Did I ever mention that I had to take a crash course in English A-level, do it in a year, because I was stupid enough (Even then. Still then.) to start my sixth form studying Physics.
The Rainbow was one of the set texts. It was the first Lawrence I read and I loved it; it was a launch into a deep sensuous pool. I haven’t read it since. But now 35 years later I am reading it much more slowly and loving it even more. There is a tendency to step delicately around Lawrence, to not draw attention to him too much, like the old sot of an uncle about whom salacious histories are whispered but never spoken of in polite company. But he is a fine, fine writer…full stop. He is exceptionally fine on the human, on the inner life of desires that makes us human. And he does this in such as way as to make us still part of the rhythm and pulse of nature. I think part of the reason for his being ‘disappeared’ a little from the cannon is that his people living these passionate, heart-felt, yearning lives were often ‘ordinary’ people, people we are told don’t have such sensitivities, which David Herbert clearly knew for nonsense. This novel is an extraordinarily immersive experience when you let it take you.
The story of three generations of the Brangwen family, growing as the industry of the area (Nottinghamshire/Derbyshire borders, near Ilkeston) grows through the Victorian era and into the beginnings of the Twentieth Century. Through Fred and Tom, and the Polish ex-patriot widow, Anna to Gudrun, living on the farm as urban living sprawls towards them, as the canal and the railway cut through and as they begin to see the pits and the industry and the filth (and the wealth) it generates. The pulsating centre of the book however is Ursula Brangwen: eldest child of Anna and William: headstrong, vain and utterly assured of the importance of her own life and her place in the world. Other people, including parents and siblings, are sources of annoyance and ultimately disappointment to her. The book was banned on publication, there are some graphic (for the time, 1915) sexual passages, a lot of sexual tension and preoccupation, although the likely main reason for the ban was the depiction of a brief but loving affair between 17 year old Ursula and her teacher Winifred:
“…there sprang up between the mistress and the girl that strange awareness, then the unspoken intimacy that sometimes connects two people…”
They spend weekends together, skinny-dip, discuss politics – the women’s movement – “took the dogmas out of religion” and for a while Ursula is in awe of the hard sporting body of her lover. But as Winifred moves away for the summer, to London, a bereft Ursula begins a quick and unflattering reappraisal, what had been sporty became lumpen, “a heavy clogged sense of deadness began to gather upon her…her female hips seemed big and earthy, her ankles and arms were too thick”. Ursula quickly manufactures an engagement between Winifred and Ursula’s uncle Tom, who the two women visit in the new mining town where he now lives, a place “where only the pit matters”, a place that “had the strange desolation of a ruin” or spreading about the place “like a skin disease.”
As always, Lawrence reveres nature over industry and worries that some essential part of humanity will be lost in the face of the unstoppable rise of industry – and it may be that this Covid-19 forced pause in the headlong rush to ‘development’ and wealth production is the first time since the heady days of the Industrial Revolution that the engine has been put in neutral and we can all take stock – he did not see humans as machine parts, their lot only to perform as a cog, but as individuals glorious and worthy of being cherished in their own right.
In her bid to break free from the strictures of home life and village life, Ursula dreams of starting out as a teacher, how she will take the small minds of children and show them the beauties of the world, how they will love her in return. She lands a position at a primary school in Ilkeston, where the kids are rough and education has to beaten into them, to paraphrase a fellow teacher. After several abject weeks of trying to assert enough authority to begin teaching, Ursula’s resolve is defeated and she gives one boy a savage thrashing. That no one stops her and that this wins her the respect and silent attention in class that she has craved, crushes her.
A young man of ‘noble descent’ re-enters her life. Anton Skrebensky, son of a Polish baron, had been a friend of the family a few years ago and he made a huge impression on Ursula, before going away to fight in South African Boer War. He was now an officer and “well-grown” into being a young man. Ursula and Anton embark on a passionate affair taking in travel across Europe, as Anton awaits his next posting, which he knows will be to India – at this point he prevails upon Ursula with his hope that he will be a good colonial master to the natives he will find there. They get engaged. Ursula begins to make accommodation in her thinking to being an army wife and ex-pat out in India, when on a final few days together at a large house on the Lincolnshire coast, hosted by some of Anton’s circle of friends, they have a final passionate disagreement and they break:
“‘Have you done with me?’ he asked her at length, lifting his head.
‘it isn’t me,’ she said. ‘You have done with me – we have done with each other.’
He looked at her, at the closed face, which he thought so cruel. And he knew he could never touch her again. His will was broken..
‘Well, what have I done?’, he asked, in a rather querulous voice.
‘I don’t know,’ she said, in the same, dull, feelingless voice, ‘It is finished. It has been a failure.'”
Ursula is left, repentant and lost, briefly believing herself to be pregnant with Anton’s child, she writes to him offering all apologies and that she would be a dutiful wife if only he would have her back. Anton replies “I am married.” He has already left, he married a Colonel’s daughter in haste and they headed out to India as man and wife.
The final short stunning chapter, has Ursula walking out on a common in heavy rain, that became a storm, but “there was something else. Some horses were looming in the rain, not near yet. But they were going to be near…She knew the heaviness on her heart. It was the weight of the horses…she would bear their weight…Suddenly the weight deepened and her heart grew tense…they were near” …and this passage goes on as the beasts mill around and the storm grows heavier, “She knew they had not gone…she was aware of their red nostrils flaming with long endurance, of their haunches, so rounded, so massive, pressing, pressing, pressing…pressing forever until they went mad, running against walls of time and never breaking free…the wetness of the rain could never put out that hard, urgent, massive fire that was locked within these flanks…” Until, “The thunder of the horses galloping down the path behind her, shook her, the weight came down upon her, down to the moment of extinction.”
At the last breathless moment, the horses swerve to avoid Ursula, the storm breaks and she rises to see the biblical Rainbow cast across the land of the old family farm and she takes hope from that.
The book is stunning, sensual, urgent, rooted while pushing into modernity.