These next three novels have much in common. The first two were written by D. H. Lawrence with Women in Love being somewhat of a sequel to The Rainbow. The first Lawrence novel and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer were both banned and put on trial for obscenity. The Rainbow was prosecuted in 1915 which led to all copies being seized and burnt and the novel not being available in England for 11 years! Tropic of Cancer was originally published in France in 1934. The U.S. immediately banned the novel from being imported into the country. After numerous smuggling cases, the novel was declared obscene by multiple courts in the 50s. Finally being legally published in 1961, the novel was the subject of obscenity trials in 21 states. It wasn’t until 1964 that the Supreme Court overruled all the state court findings of the novel being obscene. What an impressive amount of censorship these three novels led to. But let’s get to what I thought of the content, not the controversy.
This novel is a large book spanning multiple generations of the Brangwen family starting in the mid 1800s. The story starts with the farming family that has little knowledge of the world beyond their city. As the generations go by and England becomes more modern and industrialized, the members of the family become more worldly and experienced. The first few sections of the novel deals with the relationships between husband and wife and parent and children through the generations. Most of the Brangwen family are simple speakers so as readers we follow the struggles through the characters’ thoughts. Depending on the chapter and the section, we get different points of view from different characters. The last and longest section follows Ursula, the third generation of the family the novel deals with. We see her deal with growing up in a small town on the cusp of modernization because of the coalmines. She struggles with finding her passion, her understanding of love, and her position in life. While the novel can seem somewhat longwinded in places, all the characters and struggles are very interesting and makes you want to keep reading. Even with it’s controversial history, the novel deals with sex and sensuality incredibly tamely (at least to our modern senses) but does a beautiful job of describing the emotional war that can be waged inside a relationship: sexual, familial, or professional.
This novel is considered a sequel to The Rainbow but holds its own as a standalone novel. Following Ursula and her younger sister Gundrun, the story deals with a completely new set of characters (except for a few short appearances of the sisters’ parents). There are two main differences between this and the previous novel. First, unlike the internal dialogues of The Rainbow, the characters in this story spend a lot of time philosophizing and arguing with each other. Conversation plays a larger role so we see the struggles and emotions of the first novel actually played out in the events. Which brings us to the second difference, a plot. Women in Love actually has one. Numerous events happen in the coalmine-driven cities while we watch the relationship between the two sisters and their respective attractions, Birkin and Gerald. While the reader should enjoy the growth and conflicts of their relationship, what makes this novel great is the ever-changing backdrop of industrialized England. Gerald is a coalmine heir who controls a vast industry. There is one section that follows the history of Gerald’s family, their ownership of the coalmine, and their struggles with the coalminers themselves. This passage is beautiful and depressing and is a great depiction of labor issues from the viewpoints of the laborers and the owners. While I enjoyed the whole novel and would recommend it to many, this passage is what will keep with me.
After reading this novel, it’s pretty laughable that the previous two novels were ever banned. Some of the events described among the pages make The Rainbow seem like a Disney movie. Here’s an example. Warning, very graphic language. But what made this novel such an enjoyable read is that Miller can go from minutely describing the anatomy of a prostitute to writing poetic passages that are “an immersive meditation on the human condition.” Here’s how Miller describes the book in the first few pages:
This then? This is not a book. This is libel, slander, defamation of character. This is not a book, in the ordinary sense of the word. No, this is a prolonged insult, a gob of spit in the face of Art, a kick in the pants to God, man, Destiny, Time, Love, Beauty… what you will. I am going to sing for you, a little off key perhaps, but I will sing. I will sing while you croak, I will dance over your dirty corpse. …
How can you argue with a description like that? Some believe that this novel’s challenge to censorship and free speech in art is why we have the freedom of artistic license in today’s literature. I don’t know how true this is but I can believe this novel push enough buttons to force a change, or a reflection in the art world.
And now we are officially at the halfway mark!! 50 novels down, 50 to go. Can you believe it?