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on 2 February 2014

Though Lawrence is best known for writing Lady Chatterley's Lover, for me, The Rainbow is a far more illuminating and interesting look at sexuality. It also avoids Lawrence's key pitfalls: tendency to be florid when describing sex, long passages of Lawrence philosophising and my pet hate- the Mellors type. Lawrence has a particular type of male character he loves writing about- a rough, hearty man-of-the-soil, a man's man who can barely string a sentence together but is seething with bestial passions. Mellors is of course the epitome of this character. I don't know whether Lawrence thinks women like things like that or whether he has a penchant himself. Anyway, we only get a very minor character of the Mellors type in The Rainbow.

Originally Women in Love, the sequel to The Rainbow, was going to make up the fourth and final section of the book. Though The Rainbow is not rigidly divided into sections, there are three key eras in the history of the Brangwen family. The first generation is Tom Brangwen, who marries a Polish widow Lydia Lensky. She's six years his senior with a tragic sort of soul that Tom can never quite understand. As an antidote to the alienation he feels from his wife, Tom focuses his affections on her little stepdaughter Anna. Though Tom and Lydia have children together, it is Anna Lensky that heralds the second era of the novel.

As a teenager, Anna falls for Will Brangwen, her 'cousin'. Will is different from the typical blonde-haired Brangwens; he is skinny and dark-haired. This will become a theme of the novel, as each new era involves a change that moves the family away from their agricultural history and towards the modern era. Like Tom and Lydia, Anna and Will have a deep passion with trouble at its heart. Will is constantly on heat and Anna tires of it. She finds a new identity for herself, as mother and giver of life, and Will finds himself pushed away. When Will and Anna do come together, it is with a destructive sensual force. Fecundity is another of the novel's themes and though Lawrence sympathises with Will's frustration, he admires Anna as this pagan goddess of fertility.

Anna and Will's eldest child Ursula becomes the third and final generation. Unlike her predecessors, Ursula has many 'eras' as she reaches her coming-of-age and is transformed from a rebellious dreamer to a wiser, more realist, woman. Like her parents and grandparents, she has a central man in her life: the calmly self-assured Anton Skrebensky, a family friend. Neatly linking back to the novel's beginning, Anton's father was a friend of Lydia's, back in Poland. Anton and Ursula are both half-Polish but they have no real connections to their past. Anton seems to be perfect- unlike any of the other male characters, he knows who he is and what he believes in, which is why Ursula falls for him. However, when Anton goes to war, Ursula searches for an identity beyond him, as she has a fling with a schoolmistress that she worships and later becomes a struggling school-mistress herself. But in true modernist fashion, Ursula fits neither Lydia's role of dutiful wife nor Anna's of breeder. Is it better for a woman to simply accept one of these identities or should she struggle to find a new identity? Though the choice seems obvious, Lawrence does show Lydia and Anna as being happy in their simple roles and does not demonise them. He also casts doubt on whether Ursula isn't just chasing for some dream version of an identity that does not exist.

To get the full effect of the novel, it's best if you read it continuously in a short space of time, rather than switching between novels, so that you get the full sweep of the history of the Brangwen family. It's a compelling read full of people with interesting conflicts, trying to come to terms with their sexuality. I say 'people' because the characters are so full of internal conflicts that it's hard to pin them down as anything concrete. There's a feverish quality to the narrative, as if Lawrence just allowed himself to be swept along by the characters' passions. This is what makes Lawrence so interesting as a writer- his characters have deep desires. They really want things and are at times almost consumed by their need to have it. I'm not just talking about sex, though it is a recurrent desire, but things like independence. It's similar to Thomas Hardy, although Lawrence's characters are full of 'life-force', chasing everything fertile and promising and running from things that are dead and mechanical. Of course Hardy's characters are full of the death-drive, hurtling towards destruction.

People criticise Lawrence for not having a sense of humour. True, there are no overtly 'humorous' parts or comic relief, but some of Lawrence's metaphors are quite funny, particularly when he gets into pathetic fallacy (or should that be phallacy). When his minor burly bloke comes in, the rhubarb is "thrusting upwards upon the thick red stem". I'm sure Lawrence sees it as simply being a reflection of his themes of fecundity but Lawrence wouldn't be Lawrence without some madly unsubtle sexual metaphor.

Those rhubarbs must have been very shocking because The Rainbow was actually banned for a decade because it was ruled to be 'obscene'! Okay, it was probably more than the rhubarbs- sexual discovery is the main theme and is dealt with quite candidly, plus Ursula engages in a bit of skinny-dipping with her schoolmistress and discovers the orgasmic qualities of the moon. But there's no naughty words- not even anatomical words, apart from breasts. It just happens to be an openly sensual and sexual novel.

Lawrence's interest in female sexuality might raise a few eyebrows. Far from being a token attempt to write about a woman's experiences, he has an acute interest in it. The novel quite shockingly suggests- shocking for the time- that women had sexual feelings, and that just because a man was satisfied, the woman was not necessarily satisfied. It's dealt with quite beautifully and realistically actually. There's a lovely chapter called 'The Bitterness of Ecstasy' where Ursula and Anton have a whirlwind four weeks of passion, perfectly capturing the fever of young love. Surprisingly Anton is a decently written male character being neither an incessant mouthpiece for Lawrence's views nor a burly miner.

As for the significance of the title, there are many meanings. In one sense, it symbolises the illusory qualities of Ursula's dreams; rainbows are a trick of light. Secondly, rainbows appear only when it is both rainy and sunny, suggesting that life may be a necessary mixture of both- or that there is hope after the rain. And thirdly, the nature of a rainbow- that you can never reach its end- also reflects the nature of history. The Brangwen family will continue on, long after Ursula and the others.

This is my favourite novel of Lawrence's Big Four. I'd recommend it to those looking for a romantic read with lots of sensuality and less industrialism, and you don't need to have swotted up on Lawrence first. Those looking to dabble in Lawrence should start with Sons and Lovers, Lawrence's semi-autobiographical novel, as it's not too heavy on its themes. It's also a bit more appealing to male readers as well. Then progress to that famously naughty book, Lady Chatterley's Lover, which is Extreme Lawrence- but more importantly, it is a landmark in the history of sexuality in literature, challenging the idea that there are suitable ways of writing about things and unsuitable subjects for literature. If you really love Lawrence or you're curious to see what happens next with Ursula, progress to Women in Love. This is Lawrence's favourite novel but unlike The Rainbow, Sons and Lovers, or even the giggles of Lady Chatterley's Lover, it's not much fun, unless you have a hotline to Lawrence's mind. The best part of Women in Love is when Ursula's lover Birkin (Lawrence's mouthpiece) and her sister's lover Gerald (man of the soil) have a nude wrestling bout for a good six pages. Though one might venture to suggest that there's a little more to that 'wrestling' than at first appears.


My copy is a Penguin Classics version, the one with the baby on the front. It's a nice durable copy, and being about 500 pages, you don't want some cheap flimsy copy. The font is a good size, the notes are fine and this is apparantly the closest we can get to Lawrence's original text. The only downside is the poor introduction by Dr James Wood, where Wood spends most of his time making facetious comments about Lawrence or indulging in dull analysing of some sentence or passage on nature or talking about how the novel is like a re-writing of the Bible or some such nonsense. It is laughable that Wood accuses Lawrence of being pompous and serious when he does exactly the same! If this passes for academic insight, English really is in trouble as a degree subject.

There's also a version of The Rainbow with a bizarre cover- a topless red-headed woman covering her modesty with her hands (we only see her chest). None of the characters in the novel have red hair. It's simply perpetuating the old cliche of Lawrence as a smut-peddling nympho.
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on 29 April 2012
The Rainbow is an intergenerational saga set in late Victorian England. It deals with the inner emotional lives of a Nottinghamshire farming family-the Brangwens-who have lived on the land for generations and yet have to face to upheaval of a fast changing world. It is a novel about human relationships and all their complexity. This is evident from the outset when the young Tom Brangwen marries an older Polish lady and he forms a close bond with her daughter Anna, who he adopts.

It is not hard to see why the book was banned in 1915. The book is exceptionally frank and it is honest about the problems that can occur between men and women. Tom is insanely jealous when his adopted daughter marries her cousin Will Brangwen and the subsequent Will-Anna match is fraught with difficulty. They clash over matters religious: the religious buildings that Will loves leave Anna cold.

Eventually Will and Anna have a daughter Ursula, who grows up to be something of a free spirit. Ursula wants to make her own way in the world and this brings her into conflict with her father. She becomes a school teacher in Nottingham (a terribly draining but ultimately rewarding experience for her). Lawrence describes the fear and drudgery of teaching exceptionally well and he seems to be remarkably sympathetic to Ursula and her desire for freedom.

This is definitely one of those 'great books' that I felt more than lived up to its critical reputation. I'd recommend it to anyone who enjoys classic fiction and especially to people who have only read Lady Chatterley's Lover. This-I felt- was a much more rewarding and challenging book.
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on 10 July 1998
Lawrence's fame (or notoriety) rests on his sexual frankness, but what a lot of readers overlook is how well he wrote about parent-child relationships and family dynamics. The beginning of this novel is absolutely brilliant: Tom Brangwen and the Polish widow marry in haste, then find that they still haven't worked out their relationship. Her young daughter is an uneasy third party, and the child's sensitivity to the unease in their household is beautifully described, as well as her stepfather's gentle efforts to befriend her. As Lawrence continues the family history, his usual obsessions surface. But in general, it's a good story: sex is an organic part of his characters' lives rather than the mainspring of the whole plot (as in some of his other novels). And the characters come across as multi-dimensional human beings rather than talking heads (or other organs) for Lawrence's comments on life. A good novel for people who "don't like D.H. Lawrence."
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on 16 December 2010
The Rainbow is a hugely rewarding novel, which despite its relative brevity has the air of the epic about it. I had previously read Lady Chatterley's Lover and I've since read Women in Love, but while I enjoyed both neither had the impact of The Rainbow. That this book was censured and unavailable to buy legally in Britain for over a decade is testimony that many aspects of British life in the earlier decades of the last century are not worth mourning. The Brangwens are a family to be savoured, and Lawrence expertly evokes a long lost semi-mythical past without resorting to sentiment. This is a magnificent novel, and in over thirty years of devouring books of many kinds, this is one that has few peers.
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on 14 March 2008
Lawrence is not fashionable at present, perhaps because he is just too good, and too gifted. Hardly any other English writer, perhaps only Thomas Hardy, comes near him in his ability to show the reality of people's whole lives, to present their emotions, and to depict the experience of living and working in 20th-century Britain. This is a unique and marvellous book, but we should also read his 'Sons and lovers' and 'Women in love'.
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More passionate that Women in Love, much deeper than Lady Chatterley, I think this is Lawrence's most successful novel. While ostensibly chronicling the moves from an agricultural to industrialised society, he plumbs the emotional depths of his characters. Frequently viewed as old-fashioned, Lawrence captures all the quivering, trembling, tentative life inside his characters and somehow paints it on the page. I first read this when I was seventeen just before going to university to read English and it left me blown away. I've since avaoided re-reading in case I'm disappointed, but have finally succumbed - and no, I'm not! Not a tube read as you need to concentrate and allow yourself to be sucked into its emotional depths but it's well worth it.

ps. What a very odd cover Penguin have chosen for the re-release?
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on 23 March 2015
The book was partly easy to read, partly, especially the passages of heavy religious content, less appealing for me. It is a classic that was at first banned, which is hard to understand with our enlightened thinking, but overall I was pleased to have continued and persevered to the end, as the whole seemed worthy of it's time, and sections were 'modern' and descriptive, if a little overstated, here and there with repetition of certain passages, that was meant, for emphasis perhaps, but over egged ...somewhat.
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I first read this work of Lawrence when I was in my `20's. It has nagged me that I remembered virtually none of it from that reading. Furthermore, his ashes are "vitrified," that is, they have been incorporated in a heavy glass slab, by his wife, Frieda, purportedly so that his various mistresses could not steal them. They are in a very small chapel, on his former ranch, a bit north of Taos, New Mexico. The ranch is now owned by the University of New Mexico, which "doesn't have the money to maintain it," so the public is no longer permitted to enter. Besides, "no one" reads Lawrence anymore, and UNM does have football coach's salaries to pay. And then there was the matter of the long-term habit of marking certain "significant passages" in a work. Very few were marked from my first read; however I could now look across a gulf of four decades to note what my youthful self had marked... for the time I would become "elderly": "Alas, and alas, for the passion of the human heart, that must die so long before the body was dead." Hum!! Could that possibly be true? It was a wild potpourri of reasons, but I felt this work needed a re-read, and I was not disappointed.

It is a lush, lyrical and complex novel. It is set in the geographical heartland of England, Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire. Lawrence's evocative depictions of the English countryside are Turner's paintings in words. It is the eternal rhythms of the rural world, where outside events rarely intrude, so much so that it was hard to determine the time period. At the risk of a "spoiler," I was able to piece together a few clues from that outside world, and determine that the novel covered the period, roughly, from 1830 to 1910. The canal and the railroad came to the Brangwen's farm, and eventually the motorcar.

The core of the novel is the story of three generations of the Brangwen family, with the fourth being a brief antecedent. Young Tom decides to "go a courtin'" with a daffodil, and asks a Polish "lady," Lydia Lensky, who is a widow, with daughter, who has come upon "hard times," and is the housekeeper of a local vicar, to marry him. Class and social status are always an operative consideration in the background. From her days in Poland, Lydia had been taught to see the peasants as cattle. One of the true strengths of the novel is the development of each generation over the years, and the changing relationships within the family. Lawrence was only 30 when the novel was published, and it continues to amaze me the depth of his insights at that age; clearly I didn't have them, which is a prime reason I did not appreciate the novel when I was about his age when he wrote it.

There are numerous achingly poignant scenes that just seem to magically appear. When Lydia is 60, she is talking to her granddaughter Ursula, who must only be 10 or so. Ursula is questioning Lydia about her two husbands, and how they had been, and if she had loved one more than the other. Then Ursula asks Lydia if she will ever be loved. Lydia says that she already is. Then Ursula replies: No, no, I mean, as a woman. Another scene is one of Ursula's earliest memories, of planting potatoes with her father, and then trampling the earth where she should not, and how angry her father became. Lawrence writes of the father's later reflections of that incident: "He could never bear to think of it, he always wanted to cry, even when he was an old man and she had become a stranger to him. How he loved that little Ursula! - his heart had been sharply seared for her, when he was a youth, first married."

Lawrence includes scenes that express considerable skepticism towards religious orthodoxies, particularly the literal acceptance of biblical passages. He is also skeptical about the necessity for war. What is a bit surprising is that it is the three generations of women that express the strongest skepticism. In fact, long before Virginia Wolfe's A Room of One's Own (Penguin Modern Classics), Lawrence is expressing similar aspirations on the part of some of his female characters. Thought it was impressive for high Victorian and Edwardian times.

Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover (Collins Classics) is his more famous work for eroticism. But my Viking Compass edition includes an introduction that covered the obscenity trial of this work, along with the "Daily Express" headline: "Obscene novel to be destroyed - worse than Zola." It is all fairly tame depictions by today's standards, though the lesbian scene must have really been "shocking" back then. There are a few hurried moments of love-making, more suitable for the backseat of a drive-in, but there are far more moments that depict the brushing of legs against the other as the carriage rocks along down the road. More times than not, Lawrence intertwines nature and human sexuality, to great effect: "But she would wake in the morning one day and feel her blood running, feel herself lying open like a flower unsheathed in the sun, insistent and potent with demand."

I was going to give this novel 6-stars, but was disturbed by the inexplicable confusion in the chronology, for which I would welcome comments. Specifically, the Madhi's rising in Khartoum was depicted at almost the same time as the commencement of the Boer War, yet they were more than a decade apart. Likewise, I thought the motorcar arrived far too early though it was not impossible. Anyhow, 5-stars, plus.
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on 16 January 2015
Worth reading this in conjunction with Women in Love so that you get the complete stories of Ursula and Gudrun, the two sisters and the central characters of the two novels. So much has been written about Lawrence and I am not intellectually competent enough to introduce any new thoughts on his work.
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on 17 August 2000
This classic DH Lawrence story is full of his usual passion and beautiful descriptive passages about the surroundings and the characters, however this particular version - although admittedly cheap - is chock full of typo's. The letter "U" seems to be universally replaced with "n", and there are some amusing spellings which do alter the context at times such as "buffer" instead of "butter"! But on the whole it doesn't spoil the storyline - except for making me chuckle during a scene of anguish! I'm not sure what Lawrence would have thought about this version!
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