THE RAINBOW by D.H. Lawrence
The following is the first of what I hope to be a regular feature, in which I recommend books that I absolutely love and can whole-heartedly recommend. There are so many places to find book recommendations, but I still sometimes find it difficult to know what to read. I hope that by slowly building a list here, it might be a useful place for my fellow book lovers to turn for ideas. To read more, check out my Books I Love page.
Would I recommend The Rainbow? Yes!
The Rainbow by D.H. Lawrence, published in 1915 and banned in England for eleven years, is a family drama that follows three generations of the Brangwen family as England moves from a rural to an industrial society. The narrative arc of the novel provides the scaffolding upon which Lawrence explores a wide range of philosophical and psychological questions, such as the relationship between spirituality and sexuality, industrialization and nature, and personal freedom and society. Ultimately, however, The Rainbow is about yearning for truth and beauty in a messy world.
The novel covers a period of roughly sixty years, and it opens with Tom Brangwen, a gentleman farmer, as he courts and marries Lydia Lensky, a Polish widow who brings with her a daughter, Anna, from a prior marriage. The relationship between Tom and Lydia is explored with delicacy and often wrenching prose as the dynamics between the couple evolve, and I quickly found myself swept along by the emotional force of the narrative. As a word of caution, however, the drama in The Rainbow is largely psychological, so if you’re looking for a more plot driven novel, The Rainbow may not be for you.
The second third of the novel follows Anna, the independent and sensitive daughter of Lydia, and favorite step-child of Tom. As Anna grows up, she meets and falls in love with Will Brangwen, Tom’s nephew. The erotically charged scenes between Anna and Will extend beyond their physical discovery of one another. They each struggle with questions of spirituality, the quest for personal freedom, and the balance of power between men and women. Throughout The Rainbow there is a sense of radical courage, of nothing being held back, and I found this emotional honesty immensely refreshing, especially within the context of our coolly ironic, post modern world.
The final third of the novel focuses on Ursula Brangwen, Anna and Will’s oldest child. Ursula, also, is keen and sensitive, but unlike her mother, who finds fulfillment through motherhood, Ursula yearns for a life beyond the domestic confines of her family. She comes of age at a time when England is moving from the Victorian era into the modern world, and with increased industrialization, women’s roles are changing, and the question of female suffrage, for example, is just starting to be raised.
As she strives to find her place in the world, Ursula becomes involved in a number of relationships, including an affair with Winifred Inger, her school mistress, as well as a young army officer and family friend, Anton Skrebensky. Both Winifred and Anton fall in love with Ursula, but she remains slightly apart, driven by a sense of unquenched yearning for something more than what either Winifred or Anton are able to provide. When Ursula gets a job as a school mistress in the local grammar school, she feels a momentary sense of accomplishment, but her aspirations cannot be contained by the smallness and meagerness of what her life has provided thus far.
“In coming out and earning her own living she had made a strong, cruel move towards freeing herself. But having more freedom she only became more profoundly aware of the big want. She wanted so many things. She wanted to read great, beautiful books, and be rich with them; she wanted to see beautiful things, and have the joy of them for ever; she wanted to know big, free people; and there remained always the want she could put no name to.”
This is just one example of the many breathtaking moments throughout The Rainbow, and I often found myself gasping at the startling acuity of the prose. Lawrence’s language is staggeringly beautiful, especially when he is describing the natural world. The following is an example:
“In autumn the partridges whirred up, birds in flocks blew like spray across the fallow, rooks appeared on the grey, watery heavens, and flew cawing into the winter.”
Ursula undoubtedly deserves a place as one of literature’s great heroines, and all the more so for her imperfections. Her treatment of Skrebensky, for example, is genuinely unlikable, and her own future, by the end of the novel, remains unsure (Women in Love is the sequel to The Rainbow, but I wonder if it might be better not to know what happens to Ursula, as her refusal to be pinned down is such a compelling part of her nature).
Professor John Worthen, from the University of Nottingham, writes the following:
“(Lawrence) …was a writer who constantly struggled to find and to articulate the experience, not of a body of mind or spirit, but of the whole person. This was what he wrote about most tellingly.”
The Rainbow left me with the kind of satisfaction that comes from running long and hard, or from striving to understand or to create a work of beauty and truth. I highly recommend The Rainbow; it’s well worth the journey into this rich and sensuous world.
As a final note, D.H. Lawrence has often been accused of misogyny, which I find curious given his profound ability to write from the female perspective. Upon reflection, however, I do start to see an uncomfortable tendency for the female characters in The Rainbow to become almost repugnant over time, particularly when they become mothers. The following is a description of Winifred Inger, with whom Ursula has an affair:
“And sometimes she (Ursula) thought Winifred was ugly, clayey. Her female hips seemed big and earthy, her ankles and her arms were too thick. She wanted some fine intensity, instead of this heavy cleaving of moist clay…”
This undercurrent of distaste for the female form, as well as the many passages celebrating the male physique, made me curious about Lawrence’s own sexual orientation. There seems to be no evidence that D.H. Lawrence was homosexual, however, and he was married for decades to one woman, but this was also at a time when many people lived closeted and repressed lives. Ultimately, however, it’s not Lawrence’s sexual habits that are important, but how remarkably open he is, even by today’s standards, in dealing with his characters’ sexuality, their inner lives, and their world.