The Rainbow details three successive generations of one English family, the Brangwens: Patriarch Tom, who marries a Polish woman, their daughter Anna who marries her brooding cousin, Tom, and Anna and Tom's daughter Ursula. At first the story of the Brangwens adheres so closely to Lawrence's favorite images and themes that The Rainbow hardly seems like a necessary book. Tom's formative years in a bleak English coal town might as well be Paul Morel's; Anna's sexual awakenings might be taken wholesale from Lady Chatterley's Lover. Even Lawrence's prose, which I really admire, started to feel worn to me--I started to become hyperaware of his favorite trick, which is to repeat a simple word in different grammatical constructions in a single passage. (Check out the word "colour" in the description of the rainbow above.)
But by the time that Lawrence gets around to Ursula, the last in the line, the novel manages to individuate itself. Part of Lawrence's purpose here is to examine human relationships across a span of historical time; Ursula, as the "modern" iteration and free from the traditional expectations of her grandparents, offers a more varied and engaging story. I especially liked the part in which Ursula, insisting on finding work for herself, becomes a schoolteacher. As a teacher myself, I've never read such a spot-on description of what it's like to teach at a dysfunctional school. Like Ursula, I've been squeezed on both sides by the expectations of administrators and students, and I can relate to the way it turns her into a person she cannot recognize:
But she had paid a price out of her own soul, to do this. It seemed as if a great flame had gone through her and burnt her sensitive tissue. She who shrank from the thought of physical suffering in any form, had been forced to fight and beat with a cane and rouse all her instincts to hurt. And afterwards she had been forced to endure the sound of their blubbering and desolation, when she had broken them to order.
Oh, and sometimes she felt as if she would go mad. What did it matter, what did it matter if their books were dirty, and they did not obey? She would rather, in reality, that they disobeyed the whole rules of the school, than that they should be beaten, broken, reduced to this crying, hopeless state. She would bear all their insults and insolences a thousand times than reduce herself and them to this. Bitterly she repented having got beside herself, and having tackled the boy she had beaten.
I enjoyed Ursula's story because there was space for something other than the spiritual-sexual problems that plague the two earlier generations, although Ursula has plenty of that too. (Including a lesbian love affair, which seems pretty bold for 1915.) I found myself wishing that the first two parts of the book were lopped off, though Lawrence clearly wants us to see that Ursula is deeply connected to those that came before her:
Here was peace and security. Here, from her grandmother's peaceful room, the door opened on to the greater space, the past, which was so big, that all it contained seemed tiny; loves and births and deaths, tiny units and features within a vast horizon. That was a great relief, to know the tiny importance of the individual, within the great past.