Ursula Brangwen and ‘The Essential Criticism’: The Female Corrective in Women in Love

  • Peter Balbert


Critics have not been generous to the Ursula of Women in Love. Characteristic reactions include the harsh and ideological dismissal of her by Kate Millett and Carolyn Heilbrun, who view her, respectively, as ‘Birkin’s wife and echo … an incomplete creature … the epitome of passivity’,1 and as merely the ‘satellite to Birkin’s star’.2 Such a common misreading by feminists of Ursula’s role is surprising given their frequent calls for woman’s active sexual partnership in marriage; for such is the status that a persistent Ursula both encourages and achieves with her head¬strong and often contradictory husband. There are also the more sober disappointments of consensus Lawrence criticism, which still encourages an approach to the novel that either virtually ignores Ursula or bemoans a purported submissiveness in her relationship with Birkin. Only in some undeveloped remarks by, among others, F. R. Leavis, Frank Kermode, Julian Moynahan, and Charles Ross, is there a significant implication that her function in the work and her attachment to Birkin are other than subsidiary or tangential; even their acknowledgements of her resistance to Birkin’s doctrines do not suggest that she provides any compelling counterpoint, any ethos of her own to offer against her lover’s more didactic exhortations.3


Essential Criticism Walk Away Sexual Politics Love Life Female Subordination 
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  1. 1.
    Kate Millett, Sexual Politics (Garden City: Doubleday, 1970; London: Virago, 1977), 263–5.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Carolyn Heilbrun, Towards a Recognition of Androgyny (New York: Harper & Row, 1974), 102.Google Scholar
  3. 7.
    ‘Study of Thomas Hardy’ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985) and in Edward D. McDonald (ed.), Phoenix: The Posthumous Papers of D. H. Lawrence (New York: Viking 1972), 476.Google Scholar
  4. 11.
    David Cavitch writes with particular condescension about Ursula, as he stresses the way Birkin’s doctrine ‘disappoints her expectations of more romantic language’, ‘On Women in Love’, from Leo Hamalian (ed.), D. H. Lawrence: A Collection of Criticism (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1973), 55.Google Scholar
  5. 12.
    ‘Study of Thomas Hardy’, 481. H. M. Daleski, in The Forked Flame: A Study of D. H. Lawrence (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1965), discusses several relevant contradictions in Birkin’s explanation of his metaphysic and employs the Hardy essay to speculate on ‘male’ and ‘female’ elements in the novel. But Daleski disregards the active, directive function of Ursula’s own criticism of Birkin, and he fails to relate Lawrence’s idea of ‘female being’ in the ‘Study of Thomas Hardy’ to either an instinctual mode of living or to Ursula’s affirmation of such a response to life.Google Scholar
  6. 13.
    For a relevant sense of the Lawrences’ life during this period, see especially Harry T. Moore, The Priest of Love: A Life of D. H. Lawrence,rev. edn (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1974; Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1980), 191–365, andGoogle Scholar
  7. Keith Sagar, The Life of D. H. Lawrence (New York: Pantheon, 1980; Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985), 85–103.Google Scholar
  8. 14.
    George J. Zytaruk and James T. Boulton (eds), The Letters of D. H. Lawrence, II (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 142.Google Scholar
  9. 22.
    Mailer, The Prisoner of Sex (New York: New American Library, 1971), 101.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Peter Balbert 1989

Authors and Affiliations

  • Peter Balbert
    • 1
  1. 1.English DepartmentTrinity UniversitySan AntonioUSA

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