The dark half of the moon: No-one agrees about Lawrence and Frieda. Geoff Dyer sees why they still trouble us

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The Independent Culture
BRENDA Maddox introduces her absorbing new biography, The Married Man (Sinclair-Stevenson, pounds 14.99), by answering the unvoiced question of every potential reader: why another life of DH Lawrence? 'Because, for all his contradictoriness, he is not a spent force like George Bernard Shaw or HG Wells.' The force of Lawrence's personality and writing animate even hack biographies like Jeffrey Meyers', but few have brought us closer to the source of this power than Maddox. As she acknowledges in her introduction, she has had the advantage of being able to draw on one of the great academic publishing undertakings of recent years: the seven-volume Cambridge edition of Lawrence's letters, the last instalment of which appeared last year. Access to this magnificent resource is one of the reasons why the dead writer emerges from Maddox's pages as vividly as he does from the testimonies of those who found that he had crashed into their lives, and who recorded the effect while still reeling from the impact.

The combined impact, one should say, of Lawrence and Frieda, the aristocratic wife of Ernest Weekly whom Lawrence eloped with in 1912, married a few years later and spent the rest of his life quarrelling, fighting, travelling and, for interludes at least, being very happy with. Opinion about the Lawrences was rarely unanimous. Plenty of people found Lawrence unbearable but he was, they concurred, some kind of genius; as for Frieda, well, she was just unbearable, an unbearable German to boot. Ottoline Morrell sounded a not uncommon note when she wrote: 'If only we could put her in a sack and drown her.'

Others were charmed by Frieda and even unsympathetic observers wondered how she could bear the abuse Lawrence heaped on her: Katherine Mansfield recalled how, after Lawrence 'beat (Frieda) to death', she then saw them, half an hour later, chatting about macaroni cheese.

In Frieda Lawrence (Pandora, pounds 14.99), Rosie Jackson hopes to counter prejudiced accounts of Frieda by sifting these variously reductive readings ('the mother of orgasm') to come to a more balanced appraisal. Stuck in the lifeless syntax of the academic writing for the so-called general reader, Jackson's characteristic tone is a kind of wan refutation ('although Frieda's behaviour may not have been exemplary'). Her book was written with the co-operation of Frieda's daughter, Barbara, who felt that the record needed to be set straight, but the result is utterly alien to the spirit of its subject: a series of footnotes to the living, breathing body of Maddox's text.

Jackson reprints Frieda's memoir Not I, But the Wind in which incidents are seen through the mythic retrospect of what Lawrence wrote about them (when he first found a gentian it seemed 'as if the gentian yielded up its blueness, its very essence to him'). Even where it is factually accurate there is a whiff of falsification about much of Frieda's text. One of the remarkable qualities of The Married Man is that, even when the source is Frieda's memoir, the incidents have been (so to speak) restored so that they now appear in their original, plausible colours.

This is a tricky area, of course. It becomes trickier when Maddox presents as fact the highly dubious suggestion that Lawrence and Frieda (who made no such claim) were in the sack within 20 minutes of meeting. And while there is much coded anal sex in Lawrence's writing, Maddox's claim that his discovery of the erotic potential of 'the dark half of the moon' brought about a psychosexual rehabilitation is not entirely persuasive.

She is right to emphasise that, contrary to myth, careful management of his finances meant that by 1922, Lawrence ('a pounds 400-a- year-man') was actually fairly well-off. Any biographer would be applauded for adding this increment of knowledge to the existing hoard; Maddox's exceptional skill, though, is of a rarer order. In many biographies the subjects - Norman Sherry's Greene, for example - go from one place to another simply because this is what happened in the actual life. In The Married Man it is as if the trips are being made for the first time, before our eyes; we share Lawrence's own wildly conflicting impulses, the abrupt surges and reversals of intent, the crash and flow of emotions between the married couple, and between them and the world.

Perhaps I react so positively to Maddox because her picture of Lawrence is close to my own preferred version. But this is more than a coincidence. As she suggests in the introduction, we are now unlikely to respond to Lawrence like the young disciple who turned up naked for breakfast with his widow. A lot of Lawrence's writing is turgid nonsense; what we have come to value is the gift, especially in his letters, to fix a place in a few lines on the basis of the briefest of impressions. We prefer Sea and Sardinia to Women in Love; the idea of Lawrence the prophet in the wilderness is less seductive than Lawrence and Frieda as home-makers in the wilderness; Lawrence the destroyer (of sexual morality) moves us less than Lawrence the mender (of roofs and guttering). Most important of all Maddox emphasises that Lorenzo was fun to be with, that there was often something ridiculous about his paroxysms. A wonderful, moving passage comes after an evening of psychodrama on the ranch at Taos. Mabel Luhan, who had invited the Lawrences to New Mexico, tells Frieda how her husband Tony has stormed out. 'So Mabel thought that she had an angry husband. Lawrence was angry even in his sleep, Frieda declared, and proved it by taking Mabel in to witness the spectacle of Lawrence mumbling and groaning in his bed.'