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The Constant Wife

D.H. Lawrence: The Story of a Marriage

by Brenda Maddox
Simon and Schuster, 620 pp., $30.00

A Genius for Living: The Life of Frieda Lawrence

by Janet Byrne
HarperCollins, 504 pp., $27.50

Frieda Lawrence, Including ‘Not I, But the Wind’ and other autobiographical writings

by Rosie Jackson
Pandora/HarperCollins, 240 pp., $22.00

Arguing to install Lawrence in the pantheon of great English writers, F.R. Leavis took the usual view that “when we are taking stock of the disadvantages Lawrence had to contend with…we have to consider Frieda herself,” illustrating a law of literary history that admired writers will usually be thought to have had unworthy, if not downright disastrous, mates—think of T.S. Eliot, or John Stuart Mill, or Dickens (who agreed about his), or Sylvia Plath, or Carlyle, or Byron, or Socrates (we await a closer inspection of the Brownings). Rosie Jackson quotes Lawrence biographer Keith Sagar’s representative view that Frieda Lawrence was “amoral, disorderly, wasteful, utterly helpless around the house, lying in bed late, lounging about all day with a cigarette dangling from her mouth.” That is, she was a terrible housekeeper, lazy, and a smoker, besides being his inferior, promiscuous, and—charges repeated with peculiar malice—an unnatural mother, German, and fat.

Poor Frieda. Her undoubted promiscuity might be defended on grounds laid down by Lawrence himself; where a writer has been a moral or philosophical influence his life is very often judged by standards he has helped to create. But her bad housekeeping seems to have been taken as insulting to the concerns of good women through the ages, and these days her overweight and smoking might be enough to condemn her all by themselves. “What a great fat sod she is,” wrote John Middleton Murry (who did eventually sleep with her). That she was a German in times when Germans were the enemy must have been more or less the last straw. What Lawrentians minded, of course, was that Lawrence seems to have loved her.

The corollary is that as literary reputations sink, so the vilified mate will eventually be seen in a better light. Today we do not love Lawrence, or at least his influence has considerably waned. As Maddox says, “His attitudes towards sex are dated…. No man was more a prisoner of his time.” So it now seems possible to ask whether Frieda was better than her welter of detractors have allowed. Here are three reexaminations of Frieda and her husband, by Brenda Maddox (D. H. Lawrence: The Story of a Marriage), Janet Byrne (A Genius for Living: The Life of Frieda Lawrence), and Rosie Jackson (Frieda Lawrence, Including ‘Not I, But the Wind’), all more or less exculpatory.

Maddox, who has also written about Nora Joyce, writes a biography of Lawrence with emphasis on his perception of his marriage as central to his life. Janet Byrne’s focus on Frieda puts the case in some detail for seeing her as an interesting person in her own right, likable and complex, even admirable in her fashion. Rosie Jackson’s short biographical essay on Frieda, published together with Frieda’s own autobiographical memoir Not I, But the Wind (first published in 1934) was written intending to show how the biographical tradition has been manipulated by fashion, partisanship, myth, misogyny, and even patriotism to vilify Frieda as a disastrous and baleful influence on her husband. The three works taken together are particularly illuminating on the general subject of the nuances of biographical interpretation.

The facts of the Lawrences’ married life are well known. The callow, ambitious, talented Lawrence met Frieda in 1912 when he was twenty-six and she was thirty-one, the voluptuous wife of an English schoolteacher, Ernest Weekley, daughter of a minor German aristocrat, Baron Richthofen, and mother of three. Tradition has held that they went to bed the afternoon they met, a matter discussed below. Soon after they met, Frieda left her husband and children to run away with Lawrence. The vindictive Weekley would never forgive them or relinquish the children, and he taught them not to mention Frieda’s name. Frieda seems not to have understood her vulnerability on the issue of custody in English law, and so was not reunited with her children until they were young adults, despite agonizing occasions of lurking behind bushes to watch them on their way to school, or trying to sneak into the house when Weekley was away. Apparently Lawrence was completely insensitive about her prolonged mourning of their loss—like earlier commentators such as F.R. Leavis, who condemned her as “unmaternal.”

The Weekleys were divorced and the Lawrences were married in 1914. They wandered from then on, to various parts of England, to Australia, Italy, France, Germany, Mexico, Ceylon, and Taos, New Mexico—as Maddox remarks, there has been much “overrecording” of Lawrence as an English writer, when in fact he spent most of his life abroad. Like the Jack Sprats, Lawrence would grow thin, Frieda would grow fat, they would famously quarrel and reconcile, he beat her but he did the housework, she had affairs, and he tried to. (Shy, puritanical, and dying of tuberculosis, he was, according to Frieda’s confidences to friends, impotent after 1926.) Though they considered theirs a great love, or at least a great destiny, most of their friends, viewing their screaming fights and physical violence, considered it trouble. Katherine Mansfield’s account in a letter to Samuel Koteliansky [“Kot”] is fairly typical: “He beat her—he beat her to death—her head and face and breast and pulled out her hair.” Because Frieda and D.H. were well known in their own day, and because they were frank about the details of their private life, in line with the philosophies of open marriage and plain speaking they believed in and Lawrence preached, their doings and sayings were often noted in the letters and diaries of friends, in legal documents, and in newspapers. Much has also been inferred from Lawrence’s autobiographical fictions, especially Kangaroo and a novel, Mr. Noon, published posthumously in 1984, which some biographers have taken as representing a more or less literal account of their early life together.

Lawrence died of tuberculosis in 1930 at the age of forty-four; Frieda lived until 1956, dying on her seventy-seventh birthday, after twenty-six years of keeping the Lawrentian flame alive through a subsequent marriage, to an Italian military officer, Angelo Ravagli, and various affairs. What emerges from revisiting the Lawrences is an impression of a diminished and rackety but somehow touching pair, remarkable for the courage with which they weathered the considerable pathos of their lives—Frieda exiled, battered, poor, and bereft of her children, Lawrence struggling with the difficult issues of his character—his biographers mention artistic and Oedipal struggles, his ambivalent sexuality or homosexuality, and the imminence of his premature death. They were both persecuted as German spies in England during World War I, and Frieda would also be considered suspicious in America during World War II. They remained loyal to each other, faute de mieux, or knowing themselves stuck with each other, accepted their fates. Frieda’s daughter believed that Frieda’s principal emotion for Lawrence was compassion.

Several biographies on the same subject, with their wholly different effects, invite reflection on the whole art of biography, and first of all the problem of sympathy, that elusive and apparently essential property of narrative which the reader must feel for, at least, the writer, if it cannot be felt for any of his characters. (The problem many readers have with the works of Lawrence may have to do with their hearing too clearly his own irascible, hectoring voice.) Maddox, using as her principal source the vast Cambridge edition of Lawrence’s letters, which contains much previously unpublished material, says in her preface, in answer to the question biographers often have to ask themselves—Do they really like their subject?—“No one could read Lawrence’s letters and not like him.” Later in the preface, she adds the mostly futile hope that “the man that emerges from these pages is not the glowering preacher with baleful eye and shrunken chest, but a likable Lawrence: a devastating mimic, an inspired teacher, a handy householder, a hard-working journalist, a loyal brother and generous uncle, a good cook, an eager traveler and brilliant travel writer, a dogged, dreadful painter, an ecological visionary and, above all—as he saw himself—a married man.”

The task of rendering this complex character underscores the difficulties of the biographer’s art. Since readers cannot taste lawrence’s cooking, or hear his mimicry, and likely have not read the large edition of letters that Maddox draws on, they must make their judgments from what Maddox tells them about Lawrence, which will include, among other things: misogyny, pompousness, selfish sexual exploitation, wife-beating, anti-Semitism, and the torture of animals. These make Lawrence hard to like, and explain the equivocal response many readers have to his writing. “Whatever chord there is in human nature that makes men hate women and women feel that they deserve it,” as Maddox writes (of his story “The Woman Who Rode Away”) is surely the tonic chord of Lawrence himself, and it is always dissonant.

But why should we care about a writer’s character? When it comes to literary biography, why should people have any interest at all in the usually ordinary lives of writers or feel the need to like them? Partly, no doubt, we read to settle the old question about whether a bad man can write a good book. Also, what we know about a writer adds to our understanding of his work, art for art’s sake notwithstanding. Just as the reader is always aware of the writer while he reads, what he knows of the writer influences his reading. Your reading of a poem by Sylvia Plath will be different if you know that she committed suicide. We read for explanation whatever the narrative strategy, despite ourselves, and it is clear we care the more in cases like Lawrence’s where the writer sets himself up as a moralist, specifically admonishing his readers on issues of behavior. Even though we know that no writer ever lived up to the ideals in his pages, we expect evidence that he knows where he is personally falling down.

It’s possible we also read for the exemplary qualities of a writer’s life, too, the way we read any narrative.* That is, biographers and autobiographers and readers alike tend to interpret the life they are looking at by the operative fictional conventions of the day. For instance, as Maddox points out, “nineteenth-century heroines who defied the patriarchy with their passions, even if they escaped consumption, paid with their lives.” Frieda Lawrence, on the other hand, though she was a creature of Ibsen and Shaw, provides a fascinating instance of being read in the light of the earlier conventions. Two other powerful fictions or myths in Frieda’s case were those of the demonized German and the bad mother, which ordains in fiction as well as in life that a woman who has left her children is some kind of monster and must suffer punishment. Also, since Frieda was a German among the English throughout the period of the First World War (and among Americans during the Second), she was inevitably seen as embodying various Hunlike or Nazi qualities, and even as being the origin of Lawrence’s more objectionable crypto-fascist political ideas. (An anonymous denunciation to the FBI: “Why is that German woman who hates our country and spies for her brother allowed to live free and in sin. You just find out….”)

More besides unpleasant politics could be blamed on Frieda. Bertrand Russell seems to have expressed a widespread opinion when he said, “Lawrence, though most people did not realize it, was his wife’s mouthpiece. He had the eloquence, but she had the ideas.” The chronology suggests that Russell was perspicacious at least in seeing that Frieda, if she didn’t originate them, had many of the ideas about love and sex that Lawrence preached, independently of Lawrence, and may have had them first. Theories of the importance of the erotic life were then current in the German intellectual avant-garde, and before meeting Lawrence, Frieda and her sister had both had affairs with Otto Gross, a colleague of Freud, an early psychiatrist who advocated free love, uninhibited sexuality, and even, like Freud, the use of cocaine. Some advanced ideas about sex, moreover, had also been around in England, with Havelock Ellis, Edward Carpenter, George Meredith, and a line of free spirits back to and before Byron and Shelley, Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, and certainly did not start with Lawrence.

The Frieda who emerges from the books by Jackson and Byrne is, not surprisingly, rehabilitated from a fat, slovenly, snobbish, and amoral person, into a spontaneous and natural, rather nice woman with a lust for life, a sort of Teutonic Colette. From her own memoir Not I, But the Wind, published four years after Lawrence’s death, one would infer an intelligent though not deeply literary woman (but writing rather well in a language not her own: “When people talk about sex, I don’t know what they mean—as if sex hopped about by itself like a frog, as if it had no relation to the rest of living, one’s growth, one’s ripening”). She was politically correct by the standards of her day, professing post-Freudian orthodoxy about woman’s role, the support of woman for the creative male, etc. “I believe my chief merit, as I see it, was that to me not too much mattered, except that he should come off, do what he wanted and had to do.” Needless to say, she denied being anti-Semitic and a Nazi.

If Frieda was unconventional, Maddox’s picture of the sexually frustrated, shy, conventional, and prudish schoolmaster Lawrence, trying to get the young women he knew to go to bed with him, is of a man at once more ordinary in ways any woman will recognize, using the orthodox language of the Victorian seducer (“if you really loved, you’d let me…”), and less sympathetic. One sees the origins of his “advanced” ideas in his own sexual self-interest as a hard-up, struggling young writer desperate that someone, anyone almost, sleep with him, and willing to manipulate and lie to himself in relationships with his rather innocent, vulnerable, and admiring young women friends, notably his two “fiancées,” local girls Jessie Chambers and Louie Burrows, whom he ditched promptly enough once he found an accommodating sophisticate. Alice Dax, to relieve his sexual problem. Ignoring the risk of their reputations and the danger of pregnancy, he resented females fearful of premarital sex as cold, withholding, and calculating. No wonder he found the uninhibited Frieda a miracle of sensual abandon.

Biography, obviously, is far more than mere research: so much is left to the common sense, judgment, predilections, and experience of the biographer, a point well illustrated by these three books. Take the issue of when the Lawrences, those icons of sexual freedom and natural love, first Did It. Did it happen the first day they met, when Lawrence was invited to the Weekleys to lunch? Did it happen three times that day? Or not at all till some weeks later? There are three or four versions, beginning with Lawrence’s own elliptical account in Mr. Noon, a work which Maddox, following earlier biographers, takes as accurately recounting details in the Lawrences’ lives:

A bright, roused look was on her face. She lifted her eyelids with a strange flare of invitation: for the first time passion broke like lightning out of Gilbert’s blood: for the first time in his life. He went into her room with her and shut the door.

Later they rejoin the lunch guests, Gilbert straightening his tie. Still later the Frieda character congratulates the Lawrence character, Gilbert, for coming three times in forty-five minutes.

Maddox begins her account of this passage in the Lawrences’ lives by saying, “Within twenty minutes of meeting him, Frieda had Lawrence in bed.” This is a quote, a remark that a Willie Hopkin, a journalist friend of Lawrence’s, was reported by a Lewis Richmond to have said at the time. For us, in the OJ language of our day, triple hearsay, but Maddox finds Hopkin a “reliable source” and argues that twenty years later the same version was also given by Mabel Dodge Luhan, who had it from Frieda herself. Maddox also explains she is following an earlier biographer, John Worthen (D. H. Lawrence, The Early Years 1885–1912), in the practice of relying on Mr. Noon as a more reliable source of detail about his life than Lawrence’s letters of the period. She goes on, “It is a prettied-up version of a shocking event, a sexual tour de force. The likelihood that it was performed in a sedate Nottingham household on a spring morning in 1912 is bolstered by the known facts….”

One person’s tour de force is another’s farce. Janet Byrne also goes into the Lawrences’ first meeting, but to her William Hopkin is “an Eastwood journalist with a vivid imagination and a love of gossip” and she dismisses the story as “probably apocryphal” or even comic: “Some of [Mr. Noon‘s] sexual detail tends to farce (for example, a Lawrence-like character, Gilbert Noon, is congratulated by a Frieda-like character, Johanna Keighly, for coming to orgasm three times in forty-five minutes).” Byrne supports her doubts by pointing out that Lawrence seems to have scrupled to sleep with Frieda until he had notified her husband. The third biographer, Rosie Jackson, fixes on this last detail in her version:

When they met at the Weekley’s home, Frieda was thirty-one and Lawrence twenty-six; there was an immediate rapport between them. Yet, surprisingly for a man who had repeatedly declared his distaste for marriage and desire for free love, Lawrence declined Frieda’s suggestion that they sleep together. She made this offer within a couple of weeks of their meeting….

Frieda herself, in Not I, But the Wind, says only, “The half-hour before lunch the two of us talked in my room, French windows open, curtains fluttering in the spring wind, my children playing on the lawn.”

Three biographies of one figure may leave certain questions, such as this one, unresolved in the reader’s mind, but on the whole subject of Frieda, the modest claims of her biographers for a better character than had been thought are generally well substantiated, and it is nice to think of Lawrence as having had a wife who he believed was worth all the turbulence, infidelities, and badly cooked dinners. It’s also reassuring to be told that Frieda felt entirely committed to her David’s genius, to his message, and to the sacredness of the creative process. “His life became a struggle for health,” she wrote. “And yet he would rise above it so amazingly and his spirit brought forth immortal flowers right up to the very end.” No doubt her picture of their life together, in Not I, But the Wind, was a little rosier, to say nothing of more rhetorically exalted in hindsight than as it unfolded day to day, but neither does it greatly contradict the biographer’s more dispassionate gaze.

  1. *

    Do people read biographies because they are really stories in the more acceptable guise of edifying nonfiction? Edmund White in an Oxford lecture recently suggested that gay literature, with its emphasis on martyrdom, generically derives from the saint’s life. Lawrence biography has this quality too.

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