Jenny Downham trained as an actor and worked in community theatre for many years. Using improvisation techniques to take stories to young people who wouldn't normally have access to them – in prisons, hospitals, youth clubs, housing estates, anywhere that theatre rarely existed - she spent many years putting herself in imaginary situations and playing all sorts of people she would never normally be cast as. It was a perfect apprenticeship for writing. When her second son was born and touring became more difficult, she began to concentrate on her writing. Her first novel, Before I Die, won the Branford Boase Award and the Leeds Book Award, it was category winner in the Sheffield Book Award and won the Australian Silver Inky Award for best international novel. It has now sold in over 25 languages and is being made into a film. Jenny is working on her next book. Below she discusses D.H. Lawrence's The Rainbow.
Jenny Downham on The Rainbow by D.H. Lawrence
I was a bookish child in a bookless house and as a consequence, was an avid library-goer. However, the local library was in the adjacent town, and going there involved a bus ride or a long walk and, most difficult to procure, an older sibling to accompany me. It wasn't until I was eleven and went to a secondary school with a wonderful library that books became readily accessible.
I was thirteen when I took out D.H.Lawrence's The Rainbow. I was drawn to the brown and white chickens scratching about on the front cover, and I liked the title. I imagined the book would be about the countryside and would have girls in it (I was right about that). I also thought Lawrence looked exactly as a writer should - serious and brooding and looking right at me from the back cover. I was told by the librarian that I had 'chosen well' as she date-stamped the book, and I felt special, understood somehow.
What happened next, however, was deeply humiliating. That evening, my mother noticed what I was reading and asked me where I'd got such a 'dirty' book from. When I told her the school library, she confiscated it, telling me she would phone the school the next day to complain. I wasn't party to the conversation and have no idea who she spoke to, but when I got home she handed it back, telling me I could, 'carry on with it'. I have always imagined that it was my English teacher who persuaded her, for he was my ally - handing me books in the corridor and introducing me to poets and novelists throughout my school career.
Of course, The Rainbow now held mythic status. Prosecuted in an obscenity trial? All copies seized and burned? Banned in Britain for 11 years following publication? I really wanted to read it now, certain that within its pages lay all the secrets of adulthood.
I took it upstairs to be alone. On the opening page:
There was a look in the eyes of the Brangwens as if they were expecting something unknown, about which they were eager. They had that air of readiness for what would come to them, a kind of surety, an expectancy...
I was immediately hooked. This fragment alone captured my tentative longing for an unknown future, so difficult to express or admit to.
I read it in three days and loved it. It was different from any book I had ever read.
For a start, the entire book is a conflict of opposites - creation and destruction, self and the other, man and woman, community and individual, the dissolution of the pastoral world with the coming of an industrial society. The novel presents them, but doesn't seek to resolve them, and I was used to questions being answered in my books.
Also, The Rainbow only tells a story in a vague way, recording instead the various attempts by three generations of the Brangwen family to achieve selfhood. We get less of a plot and more a succession of richly illogical characters, filled with contradictory impulses and subject to a host of influences.
Lawrence wrote that he no longer wanted to conceive character in a 'certain moral scheme and make him consistent'. Instead, individuals are a fragment of the whole of humankind, always changing their minds or their feelings, and every now and then falling into some primal experience where their ego completely dematerializes. It's as if they understand the essence of the universe through a kind of mystic ritual.
I was deeply affected by it. I took to reading whole passages aloud because it is awash with moments of stunning exactitude. Lawrence is a genius at describing the land, the seasons, the way sunlight falls, or the love of a farmer for the earth and animals that surround him. It reads like the most sensitive inventory of a pastoral idyll that will soon be lost.
Ursula was my favorite. As a young woman in 1900, she has a limited range of life-choices. But she is so bold - she rejects marriage because she thinks it would drag the passion she shares with her lover into a sordid, formal reality. She thinks religion sanctimonious. She becomes interested in the Women's Movement. She has a lesbian relationship with her teacher and finally, she decides to take up a profession. The only one readily available to her is teaching, so she takes a job at a grim little school in a local town where her ideals are severely tested. But she does eventually earn the respect of her unruly pupils and so, ultimately, achieves self-liberation.
Kate Millett launched a famous attack against Lawrence, seeing him as the great misogynist. But it's the men in the book who are inert, and the women who are powerful, curious, rational, forward-looking. And Lawrence describes the sexual awakening of a young woman in a way that I (aged thirteen and living in a small town) found incredibly liberating.
Ursula writes to Skrebensky: 'I love you very much. I love your body. It is so clear and fine. I am glad you do not go naked, or all the women would fall in love with you. I am very jealous of it, I love it so much.'
There is something triumphant about her ability to express this, as if her sexuality is unavoidable - a destiny which undermines anything false.
And there are some profoundly sensual scenes which offer insight into the social, political and economic equality of the sexes - Will and Anna stacking sheaves of corn, the pregnant Anna slowly undressing and dancing before a fire, Will's rhapsody at Lincoln cathedral, Ursula and Skrebensky under the full moon and, later, running away together.
At the time of his death, Lawrence's public reputation was that of a pornographer who had wasted his talent. He's generally valued now as a visionary thinker and significant representative of modernism in English literature. Just after his death, his longtime friend Catherine Carswell said, 'He wrote something like three dozen books, of which even the worst page dances with life that could be mistaken for no other man's, while the best are admitted, even by those who hate him, to be unsurpassed.'
After I had finished The Rainbow, I took it back to the library and swapped it for Women in Love. I swapped that for Lady Chatterley's Lover. I began to be more brazen about it, reading those 'dirty' books downstairs in full public view. In time, I discovered Lawrence's poetry, his short stories and eventually his plays. There are a couple of novels I still haven't read, and I've never approached his travel writing, although he is an incomparable observer and his travel pieces are supposed to be among his finest prose.
I have never re-read The Rainbow, although I dip into it now and again. I want it to remain tangled with the time when I began to be seen as 'other' in my house - the one who read a lot. Reading it gave me literary autonomy. All books were mine now, because nothing could be banned once Lawrence was acceptable.
The Rainbow literally opened up the world for me.