BOOK REVIEW / Caricatures of the taste for soul mush: 'Lawrence's Women' - Elaine Feinstein: HarperCollins, 18 pounds

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The Independent Culture
SEXUAL speculation about any other shrill-voiced, housewifely, often impotent and probably sterile mother's boy, would be unthinkable. But Lawrence - the writer if not the man - chose sex as his special subject. So that 60 years after his death his life and work are still being ransacked to provide a definitive interpretation of his most intimate experiences.

Lawrence has been reduced to a case study of unresolved Oedipus complex, arrested emotional development and / or repressed homosexuality. According to the fashion he has been venerated as a high priest of sex, dismissed as a phallocentric woman-hater and derided for his murky theories of blood consciousness.

Now Ms Feinstein pleads compassion for Lawrence the man, so that Lawrence the artist can be reclaimed. Her fascinating and fast-moving appraisal recognises the much-discussed themes, but admirably favours common sense over psychobabble. She allows him his inconsistencies, and it is these - particularly the conflict between what he claimed to want and what he actually needed in a woman - that continue to intrigue.

The man hailed by several generations as a sexual guru detested kissing, was still a virgin at 23 and only ever made love to three women. Lady Chatterley's Lover was written as ill health reduced him to impotency and while his wife was having an affair with the Italian she was to marry after his death. Its original, trusting title was Tenderness.

Lawrence considered himself a champion of women's causes, but his tempestuous marriage to Frieda increased his alarm at the idea of independent women seeking their own fulfilment. He claimed he wanted a 'gushing' woman, yet his monologues hardly halted long enough for Mrs Lawrence to air her views. 'In his heart I think he always dreaded women,' wrote Frieda, 'and felt they were in the end more powerful than men.'

None of Lawrence's dealings with the female sex were particularly satisfactory. He only managed to gain his mother's attention after the death of her favourite son, Ernest. His early romances were unconsummated, until Alice Dax earned her place in history as his sexual initiator. Within his marriage he catered for every domestic need - washing, cooking and scrubbing floors - but sexually he failed to satisfy the robust Frieda. She was six years his senior and already a mother of three when they met.

Certainly no ladies man, David Herbert qualifies instead as a Lady's man. Frieda was herself a German aristocrat, the Baroness von Richtofen, and he counted Lady Cynthia Asquith, Lady Ottoline Morrell and the Honourable Dorothy Brett among his titled followers. Like a kind of spiritual vampire, he fed on their craving for 'soul mush,' as Frieda dismissed it. Then he repaid their devotion with cruel caricatures in his novels and seemed genuinely surprised when he was accused of leaving a trail of womanly distress behind him, stretching from his childhood supporter Jessie Chambers to his American patron, Mabel Dodge Luhan.

Few of his friendships - with either sex - survived the waspish personal pronouncements he felt it his right to make. His relationship with Katherine Mansfield was the nearest he came to a friendship of equals with a woman, perhaps because as a fellow artist he was able to promote her to honorary male. Even she was once stung into the tart comment that he should call his home The Phallus.

His sense of having a divine right to criticise, along with his growing identification of 'man' with 'artist', stem from Lawrence's notion of the aristocracy of genius. In this light even his assertions of male precedence can be viewed as aesthetic as much as sexual discrimination. His approach supports the theory of genius as a third sex, a kind of life force, unrestricted by gender. With Frieda, he had been searching for the 'wife spirit,' but ultimately it was the relationship that was vital, the gender irrelevant. He needed to be locked into one fierce connection to feel alive and to meet his own quaint imperative that the gates of heaven should be entered as part of a couple and not as a lone spirit.

Hopefully attention may now revert from Lawrence's sexual impotency to the potency of his language, which in short stories like Odour of Chrysanthemums came as a revelation to generations yet to learn about 'sexual politics'. It is a relief that we can meet such writing eternally in print, but also perhaps that there is no longer the slightest risk of encountering Lawrence the man - however chastely - in the flesh.