Wednesday, June 6, 2018

The Rainbow by D. H. Lawrence

He was obsessed.  If he did not discover and make known to himself these delights, they might be lost for ever.  He wished he had a hundred men's energies, with which to enjoy her.  He wished he were a cat, to lick her with a rough, grating, lascivious tongue.  He wanted to wallow in her, bury himself in her flesh, cover himself over with her flesh.  
Front cover of copy I read
In an effort to justify my mother's complaints that I am a snob and my father's fears that I am a dangerous reactionary who is putting his good name at risk, I have been reading T. S. Eliot's earlier poetry and about the St. Louis native and London habitue's early life (basically up to 1922 and the publication of The Waste Land.)  In Robert Crawford's Young Eliot: From St. Louis to The Waste Land and in The World Broke In Two: Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, D. H. Lawrence, E. M. Forster and the Year That Changed Literature by Bill Goldstein, mention is made of Lawrence's 1915 novel The Rainbow as a controversial book that was "suppressed for indecency."  I've never read anything by D. H. Lawrence, and seeing that the novel was (apparently) full of sex and that the more famous Women in Love was a sequel to it, I decided The Rainbow would be a good place to start my D. H. Lawrence experience and tracked down a copy (Penguin 2007, edited by Mark Kinkead-Weekes) at the Baltigore County Public Library.  For what it's worth, this edition claims to be the closest ever published to what Lawrence intended.

The Rainbow is the story of three generations of the Brangwen family, relatively prosperous owners of the farm known as the Marsh in or near the village of Cossethay on the border of Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, a tale that runs from the mid 19th century to the first years of the 20th.  After a brief look at his immediate ancestors, we spend 100 or so pages with Tom Brangwen as our main character.  Though not the eldest, Tom succeeds to ownership of the Marsh, his older brother Alfred moving to Nottingham to take a job as "a draughtsman in a lace-factory."  After an encounter with a foreign gentleman, Tom becomes fascinated with foreigners and aristocrats—one of the themes of The Rainbow is of people who yearn to be more, to grow into something different, something bigger, or to have children who do so  These hopes are generally frustrated; for example, Tom's mother wanted her children to be educated, but Tom was a horrible student, "a hopeless duffer at learning," "a fool" who "had not the power to controvert even the stupidest argument...."

...and the back
Tom becomes enchanted with Lydia Lensky, a Polish widow with a little girl, Anna.  Lydia, the daughter of a landowner, and her husband, a physician, were forced to leave Poland because they were patriots and got mixed up in a rebellion against the Russians--her husband died of illness in London, leaving her and little Anna penniless.  Tom and Lydia marry, and we learn all about the joys and miseries of their marriage. Their marriage is contrasted with Alfred’s; Alfred cheats on his wife with an intelligent woman who lives in a house full of books with her father--Alfred and the woman read Herbert Spencer and Robert Browning together.

When Anna is eighteen, Alfred’s son Will moves near the Marsh to take up work himself as a draughtsman at a lace factory. Anna and Will, a sensitive sort who likes to visit churches and look at books of reproductions of church architecture and Christian paintings and sculptures (Ruskin has had a big influence on him), fall in love, and we get 100-something pages in which their marriage, the joys and miseries of which are even more extreme than that of Tom and Lydia's, is described in detail.

Lawrence’s book is focused primarily on psychology, on the characters’ inner lives and on their feelings, feelings mostly related to their sexual and family relationships. There is quite little description of people’s work or their relationships with other people in the community--we don’t get scenes of Tom haggling with customers over prices for his butter or beef or Will trying to get a raise from his boss, and we learn very little of the economics of managing a farm or the intricacies of designing lace patterns, we don't hear people's complaints about government trade or tax or foreign policy.  Again and again the characters eschew the outside world, shutting themselves up in the family:
Anna continued in her violent trance of motherhood, always busy, often harassed, but always contained in her trance of motherhood....No responsibility, no sense of duty troubled her.  The outside, public life was less than nothing to her, really.  
And to him, as the days went by, it was as if the heavens had fallen, and he were sitting with her among the ruins, in a new world, everybody else buried, themselves two blissful survivors....
or themselves:
...she was always tormented by the unreality of outside things....she became hard, cut herself off from all connection, lived in the little separate world of her own violent will.
The descriptions of people’s family relationships, particularly relationships between spouses, ring very true and are very effective. Just like in real life, everybody’s feelings are ambiguous, equivocal,  subject to endless revision, and Lawrence's character's emotions shift from one extreme to the other from one moment to the next.   Lawrence addresses, in detail, many of the challenges faced by married people: you can't live without your wife, can't imagine a life without her, she is the center of your being, but at the same time that you adore her and desire her, you resent her because of her power over you.  She makes fun of your hobbies, and it hurts so much you throw the woodcarving you've been working on for months into the fire!  (When this happened to Will I was reminded of scenes in Kipling's The Light that Failed and in Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage in which women destroyed men's art work.)  Your wife criticizes your religion, your deepest beliefs, and you begin to doubt.  You love your husband and desire him sexually, but there is nothing more delicious than being alone at home while he's at work, and you can't get any sleep in the same bed with him, so you send him to another room every night.  Lawrence goes into all these things at great length, as well as into Tom's relationship with Anna and Will's with his and Anna's first daughter, Ursula.

Lawrence's style is not subtle--when people are not overwhelmed by love or desire they are going into "black rages" and consumed by hate, usually for the person they were in paroxysms of desire for just two paragraphs ago, and will be equally in love with within a page or two.  Lawrence's style is characterized by repetition.  Lawrence will use the same short straightforward words and phrases multiple times in a single sentence, in a single paragraph, again and again throughout the book ("rage" and "black" are favorites):
All the blood in his body went black and powerful and corrosive as he heard her.  Black and blind with hatred he was.  He was in a very black hell, and could not escape.
Oh, Oh, the bliss of the little life sucking the milk of her body!  Oh, Oh, Oh the bliss, as the infant grew stronger, of the two tiny hands clutching, catching blindly yet passionately at her breast, of the tiny mouth seeking her in blind, sure, vital knowledge, of the sudden consummate peace as the little body sank, the mouth and throat sucking, sucking, sucking, drinking life from her to make a new life, almost sobbing with passionate joy of receiving its own existence, the tiny hands clutching frantically as the nipple was drawn back, not to be gainsaid.  This was enough for Anna.  She seemed to pass off into a kind of rapture of motherhood, her rapture of motherhood was everything.
Lawrence will make the same points about a character and use the same metaphors again and again, in a brief space.  One minor character is a Polish baron, Skrebensky, exiled to England where he has taken up the job of a vicar and marries an Englishwoman.  On page 184 Lawrence tells us the Baroness has "the soft, creamy, elusive beauty of a ferret."  On the same page we are told "She had real charm, a kind of joyous coldness, laughing, delighted, like some weasel."  And at the top of the next page we find that Will "watched her with deferential interest as he would watch a stoat playing."  (I was hoping Lawrence would whip out "ermine," favorite of all us Leonardo and Wyndham Lewis fans, but he limited himself to three of these weaselly ferrety metaphors.)

(Is repetition a hallmark of "literary modernism?"  Linked to the interest of its practitioners in primitive chants and ancient ritual?  Eliot certainly uses lots of repetition in his poetry.)

Almost halfway through our 450-page trek, and eight years into Will and Anna's marriage, Will goes to town and picks up a girl at a theatre; he gropes her in the dark corner of a park, but she won't let him go all the way.  Back home Anna immediately notices something is different about him, but she is not necessarily offended:
She liked him.  She liked this strange new man come home to her.  He was very welcome, indeed.  She was very glad to welcome a stranger.  She had been bored by the old husband.  
Will's infidelity triggers a revival, a revolution, of his and Anna's relationship, and they devote themselves to ferocious animalistic sex, sex bereft of love or tenderness, sex based on lust: "They abandoned the moral position, each was seeking gratification pure and simple...Their children became mere offspring to them, they lived in the darkness and death of their own sensual activities."  It is hard to tell to what extent Lawrence is endorsing this kind of attitude towards sex, and to what extent he is condemning it.

Some publishers try to sell The Rainbow as a sex
novel--this is my favorite of the sexy
covers I have seen
I enjoy this kind of extravagant writing, when some guy is so hot for a chick he swoops down on her like a predatory bird and wants to devour her like a cat, and when he is so angry at her that he wants to take her in his hands and break her. The problem I began having with The Rainbow, however, was that Lawrence was doing this stuff again and again—there was no relief, no variety, it got repetitive, monotonous.  It is hard to burn at a fever pitch for page after page without it getting stale, especially when the topic does not vary for over 100 pages.  I thought of Proust, who also writes at length about love and sex and how they make people feel and act goofy, but he also writes about art, literature, social class, and politics, and includes many memorable images and even pretty funny jokes. (And Proust writes about more varieties of love and sex than Lawrence does here.)  Fortunately, in the second half of The Rainbow, Lawrence expands his scope and his range of topics a bit, and tries to include arresting images, particularly featuring the moon and flowers.  (I love to look at the moon, but, unfortunately, and despite the best efforts of my father, who cultivates a huge garden, my wife, who loves to decorate our home with cut flowers, and Bryan Ferry, flowers leave me cold and I have no idea what a rhododendron looks like without googling it.)  More interesting, to me at least, are the characters' responses to political, economic and social issues.

Anna and Will's plunge into ecstatic and indulgent sex feels like the climax of the first half of The Rainbow.  It is followed by a sequence in which Tom Brangwen, Anna's (non-biological) father and Will's uncle, is killed in a flash flood at the Marsh farm, drowned while drunk.  Fred, Anna's half-brother, son of Tom and Lydia, succeeds to the farm.

Will and Anna's daughter Ursula is the main protagonist of the remaining 225 or so pages of the novel.  Following the book's themes, Ursula is selfish and self-absorbed:
She was a free, unabateable animal, she declared in her revolts: there was no law for her, nor any rule.  She existed for herself alone. 
and wants to improve her status and go out and explore the world:
So even as a girl of twelve she was glad to burst the narrow boundary of Cossethay, where only limited people lived.  Outside, was all vastness, and a throng of real, proud people whom she would love. 
She often indulges in fantasies of being a rich aristocratic lady, helping others and otherwise flaunting her superiority over them.  Lawrence includes lengthy descriptions of teenaged Ursula's grappling with religious questions.  She, of course, wants to do the right thing, but she is unwilling in her squabbles with siblings and schoolmates to turn the other cheek and forswear self-defense and revenge, and though she is troubled by the parable of the camel and the eye of the needle, she is very reluctant to give up her superior status as the member of a relatively prosperous family or sell her fine things (among them a pearl-backed brush and mirror, silver candle stick, and a "lovely little necklace") and hand the proceeds over to the poor--in fact, the poor disgust her.
"Very well," she thought, "we'll forgo that heaven, that's all--at any rate the needle's eye sort."  And she dismissed the problem.
(Lawrence fills The Rainbow with quotes from the Bible and Biblical references--Anne Fernihough furnishes this edition with fourteen pages of very good notes that help uneducated people like myself spot the less obvious ones.)

Ursula is a rebel who questions all she hears.  Her first romance is with Anton Skrebensky, son of that Polish Baron turned vicar; Anton is an engineer in the British Army.
"But what would you be doing if you went to war?"
"I would be making railways or bridges, working like a nigger."
When he talks of why he is willing to fight for the nation and its people, the importance of maintaining order, and so on, Ursula insists that it is all nonsense, that she doesn't care about the Mahdi or Khartoum ("I don't want to live in the desert of Sahara--do you?") and attacks the very idea of a nation:
"But we aren't the nation.  There are heaps of other people who are the nation."
"They might say they weren't, either."
"Well, if everybody said it, there wouldn't be a nation.  But I should still be myself," she asserted, brilliantly.
Anton is sent off to fight the Boers.  Ursula's second lover is a woman, Winifred Inger, one of her school teachers the last year she attends classes and a sort of feminist activist.  As with so many relationships in The Rainbow, this one veers from ecstatic adoration to absolute detestation.  Sick of her, Ursula sets up Winifred with her uncle Tom (Will's brother, son of drowned Tom) who, after travelling around the world a bit, has taken up the job of managing a coal mine.  Ursula is disgusted by the colliery and the ugly town that has sprung up around the pit and the way the miners ("colliers") are forced to adapt to the industry--she thinks they would be better off living in poverty than toiling to produce the energy that powers the modern economy.  Tom's role in the coal mining industry, and Winifred's interest in Tom (the two do end up married) makes them abhorrent to Ursula.

This cover, from a website offering
e-books, is the funniest I've seen
As I have suggested, Lawrence lays everything on pretty thick in this book, and he doesn't skimp when expressing how horrible--in Ursula's opinion, at least--the whole business of mining is, though he doesn't portray the colliers as slaves or innocent victims: they are volunteers who like the high wages they receive at the colliery.  Lawrence paints everything in The Rainbow in bold (garish?) colors but at the same time he presents everything as ambiguous and equivocal.

Ursula is sickened by the idea of staying at home with her mother and all her many siblings--she wants to enter the world of work, the world of men (Chapter XIII is actually titled "The Man's World"), she wants freedom and independence, and so she takes a job as a teacher (her "matric" qualifies her for such work.)  She has dreams of moving far away to teach among the beautiful people, but she ends up taking a teaching job nearby in a poor district, a job her father gets for her (so much for independence!)  The kids are rebellious, and to keep her job Ursula must abandon her fantasies of being the kind sensitive teacher every student loves and become a ruthless taskmaster who beats down recalcitrant boys with a cane--like the colliers she must adapt, alter her personality, become a servant of the machine, to the school which feels like a prison and a system she finds "inhuman."
She did not want to do it.  Yet she had to.  Oh why, why had she leagued herself to this evil system where she must brutalize herself to live?  Why had she become a school-teacher, why, why?
Ursula works as a schoolteacher for two years before attending college.  This is probably the most interesting part of the book, as Lawrence gets into what it is like to be a schoolteacher at the turn of the 20th century and actually shows us a character developing in a logical way and not just changing his or her attitude on a dime, as Ursula has to learn to adapt to the challenge of teaching a bunch of kids who do not want to be taught and of appeasing her superiors, who are not exactly eager to help her learn the ropes.  The minor characters in this portion of the novel are also interesting, the monstrous kids and the monstrous teachers who have to tame them if they want to be able to do their work.  This chapter of The Rainbow offers the pleasures of a conventional plot--I found the scene in which Ursula defeated the most villainous of the students and asserted her control of the class and won the support of her colleagues to be cathartic and satisfying, and some of the students' antics amusing.  I only wish we had gotten similar chapters on Will at the lace factory and Tom Senior managing the Marsh farm.

One of the recurring motifs of The Rainbow is people beginning new lives and entering new worlds, when they get a new job or meet a new lover or something like that.  In the last one hundred pages of the book Will, Anna, and their legion of children, the summer before Ursula begins college classes, enter into a new life, moving to from the village of Cossethay to Beldover, a newly risen town of newly constructed houses, one of those coal towns Ursula detests, where Will takes up the job of art teacher.  Ursula lives in this new house while attending college.  At first she is thrilled by the college, seeing it as a temple of learning and the professors as priests of knowledge, but she is soon disillusioned--the teachers don't teach out of love of learning, but merely in order to receive a paycheck, and the students aren't there to drink in the ambrosia of knowledge, but to increase their value on the labor market!
This was no religious retreat, no seclusion of pure learning.  It was a little apprentice-shop where one was further equipped for making money.   
Ursula, who in high school loved the Romans (on page 310 she "with her blood...heard a passage of Latin, and she knew how the blood beat in a Roman's body, so that ever after she felt she knew the Romans...") finds she doesn't even like Horace!  She compares Greek and Roman literature to the Chinese and Japanese "curiosities" for sale in antique shops, worthless gewgaws (page 403: "She was bored by the Latin curiosities....")

Anton Skrebensky, now a lieutenant, returns from South Africa late in Ursula's college career after serving down there for years; he has six months leave before heading to India.  Sick of school, Ursula "wanted to run to Skrebensky--the new life, the reality."  His time in Africa has turned Anton into a man, and Lawrence gives us some more animal metaphors: Anton is a leopard, then a lion, then a tiger.  As they sit in the night by the river, Anton tells Ursula all about life in Africa:
"I am not afraid of the darkness in England....It is soft, and natural to me, it is my medium, especially when you are here.  But in Africa it seems massive and fluid with terror--not fear of anything--just fear.  One breathes it, like a smell of blood.  The blacks know it.  They worship it, really, the darkness.  One almost likes it--the fear--something sensual." 
Distracted by Anton, whose body thrills her, Ursula skips class, fails her exams, is denied her B.A.  She and Anton get engaged, but after a tirade against England ("meagre and paltry...unspiritual") and democracy ("I hate democracy....Only the greedy and ugly people come to the top in a democracy....who are those chosen as best to rule?  Those who have money and the brains for money") Ursula tells Anton she doesn't want to get married.  (We later learn that she wants to experience other men--she loves and desires Anton, but he is the only man she's ever had sex with, and she is sure she could love and enjoy the bodies of other, different, men.)  Anton bursts into tears, and she relents, but over the next weeks he also realizes they are not made for each other and he marries a more stable woman and brings her with him to the East.

The brief final chapter includes symbolic visions, one in which Ursula sees herself as a seedling growing from an acorn, a new living thing with no connection to the Brangwen family or Anton or anything from her past life, and another in which she sees a rainbow appear over the world and sweep away the new coal towns and usher in new lives for everybody.  There is also a tedious dream-like scene in which Ursula is trapped in a wood by horses and has to climb a tree to escape the equines.  She is carrying Anton's child, but falling from the tree induces a miscarriage.  I think.  This is the lamest chapter of the book, and compares badly with the visionary scenes in Thomas Mann's Death in Venice and The Magic Mountain.

Of course, many publishers have
taken the safe and literal route
So, did I enjoy The Rainbow?  Can I recommend it to people?  Individual chapters and individual passages are definitely good, and as a failed PhD candidate in history the occasional insights into the lives and attitudes of the people of Victorian and Edwardian England held my rapt attention.  It is noteworthy how much time and energy Lawrence devotes to women, to getting into their heads (for example, describing Anna's fulfillment as a mother as well as her evolving sexual feelings for her husband) and to exploring the problems and burdens faced by women in their relationships with men (Winifred moans that men are really mostly concerned with their work, be it in the shop, the pits or the office, and that their wives only get from their husbands what little is left over, "the bit the shop can't digest.")

However, after the first hundred pages or so, the novel's repetitiveness, the way Lawrence banged away at the same words over the course of a paragraph, the same ideas over the course of a chapter, and the same themes over the course of 450 pages, made reading much of The Rainbow more like a job than a joy, and I had trouble achieving my goal of reading fifty pages a day.  The characters are not very sympathetic, and because they are all prone to radical attitude adjustments they lack definition and individuality--the book left me feeling adrift, with nothing solid to hold on to.  I don't regret acquiring some familiarity with a famous and important author, but I'm glad this exploration is behind me and doubt I will read another novel by Lawrence any time soon.

In our next episode, another British novel from the same period. 


  1. My experience reading THE RAINBOW parallels yours. I'm more of an Anthony Trollope fan. If you haven't read BARCHESTER TOWERS, you're in for a treat when you do!

    1. My wife is into Trollope; I'll keep him in mind.