Women in Love

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by James Ross Macdonald

"Nietzsche in Women in Love" by Anne-Marie McManus

Women in Love (1921) continues the story of the Brangwen sisters, Ursula and Gudrun, first introduced in The Rainbow (1915). A late publication from the first wave of writings reflecting D.H. Lawrence’s relationship with Frieda Weekley, this novel forms a crucial moment of transition between the autobiographical mode of Lawrence’s early works and the more cosmopolitan orientation of his later writings.


The action of the novel centers on the parallel courtships of Ursula by the intellectual Rupert Birkin and Gudrun by the industrialist Gerald Crich. These dynamics are complicated, however, by the strong connection between the sisters, as well as the more ambiguous bond between the two male friends. Although in Lawrence’s initial drafts attribute an explicitly homosexual attraction to Birkin, the final version proves more evasive, leaving only the subterranean suggestion of Birkin’s earnest offer of sworn blütbruderschaft in the manner of Germanic knights.[1]

Ultimately, the two relationships go in very different directions. The initial strife between Birkin and Ursula over his lingering attachment to the controlling Hermione Roddice is resolved by his eventual willingness to break off their relationship, and Birkin and Ursula give up their jobs as teachers to take up a more bohemian lifestyle. Gerald and Gudrun begin on the firm ground of mutual sexual attraction, and their bond intensifies when Gerald’s ailing father invites Gudrun to become the art tutor for the family’s young daughter Winifred. But she finally comes to find Gerald emotionally inaccessible and during a winter holiday in the Tyrol abandons his intimacy in favor of a German sculptor, precipitating Gerald’s suicide.


Lawrence drew heavily on his friends and acquaintances in peopling the world of Women in Love, often veering so close to outright portrait as to alienate those displeased with their depictions.

Ursula and Gudrun were originally conceived as representations of Frieda and her sister Else. Their youths are transposed, however, onto the coal-mining town of Beldover, whose environs are accurately drawn from Lawrence’s own childhood in Eastwood, Nottinghamshire. Gudrun also owes something to Katherine Mansfield, as the incident in Chapter 28 where Gudrun takes one of Birkin’s letters away from table of mockers is based on Mansfield doing the same with a copy of Lawrence’s Amours.[2]

The character of Birkin is very recognizably Lawrence himself in philosophy and manners, but one sharp difference with Sons and Lovers is the criticism and even outright mockery which the other characters (and even the story itself) seem to treat him. Ursula in particular emerges as a frequent counterbalance, as when Birkin tells her that he is looking for a “strange conjunction…a pure balance of two single beings:”

She looked at him. He was very earnest, and earnestness was always rather ridiculous, commonplace, to her. It made her feel unfree and uncomfortable. Yet she liked him so much. But why drag in the stars![3]

The figure of Gerald Crich is more of a composite. Structurally, he is based on the industrialist Thomas Barber, who acceded to the chairmanship of Barber, Walker & Co. at the age of 21 in 1897. Many of the details of his characterization – the accidental killing of a younger brother, the brutalization of a horse in Chapter 9, the death of a young family member during a pleasure cruise in Chapter 14 – are taken from his life. The source of the imagined intimacy between Birkin and Crich is less determinate, although Lawrence’s friend John Middleton Murry apparently believed himself to be Gerald’s original. [4]

Hermione Roddice seems to hybridize several women Lawrence knew. The suffocating influence she exerts over Birkin recalls Paul Morel’s relationship with Miriam, which Lawrence based on his own with Jessie Chambers. But Hermione also strongly evokes Lady Ottoline Morrell, a Bloomsbury hostess with whom Lawrence had an apparently ambivalent relationship. Breadalby is certainly based on her home, and her brother Alexander recalls Lady Ottoline’s husband Philip, also a Liberal MP and pianist. Indeed, she had even given Lawrence a lapis lazuli paperweight as a gift, an object which Lawrence reimagines as the weapon with which Hermione clouts Birkin when he tries to distance himself from her. [5]

Some minor characters were sketched even more directly from Lawrence’s past. Will Brangwen has been often associated with Alfred Burrows, the father of Lawrence’s former fiancée Louisa, who was in fact a church organist and handicrafts instructor and apparently disapproved of Lawrence. The London figures of Halliday and the artist’s model Pussum were based on Philip Heseltine, better known to posterity as the composer Peter Warlock, and the artist’s model Minnie Channing, called “Puma” among her friends. [6]

In general, the major departure from Sons and Lovers is the emphasis on bonds between characters of the same age, rather than intergenerational relationships. Although Ursula finds herself seriously at odds with her father over her marriage plans, there is no emotionally domineering parent like Gertrude Morel, and while Birkin does resemble Paul Morel in many respects, his background and family are left completely unexplored.

Textual History

Both The Rainbow and Women in Love find their origins in a 1913 draft called “The Sisters.” The next year, Lawrence would revise it further into a novel entitled “The Wedding Ring,” which Methuen agreed to publish in 1914. The outbreak of war late that year caused the publisher to renege on the agreement, and Lawrence decided to rework the source material, separating it into two novels. The Rainbow, treating the early lives of the sisters, was suppressed shortly after its publication in 1915 on grounds of obscenity. Lawrence then spent four years revising the remainder of “The Wedding Ring” into a second novel, shopping it to publishers without success until 1920, when Thomas Seltzer published the first American edition. It was printed in England the following year by Martin Secker. Although both editions were based on the same copies prepared by Lawrence, the fate of The Rainbow led Secker to limit his exposure by cutting sections of the text which might run afoul of the censors. In fact, in the English second printing, Heseltine’s threat to sue for libel resulted in changes to the descriptions of Halliday and the Pussum, changing the one from pale and fair-haired to swarthy and the other from red-haired to blonde[7]

Nietzsche in Women in Love

Lawrence’s Women in Love significantly reworks Nietzsche’s central concept of the Will to Power. Lawrence saw modern literature as a mode of representing the ‘fluidity’ of life in a way that could counteract the rigid discourses of philosophy and religion.[8] His representations of the Will to Power are therefore more nuanced and complex than Nietzsche’s UberMensch, and attempt to recuperate a mode of aesthetic experience from the framework of the will altogether.

Perhaps the most recognizable instantiation of the Will to Power in Women in Love occurs in Hermione. Lawrence establishes through her an emphatic rejection of the will as knowledge, thereby setting the stage for the main characters to pursue more meaningful modes of experiences in art and love. Birkin’s outburst couches Hermione’s faults in very definite terms, that of the will and a manic desire for power through intellectual control: “You only have your will and your conceit of consciousness and your lust for power, to know.”[9] In the moral and perceptual universe of this novel, Hermione commits the cardinal sin of asserting her will through the intellect alone, thereby denying her sensual and creative self.

Gerald, the industrial magnate, is also treated with the language of asserting his will over the world, and over Gudrun. In the chapter Coal-Dust, a roaring industrial train terrifies Gerald’s horse. As Gudrun and Ursula look on, Gerald brutally controls the horse with sheer physical domination, the expression of his inescapable “will.” The mechanical subtext of the episode is blended with an eroticism we experience from Gudrun’s “spellbound” perspective. This foreshadows a later, violent sexual encounter in Innsbruck, where Gudrun’s withdrawal into aesthetic contemplation prompts Gerald to unsuccessfully assert his will over her.

Birkin and Ursula reject the “Wille zur Macht” as “base,” and Birkin tries to educate Ursula into a different understanding of the will (a “volonté de pouvoir”) as part of his vision of the ideal human relationship as “a pure stable equilibrium” of individual wills, in which neither fully succumbs or dominates.[10] Meanwhile Gudrun rejects Gerald’s sexual will, and embraces what seems like a Will to Power as Art, notably through eurythmic dance. Yet Lawrence seems to want to shield art from an all-encompassing notion of the will. In Gudrun he brackets off a mode of experience – that of aesthetic contemplation – in which the will dissolves altogether.

The blending of philosophical concepts with literary innovation in the novel performs the kind of fluid representation that Lawrence sought to recuperate from the discourse of philosophy. Even as he rejects intellectual experience on its own, Lawrence’s use of Nietzsche shows that he saw philosophy as a fertile ground from which to structure his literary representations of the quintessentially modern problems of the individual’s relationship to others, and to a world of violent, industrial forces.

An online text of Women in Love is available from Project Gutenberg here.

  1. Women in Love. (New York: Penguin 2006). pg. 206
  2. pg. 533
  3. pg. 148
  4. pg. 534
  5. pg. 535
  6. pg. 536
  7. pg. 536
  8. Eggert, Paul, “The Biographical Issue: Lives of Lawrence” in The Cambridge Companion to D.H. Lawrence, Cambridge University Press, 2001, p173.
  9. Lawrence, D.H. Women in Love, Dover Publications, 2002, p31
  10. See the chapter “Mino” in Women in Love.

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