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Rereading: The Rainbow by DH Lawrence
As The Rainbow and Women in Love are adapted for TV, Rachel Cusk reflects on how these daring novels subverted Victorian gender stereotypes and how Lawrence has been badly served by his libidinous image

The Rainbow came into the world more or less without literary antecedents. Nothing like it had been written before: Lawrence's novel defined new territories that enabled the representation of human experience to move forward into the modern age. The same, of course, can be said of James Joyce's Ulysses, with which The Rainbow was contemporaneous and with which it shared the fate of being disowned and vilified by the literary establishment and the general public alike. Both were banned immediately on publication; in both cases the charge was obscenity, though Joyce's erudition and Lawrence's passion could hardly be more distinct from one another. Though both are books of truth, what yokes them together is in fact mere frankness: frankness about the life of the body in its most pedestrian, its most recognisable, its most universal form.

Lawrence is still seen by many as controversial – and controversial he was, but the highly sexed pornographer of public imagination bears no relation at all to the man whose modes of thought and self-expression still retain the power to provoke violent disagreement. The damage done to his reputation almost a century ago has proved curiously permanent; justice has an uncanny way of eluding him – the famous overturning of the ban on Lady Chatterley's Lover at the Old Bailey in 1960 fixed his libidinous image still more firmly by associating it with the mores of that decade. Thus each successive generation of readers comes to Lawrence with preconceptions about his life and character that are the opposite of true. His was a cold, harsh, short life filled with rejection, poverty and sickness, in which every comfort of social, family and intellectual life was denied. That these conditions could produce such a work of generosity and empathy as The Rainbow is mysterious and miraculous; and indeed the mystery and the miracle of creation is what this novel sets out both to evoke and to immortalise at the core of ordinary life.

"One is not only a little individual, living a little individual life," Lawrence wrote in a letter at the time of the novel's composition. "One is in oneself the whole of mankind, and one's fate is the fate of the whole of mankind." The brevity and the vastness of this statement may be taken as an articulation of Lawrence's ambitions for his tale of a Nottinghamshire family's generational movement out of a timeless agrarian communality towards the individualism and alienation of life in an industrialised society. This was the movement of history itself; the journey of man out of the fields and into the cities, his emancipation from physical labour by machines, the new forms of mental life this emancipation made possible and the new – often problematic – possibilities for relating that it offered. The Rainbow is an account of how the Victorian era gave way to the modern age.

For the full article

The Guardian