‘The Rainbow’ is an extraordinarily dense, complex novel. It follows three generations of the Brangwen family in rural Nottinghamshire, and contains some remarkable writing. Originally published in 1915 it is incredibly modernist in tone. But it also has, for me, some serious stylistic weaknesses. Of course this will be heresy for any Lawrence adherents, and I recognise it is a matter of personal taste.
The novel spans a period from the mid-nineteenth century to just after the Boer War at the end of the century. It portrays the relationships of the family set against the background of the industrial revolution. Tom Brangwen, one of several brothers, falls in love with a Polish widow, Lydia. The conflict in Poland from which Lydia is a refugee is mentioned only in passing, and with the later reference to the Boer war is one of the few real world events that intrudes into the lives of the characters. Lydia’s daughter by her first husband, Anna, forms the focus of the second third of the novel. She marries Will Brangwen, a cousin by marriage, and goes on to have a very large family. The last section of the novel follows Will and Anna’s daughter, Ursula, and her relationships with a female teacher (in what today would be an illegal relationship, because Ursula was still a pupil at the time), and then a Polish soldier.
The novel is infused with Christian sentiment and symbolism, and this is expressed most clearly in the novel’s closing lines, from which it also draws its title:
“She saw in the rainbow the earth’s new architecture, the old, brittle corruption of houses and factories swept away, the world built up in a living fabric of Truth, fitting to the over-arching heaven.”
This is a version of Blake’s new Jerusalem, in England’s increasingly dark and unpleasant land, scarred by the impacts of industrialisation.
The portrayal of sex is probably the aspect of his writing for which Lawrence is most well-known. Here he attempts to address the challenge of how to write about sex without using explicit language. Euphemisms are deployed extensively – I particularly liked the phrase “underneath yearnings” (106) and “they loved each other to transport again, passionately and fully” (112). Imagery, particularly of flowers, animals and different forms of heat, flames, and burning is also used throughout the novel to portray sex and sexuality.
“Suddenly, with an incredibly quick, delicate movement, he put his arms around her and drew her to him. It was quick, cleanly done, like a bird that swoops and sinks closer, closer. He was kissing her throat. She turned and looked at him. Her eyes were dark and flowing with fire. His eyes were hard and bright with a fierce purpose and gladness, like a hawk’s. She felt him flying into the dark spaces of her flames, like a brand, like a gleaming hawk”. (Notice the change of tense there by the way – from “he put” to “he was”.)
“Feeling herself lying open, like a flower unsheathed in the sun, insistent and potent with demand…The warmth flowed through her, she felt herself opening, unfolding, asking, as a flower opens in full request under the sun.…When she opened and turned to him…she was as new as a flower that unsheathes itself and stands always ready, waiting, receptive.” (34)
Later, when Ursula is considering having sex with Skrebensky, Lawrence’s use of the flower as a metaphor for female sexuality becomes more explicit –
“Here she would open her female flower like a flame, in this dimness that was more passionate than light”.
Male sexuality is more directly treated, although again symbolism often takes the place of direct description:
“She went down with him into the warmish cellar, where already in the darkness the little yellow knobs of rhubarb were coming. He held the lantern down to the dark earth. She saw the tiny knob-end of the rhubarb thrusting upwards upon the thick red stem, thrusting itself like a knob of flame through the soft soil.”
Lawrence’s attempts to write about female sexuality are certainly bold. His portrayal of a lesbian relationship in particular would undoubtedly have been shocking to a contemporary audience. Despite his efforts (to write about sex without using explicit language) ‘The Rainbow’ was on publication judged obscene, and banned. It is still to this day shocking that copies of the novel were burned by the authorities in 1915 in scenes that pre-figured the Nazi book burnings of the 1930’s. It is likely that the anti-war sentiments expressed in the novel by Ursula were a contributory factor in the decision to ban the book – airing anti-war arguments in 1915 was a brave move by any standards.
Flowers and flower imagery dominate throughout the novel – daffodils, primroses, snowdrops, bluebells, harebells, jasmine, yellow crocuses, peaflowers, geraniums, Christmas roses, and on and on in profusion. When he gets it right there is a luxuriance to Lawrence’s writing that is almost intoxicating:
“The dim blue-and-gold of a hot, sweet autumn saw the close of the corn harvest. To Ursula it was as if the world had opened its softest pure flower, its chicory flower, its meadow saffron. The sky was blue, and sweet, the yellow leaves down the lane seemed like free, wandering flowers as they chittered round the feet, making a keen, poignant, almost unbearable music to her heart. And the scents of autumn were like a summer madness to her. She fled away from the little, purple-red button chrysanthemums like a frightened dryad, the bright yellow little chrysanthemums smelled so strong, her feet seemed to dither in a drunken dance.” (208)
So what are the negatives? Firstly, there is Lawrence’s propensity for hyperbole. For my taste, ‘The Rainbow’ is massively over-written. Characters hate one another with a passionate intensity, then moments later love one another with an eternal unfulfilled longing. Everything is expressed in sudden absolutes that change just as easily.
“A shiver, a sickness of new birth passed over her, the flame leaped up him, under his skin. She wanted it, this new life from him, with him, yet she must defend herself against it, for it was a destruction” (23)
After a while this gets tiring and tedious. Or as Lawrence would say, his heart achingly rejected it with a passionate urgency that seemed to overwhelm his soul – he hated it and loved it and hated it. And so on.
Secondly, not since the ‘Deathly Hallows’ have I read a book more desperately in need of a good editor. Lawrence uses repetition relentlessly, like a sledge hammer. Nothing is said well enough that it cannot benefit from a second or third repetition. Examples are spread across every page, but for instance see this from pages 180/181:
“In spite of herself the tears surged higher, in spite of her they surged higher. In spite of her, her face broke. …she did not forget, she did not forget, she never forgot”.
As I have written elsewhere, each instance of repetition can in isolation be justified – here the character is repeating these phrases to herself to try to persuade herself not to cry, and once having cried, to remember the wrong done to her. But the cumulative impact of this repetition is oppressive.
Lawrence is an important writer, and his inclusion on the Guardian’s 100 best novels list is certainly justified. But I wish he had had a good editor.