Women in “Women in Love”: Did Gudrun Kill Gerald?

Years ago, when my friend H and I read D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love, we loved it but could not help but satirize it.  Lawrence writes elegantly and brilliantly portrays the women characters, Ursula Brangwen and her sister, Gudrun, but the dialogue is too intense, almost silly.

For a short time H and I called each other Prune, Ursula’s nickname for Gudrun. “Don’t you really want to get married, Prune?” We might quote, laughing.  

But we both liked the Brangwen sisters, who are perhaps Lawrence’s most interesting, believable women characters.   Ursula, a bored teacher, has had sexual relationships but does not think much about marriage. Gudrun, an artist who has returned from London to the Midlands, is smouldering with boredom:  she wants something, but is it marriage?


Lawrence preaches about love and sex in all of his novels.  Ursula is drawn to Rupert Birkin, a school inspector who plans to quit his job and travel,  but he drones on and on about going beyond love – he doesn’t want mere love – and wants a perfect relationship with a woman and a man. Annoyed,  Ursula asks, “Aren’t I enough?” Birkin admits he loves her. They do get married.


Gudrun is arrogant and censorious. She is unkind to her boyfriend, Gerald Crich, the rich, devastatingly handsome owner of a colliery.  The two couples, Ursula and Birkin and Gudrun and Gerald, take a vacation together in the Alps.  It begins well, but Gudrun’s cruelty to Gerald drives Ursula and Birkin to leave early.  Gudrun spends most of her time in the lodge talking to a fellow artist, a misogynistic gnome of a man.  Her neglect and mockery of Gerald ends in tragedy. The question:  Is Gudrun a killer?  Unforgivable, if not quite a murderer.

On a lighter note, Lawrence has an interest in women’s fashion. His description of clothing is a welcome distraction from intensity.  Gudrun has original clothes, perhaps inspired by her time in bohemian Chelsea. On a walk to a wedding, Gudrun wears grass-green stockings, a large grass-green velour hat, and a full coat, of a strong blue color. “What price the stockings?” someone calls.   Coming out of the church, Gudrun and Ursula recognize Hermione, a rich woman who is a hostess/patron of the arts.  Hermione wears odd, expensive clothes:  “a dress of silky, frail velvet, of pale yellow color….  Her shoes were of brownish-grey, like the feathers on her hat.” 

Gudrun’s colorful stockings always attract attention.  Ursula is thrilled when Gudrun gives her three pairs of thick silk stockings.   


“I can’t take them from you, Prune,” she cried.  “I  can’t possibly deprive you of them – the jewels.”

“Aren’t they jewels?” cried Gudrun, eyeing her gifts with an envious eye. “Aren’t they real lambs!”

Lawrence wrote that Thomas Hardy was the best Victorian writer – in fact, the only one he thought worth reading – and we can see Hardy’s influence.  Hardy wrote devastating tragedies: he was condemned for immorality. Of course, Lawrence’s books were banned, Women in Love among them. The  villain in Women in Love is a woman, though perhaps Lawrence, with his complicated philosophy, would have blamed it on society, or even fate. 

Is the ‘F’ Word Necessary? A Look at HBO, D. H. Lawrence, Colette, Doris Lessing, and Erica Jong

“Fuck!”  – The Last of Us (HBO)

“I don’t over-eat myself and I don’t over-fuck myself.” – Lady Chatterley’s Lover, by D. H. Lawrence

My husband and I canceled HBO Max, not for the first time. I assure you, we found nothing worth watching this spring, certainly not The Last of Us, a much- lauded rehash of the American obsession with zombie films.  In a post-apocalyptic, post-plague America, human survivors battle zombies, who were infected by a fungi plague and now share a common root system.  But, alas, the humans are less believable than the zombies:  they are so fearfully athletic and skilled with assault weapons that they are a bit zombie-like themselves.

We learned one thing from The Last of Us:  the post-plague human beings say “fuck” constantly.  And we wondered, Do the zombies attack the humans because they hate the f” word?

Mind you, I don’t philosophically object to the word “fuck.”  It seemed to be a radical breakthrough in the late 20th century when radicals and university students began to say “fuck,” “prick,” and “cunt” in an attempt  to defuse the language of sexuality.   But HBO is not about defusion: it is about profanity, shock value, and sales. 

For me, the word “fuck” plays a more vital role in literature than TV.  Naturally, one turns to D. H. Lawrence, whose books were banned for their lyrical descriptions of sex long before his famous novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, was banned in 1929.  His two best novels, The Rainbow and Women in Love, were banned in 1915 and 1920 respectively for “obscenity,”  which often took the form of  conversations about sex.
 

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. In the sequel, Women in Love, two couples battle to find balance in sexuality, Ursula Brangwen and Rupert Birkin, a teacher who philosophizes about what their relationship should be, and artistic Gudrun, Ursula’s younger sister, with the wealthy Gerald Crich, whose father owns the colliery.

Everyone knows Lady Chatterley’s Lover, whether he or she has read it or not.  Though far from his best work, it is crucial to understanding Lawrence’s literary role as a pioneer in changing sexual attitudes. Lady Chatterley was banned in England from 1929 till 1960. 

Lawrence vigorously, perhaps too vigorously, uses the word “fuck” throughout the novel.   At one point, the sexy gamekeeper, Oliver Mellors, says, “I don’t over-eat myself and I don’t over-fuck myself.” Lady Chatterley’s Lover is a brave book about sex, albeit with  unintentionally funny bits that make me giggle and question my sanity.   For instance, Lady Chatterley (Connie) and her lover, Oliver Mellors, refer to their genitals as Lady Jane and John Thomas.  May I just say, What the f?   In one particularly ridiculous, unerotic segment, Oliver decorates their bodies with flowers, and “wound a bit of creeping-jenny round his penis, and stuck a single bell of a hyacinth in his navel.”  He prattles  about “the wedding of John Thomas and Lady Jane.” 

Still, this novel is  powerful in its way, full of anger, sex, and  the breakdown of class. Sex is the framework for the healing of Constance Chatterley and  the  gamekeeper, Oliver Mellors. Constance is lonely, because her husband. Clifford, once a fine, strong soldier, was  crippled in World War I and is now a paraplegic. Their sex life is over.
 
So it is no wonder that this vibrant young woman falls for the gamekeeper, Oliver Mellors, a working-class bloke who is virile and independent while the upper class is apparently crumbling. But he is harsh when he speaks of Clifford’s paralysis.  Though Lawrence  used Oliver as a mouthpiece for his own views, and Clifford’s paralysis is, I suppose,  a metaphor for the iniquitous nature and downfall of the upper class,  I find Oliver a completely unsympathetic character – except sexually to Connie. 

In Doris Lessing’s introduction to the Penguin edition of Lady Chatterley, she analyzes Lawrence’s repeated use of “fuck” and “cunt.” She says he “wanted to rescue [them] from the lexicon of ‘dirty words.'”  Lessing writes,
 

And now, what would poor Lawrence say if he could see us now, where ‘fuck’ can be used casually and unthinkingly, having almost lost its power to shock?  And ‘cunt’ is not much better?  And the sex may be not much more than a glass of white wine?

Oddly, few women writers of the 20th century used the “f” word in their novels.  I think of Colette, whose writing is lush, lyrical, and sensual, who wrote about love affairs but did not feel the need to describe sex explicitly. .Doris Lessing wrote brilliant sex scenes but certainly did  not use the “f” word.  And yet we are thrilled when Martha Quest in Landlocked, the third book in The  Children of Violence series, finally has a skillful lover and leans about good sex when she is nearly 30. In The Four-Gated City, the last book in the series, Martha has more sex, and the sex scenes, good and bad, are more explicit.

(N. B. Doris Lessing did not use the “f” word in her writing, but when she received the Nobel, journalists caught her getting out of a taxi and the first word she said was, “Fuck!”)

The woman writer best known for using the “f” word in the 20th century is undoubtedly Erica Jong, the author of the best-selling novel, Fear of Flying,  and several other books, including volumes of poetry and three sequels to Fear of Flying.


 Influenced by Henry Miller, the American writer whose novel, Tropic of Cancer, was banned in 1938 for sex scenes, Jong writes in great detail about sexual desire and sexual satisfaction. That said, the  narrator, Isadora Wing, is the doppelgänger of Jong, a poet married to a Japanese psychoanalyst. We empathize with Isadora’s fear on the plane as she and her husband fly to Switzerland for a psychoanalysts’ conference:  there are 117 psychoanalysts on the plane, Isadora tells us wryly. 

Being a psychoanalyst’s wife is not enough for Isadora, who is dissatisfied with her marriage and bored with  her husband’s profession.. She fantasizes about finding the “zipless fuck,” as she calls her fantasy of great sex without commitment.  And we read on, wondering, Will she get it?

I was not a great fan of Fear of Flying, her first novel, but some of her later novels are elegant, especially Fear of Dying, in which she explores a woman’s sexuality in old age.  And that, we will agree, is seldom written about in novels, and  is all but banned from human consciousness.  Kudos to Jong, the female Henry Miller, who fortunately was not banned for her work, though there is a lot of that around these days.

And I really must reread Fear of Flying, which I was probably too young for when I first read it!

A Neglected Tour de Force: D. H. Lawrence’s “The Captain’s Doll”

D. H. Lawrence’s short stories and novellas seem to hover outside the canon. Everyone has heard of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, but who peruses “Tickets, Please” or The Ladybird? Yet the short works are superior to many of his later novels, among them The Plumed Serpent (1926), in which an English woman falls in love with a Mexican landowner who absurdly declares himself an Aztec god.

The Captain’s Doll, published in 1923, is a tour de force.  In this elegant novella, set in Germany, Lawrence expounds on his favorite theme, the sexual struggle between men and women. He writes with clarity, eloquence, brevity, and not without a tad of malice – a driving force in this novella.   

At the center is a handmade doll, or manikin, designed and sewn by an impoverished countess, Hannele, to distance herself from her lover. Her friend and business partner, Mitchka, is startled by her nerve in making a replica of Captain Hepburn.  The two women sell their handmade dolls in Hannele’s studio, along with embroidered cushions, scarves, and other decorative objects.   Lawrence writes, “The dolls were quite famous, so the two women did not starve.”

The description of the doll hints at the subtle irritation behind Hannele’s love of the captain.

It was a perfect portrait of an officer of a Scottish regiment, slender, delicately made, with a slight, elegant stoop of the shoulders and close-fitting tartan trousers.  The face was beautifully modelled, and a wonderful portrait, dark-skinned, with a little, close-cut, dark moustache, and wide-open dark eyes, and that air of aloofness and perfect diffidence which marks an officer and a gentleman.

Lawrence writes brilliant dialogue, a vehicle for expression of the tension between men and women. In The Captain’s Doll, the dialogue captures Hannele’s hesitancy and and the charming captain’s confidence. Captain Hepburn laughs at the doll – “You’ve got me” – but explains he is late because his wife has been writing letters to the Major-General about rumors of his infidelity. His colonel has advised him to take a month’s home leave.  The captain is unsure if he will go, but has no desire to visit England.

Hannele forgets the doll in her relief.

A glad, half-frightened look came on her face.  
“You mean you don’t want to leave me?” she asked, breathless.

When a marriage is in jeopardy, the wife of course must act. Mrs. Hepburn makes a surprise trip to  Germany and visits Hannele’s studio.  She is utterly crushed when she sees the doll. She wants the doll, but cannot have it.

The real struggle, however, is not between the captain and his wife, but between the captain and Hannele. And like many of Lawrence’s male characters, he harbors cold, unemotional ideas about love: he hates the expression of emotions, and feels divided from humanity. Yet he doesn’t want to be alone. Hannele captured his image in the doll, but is mesmerized by the man.

Parts remind me of Lawrence’s novel, Women in Love,  though Rupert is truly in love and more flexible in his philosophy than Captain Hepburn. Ursula, his lover, ignores Rupert’s notions, focusing on love itself.  But can Hannele do the same?

Lawrence’s philosophy of love and sex dominates his work – The Rainbow and Lady Chatterley’s Lover were banned because of eroticism – but in each book the the characters’ relationships are worked out differently.

I do think The Captain’s Doll would make a good film!

The Spinster Problem: D. H. Lawrence’s “The Lost Girl”

By the middle of July, there is no question that I’m haggard. Try staying up and reading D. H. Lawrence till 2 a.m.  Wait till morning to slather on cold cream and rejuvenate yourself with cucumber slices.  In films women apply cucumber slices to their eyes,  but I find them more refreshing in a salad. 

I am reading Lawrence’s The Lost Girl (1920),  a mesmerizing, if uneven, novel about a woman with a paucity of sexual choices. It seems inevitable that Alvina Houghton, a maternity nurse whose inheritance was devoured by her once rich father’s debts, will run off to Italy with Ciccio (pronounced Cheecho), a traveling performer in a pseudo-American Indian dance troupe.  Alvina has had bad sex with him once, but she is afraid she will find no one better.


And she has reason to worry.  Lawrence informed us portentously on page 2 that in Woodhouse, Alvina’s hometown,  “there was a terrible crop of old maids among the ‘nobs,’ the tradespeople and the clergy.”  Her governess, Miss Frost, was an old maid, as was her father’s manager of a sewing workshop, Miss Pinnegar, both of whom lived with the family in Woodhouse. Miss Frost ran the household and essentially supported the family by giving music lessons.  After a while, Alvina gave piano lessons, too. Alvina’s mother, her only married role model, was an invalid. 

Alvina has few prospects. She has experience as a piano teacher, but it is not her vocation. And she is repulsed by the few eligible men in Woodhouse. In particular, an Australian teacher working on an Oxford degree who lives entirely in his head – and seems to have no heart – is confident that they are “walking out” together.” He will not take a hint:  he stalks her, and believes she likes him, until she bluntly tells him she is not interested.


 And later, Alvina desperately feels it’s better to run away with a young, attractive, impecunious, stupid, masculine Italian than to marry the smart, fiftysomething doctor WHO IS IN LOVE WITH HER, HAS A BEAUTIFUL HOUSE, MONEY, AND WILL GIVE HER ANYTHING SHE WANTS!  Oh, dear, I doubt her choice will bring much joy.  But she did not want to marry the doctor, and that is that.

But really, Ciccio? He’s so stupid!  Out of curiosity, I looked ahead at the next chapter, and as I suspected, she ran off with dreary Ciccio. Such a disappointing arrangement.

Lawrence is both brilliant and stupid about male-female relationships. As you can imagine, there is little communication between Alvina and Ciccio. Here is Lawrence’s take on them in Italy.  He writes,


Curious, he was somewhat afraid of her, he half venerated her, and half despised her. When she tried to make him discuss, in the masculine way, he shut obstinately against her, something like a child, and the slow, fine smile of dislike came on his face. Instinctively he shut off all masculine communication from her, particularly politics and religion. He would discuss both, violently, with other men. In politics he was something of a Socialist, in religion a freethinker. But all this had nothing to do with Alvina. He would not enter on a discussion in English.

Somewhere in her soul, she knew the finality of his refusal to hold discussion with a woman. So, though at times her heart hardened with indignant anger, she let herself remain outside. The more so, as she felt that in matters intellectual he was rather stupid. Let him go to the piazza or to the wine-shop, and talk.

Yes, yes, “somewhere in her soul.”  Very Lawrencian.  


This novel is kind of a mess, but it is fascinating and often gorgeously written.  A pity Alvina has so few choices – but after all she was born and raised in a town of old maids! And now I must read the last 30 pages. 

Fascinating Writers, Alive and Dead: Danielle Geller, D. H. Lawrence & J. I. M. Stewart

I resolved to read more genres this year, and recently picked up Danielle Geller’s engrossing new memoir, Dog Flowers. This thoughtful, quiet, empathetic book deals with her acceptance of a deeply flawed family and problems of identity.

Raised in Pennsylvania by her white grandmother but a member of the Navajo nation, Geller grew up in a relatively stable home but took for granted the problems of her alcoholic, divorced, often homeless parents.

The impetus for the memoir is the death of her mother, Lee, who dies homeless in a hospital in Florida. Danielle flies from Boston to Florida to visit: Danielle’s sister Eileen has a drug problem, screams at her on the phone when she hears the news, and is in trouble with the law. So Danielle holds it all together: a nurse questions her presence, because she’d been told Lee had no family, and Danielle is upset by their assumptions about homelessness. And we readers learn about the challenges that kept Lee from living a normal life. She left the Reservation in Arizona at 19, and her sporadic heavy drinking made it impossible to keep a job.

After Lee’s death, Danielle finds scraps of her mother’s writing, diaries, and letters among her belongings. She cherishes these scraps, which show her mother’s love for her daughters and appreciation of their relationship . She visits her relatives on the Reservation, and they share memories of Lee. Later, Danielle is trained in library school as an archivist. And so she archives her mother’s writings, using them as footnotes to this narrative.

Geller’s writing is flawless, graceful, and moving. Her writing reminds me of Pam Houston’s. An excellent read.

AND NOW A CONNECTION BETWEEN D. H. LAWRENCE AND J. I. M. STEWART.

A few years ago I declared D. H. Lawrence my favorite writer. His writing is brilliant, hypnotic, and darkly irresistible–but sometimes he goes too far.

I love The Rainbow, which is one of the best English novels of the 20th century. But then, alas, I went on to The Plumed Serpent, which is positively risible. An Englishwoman, Kate, visits Mexico and marries Don Ramon, a wealthy general and landowner, who claims he is the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl:  one of his goals is to drive Christianity out of Mexico.  It’s not just Don Ramon’s ideas that are bad: it is an incredibly bad book.

So I must share a funny passage from from J. I. M. Stewart’s The Gaudy. The narrator, Duncan, literally runs into a girl at the library, and one of her books crashes to the ground.

It was The Plumed Serpent. Janet appeared to be on her way to return it to the desk.

“Did you like it?” I asked.

This was an eternal moment, for I had done something I couldn’t–until the words were spoken–have believed myself capable of. And it had never occurred to me that Janet Finley might read books.

“No, I didn’t!” Janet replied instantly, and with a vehemence apparently unconnected with any just outrage she might have felt at being addressed by me. “That woman Kate. She watches her husband murdering people, and their blood being sprinkled on a sacred fire. And it makes her ‘uneasy.’ Just that! Not mad with horror, or crazed with some daft religious ecstasy. ‘Uneasy’–and gloomy too. I’d be gloomy! But I supposed it’s all deeply true.’

“I don’t think anything of the sort.” Although my passion for Lawrence was at that time was fathomless, I felt it should be made known to Janet that a line has sometimes to be drawn in him.

This conversation goes on for another page–I loved The Gaudy, but it would be worth reading just for this.

Miscellaneous Notes:  D. H. Lawrence’s Essays and the Risks of an American Protest

WHAT I’M READING.  The Bad Side of Books: Selected Essays by D. H. Lawrence.  Last year I declared D. H. Lawrence my favorite writer on the basis of his masterpiece The Rainbow–though I admit his later novel The Plumed Serpent was trying, with excessive descriptions of drumming and dancing by Mexican rebels in an Aztec cult.

Fortunately, his nonfiction is fascinating.  In this brilliant collection of essays and criticism, my favorite piece is Memoir of Maurice Magnus, an account of Lawrence’s reluctant friendship with M–, a penniless German who became a professional sponger.  Lawrence first meets M__ at a cheap Italian hotel, where his friend D–  is staying; and M–  is so infatuated with D– that he runs the errands, ensures that the gourmet food is cooked properly, and is virtually a slave to him.  Later, Lawrence visits M–at  a monastery where he claims he wants to become a monk–until the police come after him for his debts. And from here all is downhill for M–.   Lawrence’s wife Frieda hated M–, who admittedly was a woman hater, and fumed at the top of the stairs when he came to beg Lawrence for money.  This sad, comic memoir reads like a novella.

THE RISKS OF AN AMERICAN PROTEST.  Like the majority of Americans, I am shocked by the racist police brutality that killed George Floyd. I wept over the video of his death.

But I cannot in good conscience support the continued protests.

Both blacks and whites are protesting, but we should remember that a disproportionate number of blacks have died of the virus.  According to the CDC, the highest death rates in  New York City have been among African Americans and blacks (92.3 deaths per 100,000 population) and Hispanics (74.3 per 100,000 population).  A study by APM Research Lab in May found that African Americans have died at a rate of 50.3 per 100,000 people, compared with 20.7 for whites, 22.9 for Latinos and 22.7 for Asian Americans.

The virus is still raging.  Isn’t it time to move on and get the vote out for November?

“The Plumed Serpent” by D. H. Lawrence

D. H. Lawrence is my favorite 20th-century English writer. Some of his books are masterpieces, others wildly uneven.  I loved them all in my teens, though some hold up better than others.   Recently I reread The Plumed Serpent, a lyrical but rather tedious novel, published in 1926, about the rise of a cult in Mexico (the cult is fictitious).  The cult centers on the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl, who takes the form of a plumed serpent.  Don Ramon, a wealthy Mexican landowner, claims he is Quetzalcoatl:  one of his goals is to drive Christianity out of Mexico.  He also likes to be worshipped.

 Fortunately, we observe Mexican culture from the point-of-view of Kate Leslie, an Irish tourist who is the only fleshed-out character in the book, and perhaps the only one Lawrence understands. She is ambivalent about Mexico, and the politically correct should not venture into these pages.  

The Plumed Serpent begins promisingly enough at a bullfight in Mexico City.  Kate, her American cousin Owen, and their young friend Villiers sit in the broiling sun because they did not pay extra for seats in the shade.  The crowd  is rowdy, snatching straw hats off heads and throwing  them into the air, and when Owen takes off his hat they throw oranges at his bald spot. Poor Owen.  Why does he stay?  But it is the violence of the bullfights that repulses Kate.  She walks out.  

Kate is not politically correct. Readers today who do not know Lawrence’s work might consider this novel racist, sexist, anti-Mexican, anti-American, anti-European, but Kate and  Lawrence are concerned mostly about individualism.  In the 1920s, Kate hates most places and people:  she can’t stand the the U.S., finds Americans “mechanical,”  loathes England, isn’t crazy about Ireland, finds some Mexicans “reptilian,” and on and on. Obviously, Lawrence would have perceived things differently had he lived in our culture, but this was written in 1926.  Kate is well-traveled but she is having a bad time.  Lawrence writes,

She was more afraid of the repulsiveness than of anything.  She had been in many cities of the world, but Mexico had an underlying ugliness, a sort of squalid evil, which made Naples seem debonair in comparison.  She was afraid, she dreaded the thought that anything might really touch her in this town, and give her the contagion of its crawling kind of evil.

Despite her ambivalence, Kate stays in Mexico after Owen and Villiers go back to the U.S.  (She hates the U.S. more than Mexico.) She is attracted to Don Cipriano, an Indian general who has introduced her to Don Ramon.  But it’s not until she leaves Mexico City and rents a house on a beautiful lake near Don Ramon’s house that she sees the beauty of Mexico.  I empathize with Kate:  I, too, hated Mexico City on a trip   with a boyfriend who spoke Spanish but was culturally illiterate.  Alas, no Diego Rivera paintings or Aztec ruins for me!  All he wanted to do was drink. And then we spent 12 nonstop hours on a bus (without a restroom) to a supposedly Edenic seaside village, where there was donkey shit on the beach and I got a blistering sunburn.  He spent his days in the bar getting drunk and talking to the bartender while I drank Manzanita (apple pop) and read.  I huddled in the cockroach-infested hotel room reading One Hundred Years of Solitude,  Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and  part of George Eliot’s Romola.  I gazed with longing at the posh hotel where the Americans and Germans stayed.  I  yearned for good plumbing and a bug-free space.  (And it probably wasn’t even expensive.)

 Eventually we got out of that hellhole and went to Veracruz, which I loved.  It is one of the most gorgeous cities I’ve ever been. And that’s where I found The Plumed Serpent, the only English novel in the bookstore.   I adored the book back then.

I do enjoy Kate’s experiences, but the Quetzalcoatl cult, the dancing to drums, and the rants against Christianity  are endless.  There is also a horrifying military scene where the cult takes over the Catholic church in the village.  The narrative is interspersed with long hymns to Quetzalcoatl. If you like Lawrence’s poetry, you will enjoy some of the hymns perhaps.

I was looking forward to this reread, but, alas, this book is no longer for me. I prefer his realism in The Rainbow (which I wrote about here) and Women in Love to the symbolism of his later work.

A Rebel’s Masterpiece: D. H. Lawrence’s “The Rainbow”

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.

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