of the events represented in the novel. While an autobiographical novel is usually approached with the assumption that it was written as "the retrospective account of events that occurred before the writing," Roberts refuses to place the writing in a timeless realm. Instead he understands that the writing process is influenced and colored by immediate events and interchange of feelings. The life and the writing, from this perspective, "are intimately entwined and mutually influential."
With this viewpoint, Roberts not only addresses the comments often made about the novel's lack of coherence, incompleteness, and conflicting voices (as in Mark Shorer's famous comment: "the sickness was not healed, the emotion not mastered, and the novel not perfected"), but also suggests the strong interrelation between the life and the literary work. Roberts emphasizes that Sons and Lovers is not the product of an isolated author's reflection on past events. Instead, interactions with others, most importantly with Jessie, constantly intervened in the revision process. Jessie's comments on drafts provided a conflicting viewpoint on what happened to their relationship and why, and Lawrence attentively responded. However, what is interesting and insightful about Roberts's argument is that the changes Lawrence made in response to Jessie indicate not merely that he was "reinterpreting the experiences of his youth" but also "responding to his most recent, and final, conflict with Jessie."
One of the main points Roberts makes in this book is that the major revisions made during the writing process, such as the inclusion of family pressure as a cause of the breach of relationship with Miriam, were Lawrence's active responses to Jessie's comments on his drafts and his "attempt to spare her feelings." This indicates that the past events for Lawrence were not waiting for representation with completed meanings; rather, the unresolved conflicts with Jessie affected his feelings and interpretations of them, to the extent that the actual and literal incorporation of Jessie's annotations creates the highly complex and dialogic structure of the novel. For instance, "the only evidence of his family's intervention is in writing by Jessie and a passage of Sons and Lovers that was actually (apart from a few immaterial modifications) written by her." The dialogue with Jessie is registered in the draft, rendering the novel dialogic.
Robert's book is an important intervention in the question of the extent to which Sons and Lovers, as an autobiographical novel, is aligned with the characteristics of a Bildungsroman. While Roberts views the history of Sons and Lovers in light of the writer's journey towards artistic maturity, his minute analysis of the revision process complicates and even resists the conventional Bildungsroman plot. The book often mentions the fact that gaps exist in the surviving manuscript and notes, making it hard to grasp the true picture of the revision history as well as what actually happened between Lawrence and Jessie. The drafts that survive are incomplete. Jessie's memoir, which is an invaluable source to understand her relationship with young Lawrence, is colored by her personal view and her emotional distress at the moment she was writing it. The first-person accounts are unreliable and call for interpretation, as they present conflicting views to the shared past of Jessie and Lawrence.
Thus, Roberts maintains that we should not regard biographical accounts of Lawrence's early writing life as "uncomplicatedly a primary source." Moreover, we cannot simply assume that Lawrence was sure about his final draft of Sons and Lovers. The ambiguity of the ending reveals Lawrence's uncertainty about the novel to the end: the depiction of the mother clinging to life and Paul's determination not to follow her in the direction of death presents a contradictory idea to what Lawrence said in the letter to Garnett after he had sent the final manuscript. In this letter, Lawrence explains Gertrude's death in terms of her "unconscious" recognition of her destructive effect on her sons and says that Paul is left "naked of everything, with the drift towards death." This shows that Lawrence's interpretation of his relationship with his mother was constantly changing, and the completion of the novel does not represent a finalized meaning. Roberts writes that such uncertainties "are creative uncertainties: the novel has the undecidability of life that can never be packed into a thematic summary."
On a broader level, however, this book reads the writing process of Sons and Lovers as a Bildungsroman plot. The changes Lawrence made, especially when he moved on from Paul Morel to Sons and Lovers, denote his journey towards artistic maturity, with his newly recognized identity as a working-class writer. This is particularly seen in his portrayal of Gertrude and Walter Morel in the second draft, Paul Morel. The second draft "bear[s] witness to Lawrence's emotional state" after his mother's death, as he makes a sentimentalized portrayal of the mother "as beyond reproach" while unsympathetically demonizing the father. In the third draft, however, Lawrence depicted Walter Morel "in a less prejudiced light." This not only signifies that Lawrence was responding to "Jessie's suggestion that he stick more closely to the facts" but also indicates "Lawrence's newly found pride in his own commonness." His decision to include more sympathetic accounts of Walter Morel means "less identification with Gertrude's judgement" and thus, "a less middle-class perspective." Even though Lawrence later said that "he had not done his father justice in Sons and Lovers," looking at the history of revision enables us to see that there was "a consistent movement towards a more generous portrayal of Walter Morel," and thus, towards a reconciliation with his working-class origin.
The revision history of Sons and Lovers tells us a narrative driven by an aspiration for being truthful to the past. However, this book presents a complicated idea about the relationship between the past and the present, and the life and the writing. The past is not a static object waiting to be represented but is subject to constant reinterpretations and negotiations. The different views Jessie and Lawrence had towards the past make the novel a dialogic space where conflicting and incoherent voices reside. Nevertheless, we can see a clear trajectory of Lawrence's growth as a writer through the revision history, especially through his adoption of a more balanced perspective towards his parents. Roberts's study invites us to rethink the question of representation in an autobiographical novel and to reevaluate the meaning of Sons and Lovers in Lawrence's writing life.
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|Publication:||D.H. Lawrence Review|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2017|
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