At the End of The Rainbow: Reading Lesbian Identities in D.H. Lawrence’s Fiction

At the End of The Rainbow:
Reading Lesbian Identities in D.H. Lawrence’s Fiction

Justin D. Edwards, University of Copenhagen

Although there is a large body of critical material that reads D.H. Lawrence’s various representations of sexuality, the depictions of lesbianism in Lawrence’s work have been virtually ignored.[1] Given this oversight, this paper analyzes Lawrence’s portraits of lesbian characters in the context of an emerging lesbian identity in early twentieth-century England. Lawrence’s novels The Rainbow and The Fox, I argue, reproduce many of the contemporary discourses on lesbianism which were disseminated by sexual theorists such as Edward Carpenter and Havelock Ellis. I suggest that the development of this identity was partly responsible for Lawrence’s movement away from nineteenth-century British representations of romantic female friendship, and his movement toward a more sexualized depiction of the bonds between women. I conclude this paper by suggesting that the rise of a lesbian identity was also responsible for the development of homophobic discourses that disrupted romantic friendship between women.

Upon publication of The Rainbow in 1915, D. H. Lawrence and his publisher, Algernon Methuen, were prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act of 1857. During the trial, the Crown prosecutor, Herbert Muskett, condemned Lawrence’s text for what he referred to as its “immoral representations of sexuality.” Methuen, fearing that his business would suffer from the bad publicity, made a formal apology and surrendered all remaining copies to the magistrate. As a result, Lawrence’s novel was not banned, but Herbert Muskett was able to lash out against the author’s depictions of “sexual perversion.” Muskett’s moralizing speech focused on the chapter “Shame,” stating that it is “a mass of obscenity of thought, idea and action throughout, wrapped up in language that would be regarded in some quarters as an artistic and intellectual effort.”[2] What is significant is the fact that although The Rainbow includes numerous descriptions of explicit sexual acts, only the “Shame” chapter seemed to provoke and upset the court. We must therefore assume that the Crown prosecutor conflated “immoral representations of sexuality” with representations of lesbianism, for it is the “Shame” chapter that describes Ursula’s affair with Winifred Inger.

The trial of The Rainbow is an important moment in British literary and legal history in that it represents the first public forum in which lesbianism was discussed as a moral (and legal) issue. Thus, by identifying “Shame” as the central morally offensive section of Lawrence’s novel, Herbert Muskett (and, by extension, the British legal system) was participating in a cultural shift whereby women’s sexuality was becoming recognized as independent of male sexuality—a cultural shift that Lawrence attempted to capture in his novel and to which he, in the end, contributed. One could argue, then, that in The Rainbow Lawrence responds to the anxieties generated by the newfound articulation of women’s sexuality, anxieties that led to the policing of women’s sexual desire, as well as an increase in homophobic discourses regarding sexual relationships between women.

During the mid-Victorian period in British history, women began to question the social constructions that forced them to choose between the patriarchal binary of “the wife” or “the spinster.” Through the expansion of capitalism and industry, employment opportunities for single middle-class women had increased in the early 1800s to include clerical and secretarial jobs; prior to this, single women had been relegated to positions as schoolmistress or governess.[3] However, this newfound financial independence for women started to change in the 1850s due to a high level of unemployment that resulted in jobs being taken from single middle-class women and given to unemployed men. These economic circumstances inspired an early feminist movement and caused many women to critique male patriarchal dominance. This “liberation” movement stressed the importance of women’s social and economic independence, and became a precursor to the suffrage enterprise and its fights for political equality. Questions of sexuality, “sisterhood,” and lesbianism were an inevitable by-product of this movement during the fin de siècle; however, many women chose to dissociate themselves from these topics for fear that such controversial issues might impede the political progress which had been made by the early feminist movement.[4]

By the turn of the century, the feminist counter-culture was becoming represented within fictional texts, the most infamous being Grant Allen’s novel The Woman Who Did. Furthermore, a journal, The Freewoman, was organized as a feminist forum for the discussion of issues such as abortion, birth control, prostitution, and homosexuality.[5] In October of 1915, Stella Browne, one of the women who helped develop The Freewoman, presented a paper to the British Society for the Study of Sexual Psychology in which Browne rejected the traditional Victorian notion that female sexual desire was subordinate to the male. In this paper Browne also separated sexuality from procreation by questioning monogamy, marriage, and family. In addition, she adopted Havelock Ellis’s apologetic stance on lesbianism, which stated that society must recognize homosexuals as valuable members of society.[6]

Despite the work of Browne and Ellis, in the early decades of the twentieth century, lesbianism was still a largely invisible category that only now started to become understood as an identity. In nineteenth-century England, sexual desire, sexual acts, and intense love between women did not constitute a condition or perversion that categorized the whole individual.

The female friendship of the Victorian era is a perfect example of how relationships between women have drastically changed in Europe and America. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, deeply felt same-sex friendships were the norm, particularly between women. These relationships ranged from love between sisters to sensual expressions of love by adult women. Carroll Smith-Rosenberg’s research into the letters exchanged between female friends during the nineteenth century has revealed many telling portraits of the relationships that existed between women at that time. They were intense, loving, and openly avowed, usually began during adolescence, and often lasted until the death of one of the partners. That these relationships frequently endured geographic separation and heterosexual marriages demonstrates that the central ideals of Victorian female friendship were unquestioned devotion and mutual emotional support.[7] In response to Smith-Rosenberg’s research, Lillian Faderman notes that “Romantic friends courted each other, flirted, were anxious about the beloved’s responses and about reciprocity. They believed their relationships to be eternal, and in fact the faithfulness of one often extended beyond the death of the other.”[8]

Here, Faderman confirms Smith-Rosenberg’s assertions that Victorian female friendship was built around a generic and unselfconscious pattern of single-sex or homosocial networks, networks that were supportive and institutionalized in social conventions. As a result, pre-twentieth-century homosocial friendships remained virtually unchanged from the 1760s to the 1880s, a period when “continuity, not discontinuity, characterized this female world.”[9] Smith-Rosenberg’s terms “continuity” and “discontinuity” imply that prior to the twentieth century there existed a continuum of emotional and sexual impulses rather than a dichotomized structure of “normal” and “abnormal.” Certainly nineteenth-century female friendships permitted a great deal of freedom of movement between the poles of today’s socially constructed continuum that places “uncompromised heterosexuality” at one extreme and “committed homosexuality” at the other.[10] We must conclude, then, that around the turn of the century England saw a change in what constituted “acceptable” relationships between women. No longer could women be as openly loving, supportive, or tenacious as they had been in previous decades. The Victorian ideal of female friendship disintegrated as its notion of a fluid continuum was transformed into a rigid dichotomy.

Responding to the development of “the lesbian” as a sexual category—a category developed during the 1890s by Richard von Krafft-Ebing and Havelock Ellis—Lawrence turns away from the literary tradition of romantic female friendship. In its place, Lawrence adopts a pederastic model of homosexuality: Winifred, the mature teacher, takes on Ursula as a young protégé in a form of kinship that echoes Edward Carpenter’s assertion that “a strong attachment in boyhood or girlhood … between the young thing and its teacher” is important “in the educational sense” for personal growth.[11] Lawrence’s depiction of Winifred and Ursula’s bond seems to draw on Carpenter’s unique placement of women within a pederastic model of same-sex sexuality. Lawrence responds to Carpenter’s 1908 assertion in The Intermediate Sex that the early twentieth century has witnessed “a marked development of the homogenic passion among the female sex.” And Carpenter goes on to claim that “womenkind have drawn more closely together … to cement an alliance of their own.”[12] The “comrade-alliances,” as Carpenter calls such bonds, echo his comments on male same-sex sexuality, which espouse a Whitmanian “brotherly love” and romantic connections between older and younger men. Carpenter’s discussion of women’s “homogenic alliances” may be read as a shift toward a conceptualization of lesbianism within a masculine frame.

It is important to note that Carpenter’s comments are in reaction to Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s claim that sexual desire between women is extremely rare. For example, in 1893 Krafft-Ebing asserted that there were only fifty documented cases of female homosexuality in medical history.[13] Carpenter refutes this misconception, pointing to Havelock Ellis’s case studies in his massive Studies in the Psychology of Sex as a source of opposition. Here, Ellis documented the details concerning the sexual desire of his female friends, many of whom were lesbians. These brief biographies acknowledged the existence of lesbianism as an inherent form of female sexual desire and made it visible as such to the world of medicine, the humanities, and the social sciences.[14] Ellis’s understanding (or definition) of female same-sex desire as an identity was based on the notion of an independent female sexuality—a sexuality that was divorced from what early feminists such as Stella Browne saw as the “corrupting forces” of patriarchy. On the other hand, in the eyes of the British legal system—as was seen in the 1895 trials of Oscar Wilde—such a dissemination generated “shameful” rhetoric and homophobic ideologies that ruptured “healthy” bonds between women, bonds that were believed to be non-sexual.

Hilary Simpson’s claim that “the ‘Shame’ chapter is Lawrence’s only explicit treatment of female homosexuality” ignores the lesbian relationship that is played out in The Fox.[15] Simpson’s assertion is understandable, however, for the novella version of The Fox (1922) includes a vision of lesbianism that differs greatly from the one in The Rainbow. Here, the pederastic model has been stripped away; instead, Banford and March are young women who have chosen to throw off a “life of petticoats and corsets” in favor of the breeches and trousers that suit a life of farming. This relationship thus avoids the asymmetrical power structures of the Ursula-Winifred union. The narrative of The Fox, in fact, is concerned with the relations of power as they are defined through gendered categories and transgressions: March is described as a “loose-balanced young man,” whose “straight” and “strong” shoulders make it possible for her to do “most of the outdoor work.”[16] Banford, on the other hand, is described as a “small, thin, delicate thing,” whose greatest asset to the farm is her inheritance. In a portrait that echoes Havelock Ellis’s vision of the “female invert” as a “masculine woman,”[17] Lawrence has March take on what the narrator considers to be “a masculine role”; March is even said to be “the man about the place” (F 1). Here the pederastic model carries no currency, and the male model of homosexuality that was grafted onto Ursula and Winifred’s relationship is replaced by a mimicking of heterosexual bonds through various gender performances.

A common thread that binds Lawrence’s two treatments of lesbianism can be traced to the ruptures that occur when Ursula and March choose heterosexual bonds. But the reasons for their respective repudiations of lesbianism differ. Ursula, for instance, rejects lesbianism when she feels “a heavy, clogged sense of deadness … from the other woman’s contact.”[18] The “deadness” that Ursula experiences is akin to Lawrence’s discussion of male homosexuality in his essay on Walt Whitman, in which he argues that “woman is inadequate for the last merging. So the next step is the merging of man-for-man love. And this is on the brink of death. It slides over into death.”[19] This sense of “deadness,” which reminds us of Lawrence’s own panicked sexuality and of Thomas Mann’s homosexual imagery in Death in Venice, is not present in The Fox. Rather, March’s rejection of Banford is inspired more by feelings of gender confusion: March’s intimacy with Henry gives her “a life as a woman and a female,” for “she, being a woman, must be like that” (F 179). This adherence to gender and sexual “norms” is partly seen by the narrator as a rejection of her “perverse … masculine autonomy” (F 175). Condemnations of March’s “masculine” identity have been correctly read as reactions to the rise of women’s independence in the wake of World War I. But I would add that these reactionary comments may also be understood as a questioning of lesbian identities that embrace heterosexual gender roles.

Lawrence’s grafting of heterosexual roles onto a lesbian relationship, combined with his diverse representations of lesbianism, lead me to ponder a theoretical question. That is, lesbian readings of The Rainbow and The Fox open up spaces from which to re-view more recent theories about the continuum between homosocial and homosexual desire. For instance, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has built upon Smith-Rosenberg’s and Faderman’s research into the continuum of desire regarding Victorian female friendships. For Sedgwick, “the diacritical opposition between the ‘homosocial’ and the ‘homosexual’ seems to be less thorough and dichotomous for women than for men.”[20] Here, Sedgwick argues that the disruption on the continuum between homosocial and homosexual desire is restricted to male kinship. Sedgwick’s position assumes that homophobia—which she sees as the central cause of homosocial ruptures between men—is a discursive structure that frames male kinship, a framing that does not surround women’s bonds. Seeing a unity in the continuum of women-promoting-women and women-loving-women, Sedgwick goes on to claim that homosocial ruptures between women are not essential to maintaining modern patriarchy.

But when Ursula cuts off her love for Winifred from the rest of her life (as a “secret side-show to her life, never to be opened”), and when March and Banford’s relationship is threatened by Henry’s (or the symbolic fox’s) presence, we are confronted with a homosocial disruption that is reminiscent of those described by Sedgwick. Moreover, we might cast the specter of Sedgwick’s asymmetrical gender triangles over the Ursula-Winifred relationship, for Winifred’s lesbian desire receives its fullest expression at the end of the “Shame” chapter, when she enters Ursula’s bed, embraces her, and says that she will marry Ursula’s uncle. Winifred asserts that she “will marry him,” but adds, “he’s not like you, my dear—ha, he’s not as good as you. There’s something even objectionable about him” (R 232). This comparison of Ursula to Winifred’s future husband (re)affirms her love and desire for her student at a time when lesbianism is emerging as a sexual category; that is, because this desire is not possible within the strict confines of sexual “norms,” it can only be sublimated through a commitment to Ursula’s male relative. Although Winifred finds “something objectionable” in Ursula’s uncle, she is willing to marry him as a way of deferring the sexual desire that she feels for his niece. A version of Sedgwick’s “gender triangles” thus emerges: Winifred’s inability to commit herself to lesbianism causes her to seek out a relationship with a man who is related—physically and emotionally—to the object of her affection. By marrying Tom, Winifred will not only remain in close contact with Ursula, but also be able to maintain an allusive sexual interaction with her through the sexual relationship with Ursula’s uncle.

Winifred’s sexual deferral, and the “sort a nausea” and “sense of deadness” (R 234) that come over Ursula as she contemplates her affair with Winifred, signal the cultural shift away from the Romantic ideal of female friendship and the emergence of a lesbian identity. The very title of the chapter, “Shame,” sheds light on Lawrence’s homophobic attitude toward female same-sex sexuality. This is further supported by his pejorative reference to Winifred’s desire for Ursula, to which Lawrence refers as “part of the perverted life of the older woman.” Still, we must ask if the “rupture” of the Ursula-Winifred relationship is really an expression of the author’s own homophobia or merely a representation of an ideological shift regarding women’s sexuality and lesbianism.

In contemplating this question, it seems appropriate to consider the ambiguous conclusion to The Fox. Henry’s conquest—the killing of Banford by the falling tree, a symbolic gesture that pits nature against the “unnatural” lesbian act—is seen as an insignificant triumph. The narrative works to question Henry’s rupture of the homosocial bond between Banford and March: March resists Henry’s assertions of male dominance, and the narrator implies that the ultimate heterosexual union leaves March empty and unfulfilled. The resolution of this problem is doubtful, and the story ends with their suggested flight to Canada; but this self-imposed exile is seen as an external change that will not engender an internal one. The lack of optimism here suggests that Lawrence was uncomfortable with the contemporary sexological categories that framed same-sex sexual bonds as clinical, and therefore treatable, conditions. Henry’s affection, in other words, is inadequate for “treating” March’s desire for Banford. The novel’s conclusion and Lawrence’s simultaneous admiration and repudiation of Winifred point to Lawrence’s ambiguous understanding of female homosexuality. His lesbian lovers are seen as “shameful,” “perverse and corrupt”; at the same time, they are described as “strong,” “fearless,” “exquisite,” and “proud,” and as nourishing a life-enhancing, meaningful, and valuable relationship.

NOTES

[1] For studies focusing on male homosexuality in D. H. Lawrence’s fiction see Jeffrey Meyers, Homosexuality and Literature 1890–1930 (Montreal: McGill-Queens, 1977) 131–61; Christopher Craft, Another Kind of Love: Male Homosexual Desire in English Discourse, 1850–1920 (Berkeley: University of California, 1992) 140–91; and George Donaldson, “‘Men in Love’? D. H. Lawrence, Rupert Birkin and Gerald Crich,” D. H. Lawrence Centenary Essays, ed. Mara Kalnins (Bristol: Bristol Classical Press, 1986) 41–67.
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[2] For all of Herbert Muskett’s comments see Jeffrey Meyers’s D. H. Lawrence: A Biography (New York: Vintage 1990) 189–93.
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[3] See Jeffrey Weeks, Coming Out: Homosexual Politics in Britain from the Nineteenth-Century to the Present (London: Quartet, 1977) 94.
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[4] For a full discussion, see Elaine Showalter, Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Sexuality at the Fin de Siècle (New York: Viking, 1990) 36.
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[5] For a discussion of Edward Carpenter’s 1913 article in The Freewoman on the status of women and homosexuality in ancient Greece, see Weeks 99.
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[6] Showalter 38.
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[7] See George Chauncey, “From Sexual Inversion to Homosexuality: Medicine and the Changing Conceptualization of Female Deviance,” Salmagundi 58.1 (1982): 121.
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[8] Lillian Faderman, Surpassing the Love of Men (New York: Quill, 1981) 125.
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[9] Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, “The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations Between Women in Nineteenth-Century America,” Signs 1.1 (1975): 10.
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[10] Adrienne Rich, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” Blood, Bread and Poetry: Selected Prose 1978–1985 (New York: Norton, 1986) 127.
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[11] See Edward Carpenter, The Intermediate Sex (London: Swan, 1908) 84.
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[12] Carpenter 77–78.
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[13] Richard von Krafft-Ebing, Psychopathia Sexualis: With Especial Reference to Contrary Sexual Instinct, trans. Gilbert Chaddock (Philadelphia: Davis, 1983) 288.
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[14] Havelock Ellis, Studies in the Psychology of Sex (Philadelphia: Davis, 1910) 155.
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[15] Hilary Simpson, D.H. Lawrence and Feminism (London: Croom Helm, 1982) 166.
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[16] D. H. Lawrence, The Fox (New York: Signet, 1976) 3. All subsequent references are to this edition and are cited parenthetically in the text following the abbreviation F.
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[17] Havelock Ellis, Studies in the Psychology of Sex (Philadelphia: F. A. Davis, 1910) 132.
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[18] D. H. Lawrence, The Rainbow (New York: Signet, 1965) 342. All subsequent references are to this edition and are cited parenthetically in the text following the abbreviation R.
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[19] D. H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature (New York: Penguin, 1989) 173.
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[20] Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York: Columbia, 1985) 2.
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