BOOK REVIEW / The ones who plunged their hands through his blood: 'Lawrence's Women - Elaine Feinstein: HarperCollins, 18 pounds

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The Independent Culture
IT IS difficult to think of a modern English writer who has generated such vigorous dispute as David Herbert Lawrence. Hip priest, holy fool, erratic genius, erotic guru: the claims which his admirers have made for him are precisely those most vulnerable to his critics, who in the last 20 years have had the upper hand. Part of the biographer's problem is steering a sensible course between the two camps. Can we praise Lawrence without a sense of embarrassment? Can we deride him without merely kow-towing to fashionable opinion?

While it might be impossible to assess Lawrence's reputation anew, Elaine Feinstein presents a remarkably even-handed account of his life, focusing upon the close and often intense relationships he established with women. Many of them found their way, veiled or otherwise, into the novels, where Lawrence attempted to resolve his complicated (and pretty bizarre) attitudes to womanhood.

The book begins, as any study of Lawrence must, with his mother. Proud, determined, capable, Lydia Lawrence was idolised by her children, though 'Bert' was not her favourite; that privilege belonged to his older brother Ernest, whose death in 1901 drove his stricken mother toward her youngest and frailest son. Their fierce devotion came at a price. The antagonism which soon sprang up between his parents (Lawrence once claimed he 'was born hating his father') became the template for his own relations with women - the sexes, he believed, existed in a necessarily violent opposition.

Certainly no opposition in his life was more violent than the one he experienced with his wife. Frieda, nee von Richthofen, was already married when Lawrence met her, but she sacrificed security and the custody of her three children to be with him. Lawrence's Women is dominated by the story of their marriage - and its astonishing survival. In the 18 years Frieda and Lawrence were together they seemed to do everything short of exchanging gunfire. Passionately in love as they were, Feinstein assures us that the attachment was not founded on 'the lineaments of gratified desire'.

Frieda may have introduced Lawrence to progressive Continental thought about sex - he revised the manuscript of Sons and Lovers in the light of Freud's theories - but, unhappily, their own experience of sex was a lifelong source of strife. Frieda liked to go her own way, and it was this independence of spirit which fed into Lawrence's deep confusion with female sexuality. 'In his heart I think he always dreaded women,' Frieda wrote, 'felt that they were in the end more powerful than men.'

The evidence of this book bears out Frieda's judgement. At the age of 23 Lawrence was confessing in a letter how impossible he would find it to kiss a girl on the mouth. (The fear apparently stayed with him: Mellors, conquering hero of Lady Chatterley's Lover, dislikes being kissed on the mouth.) His childhood sweetheart, Jessie Chambers - the model for Miriam in Sons and Lovers - was too gentle and eager to please; he cruelly exploited her submissive temperament. Alice Dax, a local woman who worked in the post office, was feistier, and helped Lawrence lose his virginity, though she was unable to keep him once Frieda entered the scene. Another of his dalliances, with Louie Burrows, ended in an engagement, announced shortly before his mother's death. This, too, was doomed to failure: despite the knowledge of her love, Lawrence felt that she was too wholesome. In his words, 'she will never plunge her hands through my blood and feel for my soul'. Obvious, really.

In later life, he decided that female submission was the sine qua non of sexual contentment. In a letter to Katherine Mansfield, he reflected: 'I do think a woman must yield some sort of precedence to a man.' Whatever he propounded in theory, however, in practice he showed a terrific knack for securing the affection - and patronage - of influential women. Lady Ottoline Morrell, Lady Cynthia Asquith and Mabel Dodge Luhan all fell under his spell at one time or another, though it was one of Lawrence's nobler achievements that he remained faithful to Frieda to the last.

That constancy is, of course, the central mystery of their life together. One reads of the savage sparring chez Lawrence with a kind of appalled fascination. Saucepans and flat-irons whizz overhead as yet another quarrel boils over. One acquaintance noted: 'Never before or since have I heard a human being, in educated society, repeatedly release such a flow of obscene vile abuse on his wife (or on anyone) in the presence of comparative strangers as Lawrence did on Frieda.' Inevitably this bitter war of nerves exhausted them both - it is Feinstein's belief that Lawrence, gravely ill with tuberculosis in his later years, resented his wife's greater physical and psychological health. During Lawrence's long nomadic periods in America and Mexico, the marriage seemed to crack irreparably, yet somehow another rapprochement would always be effected. It is as if, however miserable things were, they had resigned themselves to each other's company.

Elaine Feinstein does not disguise Lawrence's shortcomings. The casual anti-Semitism, the brutish treatment of both friend and foe, the daft messianic pronouncements, the sorry mess of his sexual attitudes - all come under close but sympathetic scrutiny. While instinctively wary of Lawrence's apologists, I came away from this biography feeling that the word 'Lawrentian' need not always be demeaning. Feinstein considers it the task of our generation 'to read him again with compassion': Lawrence's Women is a decisive, perhaps even welcome step on the road to literary rehab.