A hundred years on from the release of The Rainbow, this captivating, curious book still regularly appears in best novel lists even if its status is more down to the author’s love affair with the natural world rather than any deep insight into humanity.
This may be a slightly controversial reading of David Herbert Lawrence but let’s explore some of his favourite words before we get onto the actual novel itself, which many people see as his great work.
Hate, scowl, detest, loathe, cruelty, despise, smash, destroy.
These words appear many times in the likes of Sons and Lovers, The Rainbow, The Virgin and the Gipsy and even his Selected Letters which even has ‘loathe’ in the first paragraph and ‘hateful’ in the second (that’s the literary world he’s talking about). At least he’s consistent, as everyone from the Italians (‘I loathe and detest them’) to the Spanish (‘dead-bodied people with rather ugly faces and a certain staleness) and, of course, his homeland (‘I hate England and it’s hopelessness’) get it in the neck. It’s fair to say no-one escapes Lawrence’s wrath but also that the rage itself becomes a fascinating, compelling sideshow to the narrative arc of his work. This is an angry young man (he died at the age of 44) and he’s not afraid to tell you about it.
And yet in The Rainbow there are passages of such beauty and clarity that provide a breather from the scolding and, in modern parlance, you can imagine him saying ‘haters gonna hate’ to the Twitter trolls who’d probably rough him up with some poison of their own.
Not that he’d be on Twitter, of course (although he might have enjoyed the ding-dong with some expletives of his own). But back to The Rainbow which tells the story of the Brangwen family over three generations as they struggle with relationships, marriage, work and children. Frankly this is all irrelevant as Lawrence himself said: ‘That which is psychic – non-human in humanity – is more interesting to me than the old-fashioned human element, which causes one to conceive character in a certain moral scheme and make him consistent.’
The point here about this novel is – and frankly all of his work – is that there’s an other-worldliness about it, a sensuality, a psychic quality, a blend of the nuclear of the natural, a peep into a deeper consciousness rather than the heads of the main characters. In short, a love for nature and the ball of magic that is the universe and a hate for work, civilisation, machines and war.
And what about sex? The Rainbow was banned after all because of its (for the time) suggestive imagery and later, as we know, Lady Chatterley’s Lover was the subject of an obscenity trial. Was he obsessed with it as critics said or did he genuinely feel it was the only ‘act’ that could bring the human flesh together into tasting the sensuality and other-worldliness that we’ve talked about.
I think it was the latter – and what most people thought might have been racy, shocking and unacceptable, Lawrence thought was a thing of beauty, a union of soul and nature, a genuine alignment of the stars and the flesh. If some of that sounds embarrassing, the author couldn’t care less. ‘Art for my sake’ he always said and he really meant it.
Ultimately, Lawrence’s work – and that includes The Rainbow – is drenched in a meta-physical longing for something elusive, something mysterious and something just out of reach. There is an overarching grace for the stars, the sun, the moon, the flowers and the natural world – but a lot less for the ugly things in life, and that includes humans.
It’s not the work itself that’s fascinating but the man himself. Is there any ‘art’ here for our sake? Yes, but the colours, as in The Rainbow, are hidden so deep that even a psychic with a crystal universe may not understand them.