If you need to escape the icy darkness of Winter 2019, read D. H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow. His poetic prose can get a little manic, but he yanks you out of your dark world into a mystical possibility of symbolic nature and real relationships.
The Rainbow is a masterpiece. In an intense Lawrence phase in my teens, I devoured Women in Love, Sons and Lovers, The Fox, The Virgin and the Gypsy, and Lady Chatterley’s Lover (the latter not without laughter). But I did not find a copy of The Rainbow till my mid-twenties, when a battered Modern Library edition turned up at a (now defunct) used bookstore. And this book was life-changing during a restless period when I was trying to decide whether to live happily underemployed in a small town or become “a professional” in a city.
Did you know The Rainbow and Women in Love are a duology? The former tells the story of three generations of the Brangwen family, spanning sixtysome years from the mid-nineteenth century to the early twentieth century. The longest section focuses on Ursula Brangwen, a New Woman at the turn of the century who longs to escape the confines of family but who despises the mechanical world of higher education and teaching. In the sequel, Women in Love, two couples battle to find balance in sexuality, Ursula and Rupert Birkin, who philosophizes about what that relationship should be, and artistic Gudrun, Ursula’s younger sister, and the wealthy Gerald Crich, whose father owns the colliery.
Like most of Lawrence’s novels, The Rainbow concentrates on sexual relationships. Who will dominate? Men or women? (Women here.) In the first section of the novel, Lawrence’s lead male and female characters are not only polarized by sex but belong to different cultures. Tom Brangwen, who is born in 1840, inherits the family farm and decides to marry Lydia Lensky, a Polish widow who is a clergyman’s housekeeper. Tom and Lydia live in different worlds. They can barely communicate. He is inarticulate and rustic; she is a well-educated Polish landowner’s daughter who became a nurse and followed her doctor husband to England. And she has a young daughter, Anna.
But with Lawrence, any attempt to retell the plot is irrelevant: it is really the poetic language that counts. Lydia understands English but not English culture. Lawrence writes, “But she knew nothing of the English, nor of English life. Indeed, these did not exist for her. She was like one walking in the Underworld, where the shades throng intelligibly but have no connection with one. She felt the English people as a potent, cold, slightly hostile host amongst whom she walked isolated.”
The marriage breaks their isolation. It brings Lydia out of the underworld, and Tom into the world of human communication and sexual partnership.
In the next generation, Anna, Lydia’s daughter and Tom’s stepdaughter, becomes the matriarch. She marries her cousin, Will Brangwen, an aspiring artist and talented wood-carver who has a passionate interest in church architecture. But Anna and Will, after their first happy weeks of marriage, battle for dominance. She likes the open sky, he likes cathedral ceilings. She is happy to spend days in bed having sex, he is more Puritanical and feels he must work. Then when she is pregnant, she does a weird Anna Victrix (Anna Conqueror) dance, which temporarily beaks her husband. All right, Lawrence goes too far, and it’s ridiculous, and possibly misogynist, but it works in the context of the book. Anna is always pregnant, and expresses herself through pregnancy and motherhood. She has a special power!
Her oldest daughter Ursula has more opportunities than did the previous generations of women. A brilliant student of Latin, French, math, and botany, she seems to have a bright future. But when it comes down to it, what can women do? Teach.
And at seventeen, she finds herself teaching a class of 50 children at a school in an impoverished district. There is a mechanical atmosphere, she cannot teach the children as individuals because they react as one large group, and she does not know how to discipline them. She has to use corporal punishment, which goes against everything she stands for.
At the end of the year, she leaves her hated job to go to college to earn a B.A. At first she loves her classes, especially botany, but she becomes disillusioned by the view of learning as a path to earning money. And so she neglects her work and embarks on an intense sexual relationship with Srkebensky, a former boyfriend who fought in the Boer War and plans to go to India soon. They have great sex. But does Ursula want to marry?
Any attempt to retell the plot is irrelevant: Lawrence’s books depend on poetic prose and convoluted ideas about the mysticism of sexual relationships and resistance to the mechanical society of work.
Naturally, his books appeal to rebels. And even if we are broken by winter (and the mechanical society, of course), we at core remain subversive.
The Rainbow was banned when it was published in 1915. Poor Lawrence! His books were always getting banned.