The Rainbow is D.H. Lawrence’s 1915 novel about three generations of the Nottinghamshire Brangwen family, covering a period from around 1840, to the early 1900s.
It was banned in Britain soon after publication, and would not be available for eleven years. D.H. Lawrence remained a controversial figure right up until 1960, when Penguin faced a public prosecution under the Obscene Publications Act following the release of their unexpurgated edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
Maybe the 1960s is a good place to start this review, since Lawrence was very in vogue then, what with his reputation for the free expression of love, commitment to personal development, and a sense of the mystical value of nature. It was all very modern. So, how does Lawrence, the rebellious early twentieth century hippy, portray in The Rainbow that period of time when the modern world came into being?
The first part of The Rainbow is focused on the traditional ways that people indulged their mystical leanings, which after all were not invented in the 1960s. Will Brangwen, for example, has a vague, highly emotional, religious enthusiasm, centred on church architecture and religious paintings. Meanwhile, Anna, his wife, pokes fun and points out logical pitfalls. The “lamb of God” comes in for a lot of snark. We don’t really get the feeling that traditional Christianity is the way to go for the forward-looking seeker of enlightenment.
Later in the book, we see people trying something more up-to-date. Compared to a traditional rural society centred on the local church, modern society based on vibrant cities and the wonders of science, might offer new hope for people to develop themselves and lead fuller, more meaningful lives. Young Ursula Brangwen certainly hopes so. She leaves the village where she grew up, heads to the town of Ilkeston, and then to university in Nottingham, with dreams of following her own independent path as a teacher. However, teaching at a tough school soon brings Ursula’s high hopes crashing down. The reality of her work is training children to accept the regimentation necessary to work in factories and offices. It’s a brutal business for all concerned.
So finally we follow Ursula through the most famous section of The Rainbow, where she tries to find something bigger than herself in the glories of nature. There is much lyrical writing about moonlight and rainbows, all of which Ursula celebrates with a kind of wild euphoria. I think we can feel that as far as D.H. Lawrence is concerned, this is the most real “spirituality” available to people. But we also see that even this path has its drawbacks, leading to embarrassments – and unplanned pregnancies – once the heat of the moment has worn off.
The book in the end doesn’t really have a philosophy of free love or individual freedom, or anything else you can embrace as a “cause” in the 1960s sense of university sit-ins or demos. In fact, The Rainbow is more of an exploration of different approaches to finding something meaningful, where upsides are balanced against downsides. Nothing is really a final answer, and nothing is dismissed out of hand. Will does find a transcendence in his church architecture even though his lamb of God is a joke; Ursula’s school is horrible, but on her last day the other teachers buy her a present, and reveal themselves as human beings doing their best. Maybe if there was a clear answer, this might only serve to reduce the value of an endless search, which of course the rainbow comes to symbolise.
I enjoyed the book. There isn’t any plot in the traditional sense. It’s a family saga, where people grow up, have love affairs, endure black moods, interspersed with joyous interludes, get married, have children, who then go through the same process, each generation trying to find meaning in its own way. The writing style is often over-heated, but there is a surprising amount of humour – all those digs involving the lamb of God, for example. There is also a lot of thought to set against the emotion. And as I say, the final feeling is not of answers, but of continuing questions, which I suppose is how a book written in 1915 is still able to remain relevant many years later. The rainbow is a symbol today of acceptance of different points of view rather than prescription, and that’s how it works in the hands of D.H. Lawrence.