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Review by Jantien Abma
The Rainbow follows the life of small farm-owner Tom Brangwen as he grapples with the frustrations of love, intellect and English tradition in the mid- 1800’s. At the start of the book, Brangwen, dissatisfied with the unchanging familiarity of his life, has his small world changed forever by a brief encounter with a foreign man. The man’s alien sophistication fills him with wonder and opens his mind to the world of possibility that lies beyond Nottinghamshire. Whether his dreams of experiencing the world’s complexities are truly realised, is left for the reader to decide.
Put simply, the book is divided into three stories. The first details Brangwen’s feelings of cultural disillusionment in the bounds of English country life and the tortured process of falling in love with his widowed Polish wife Lydia. This gives us our first taste of the meticulously outlined inner struggles of Lawrence’s characters that come to define all love relationships in the book. The second follows his wife’s child Anna into adulthood and a similarly troubled union with Brangwen’s nephew Will, reflecting subtle evolution in gender roles as the years flash by. The final, most extensive part of the book sees his second child Ursula in an increasingly modern setting as she embarks on an altogether different exploration of love and fulfillment.
During the year it was published in 1915, The Rainbow and its explicit descriptions of feelings of romantic passion were called to stand trial for allegations of obscenity. From a modern perspective the book is decidedly polite, with brief allusions to acts of intercourse along the lines of: ‘ …and then he took her and they were in love again.’ The thing really worth mentioning in this fervently written tome is the palpable fascination Lawrence possesses for human relationships. The flaws of each character are so masterfully developed that the countless lovers’ spats in the book never become repetitive, but rather build upon each other until the reader feels ready to burst with a resounding urge to yell ‘Just tell her how you feel!’
Thankfully, in each of the book’s stories there reliably comes a point where the two warring factions come to be at peace, often through very unexpected means. The profundity of each main character’s journey towards fulfillment increases as we move from generation to generation until we reach the culmination of Ursula’s plight framed by a rainbow, which to her sheds a timeless light on the state of humanity.
The Rainbow is a brilliant read for people interested in human behaviour but also for anyone who enjoys beautifully written prose and a deliberate, unrushed walk through a very different time.