Sons and Lovers is a 1913 novel by the English writer D. H. Lawrence, originally published by B.W. Huebsch Publishers. While the novel initially received a lukewarm critical reception, along with allegations of obscenity, it is today regarded as a masterpiece by many critics and is often regarded as Lawrence’s finest achievement.
For Philip Larkin, DH Lawrence was ‘England’s greatest writer’, but his critical standing has dipped. On the anniversary of the publication of Sons and Lovers, Blake Morrison argues that a century of devoted readers can’t be wrong
tell you I’ve written a great book,” DH Lawrence informed his publisher Edward Garnett, after sending him the manuscript of Sons and Lovers in November 1912. “Read my novel – it’s a great novel.” Lawrence’s immodesty is forgivable: the book had been through four drafts, and after two years of struggle he was hugely relieved to have it finished. The sense of elation didn’t last long. He worried about the title (he had originally called the book “Paul Morel”). He worried whether it might benefit from a foreword (and belatedly posted one to Garnett). He worried about the dust jacket, and arranged for a friend, Ernest Collings, to design one (like the foreword, it wasn’t used). Beneath these worries lay a deeper worry, about the text itself: “I am a great admirer of my own stuff while it’s new, but after a while I’m not so gone on it,” he admitted. He was already on to the next thing (a draft of what would become The Rainbow), and had “scarcely the patience” to correct the proofs. But he was proud when a finished copy reached him in Italy. And the word he used to Garnett recurred, in letters to friends. “It is quite a great novel”; “I remember you telling me, at the beginning, it would be great. I think it is so.”
Lawrence was right. Sons and Lovers is a great novel. A century of readers have reached for the same adjective. FR Leavis did, when he enrolled Lawrence in the “great tradition” of the English novel, comprising Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James and Joseph Conrad. And Philip Larkin did so, too, describing Lawrence as “England’s greatest novelist” and Sons and Lovers as his finest achievement: “Cock me! Nearly every page of it is absolutely perfect.” The perfection wasn’t apparent to those close to Lawrence at the time, including his childhood sweetheart Jessie Chambers, his editor Garnett, and his wife-to-be Frieda, all of whom suggested improvements and left their mark on the finished text. But the reviews were good, and 100 years later the novel’s reputation holds up, despite the recent dip in Lawrence’s critical standing.