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Women in love in The Rainbow. The Experience of love, Sex and Marriage of Lydia and Anna Brangwen

Jacqueline Gouirand

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1After successive drafts bearing the marks of his reworking of the short stories, of his reading of Thomas Hardy and of his new life with Frieda, Lawrence pursued his speleology of the human psyche, using what he called “the exhaustive method” (L ll 143) through the various stages of his composition of the novel in “The Sisters,” then in “The Wedding Ring.” His relation with Frieda was at the core of his enterprise: “to depict Frieda’s God Almightiness in all its glory. That was the first crude fermenting of the book” (L l 550). It was only towards the end of November 1914 that he started writing his novel, again entitled The Rainbow, on Frieda’s suggestion. He decided to give Ursula, the chosen heroine of his initial project, a past that would extend back through a larger social history. The three generation story was thus taken up, forming an exploration of human experience between 1840 and 1905, over a period covering Queen Victoria’s reign. In spite of all the changes and false starts, Lawrence remained faithful to the desire he had expressed in a letter to Garnett in the spring of 1913: “I can only write what I feel pretty strongly about: and that at present is the relation between men and women. After all, it is the problem of today the establishment of a new relation or the re-adjustment of the old one between men and women.”

  • 1 “Her deepest desire hung on the battle that she heard, far off, being waged on the edge of the unkn (...)
  • 2 “The womb is full of darkness and also flooded with the strange white light of eternity,”,“The Crow (...)

2However, he had long groped his way through the depths, before the novel became “the real thing.” The emergence of his faith in marriage, a profound dynamic in the episodes presenting the first generations of Brangwens, reveals his deep conviction that marriage is the best way to get in touch with the unknown. In The Rainbow, man and woman attempt to step across the doorway to the unknown, in order to penetrate to the light where the permanent conflict between polarities should be abolished, where Law and Love, according to Lawrence’s definition in his Study of Thomas Hardy could be reconciled. From the very opening of the novel, women are endowed with the power to apprehend the unknown and establish a link with it1. This is because they are presented as being closer to the unknown, to eternity, than men are2, and because they can act as intercessors to help establish a link with the unknown, as this process is a difficult one for men to accomplish.

  • 3 Michael Bell, DH Lawrence: ‘Language and Being, Cambridge University Press, 1992, 72

3By opening a breach in the thick darkness of their psyche, women thus liberate men into the whole, thanks to their intercession. After having been “emotionally exposed to the impersonal and the infinite,” they are given birth, a second time, “born at last unto themselves3.” The exploration of the love of Lydia, Anna and Ursula Brangwen paves the way for a “metaphysic,” the contours of which were sketched out in 1914, a “metaphysic” whose object is the relation between man and woman, the key object of his work. In this new approach, sexuality carves out a significant place and eroticism (as Lawrence conceives it and represents it, for the first time in his fiction) dares say its name. The powerful symbols present in Study of Thomas Hardy, together with biblical rhythms and images reveal the extent to which this “passionately religious man” strives to establish the artistic vision expressing his metaphysic, a vision crucial for him. “I believe there is no getting of a vision as you call it, before we get one sex right, before we get our souls fertilized by the female.” (L11 218)

4Lydia, Anna and Ursula do not approach the love experience in the same way: the differences in the conditions of life, the sources of tension that will increase from one generation to the next, are the elements brought into play. Yet despite the differences, there are similarities in the existential temporality, made up of the successive moments of meeting, embrace, then the life of the couple, which determine the enactment of the lives and the love relations for the three generations of women. Moreover, it is the feminine principle, which presides over the The Rainbow that gives the sexual relation its singularity.

5At a time when philosophers and writers were noting a crisis of identity and raising the questions of the individual’s sexual identity and the sexual polarity of the masculine and the feminine, some reacted violently against the feminine element which appeared to be gaining ground as the masculine element declined. The modern world could thus seem one which the male power, his creative power had deserted: a world dominated by women. Some went as far as endorsing the feminine principle with a messianic dimension.

  • 4 George Groddeck, quoted in Jacques Le Rider, Modernité Viennoise et Crises de l’identité, P.U.F. 19 (...)

The future belongs to woman. Man’s brain is dusty. Only woman is barbaric enough to transform worm-eaten culture. Let us make her conscious of herself. The future of mankind lies in her bosom.4

  • 5 Letters ll, June 5th 1914.

6In The Rainbow, Lawrence grants woman the possibility to become conscious of herself, not only to be “recognized” but also to reveal to man a new reality, a reality that was a promise to Tom when he met Lydia. “He was nothing. But with her he would be real” (40). Lawrence is interested in woman, concerned with her ability to achieve completeness of being: “I don’t so much care about what the woman feels – in the ordinary usage of the word. That presumes an ego to feel with. I only care what the woman is.”5

7The questioning of the classic subject, of the “I,” is at the core of The Rainbow. And if this novel can be read as the history of what happens to a self that is constantly in motion, fuelled by instinct and emotion, subject and vulnerable to the organic complexity of life, to the possible changes in the environment and to its social tensions, its “potential sequel,” Women in Love, is the registration of the very dislocation of that self, reflecting the dislocation of wider social reality. Lawrence’s exploration of ‘the dark mental processes” that are revealed through his character’s epiphanic moments, brings into light a “non human” element conditioning both form and content. The various levels which interpenetrate each other explain the sudden intrusion into everyday life, into the familiar reality, of other realities, which originate in the desire and the emotions which make up the stream of consciousness, causing the ordinary or mundane concreteness of the actual abruptly to give way to the impalpable manifestation of the unconscious.

  • 6 Tony Pinkney, D.H. Lawrence and Modernity, University of Iowa Press, 1990, 70-71.

8The movement leading from one generation of Brangwens to another corresponds to the expansion of the self, as symbolized by the novel’s keywords “flux” and “wave,” as well as a chapter title such as “The Widening Circle.” The movement corresponds to a striving for answer by way of discovery, to be carried out preferentially by the women, through their disposition to look beyond the location immediately given them, to the world of cities and of education, “this higher form of being,” in short, to “the forces of modernity,”6 while the Brangwen men are working in the fields, “feeling” this pulse and body of the soil.”


9In The Rainbow, the re-establishment of the old relationship between man and woman is effected through the agency of Lydia. For Tom and Lydia, and for them alone in the novel, are sexuality and marriage inseparable. Lydia’s maturity is an important element in the success of her union with Tom, an achievement made possible through her self-command and through her wisdom that is here the condition of a possible conjugal harmony. Kinkead-Weekes describes her as being “A refugee from history.” A widow and mother of a four-year-old girl, she embarks on her relationship with Tom with an acute degree of seriousness, made greater by the fact that she is a foreigner, a condition she endures with difficulty.

10The meeting between this aristocratic Polish woman and Tom, the young farmer who “dreamt of foreign parts” and “wanted something to get hold of,” kick-starts the whole narrative into motion. The first time he saw her pass by, “The feeling that they had exchanged recognition possessed him like a madness, like a torment” (29). Soon he felt that “he had another centre of consciousness”. “He was unable to know anything except that this transfiguration burned between him and her, connecting them like a secret power” (38). He was certain she would agree to marry him, because “There was an inner reality, a logic of the soul which connected her with him” (40).

11But in the man/woman relationship, the participants can experience a dread which is an obstacle to their union. For all the characters in The Rainbow, to recognize the other as the other, thus overcoming the distance between self and other, is by no means an easy task. This is best illustrated in Tom Brangwen: “She was beautiful to him – but it was not human. He had a dread of her as she lay there. What had she to do with him? She was other than himself” (77). That dread of the other, an intrinsic component of the threat experienced by the characters, is predominant when the encounter takes place. An inner turmoil, sometimes close to agony, takes hold of Tom in several phases of his approach to Lydia, who is both strange and a stranger. Yet in spite of all their differences, she soon realizes that, “He was the man who had come nearest for her awakening” (54). The distance she perceives between them is a major obstacle, one she must overcome. Their shared virtue is to become conscious of what separates them – this is not the case for the next generation – and to tolerate distance, a disposition which explains the absence of conflict between them. For the transformation of the world that presides over the birth of a couple can only take place if it is accompanied by the transformation of man and woman, of the balance that is achieved when isolation is broken “ whilst she lay against him and he lifted her with his breathing, and felt her weight upon his living, so he had a completeness and an inviolable power” (46). Man and woman complete each other in the embrace, Lydia inspiring energy in Tom.

  • 7 Otto Gross (1877-1920), Das Eigene und das Fremde. Gross claimed that the individual’s fundamental (...)

12The desire to abandon oneself is sometimes accompanied by the fear to abandon oneself. However in order to experience this new birth which grants harmony and can lead man to receive salvation from the woman, he must accept a partial death7: “He had her in his arms and obliterated he was kissing her and it was sheer blenched agony to him, to break away from himself” (44).

13Lawrence precipitates Tom and Lydia’s love story. Generally love is the pursuit of a great evolutive movement, a slow ripening requiring time, a process implying a gradation, an orchestration of the successive moments leading to the fulfillment of desire. What is at stake, in the case of Tom and Lydia, is the frantic pursuit of true marriage, in which man and woman are to experience the fusion of the senses and the spirit and where the carnal act is transcended. This union is accomplished through a succession of rites, which are achieved thanks to Lydia’s intercession. In the accomplishment of the act, man assumes the passive role. It is not only Lydia who manifests a sexual energy which surprises men. The same is true of Anna and Ursula, as is evident in the novel’s evocation of Will’s submission to Anna: “She made love to him and took him. Then he was grateful for her love, humble” (194).

  • 8 Kingsley Widmer, “Desire and Denial, Dialectics of passion”, The DH Lawrence Review, vol. 18, 143.

14The temporality and the modality of desire is clearly mapped out in The Rainbow. For Lydia, her sexual desire coincides with the object of her desire, it gives access to “the eternal knowledge” or “eternal world.” Union with Tom Brangwen enables her to harness the sources of life located at the core of the unknown and to discover a new world flooded with light: “And he bent down and kissed her on the lips. And the dawn blazed in them”(45). Whereas Tom desires to be absorbed, so as to receive the consummation of himself, “be received within the darkness which should swallow him and yield him up to himself,” Lydia’s demand is quite different: “She waited for him to meet her, not to bow before her and serve her. She wanted his active participation, not his submission.” (90) Their coming together is thus sacralized, celebrated through a biblical language which reveals the mystical and religious dimension of their sexual experience: “They had passed through the doorway into the further space. She was the doorway to him, he to her (…) it was the transfiguration, the glorification, the admission” (90). Historically as well as biographically, Lawrence can be understood in his erotic scenes as adapting to his not immediately Christian ends the Protestant conversion experience. The religious metaphors, as with the erotic “baptism of fire” and the sexual “transubstantiation” and many other expressions, are in no sense incidental, here being of the essence.8

15Tom and Lydia manage to achieve the reconciliation of the physical and the spiritual world, to reach a balance, “an inviolable completeness.” This model of integration exemplified by this couple, will not be transmitted as a possible accomplishment to Will and Anna. The gradual passage from rural life to a different type of civilization has a damaging effect on the couple. Anna and Will’s horizon of erotic possibilities is changed, since their social environment is now that of the industrialized world with its inherent materialism, entailing what are profoundly modified living conditions. Yet this cannot totally account for the relative failure of their marriage, which is largely due to the individuals’ psychology.


16At the time of her encounter with Will, she is in her teens, the time of her “bildung,” in the sense defined by psychologists, meaning that she is confronted, too soon, with the “choice of object.” She is still in the stage of the narcissistic identification, since she experiences the greatest difficulties to recognize the other. Her desire to protect herself is intense. For Anna, the perpetual confrontation with the other makes the coincidence between her desire and the object of this desire a difficult or impossible one, a notable difference with her mother. All that is not herself frightens her, the only course open to her is to cling to the self which she is afraid to lose. “She was only afraid of all that was not herself. It pressed round her, it came to her and took part in her in the form of her man, this vast, resounding, alien world which was not herself.” (154)

17The rebellious child of the beginning becomes an amorous woman whose personality keeps asserting itself in the course of the episodes Lawrence devotes to her. The fear of the sexual encounter – which is obvious, if one thinks of her age (The terms “child,” “childish,” are often associated with her and Will as well) is accompanied with the difficulty involved in assuming the first experience of her life, with Will. As she is certain to find sympathy, protection and tenderness at the Marsh, she does not hesitate to give vent to her desire to escape. We observe a girl who stamps her feet with rage and who cries, and who after the slightest quarrel returns to Mum and Dad, the parents her behaviour had sometimes disturbed: “she was hostile to her parents, even whilst she lived entirely within them, within their spell. Many ways she tried to escape” (99). These contradictory tendencies will also be observed in Ursula.

18Though she is quickly attracted to Will, she is deeply disturbed by his voice: “She loved the running flame that coursed through her as she listened to him. And his mother and his father became to her, two separate people in her life” (107). She rapidly takes the initiative by declaring her love: “Suddenly she had her arms round him, was clinging close to him, cleaving her body against his, and crying, in a whispering whimpering sound: Will I love you, I love you, Will, I love you” (111).

19The courtship lasts some time and Anna wants to enjoy it. Will’s presence is a joy and joy wants eternity. As a woman in love, she realizes that “he was the kernel of life, to touch him alone was bliss” (121). This is a feeling confirmed and intensified when they lay close together in their room after the wedding : “ for their moment they were at the heart of eternity whilst time roared far off, forever far off, towards the rim” (135).

20Their coming together does not prevent the difficulties of their living together from emerging, even during their honeymoon. Anna’s indifference to middle-class social conventions first becomes apparent to him when in their honeymoon she resists his urge to be respectable and leave their bed during daytime (143). The shortcomings of his patriarchal self-image are thus thrown into relief, a situation which can be explained by Anna’s extraordinary independence, partly due to her aristocratic origins. Though Will more or less adopts Anna’s isolationist attitude towards life and society, his traditional understanding of his role is constantly challenged and fierce quarrels come to divide them.

21The first source of conflict is revealed when Will realizes that Anna easily leaves one universe (that of love) so as to admit the outside world again, whereas he had banished the everyday reality at “the birth of the new order” he had just discovered. “She would admit the outside world again, she would throw away the living fruit for the ostensible mind. He began to hate this in her” (141). Their relationship is thus the embodiment of the hostility between the feminine and masculine worlds. Associated with darkness in the symbolism of the novel, Will cannot apprehend reality through his mind and consequently alienates himself from the daily world presided over by the sun, the world in which Anna means to participate: “[…] she began to realize more and more that he did not alter, that he was something dark alien to herself […] she wanted to be happy, to be natural, like the sunlight and the busy daytime”; he comes between her and her universe, becoming “the insulator” (157).

22Anna rebels against man’s arrogance. This is illustrated in a sentence concerning Will’s creation of Adam and Eve: “it is impudence to say that Woman was made out of Man’s body […] when every man is born out of woman. What impudence men have, what arrogance!” (162). She refuses to let her husband guide her. How could she admit his authority when her father never assumed the right to master her. In the end Will fails to attain the desired mastery over his wife.

23On the spiritual plane, their harmony has come to a dead end, a situation illustrated by the chapter entitled “The Cathedral.” The church does not fulfill Anna’s wishes: “when her husband was roused by the thought of the churches, then she became hostile to the ostensible church” (146). When returning to the cathedral, she realizes that the altar is barren and the lights have gone out. She wrests herself free from the potential magnetic pull of the cathedral: “with satisfaction she relinquished the adventure to the unknown. She was bearing her children” (182). For “if her soul had found no utterance, her womb had” (192).

24The immense prestige conferred upon motherhood at this time is focused on Anna. Her poetic vision of motherhood, her sense of the future germinating inside her, her feeling that she is “like the earth,” “the mother of everything” (193), can be interpreted as a positive counter-part to her destructive insight concerning her spiritual adventure and that of her husband. In spite of the difficulties inherent in the coexistence of two hostile worlds – the masculine and the feminine – the link between them remains very strong: “what was between him and his wife was a great thing, if it was not everything”(192) “and she always had a physical passion for him” (193).

25It is in relation to their couple that Lawrence takes up the problem of sex as the factor of a certain liberation. Within what is a profoundly changed and new perspective, he deals with the “impersonal” aspect of marriage, a theme which will be developed in Women in Love, describing a phase of the relationship of Anna and Will that takes place after an extra-marital adventure of Will. She is ready to play the game and in her turn she comes to experience the adventure. In a way, she takes a lover in the person of her husband: “she had been bored by the old husband” (217). Sex becomes the factor of a double liberation, accomplished in this “passion of voluptuousness” as they release their most secret desires. In that casual encounter, the woman becomes equal to the man. “He was the sensual male, seeking his pleasure, she was the female, ready to take hers, but in her own way. A man could turn into a free lance: so then could be a woman” (218). Anna moves forward in her quest and at the same time she gets free from the ambient puritanism, becoming conscious of her indifference to the moral context: “she adhered as little as he to the moral world. All that had gone before was nothing to her” (218).

  • 9 The dialectics between an affirmation of the creative value of eroticization and the need to contro (...)

26The introduction of voluptuousness into the carnal encounter was beyond the comprehension of the still-Victorian censor, for whom sexuality played only a very minor role in marriage insofar as it was not expected to be a source of pleasure. Moreover, it was a time when demographers and doctors were arguing that woman should above all, be mothers, and that her eroticization amounted to a danger for society.9 When describing carnal communion “per se,” separated from any reference to another context, Lawrence gives the body - overlooked in the novel up to that episode – all the nobility it deserves. The discovery of the incarnate carnal self gives Anna and Will’s marriage another dimension. In that dual experience, they meet as distant individuals, surpassing their natures which are constantly opposed, thus challenging each other. “it was a duel: no love, no words, no kisses. […] He wanted to touch her, to discover her maddeningly he wanted to know her” (219). But this “sensuous lust for discovery” (218) leads Anna and Will to accept shame: “they accepted shame, and were one with it in their most unlicensed pleasures” (220). Tenderness is thus excluded. It is only in Lawrence’s final exploration of the erotic universe, in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, that tenderness and shame will be reconciled.

27The erotic experience of Will and Anna aborts in the course of its exploration. They remain on the threshold of eroticism, as Anna had stopped on the threshold of the rainbow. So far as they are concerned, transcendence is brought into question because they are unable to sublimate their carnal selves. This experience does not grant them transfiguration. Unlike Constance Chatterley, Kate and Ursula in Women in Love, Anna does not experience a new birth. Lawrence grants her (and Lydia as well) a comprehension of “the value of that singling out into essential female being.”

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1 “Her deepest desire hung on the battle that she heard, far off, being waged on the edge of the unknown” (11).

2 “The womb is full of darkness and also flooded with the strange white light of eternity,”,“The Crown,” Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine and other Essays, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1988, 255.

3 Michael Bell, DH Lawrence: ‘Language and Being, Cambridge University Press, 1992, 72

4 George Groddeck, quoted in Jacques Le Rider, Modernité Viennoise et Crises de l’identité, P.U.F. 1990, 143.

5 Letters ll, June 5th 1914.

6 Tony Pinkney, D.H. Lawrence and Modernity, University of Iowa Press, 1990, 70-71.

7 Otto Gross (1877-1920), Das Eigene und das Fremde. Gross claimed that the individual’s fundamental conflict originates in that which opposes self and otherness. See Le Rider, op.cit.

8 Kingsley Widmer, “Desire and Denial, Dialectics of passion”, The DH Lawrence Review, vol. 18, 143.

9 The dialectics between an affirmation of the creative value of eroticization and the need to control it is a constant preoccupation in Freud’s life and work.

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Electronic reference

Jacqueline Gouirand, « Women in love in The Rainbow. The Experience of love, Sex and Marriage of Lydia and Anna Brangwen »Études Lawrenciennes [Online], 49 | 2019, Online since 01 April 2019, connection on 03 December 2020. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Jacqueline Gouirand

Jacqueline Gouirand is the author of a French biography of Frieda Lawrence (Frieda von Richthofen, muse de D.H.Lawrence, Paris: Autrement, 1998). She is the author of “A Checklist of D.H. Lawrence Translations, Criticism and Scholarship published in France,” D.H.Lawrence Review, 1988 and 2000. She has published many articles in Etudes lawrenciennes and is co-author (with Pierre Vitoux and Ginette Katz-Roy) of Lady Chatterley, Collection Figures Mythiques (1998).


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Études lawrenciennes est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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