When I was on holiday in the UK this summer, me and my family paid a visit to the birth house of D.H. Lawrence at my request. I had read Lady Chatterley’s Lover once a number of years ago and couldn’t remember that much about it other than that I thought it was a bit weird and that I didn’t really like, but on a two-week trip deprived of any other literary value, I figured I’d take what I could get. The tiny museum and its enthusiastic guide rekindled my interest and inspired me to give Lawrence another try. After all, I’d come around to Virginia Woolf in a big way, so maybe Lawrence could win me over as well now that I had some more reading under my belt. I wasn’t without my reservations though; one word that I have often come across in connection to Lawrence was “misogyny.” Still, my aunt recommended The Rainbow to me and in the spirit of “well, when in Nottinghamshire,” I started reading it right away.
The Rainbow covers three generations of the Brangwen family, following their journey from a rural existence to urban life. The first two Brangwen marriages take up the first half of the book, which is very much about how at the time two people would get married who barely knew each other and would then have to live in close quarters with someone who is practically a complete stranger. There are a lot of miscommunications, violent clashes of ideologies and priorities, and, of course, plenty of sex (The Rainbow was banned for eleven years after it first came out for its frank discussions of sex, a recurring theme in Lawrence’s writing career).
Even though this part was quite interesting and had some beautiful writing, it’s the second half where the book really shines. This is where we meet Ursula Brangwen, a young woman who decides that there must be more than this provincial life (sing along if you know the words!) and that she wants so much more than this little town and these little people. Her struggle for independence and an individual Self is so very relatable and personally I saw a lot of myself in Ursula’s idealism and subsequent disillusionment. University is not the sanctuary of knowledge she thought it would be, when she becomes a schoolteacher she does not have that Dead Poets Society moment she’d expected, and her lover turns out to be a small-minded man underneath the surface. Ursula fails in many of her endeavours, but then she sees a rainbow, a sign that she (and all of post-industrialisation humankind) will be alright in the end.
Even though I do have some issues with The Rainbow (drink whenever you see the word “fecundity” or “kernel”!), this book was a very pleasant surprise. I loved the explorations of how two people can hold completely different opinions on something and fail to understand each other (Will and Anna’s disagreements on the nature, religion, and the church were particularly interesting), I thoroughly enjoyed Ursula as a character, and even though I had kept an eye out for any misogynist undertones throughout the book, I actually found The Rainbow to be very progressive in terms of gender. Yes, the Brangwen men express some problematic opinions about power in this book, but Lawrence shows them to be horribly misguided and that they are digging their own graves by clinging on to these ideas of male dominance. Perhaps some misogyny has crept in later on in Lawrence’s career, but I couldn’t find it here (though there are some “oh no I wish you hadn’t said that” remarks about the lesbian schoolteacher Ursula has a brief relationship with, but that’s another story). If anything, in Lawrence’s description of the struggle of both men and women trying to break free from harmful conventions and traditional male-female relations, only the women succeed.
The Rainbow is all about change and how even though some things have definitely gotten better, this progress comes at a price. Lawrence’s style was an acquired taste for me and it is definitely not for everyone, but I do believe that The Rainbow deserves more attention than it’s currently getting, if only for Ursula Brangwen. And luckily for me there is more of her, because her story continues in Women In Love!