Ursula and Gudrun Brangwen are two sisters from the Midlands trying to find individual fulfilment in the early years of the 20th century.
They both become involved in intense relationships—Ursula with school inspector Rupert Birkin and Gudrun with colliery owner Gerald Crich.
The first part of Women in Love explores how the four principal characters have arrived at this point.
The new BBC4 drama is, in fact, a two-part adaptation of DH Lawrence’s novels The Rainbow and Women in Love. William Ivory has scripted this version, the first part of which was shown last week. Ivory recently wrote the film Made in Dagenham about the 1968 Ford women’s strike.
At the beginning, school teacher Ursula is involved in an unsatisfactory relationship with soldier Anton Skrebensky.
Artist Gudrun is having an affair with a married art teacher, while Birkin is losing his religious convictions as his own affair breaks down.
The intensity and openness of Lawrence’s writing about sexual relationships made it difficult for the novels to find publishers in the 1910s.
Critics have tended to concentrate on the amount of sex in the drama. But rather than this being titillating, it is essentially unsatisfying for all the characters.
The only joyful sex is between Ursula and Gudrun’s parents, which is loving and fulfilling.
But the focus on sex tends to disregard the anti-modernist theme at the heart of the novel. The first part of the TV drama did not touch on this, though perhaps it will emerge in the second.
This is particularly true of Women in Love, which Lawrence wrote at the height of the First World War. He saw the slaughter and destruction as a result of humanity’s corruption by modern industry and its break from nature.
This led him to develop a deep hatred of humanity and a pessimistic attitude in his life and writing.
Birkin, who often represents Lawrence, states in Women in Love, “I abhor humanity, I wish it was swept away. It could go, and there would be no absolute loss, if every human being perished tomorrow.”
Crich symbolises the dominance of modern humanity over nature, subjugating it at will. He has an almost mystical reverence for mechanisation.
Crich’s workers become complicit in their own oppression: “Gerald was their high priest, he represented the religion they really felt…
“There was a new world, a new order, strict, terrible, inhuman, but satisfying in its very destructiveness. The men were satisfied to belong to the great and wonderful machine, even whilst it destroyed them…
“They were exalted by belonging to this great and superhuman system which was beyond feeling or reason, something really godlike. Their hearts died within them, but their souls were satisfied.”
Birkin is unsatisfied with his connections with women and is searching in vain for an almost mystical communion with a man, in this case Gerald.
Lawrence was the son of a miner, but a deep elitism developed in him. Gudrun and Birkin’s disdain for humanity and desire for its destruction reflects this in Women in Love.
Even in Lawrence’s writings, the sexual encounters between people are rarely liberatory. Instead, they are often depicted as being a battle between the sexes, in which the woman’s power reduces that of the man, dominating him.
It is easy to see why he has been criticised for misogyny, despite his sympathetic and powerful portrayal of women characters throughout his novels.
This adaptation of The Rainbow and Women in Love is not entirely successful. While a portentous atmosphere, similar to the novels, hangs over everyone, it strays too far from the novels’ plots and characters to be a definitive version of Lawrence’s works.
Many of the principal themes of the novels did not come through in the first part.
But if it means that some people discover or return to his lyrical and sometimes hypnotic novels it will be a worthwhile venture.
The first part of Women in Love is available at www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer while the second part is on BBC4 at 9pm this Thursday, 31 March