Read an Excerpt
From Norman Loftis’s Introduction to Women in Love
According to theologian and scholar C. S. Lewis, in his book The Allegory of Love, the history of romantic love dates back only to about the year 1000 A.D. Even if Lewis is just referencing the origins of true love as a tradition, it is still quite an extravagant claim. After all, we know from history, earlier literature, and even the Bible that the emotion we call love certainly existed as far back as we can document. Even certain animals, like some birds, mate for life, a fact that cannot be accounted for by reproductive instincts alone. Yet love, as portrayed in classical literature, is a very disruptive emotion, often linked, as it is in Hamlet, with madness. In earlier times, it would have been unthinkable, as it still is in some regions of the world even today, for one to marry just because one claimed to be in love. According to Lewis, the troubadours, medieval poets from southern France and northern Spain and Italy, began the process of validating romantic love. They went from castle to castle serenading the ladies of the place with poems that begged for “mercy” that their “suffering” might be eased.
Italian poet Dante Alighieri was a great exponent of romantic love. In The Divine Comedy, Dante literally goes through Hell for Beatrice, the woman he loves. Then he goes through Purgatory and Heaven. At the end of this emotional and spiritual journey, the poet is rewarded with a vision of a blinding sun, symbolizing God and perfect understanding. It is not unfair to say that, after the appearance of The Divine Comedy, romantic love began to take on a new status in the Western world. It eventually became acceptable to marry on the basis of one’s emotions for a particular person, though of course this did not happen overnight. The tradition of true love during Dante’s time remained essentially an adulterous one. Dante never married Beatrice, and he himself was married to somebody else. Even three centuries later, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet were having a hard time of it, though thanks to an amiable priest who took pity on the young lovers, they succeeded in marrying. Predictably, they experienced tragedy afterward.
Gradually, however, romantic love triumphed, and its influence remains very much intact to this day. This is not to say that everyone has been in perfect agreement with the progress of romantic love. During the twentieth century, in particular, some of the components of true love began to be called into question. Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard, in his existentialist masterwork Either/Or, begins to question the sincerity of an eternal love. May it not, Kierkegaard enquired, be more sincere, instead of pledging to love your beloved forever and forever and forever, to vow to love her until Easter or May Day, and if that works out, to renew the vow until Christmas? In contemporary popular culture, Tina Turner takes this a step further by asking, in her wildly successful song, “What’s Love Got Do with It?” However, this does not necessarily mean that true love has fallen from its pedestal but only that it has had to contend with certain heresies and palace uprisings.
As with any tradition, things can become a bit stale. As Samuel Beckett put it, “Habit is a great deadener.” D. H. Lawrence completed Women in Love in 1916, just about the time romantic love was getting a little frayed around the edges. There are several things that influenced Lawrence in writing this novel. One major factor was that Lawrence himself was very much in love. In 1912 he had met Frieda Weekley, then married to Ernest Weekley, Lawrence’s former professor, to whom Lawrence had gone for help in finding a teaching position abroad. Lawrence and Frieda fell in love, and he convinced her to go away with him—for life. Another influence was England itself, which Lawrence found repressive, its traditions worn out, its emotional, spiritual, and political life stale and unedifying. There was yet another influence, which does not appear to be recorded, nor is it clear the extent to which Lawrence himself was aware of it. We know from Lawrence’s friend Jessie Chambers that the two read Symbolist poetry together. When Lawrence was working for his teaching degree, he studied French literature at the University of Nottingham under Ernest Weekley. Lawrence mentions specifically the poetry of Paul Verlaine in Sons and Lovers. Nowhere, though, it seems, does Lawrence speak directly of the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud, and yet among all the Symbolists, it is Rimbaud’s ideas that seem closest to those of Lawrence. Rimbaud wrote these lines, which coincide with Lawrence’s attitude about modern love, particularly as it relates to his own writing of Women in Love: “I do not like women: love must be reinvented, that’s obvious. A secure position is all they’re capable of desiring now. Security once gained, heart and beauty are set aside: cold disdain alone is left, the food of marriage today” (Rimbaud, “Delirium I,” p. 39; see “For Further Reading”).
Women in Love is Lawrence’s manifesto on the reinvention of modern love, and it was in many ways as much of a bombshell as was The Communist Manifesto, by Karl Marx. Afterward, there would be modern and contemporary writers who would rival Lawrence, but none who surpassed him in this area. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby shows the undeniable influence of Lawrence in its treatment of the jaded rich, symbolized by Tom, and their dangerous ideas about race and culture, which are opposed by Gatsby, the symbol of romantic love. However, one could not imagine Gatsby questioning the meaning of modern love nor the tradition from which it sprang.