BOOK REVIEW / Midlands Bert becomes Lorenzo: 'The Married Man: A Life of D H Lawrence' - Brenda Maddox: Sinclair-Stevenson, 20 pounds; 'Frieda Lawrence' - Rosie Jackson: Pandora, 14.99

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WITHIN 20 minutes of meeting him, Brenda Maddox tells us, Frieda had Lawrence in bed. He was 26, with one novel behind him, and had come back to Nottingham before leaving for Germany to improve his health. But when he went to Sunday lunch with his old professor, Ernest Weekley, there was Germany, in the ample shape of Frieda (nee von Richthofen), Weekley's wife, waiting behind the door. Ernest must have been at the office, or not paying attention, as Frieda showed the young genius her lechings. In an instant, she un- Englished him. The rest is history, or a his-and-her story: the elopement, the scandalous divorce, the travels, the novels, the marriage - famous for its apocalyptic, crockery-smashing rows - which ended only with Lawrence's death at 44.

Hang on a minute, though. Who says the relationship began like this? Not the biographer of Lawrence's early years, John Worthen, who thinks the incident 'could not have happened'. Nor Frieda, whose account of the first meeting in her horribly-titled but not excessively insincere autobiography Not I, But the Wind recalls mere discourse, not intercourse, in her room. Not Lawrence, either, whose autobiographical novel Mr Noon similarly describes a long conversation about Freud and 'sex in the head', and which speaks of the failure of the 'famous first night'. The only sources for the pre-lunch sex seem to be Mabel Dodge Luhan (who had many reasons to be malicious to Frieda) and a friend of a friend (Lewis Richmond, in a note in the Nottingham Record Office, says he heard it from William Hopkin, a mentor from Lawrence's Eastwood days). Even the passage from Mr Noon which Brenda Maddox quotes to suggest impulsive passion ('A bright, roused look was on her face', etc) isn't about the couple's first sexual encounter, but about their second, after they've spent the day together walking. No one wants to spoil a good story, but this one doesn't stand up.

Since Lawrence and Frieda were bold, unconventional bodies capable of acting in this spirit, perhaps it doesn't matter that they didn't. But there are other reasons, veracity aside, why Brenda Maddox's need to begin her account of their relationship with a bang seems misguided. To start with, it reinforces stereotypes of Frieda as nymphomaniac, man-eater, the mother of all orgasms. Contemporaries of Frieda called her many things - fat, stupid, lazy, insensitive, German. F R Leavis said she was neither maternal nor intellectual, and that her union with Lawrence 'was hardly one that provided representative experience for pronouncing normatively about marriage'. But the most common put- downs were that she was a) an aristocrat and b) promiscuous. Even Lawrence played his part in this, telling friends 'she's a Baroness, you know', and inviting wonder that he, a miner's son, now shared a bed with a nob.

Rosie Jackson, in her book (part-biography, part-anthology of Frieda's writings), tries to combat such stereotypes, describing Frieda as 'relatively monogamous' and disbelieving the legends of her escapades (the woodcutter she swam across a river to, the young mutual friend she went to a hay hut with, etc). Brenda Maddox, who is good on Frieda's exposure to German counter-culture and her affair with the Freudian Otto Gross, more convincingly argues that Frieda did not believe in fidelity. Her account of the Lawrence marriage is sympathetic. But the material is colourful enough without her gasping at Frieda's 'pattern of erotic expression (which) was anarchic, devilish and very far from the norm'.

Friends wondered why Lawrence put up with Frieda. The Morrells let it be known (much as they did with T S Eliot) that he had married the wrong woman. The Huxleys, when Lawrence's tuberculosis took hold, despaired of teaching Frieda the rudiments of nursing and hygiene. Others told tales of his lordship, when not writing, manically dusting, tidying, making beds and preparing meals, while Lady Muck lazed in a hammock smoking fags. But these two new books ask another question: how did she put up with him? He called her a dirty hussy. He bashed her about, on one occasion breaking her favourite Bessie Smith record over her head. And for the last few years of his life he was impotent.

Above all, he was extraordinarily unsympathetic to her guilt and misery at abandoning her three children. Denied access to them by the embittered Weekley and the English law, demonised at home until not even her name could be uttered ('I'm like the WC, that can't be mentioned,' she complained), she had cause to regret her elopement. But when she came to Lawrence for comfort and reassurance, he said: 'You don't care a damn about these brats really, and they don't care about you.' Fear and jealousy only partly explain his imperviousness. There was also a petulant feeling that, since he'd lost his mother, Frieda's children could damn well lose theirs.

Several aspects of Lawrence's temperament, including anger and impatience, may have come from his tuberculosis, which Brenda Maddox thinks was the great unmentionable in his life. The haste at which he wrote (because of the justifiable worry that TB would kill him off early) is one of her themes, and she, too, has moved with haste, producing a well-researched, 650-page volume in the five years since her biography of James Joyce's wife, Nora. But she is over-hasty in giving us what the blurb calls 'a D H Lawrence for the 1990s', that red-bearded, Robin Cook lookalike who stands accused, like the male subjects of so many other 1990s biographies, of racism, fascism, misogyny and homosexuality. It is D H Lawrence 1885-1930 we need to understand.

Brenda Maddox knows about this Lawrence - she has done her research - and comes up with some interesting material. She draws on the recent discovery of his one definite extra-marital affair, with Rosalind Baynes. She explores his relationship with the homosexual Maurice Magnus. She shows that his Australian novel, Kangaroo, was surprisingly well informed about the political unrest it describes. She demolishes the myth of the impoverished wanderer, showing that Lawrence was canny and comparatively affluent (a pounds 400-a-year man, no mean sum in its day), and headline news for most of his career. Early on, she emphasises not Lawrence in Eastwood but Lawrence in Croydon, the years of schoolteaching and spooning.

But it's in Croydon, sharing a house with a colleague, John Jones, and his family, that 1990s Lawrence first breaks in. 'The close quarters made Lawrence acutely aware of Mrs Jones's soulful eyes and large breasts,' we're told. Worse, he began to look at the two little Jones girls 'in increasingly sexual terms', letting one of them sip his beer and playing 'larking' games with them. Today, all this would be suspect, Brenda Maddox reminds us, and though Lawrence was not a man to feel 'guilt' about anything, let alone paedophile frolics, still . . . Ms Maddox is not generally prissy about Lawrence, but the impression she leaves here is of a perv in the making.

Lawrence's sexuality, an obligatory concern given that his great theme was the relation between men and women, has fascinated critics ever since John Sparrow cracked the code for anal intercourse in Lady Chatterley's Lover. Brenda Maddox unearths more anal sex in the poetry and Mr Noon, but her approach is less reader's-guide than sex-guide. When the Frieda figure in Mr Noon tells the hero 'It isn't every man who can love a woman three times in quarter of an hour', Maddox brings in Masters and Johnson's finding 'that many males below the age of 30, but 'relatively few thereafter' have the ability to ejaculate frequently, with only slight intervals in between'. When Kate in The Plumed Serpent is denied orgasm by the dusky Cipriano, Maddox wonders if it is sadistic male domination or 'coitus reservatus, an oriental sexual technique of prolonged pleasure without climax'. When a poem in Look] We Have Come Through recalls 'So she laid her hands and pressed them down my sides' Maddox finds evidence of 'Frieda's sexual technique . . . With experienced hands she felt all over his thin body'. Poems, novels, essays: all become manuals of instruction in the sex-life of the Lawrences.

To be fair, Brenda Maddox does have an interesting literary-critical appendix, a comparison of Lawrence's story 'The Shadow in the Rose Garden' with Joyce's 'The Dead'. But for the rest she won't allow the art a life of its own, a life that isn't just raw material for the Life. Nowhere is this more apparent than in her pursuit of Lawrence's homosexuality, or 'fear of homosexuality', or 'struggle against homosexual longings'. He describes a bullfight, and his biographer sees only 'a grotesque fantasy of homosexual intercourse'. He writes of war (it is 1914), and his fear of 'being trodden to nought in the smoke- sodden tomb', and she hears only a pun on sodomy. Lawrence's irritability, his reluctance to submit himself to medical examination, his desire to exterminate the human race: all these spring from homosexuality, or homophobia, which turn out to mean much the same thing. Lawrence writes a lot about sex (and homosexuality), but Maddox seems to be more interested in the passages where he isn't writing about sex, if only to point out that actually he is.

This may be what the publishers mean by 'a D H Lawrence for the 1990s', a dead white male author who needs, if this biography is to compete with the other biographies, some touching-up, or even sexing-up. But the publishers also mean, this being a feminist or post-Kate Millett age, that equal attention is to be given to Frieda. Brenda Maddox deals with Lawrence's much-documented childhood in a mere four pages, whereas she gives whole chapters to Frieda's life before she met him and after he died. Rosie Jackson goes further still: she notes that only 18 of Frieda's 77 years were spent with Lawrence, and puts him in his place as one only, among several, of 'Frieda's men'. Both books use the same cover photograph: the anxious, little, bearded author (left) upstaged by his confident, clear-eyed companion (right). Both concentrate on the wife who didn't write some of the century's most celebrated novels as much as on the husband who did.

But neither, in the end, enlists Frieda to the martyred ranks of Zelda Fitzgerald, Vivienne Eliot, Sylvia Plath or Brecht's mistresses. She was not a feminist. True to the culture that created her, she elected to be muse and helpmeet to Lawrence, not to emulate him: 'I wanted to give Lawrence my silence,' she said, though she gave him plenty of lip as well. She argued with him about ideas, read his drafts, pushed him in new directions - towards The Rainbow and Women in Love, in particular, though even Sons and Lovers, which he had begun before they met, bears the marks of her Freudianism. More mundanely, his reworking of her as his habitual heroine flattered her vanity: 'I am so nice in L's new novel, anyhow I think so.' She had no ambition to write. Her drive was to be what Lawrence called a 'genius in living'.

What Lawrence would have written had he never met Frieda, or if she had resisted his invitation to run away, remains one of the great what-ifs of Eng Lit. Some believe that her influence was catastrophic, both for the fiction and the life. She thought she had kept him alive and 'conquered the deathloving side of him' - without her, she said, he'd have been 'a little local poet, a watered down Thomas Hardy', dull Midlands Bert rather than Lorenzo, the priest of love. We shall never know. But, unlike most, the Lawrence marriage fizzed to the end, and their spats and smashed crockery will resound as long as the relationship between men and women is a subject for fiction.