Classic Thoughts: A curse on common man: Continuing our series of reflections on great books, Melvyn Bragg revisits Sons and Lovers (1913) by D H Lawrence

WHAT STRIKES me most forcefully now is the man's prodigality, both in its sense of 'lavish' and in its sense of 'reckless'. The novel is plural in title and multiple in ambitions. In a few lines he will pencil a situation which carries the force of a novella and then he will move on restlessly, as impatient as his hero. As in all Lawrence's books, there are longueurs and flaws - the more forgivable, and somehow sweeter, in this early work.

You could gather a thesis on the spoken English of the day from the mix of dialect and rather cut-glass aspiring middle-class slang; or on the working conditions in late industrialised England; or on the development of leisure, education and manners in that period. It is a novel set in its historical and intellectual context as firmly as its social and physical landscape; a physical landscape described with Keatsian fervour.

Much has been made of the 'unfairness' of Lawrence's treatment of his father, and indeed there appears to be a personal animus provoking the author with regard to old Morel. There is little doubt that it hit its target.

Lawrence's unpopularity in his home village was for years based on what was seen as a gross attack on his popular 'man's man' father. Yet Morel, like many a character an author has set out to abuse, turns the tables. Lawrence is just too good a writer to flatten him with a rant.

He recreates him for his fiction and through the little touches - the leaning against the shed when he fully realises William's death, for instance - he lives and is, perversely, ennobled by the son's unpitying assault.

It is the mother whose character seizes me now. I had not fully comprehended how violently possessive and overweening she is. It is arguable that her jealousy of William's lover and her jealousy of Paul's lover helps destroy the one and distort the other.

Her snobbery eliminates all Morel's considerable qualities and with them the warmth, the understanding of a working world, the knowledge of how to ride hard knocks that a father brought and Lawrence sought forever afterwards.

Her curse on the 'common' condemned Lawrence to a pursuit of the abstract which often led him to utterly distasteful, sometimes ridiculous and intolerable views masquerading as theories.

In much of his worst later writing, the snobbery of his mother can be seen rampant. In the best of his later writing, the determination to mine the unconscious, dig beneath the unacceptable surfaces of society, yearn for the instinct and life of his abused father.

Between these two powerful figures - from what we know, as strong in reality as they are vivid in fiction - Lawrence's own character and genius had to struggle to survive. In Sons and Lovers, we can see the forces set against him and the prodigal talents he brought to bear on the fight that was to wear him down and end his life so prematurely.