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An epic sensual saga
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.