Sons and Lovers has been a massive influence on poet Becky Cullen ever since she came across it at college in 1983-5. But she’s never been happy with the way that Lawrence drew Miriam Leivers. In this guest blog Becky explains how a Creative Writing exercise gave her the chance to tell Miriam’s side of the story…
My brothers whooped like savages when they saw you coming up the hill:
romping round the farm with sticks and snares, you boys had a grand time.
I set the tea and waited; later, in our almost private minutes,
you went too far, pushing the swing too high, leaving too late for the train.
Which you knew would drive your mother to distraction, bristling,
what’s that Leivers girl got that’s so fascinating? Well, for a start,
I had you, my own exotic mushroom, watching you paint, stopping
myself from smoothing the loose lock of hair behind your pretty ear.
I know your mother quaintly warned you not to spoon and do,
but it wasn’t me you took bare-faced, bare-shouldered to the theatre.
In the end, the red carnations you spat out did me a favour.
Now you’re galavanting somewhere hot with someone’s wife called Frieda.
This poem was written during my MA in Creative Writing at NTU – our task was to write something using quatrains, a stanza or 4 lines. So it is interesting to me that in trying to produce something with a shape I fell back on Sons and Lovers, a book that shaped my experience of reading so much that it has filtered into my writing.
I read Sons and Lovers for ‘A’ level at Bilborough College in 1983-5, taught by the formidable English and Drama specialist Gilly Archer. It’s no surprise then that my recollections of Sons and Lovers are of the drama of the novel, the tensions between the characters, and Lawrence’s attempts to let the reader know exactly what is simmering under the surface.
This poem deals with the figure of Miriam Leivers, and her relationship with Paul Morel, the novel’s protagonist. Paul visits the family farm I draw into the poem, playing with Miriam’s sturdy brothers. Alone, Paul instigates intense conversations about their relationship, in which Paul criticises Miriam for being too spiritual in her approach. They have an on-off relationship for 7 years, in which time Paul becomes friends with Clara Dawes, taking her out to the theatre, and eventually having a physical relationship with her. Neither of these women please Mrs Morel, Paul’s greatest love, who is disgusted that Paul might ‘spoon and do’ with anyone. So there are details from the novel I’ve drawn on in this poem.
Sons and Lovers is a semi-autobiographical novel, which is another way of saying it’s based on Lawrence’s relationship with Jessie Chambers, a girl from a local farming family who first submitted his work for publication. Fiction is fiction, but tensions still run so high about the representation of Miriam/Jessie, that the Chambers family have allowed no access to their land for Lawrence-related filming and so on. This poem finishes with a similar blend of fictional and factual detail in the final line, a reference to Lawrence’s elopement with Frieda von Richthofen, the wife of his university lecturer.
I always felt that the character of Miriam was drawn rather unfairly. She comes across as being a bit drippy, and Paul is quite cruel to her on occasions – I suppose this poem is an attempt to allow her to voice her side of the story. I recently re-read the novel, which was fascinating, developing a new empathy, as mother of a son myself now, for Mrs. Morel.
Sons and Lovers is so enmeshed in my literary influences that I cannot smell flowers in moonlight without thinking ‘the beauty of the night made her want to shout’, or look down on the lights of Goose Fair without thinking of Paul Morel doing exactly the same thing in the final paragraphs of Sons and Lovers. The novel feels like part of my writing heritage.
Finally, this poem is dedicated to Stephen Lowe, the Nottingham playwright whose play Empty Bed Blues draws on Lawrence’s life and work. Stephen encouraged me to do a Creative Writing MA, and to write every day. His encouragement has been a great gift, so it was appropriate to send him this poem as a birthday present one year. I like the idea that the poem brings together three Nottingham writers in this way, so there is a continuing dialogue in the present, between writers both on and off the page.
- Poet in Residence Newstead Abbey (newsteadabbey.org)
- Becky Cullen PhD (midlands3cities.ac.uk)
- MA Creative Writing (ntu.ac.uk)
- Sons and Lovers outline (24x7englishliteratureconcepts.blogspot.co.uk)
- Sons and Lovers a Century on (theguardian.com)
- Importance of Miriam in Paul Morel’s “bildungsroman” (academia.edu)
- The Compulsive Mother in Sons and Lovers (literary-articles.com)