SECOND THOUGHTS / A soul bleeds to death: Elaine Feinstein recalls the surprises in the writing of Lawrence's Women (Flamingo, pounds 6.99)

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The Independent Culture
WHEN I first thought of writing about D H Lawrence I was well aware of his contempt for democracy, his distrust of education and his dislike of aspirant women, and I expected to find him closer to the bossy, irascible figure of Compton Mackenzie's hostile memoirs, than to the sensitive, human intelligence so praised by F R Leavis. Deciding to approach his biography through his relations to the women in his life was no doubt a sign that I took the feminist case against him pretty seriously.

I found many different images of the man. There was the tender, sickly child at home from school with his mother; the awkward adolescent who bullied his first girl- friend Jessie Chambers, soon to be caricatured as Miriam in Sons and Lovers; the eager, likeable young novelist whose bright-eyed interest in everything he saw made him a confident friend of Lady Cynthia Asquith, Catharine Carswell and Lady Ottoline Morrell (at least until she was incarnated as Hermione in Sons and Lovers). The surprises came as I began to explore Lawrence's long, battling marriage to Frieda, the German baroness who had recklessly left her comfortable home and children to take her chance at his side.

It soon became clear that for all the passion this beautiful woman aroused in Lawrence, these two were not held together most strongly by sexual happiness. On her side, there was a joy in the pleasures of adventurous living and a near-maternal tenderness; on his, a dependency so complete that he spoke of the 'soul bleeding to death' at the prospect of separation. Yet at a difficult point in their marriage, Lawrence wrote in a letter to Katherine Mansfield that Frieda had become so dominant a mother-figure in his life, that it was nearly impossible 'to get the sexual relationship right'; and this problem became one of the crucial sources of those ferocious quarrels which astonished their friends. The problem found its way, too, into much of his crankiest writings about sex - in The Plumed Serpent, for instance, or in Mellors' account of his insatiable wife, Bertha Coutts, in Lady Chatterley's Lover.

His poetry and his passages of natural description nevertheless confirmed my admiration for his genius. And by the time I was writing the last chapters of my own book, I found I was overwhelmingly sorry for the man. In the last four years of his life, while he was dying of tuberculosis and Frieda was taking weekends away from his bedside to visit her lover, Angelo Ravagli, he continued to write marvellous poems and generous letters. By the end, I could only marvel at his courage and dignity.