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  • "The Collier's Small, Mean Head":Class, Form, and (Im)perfection
  • Peter Hitchcock (bio)

Today, just north of Eastwood, one can find the Brinsley headstocks, the last remnants of the colliery where Lawrence's father worked. A headstock without a mine is a curious thing, a preservationist's folly perhaps, with a touch of madness that cleaves to mining's cultural symbolic yet exists as an objet petit a, split from the community of signifiers that gave it meaning. It is not the desire for the mine, which closed in 1934 from exhausted seams, that makes up this lost object, but the absence/presence of work and workers that sutures its history. One can imagine the D. H. Lawrence Heritage tour alighting upon the headstocks and immediately measuring the tension they represent. One could say "Arthur Lawrence worked here" with the proviso the headstocks are not actually positioned over the shaft (a more or less literal decentering of the mine and miner); or one could quote from one of Lawrence's final essays, "Nottingham and the Mining Countryside," in which mines are described as "accidents in the landscape" (2004, 287), a point where Lawrence remembers his own lost object as home and simultaneously the folly of his father's labor and the industrialism it represented. Nevertheless, this was coal country and, although Lawrence never went down the mine, he reflects on its labor in ways that the headstock as headstone can only refract.

It is easy to get nostalgic about the mining communities of the Derby/Notts coalfield but mining is a poor and hard life, "a tragedy of ugliness" as Lawrence put it (2004, 291), and breaks as many people as it makes. Lawrence does not reject such life out of hand—he has his reasons for depicting soul-breaking industrialism in the terms he uses. As for class, Lawrence understood it through personification and depersonalization; in other words, as a lived relation rather than as a political/economic category, yet not as alive and deep as one's authentic self which, for Lawrence, was something else again. Thus, even though class is lived, it comes with a paradox, since it is always held to be repugnant; it constrains life, asphyxiates it, and to live in our body and our consciousness of it we need to exceed class and all of its false compulsions. If the working class celebrate the community of interests it fosters it is only to break the hierarchies class imposes. This is a utopianism Lawrence finds repressive in its own way. I want to analyze the lineaments [End Page 225] of working-class life as imagined in Sons and Lovers—not to reassert the real that would confirm or deny Lawrence's engagement, but to suggest that, in the imbrication of class and fiction as forms of the real, Lawrence is writing out the conditions of a necessary imperfection which must make "man" (or more generally "a human") more of one.

In the history of criticism of Sons and Lovers, I want to highlight two approaches that foreground the problem of perfectability in terms of class and literary form. Both readings are of their time but they represent why Lawrence's early novel remains a significant provocation about understanding working-class literature in and from the present. Like the headstocks, Sons and Lovers is patently anachronistic on questions of working-class subjectivity, especially when it comes to the representative status of the white western male. Interestingly, the reason F. R. Leavis judges Sons and Lovers a "lesser novel," (1955, 19) though still a work of genius (a noumenon that was more practical for critique before the great flowering of literary theory in the Nineteen Sixties), is that it has not enough of the "essential," which means the larger questions of human meaning; not just the tain in Leavis' mirror, but the kind of soul-wrenching emotional cadence we discern in Women in Love. Yet Leavis also admits the discourse of the body so phenomenologically intense in Lawrence's art has a class component that emerges again and again and might focus on the collier's body, or a generalization on the working-class male, the...


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