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.
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.
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.
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.