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

Frieda Lawrence
Frieda Lawrence; drawing by David Levine

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…

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