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The chain-smoking, plate-smashing mother of orgasms

Frieda Lawrence was infuriating, vital, lumpen-aristocratic, revolting - and wonderful. A Genius for Living: A Biography of Frieda Lawrence by Janet Byrne Bloomsbury, pounds 20
Brenda Maddox called her excellent biography of DH Lawrence The Married Man; now, less than a year later, we have the same story told from the other side: The Married Woman, as it were. Thrice-married, to be precise. First, in 1899, to Ernest Weekley, the self-made professor of linguistics - who brought Frieda from Germany to Nottingham where she later abandoned him (and their children) to elope with his former student, 26-year-old Bert Lawrence. They were married in 1914, and for the rest of Lawrence's life they roamed and quarrelled their way around the world. Shortly after Lawrence's death she took up with Angelino Ravagli, an Italian soldier with whom she had had a brief affair during the novelist's last years. They stayed companionably together until her death in Taos in 1956, where she had first come with Lawrence 34 years earlier.

The chief value of Janet Byrne's book lies in the attention it pays to the first and third phases of Frieda's life; the problem is that the second phase is the important one - were it not for that we wouldn't be interested in the others - and we know all about it already. This is a terrible bind for Byrne: she can't skip Frieda's 18 years with Lawrence, but this parficular part of her pitch has been worn bare. Plate-smashing, rages, beatings: friends witnessed the Lawrences' rucks with shock and bemusement. Now, at eighth or ninth hand, Lorenzo's cracking a Bessie Smith record over his missus' head has all the cosy familiarity of a favourite moment from Man About The House. Which Lawrence was, of course, though not quite in the sense he intended while throttling her and hissing that he was the master. "Lawrence was always busy," Frieda's third husband recalls, "mostly doing housework." But then we already knew that too.

Often, in the course of reading A Genius for Living, one feels that it is too much too late. It's rotten luck for Byrne, who is intelligent, scrupulous, and a far better advocate of her subject's individual claim on posterity than Rosie Jackson who, in her recent, rather feeble book, Frieda Lawrence, protested that Frieda had never been seen whole, as she was, had always been reduced to type. Byrne and Maddox have both made up for this by presenting fully-rounded, broadly similar pictures of a woman too easily cast as Lawrence's "muse" or "the mother of orgasm". In both accounts she is infuriating, vital, lumpen-aristocratic, revolting (chain-smoking Woodbines - ugh), loyal, faithless and, as Lawrence claimed when he first met her, "wonderful". More than anyone else, perhaps, the test this "genius for living" poses a biographer is, precisely, to make her live, to present her as a flesh and blood being rather than the accumulation of acts undertaken by a name on the page. This is what Maddox does so well. Byrne provides more detail about the world of the Teutonic avant- garde in which Frieda moved (especially the pre-Lawrence affair with the radically randy psychoanalyst, Otto Gross), but the crucial point, that lots of Lawrence's "ideas" were derived from this milieu via Frieda, is felt most vividly as a lived process in Maddox's account.

Whether these intellectual imports had a beneficial effect on Lawrence's work is a moot question, but Byrne emphasises Frieda's intuitive grasp of what - despite the sniping of English intellectuals - was most valuable in that work. Swatting aside the academic analyses that began to appear after his death, she insists again and again on the aspects of Lawrence that still mean most to us today: "To me his relationship, his bond with everything in creation was so amazing, no preconceived idea, just a meeting between him and a creature, a tree, a cloud, anything."

It is in chronicling these years after Lawrence's death that Byrne comes into her own. She carefully conveys how Frieda's hasty involvement with Ravagli entailed no loss of loyalty to Lawrence: in his own practical, unliterary way Ravagli did his bit for the novelist's posthumous glory, fetching his remains from France and building a chapel to his memory in Taos. The atmosphere there is evoked by one of the many guests to take advantage of Frieda's boundless hospitality, WH Auden: "Cars of women pilgrims go up every day to stand reverently and wonder what it would be like to sleep with him."

Frieda's own attitude to her hubby could not have been more different. The best vignette of this couple who endured so much and who, in spite of everything, forged a great destiny together, is found in a letter of 1928 - quoted by neither Maddox nor Byrne - in which Lawrence seeks to dissuade a pilgrim from visiting them: "Here am I, 42, with rather bad health: and a wife who is by no means the soul of patience ... But what am I now but a stray individual with not much health and not much money?