Bert’s Needs

Patricia Beer

  • Lawrence’s Women: The Intimate Life of D.H. Lawrence by Elaine Feinstein
    HarperCollins, 275 pp, £18.00, January 1993, ISBN 0 00 215364 5

The modish title of Elaine Feinstein’s excellent book need not make readers fear that they are being lured to yet another study of the great man himself. Lawrence’s Women really is about the women in his life. They are not just lining the route. Neither should readers suspect that the word ‘intimate’ in the subtitle means that they are going to be told more about Lawrence’s sex life than they wish to know. They can also be assured that in this book there is no sign of the current mania for writing about the sisters/wives/daughters/mistresses of famous men, regardless of how insignificant they, or indeed the famous men, might essentially be. Lawrence’s women were decided personalities; hélas in one case.

An account of anybody’s women is bound nowadays to start with his mother if possible. In the case of Lawrence that presents a difficulty. Nobody has described Lydia Lawrence more fully than he has himself, and though Sons and Lovers is untruthful as to fact, its inaccuracies have been frequently corrected, and more or less all is now known. Feinstein, whose organisation of her material is skilful from start to finish, merely summarises what we need to know, rather in the style of a prologue, and then takes us on to less familiar ground.

Lawrence’s women appear in chronological order and at two stages of his life they fall naturally into a social group. The mainly local girls with whom Bert – as he then was – became involved during his adolescence and young manhood were so homogeneous in their attitudes and fortunes that they provide a valuable chapter of social history. Jessie Chambers, Alice Dix, Louie Burrows, Agnes Holt, Helen Corke, and others who are less closely relevant, can, with regard to their circumstances, be introduced en bloc, though of course not every point applies to all of them. They came from the same background as Bert – that is, provincial working-class or just over the border into lower-middle. They took it for granted that when they grew up they would earn their own living, but instead of settling for domestic service or working in a shop they aimed at something higher; they mostly trained to be teachers. Their early education was sketchy (Jessie left school at the age of ten) but later they set about improving themselves, helping each other with the earnest discussion of books and philosophy that marks the self-taught: rather like Leonard Bast. They were pretty and lively and – once they had recovered from Bert – they got married, mostly to teachers, or returned to existing marriages and settled down with apparent content into a station of life only modestly above what they were born to. Occasionally the peace was disrupted by bright flashes of resentment that their ambitions and strivings had in the end got them little further than their friends, who had taken no pains and had no visions at all.

In the years that they knew Bert, these young women were clearly more free and easy about sex than their generation (they were all born around 1890) is usually thought to have been. Exactly how successful he was with them it is impossible to say. They tended to tell lies to each other about their relations with him, and he told lies to all of them, everybody dwelling more on when than whether, for as he was almost certainly running affairs concurrently that was the crucial point. However, it is obvious from the testimony of both Alice and Jessie that he had a trump card: his need. We hear this in Alice’s self-righteous announcement ‘I gave Bert sex,’ as though she had kindly handed him an aspirin to relieve his toothache, and we know that he chivvied Jessie into bed with the argument that it would do him so much good. Lawrence left them all behind but they were his women to the end. Jessie came to enjoy a ‘deep affection’ for the teacher she married, but as she told Helen when Lawrence died, she never ceased to feel that ‘the business was not finished’ between herself and him. Louie, the prettiest and liveliest of all, so innocently proud of being engaged to a young man who had published a novel called The White Peacock, did not marry until she was 52, and was twice seen visiting Lawrence’s grave at Vence. It was a long way to go to mourn a faithless fiancé.

As Lawrence moved into a wider and more fragmented world, he was never again to be part of such a coherent society as the one Elaine Feinstein has so vividly and sympathetically evoked. Nevertheless he was soon to find coherence of a sort in the band of women who, as his writing career developed, began to crowd around him. It was still his need that attracted and held women but this time it was not sexual need, for he was now married to Frieda. It was a hunger for what Feinstein calls ‘attentive respect’. He needed groupies. As a tyro he had had attentive respect from women friends, and much helpful practical criticism from Jessie, but these new acquaintances had clout. Lawrence’s women were now ladies, some of them great ladies, as he was fond of pointing out; they were potential patrons and benefactors: Lady Ottoline Morrell, Lady Cynthia Asquith, the Honourable Dorothy Brett, Catherine Carswell, Mary Cannan, Amy Lowell and, later, Mabel (Dodge Sterne) Luhan. He accepted their money (Frieda was not above writing begging letters), their offers of houses and their hospitality, which to a couple on as low an income as theirs was a godsend.

In return Lawrence gave them whatever it is that groupies want. Among them, with all their privileges they had many tribulations: shyness, deafness, general ill-health, handicapped children and husbands who were inadequate in various ways if not actually mad. They needed to devote themselves to a genius and tell him all about themselves, and on the whole he was kind to them. They did not bring out his cruelty to quite such an extent as the vulnerable, unprivileged girls of his early youth had done. Feinstein portrays these women and their settings (Garsington in particular, of course) just as graphically as she did their predecessors, but the effect cannot be as touching.

As Lawrence’s life became more nomadic the women in it stood alone rather than in any company. The most remarkable of them was Katherine Mansfield. Her own life has been well discussed recently and Feinstein can once again be selective, limiting herself scrupulously to episodes that were thoroughly pertinent to Mansfield’s relationship with Lawrence. The most important of these was the time in 1916 when Katherine and John Middleton Murry were persuaded to take a house next to the Lawrences in north Cornwall. The couples had known each other for some while; Katherine and Murry had been at the Lawrences’ wedding two years earlier. Among the many expressive photographs that illustrate the book there is one taken at this event, Katherine looking pretty, slim and bridal, Frieda looking dowdy, heavy and baleful, Lawrence and Murry in shop-window poses with faces to match. At the time of the Cornish venture what Lawrence may have needed from Katherine was an audience for his fights with Frieda, which were growing increasingly exhibitionist. Katherine heard all the obscene abuse, saw all the punching, chasing and yelling, and no doubt had to dodge the saucepans and smoothing-irons that flew through the air. She had witnessed some of it the previous year and to begin with had been quite entertained; there is a charming account of her in her wellingtons with skirt tucked up coming along from her own house in the rain to watch the fun. But by now it was distressing, and indeed insulting, for she must have realised that it was all an act. If the Lawrences had intended real harm, there were plenty of guns in rural north Cornwall and a plethora of cliffs for them to push each other off. And she knew from Lawrence himself that he considered their restrained behaviour showed them to be poor passionless creatures compared with him and Frieda. If in spite of what he said he sometimes suspected that regularly knocking each other black and blue was not an infallible sign of married happiness, he would have held the insight against Katherine. In his very mixed feelings about her, resentment played a large part. In the terminal stages of her illness he was bitterly unkind to her (unbelievably so if one did not know how he had treated Jessie and Louie), actually saying that her consumption was her own fault and hoping she would die. No doubt another thing he had needed her for was to provide the company of Murry who, if there was to be a book about Lawrence’s men, would have pride of place; and this she was ceasing to do.

And now we come to Frieda. The full extent of the appalling 18-year battle between her and Lawrence is now widely realised; the days when critics could speak of it as a honeymoon tiff which blew over are long past. Now that so much authenticated material is to hand, Frieda comes out of it badly; if her actual deeds and words were the only things to work on, no power on earth could make her seem anything but monstrous. Elaine Feinstein, however, obviously does consider other things. She is no apologist for Frieda but, without any spelling out, she seems to take motivation into account, however witless, and mitigating circumstances too.

Here are two examples. In the mid-Twenties the Lawrences met Angelo Ravagli and his family in Italy. He was a lieutenant in the Bersaglieri and Frieda took an immediate fancy to him: ‘I am thrilled by his cock feathers.’ On her usual principle of helping herself to what she fancied (it seemed to her a good and reasonable principle) she had an affair with him. After Lawrence’s death she bought the lieutenant out of the army and married him. He left his wife and children with ‘considerable reluctance’, witnesses say, which is not surprising; there is a photograph of them looking delightful. She then paid Signora Ravagli a fairly substantial sum of money for him. Even if this wounded the Signora’s pride it would have helped her household ‘budget; which is presumably how Frieda saw it. Then there was the incident that took place when Barbara Weekley collapsed with a severe nervous breakdown while she was staying with her mother. Frieda always saw and spoke of herself as a sexual being so it was natural for her to think of sex as a panacea and logical to arrange for the handsome gardener’s boy to be put in her daughter’s bed. The doctor look him out again with great firmness, so the theory was never put to the test. Mindless as Frieda’s action was, we have to believe it was well-meant.

The mitigating circumstance is, of course, the state of her marriage to Lawrence. Feinstein does not expatiate on it – there is no need – but she makes it plain. Frieda clearly suffered from long years of sexual frustration, for which the hurling of a few smoothing-irons must have seemed, to a sexual being, a mild retaliation. In her third marriage the storms significantly died away. The smoothing-irons were put aside; to gather dust, since the only use they would be put to in any house run by Frieda was no longer appropriate.

Elaine Feinstein achieves her portrait of Frieda partly by quoting so many and such memorable comments about her, a method which provides an air of detachment, almost of global assessment. They range in time and in charity. Katherine Mansfield while in Cornwall spoke of ‘that immense German Christmas pudding which is Frieda’. Georgia O’Keeffe who met her in Taos twenty years later describes her ‘standing in a doorway with her hair all frizzed out, wearing a cheap red calico dress that looked as though she had just wiped out the frying pan with it. She was not thin, not young, but there was something radiant and wonderful about her.’ Frieda may have been radiant but she was, by common consent, not very bright. Aldous Huxley considered her the stupidest woman he had ever met. Elaine Feinstein conveys the same idea but more effectively by means of the elegant sideswipes that she delivers so well when she needs to be uncomplimentary but not crudely so: ‘Frieda had only the sketchiest idea of psychoanalysis, but she was altogether convinced by what she thought she understood’; ‘Frieda gave an opinion of Shelley with bland assurance.’ Sometimes, while sounding tolerant, she lets Frieda condemn herself out of her own mouth, as when she writes to Edward Garnett about his play Jeanne d’Arc: ‘Don’t you men all love her better because she was sacrificed?’ In her outburst of complacent femspeak, Frieda ignored the dictum that to generalise is to be a fool.

Lawrence made a point of putting his women into his fiction. Feinstein identifies them as she goes along, and this is helpful: though most readers would recognise Mabel Luhan in ‘St Mawr’, not everybody would immediately realise that, for example, ‘The Rocking Horse Winner’ was inspired by the unhappiness of Lady Cynthia Asquith or that Brett is Dollie in ‘The Princess’. Given the subject of the book, the reader ought to know these things; otherwise it would not matter. It did not weigh much, or at all, with Lawrence that he might be causing distress. He had been regularly handing Jessie instalments of Sons and Lovers before it occurred to him that in so brutally exposing her failings, as he saw them, and in making public the very private details of their relationship, he might severely hurt her; when it did occur to him, he hit on the solution of sending the scripts by post instead.

Jessie finally protested, venturing an elliptical reproach in one of her letters, but she was too gently elliptical for her own good, and Lawrence could pretend not to notice it. Lady Ottoline was badly wounded too, as well she might be, by the viciously offensive portrait of her in Women in Love, but she reacted in a more warlike spirit. She thought of taking legal action – I imagine she thought about it long and hard – but wisely decided that she might make herself look sillier than he had tried to do. To expect penitence from Lawrence would have been unrealistic to the point of insanity. Early in his career he had declared: ‘If I need any woman for my fictional purpose, I shall use her. Why should I let any woman come between me and the flowering of my genius?’ He meant it and he stuck to it. Of all the ways in which he exploited women this was die most consistent and the cruellest. It was certainly what his victims minded most.

Throughout the book Elaine Feinstein has kept her eyes resolutely on her chosen subject: Lawrence’s women. It is slightly disconcerting therefore to find her in the last paragraph hoping that Lawrence will be read with more compassion in the future. She can be sure that admirers of Lawrence’s work – I am one – will never think less highly of him as a writer, but as to any other reaction I am less certain. She herself is so far from being openly judgmental that her charitable tone when speaking of Lawrence’s behaviour is almost catching; but not quite. Her presentation of the grief he caused his women, one way or another, is so accomplished that at the moment, on finishing the book, I feel less compassion towards Lawrence as a man than in all my reading life I have ever done.