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Nothing New Under the Sons : SONS AND LOVERS, By D.H. Lawrence, Edited by Helen Baron and Carl Baron (Cambridge University Press: $24.95; 464 pp.)

September 20, 1992|David Price | Price teaches English at Middlebury College. He recently contributed an essay to Jay Parini's " Gore Vidal: Writer Against the Grain. "

"No one ever wished it longer than it is," Samuel Johnson sourly observed of "Paradise Lost." If that's the way you felt about "Sons and Lovers" in college, then I have some bad news.

In 1912, having run away to Italy with the wife of his former professor, D. H. Lawrence, 27, was trying to make a living as a writer. "Sons and Lovers," his third novel, had already been rejected by one publisher when Lawrence sent it on to Edward Garnett, a reader for Duckworth. Garnett made extensive recommendations, Lawrence rewrote the manuscript for the fourth time, and then Garnett himself cut 10% before its publication in 1913.

In this new edition, part of the monumental and ongoing Cambridge edition of Lawrence's complete works, Helen Baron and Carl Baron present the 10% solution. All the cuts have been restored, and the editors triumphantly conclude that "the publishing constraints of 1913 no longer hold. The time has come to overturn Garnett's judgment and print Lawrence's masterpiece as he wrote it."

Having opened this can of words, the editors must expect some objections from those who have long considered it to be permanently sealed. Garnett was no ordinary editor: The discoverer of Conrad and Galsworthy, among others, he was a sympathetic and perceptive reader of Lawrence's manuscript. Lawrence dedicated "Sons and Lovers" to Garnett, just as T. S. Eliot later dedicated "The Waste Land" to Ezra Pound, "the better maker," after Pound had radically cut the original poem.

Lawrence wrote to Garnett from Italy in a series of letters, saying, "Take out what you think necessary. . . . I don't much mind what you squash out . . . trim and garnish my stuff I cannot . . . you did the pruning jolly well, and I am grateful. I hope you'll have a long, long time, to barber up my novels for me before they're published. I wish I weren't so profuse--or prolix, or whatever it is."

The Barons, however, suggest that Lawrence went along with the cuts because he needed money so badly. They contend that Garnett cut the novel simply to make it shorter and more marketable, and also to tighten its structure. But in so doing, they claim, he diminished the role of the eldest son, William; reduced the important fight scenes that help define the marriage of Mr. and Mrs. Morel; coyly and intrusively censored sex scenes, and clumsily removed scenes that are referred to later in the novel, causing confusion for the reader.

Others have expressed a higher opinion of Garnett's skills. In his superb piece of scholarship, "Sons and Lovers: A Facsimile of the Manuscript" (Berkeley, 1977), Mark Schorer concluded that "Every deletion that Garnett made seems to me to have been to the novel's advantage. Nothing important is lost, ineptitudes disappear, and the novel emerges as tighter and more smoothly paced."

Like Garth in "Wayne's World," most academics fear change, and so it was with a skepticism conditioned by inertia that I compared the new edition with the one I've taught from for more than 20 years, marking all the differences, since there's no apparatus to tell the reader what's been added or altered. More than 80 passages are restored, ranging from a few words to four pages, and the contextual effects of omission or restoration are subtly varied and complex. Taken as a whole, though, the restored passages have the effect of making the novel longer without essentially altering the characterizations, relationships, and overall dynamics.

I can see why Garnett cut many of the passages. Some, such as where William tries on his kilt, are merely insufferable: "Now how do my knees look!--all right, don't they? Ripping knees they are--ripping knees--legs altogether!" This goes on for a long time. Or there's the turgid letter Paul writes to Miriam: "Must I write you a birthday letter?--It seems a pernicious thing to do deliberately, don't you think? Because I'm sure to get flatulent and sententious." There followed a certain amount of "flatulence," which Garnett mercifully spared us.

Other cut passages aren't badly written, but they repeat what's already been established, or they overextend a scene and diminish its dramatic power, or they don't quite fit the context and consequently cause a stutter or stop in the narrative flow. With Lawrence, it was sometimes less a matter of le mot juste than just a few more mots. Too profuse, or prolix, or whatever.

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