Women in Love, begun as early as 1913, was tentatively entitled “The Sisters,” then later “The Wedding Ring.” As the sprawling manuscript began to take shape over the next two years, Lawrence published the first part as The Rainbow (1915). With considerable revisions and a complete rethinking of the material, he published a second Brangwen novel in 1920. In its final form, Women in Love is less a continuation of The Rainbow than an altogether different novel. To be sure, Ursula and Gudrun Brangwen persist in their quest for happiness. Yet the Gudrun of The Rainbow was a minor figure; in Women in Love, she is a major protagonist, with a fully developed psychology. Ursula’s change is even more dramatic. In the earlier novel, she was a woman of passionate independence, whereas in Women in Love she is subdued—less impulsive, less heroic, more nearly domesticated.
Their lovers, Gerald Crich and Rupert Birkin, complement the sisters’ essential temperaments. Like the fiery, strong-willed Gudrun, Gerald is a controlling, domineering sensualist—one as habituated to subduing horses to his iron command as to overworking his laborers in the coal mines. In contrast, Rupert (a Lawrence-like personality) is sensitive, introspective, emotionally fragile in spite of his intellectual vitality and his charm.
Unless one reads Lawrence’s canceled prologue to Women in Love, a chapter that can be examined in the author’s posthumous volume Phoenix II: Uncollected, Unpublished, and Other Prose Works (1968), one cannot fully understand the reason for Rupert’s timorousness as a lover. Yet this prologue is an essential key to perceiving what follows in the novel. Even as Rupert was pursuing with dutiful but passionless zeal his affair with Hermione Roddice, he was attempting to put behind him a far more satisfactory emotional friendship with Gerald. Whether the men’s earlier relationship had become one of physical homosexuality is not entirely clear, although Lawrence seems to exclude the physical element. Nevertheless, Rupert is erotically stimulated more by men than by women and certainly not by Hermione, in spite of his frantic lovemaking or his earnest wishes to love her with tenderness:He wanted all the time to love women. He wanted all the while to feel this kindled, loving attraction toward a beautiful woman, that he would often feel towards a handsome man. But he could not. Whenever it was a case of a woman, there entered in too much spiritual, sisterly love; or else, in reaction, there was only a brutal, callous sort of lust.
As the novel itself begins, a reader ignorant of this complication in Rupert’s psychosexual orientation may not fully understand why the character experiences so much trouble in his relationship with Ursula. The couple, after all, seems to be well suited culturally, intellectually, even emotionally. The two share a similar background in education and social class, are both intelligent, sensitive, tolerant, and certainly “love” each other. Yet their love must be tested and refined. Many readers will wonder at the lengthy disputations between Ursula and Rupert—the continuing, often circular debates over the meaning of love, the subtle defining of roles that each partner must adopt to make the relationship work. Precisely this test is the core of Ursula and Rupert’s mating, for it results in compromises that make it possible for the couple to marry.
Ursula wisely and lovingly diminishes Rupert’s secret fear that women will dominate him sexually. He is actually more comfortable with the embraces of a man. In the chapter “Gladiatorial,” Rupert and Gerald release their tensions (and sublimate their repressed eroticism) by wrestling; more than that, for Rupert the touching is a sign of hope for “blood-brotherhood,” a deep friendship and binding between the males. When Gerald dies, Rupert is a broken man. Although he has mated successfully with Ursula and loves her as deeply as ever he can a woman, he regrets...
(The entire section is 981 words.)