Lawrence and sex, between the lines

May 26, 1993|By Ann Egerton | Ann Egerton,Contributing Writer

Few male writers -- probably few men in general -- have been more influenced by the women in their lives than David Herbert Lawrence. The author of "Sons and Lovers," "The Rainbow" (banned in England as obscene), "Women in Love," "Lady Chatterly's Lover" and other novels, short stories and poetry had more than a passing interest in relations between the sexes; the subject dominated his private life and his writing.

He often rewrote his own sexual history and performance with more personally satisfactory and impressive conclusions. The chronology of his work reflects changes in his sexual philosophy, from equality to male supremacy. Many of the women in his life -- so many and so adoring that they were almost like groupies today -- were models for characters in his fiction; they were often not happy about their portrayals.

Although Lawrence (1885-1930) had two husky older brothers and a good-old-boy English coal miner father, as well as two sisters, the great influence on his young life was Lydia, his mother. His health was frail, and he often stayed home and helped his mother (who aspired to more gentility in her life) with housework. He always took her side in his parents' frequent arguments.

After the death of the favorite son, Ernest, Lydia turned even more to her sickly "Bertie," and both turned away in disgust from the earthy, cheerful husband and father, Arthur. His parents' raging quarrels set a domestic pattern that Lawrence and his wife, Frieda, duplicated and often surpassed during his married life.

Lawrence's frail health was always a worry, and he had tuberculosis for much of his adulthood. His physical condition affected people's perception of him, his view of himself, and his relations with both sexes. That he was a miner's son, a country boy and handy inside and outside the house did not keep him from being considered weak.

His marriage to Frieda von Richthoven, a strapping Brunhild of German aristocracy, accentuated his delicacy, as did his chronic poverty. Their early days of happiness are described in "The Rainbow," but later in the marriage -- which occurred after Frieda left her husband and three children for Lawrence -- his view of women took a turn. As the marriage foundered, he rejected equality between the sexes and spoke of his need for a woman who would be deferential and obedient -- behavior that didn't come naturally to Frieda, who was unfaithful and domestically indolent from the start.

Author Elaine Feinstein suggests that Lawrence had sporadic, and rarely acknowledged, homosexual longings, which were most vividly expressed in "Women in Love," but the degree of his preference is not certain. The novels "Aaron's Rod" and "The Plumed Serpent" express his insistence on the male being all-powerful in a relationship with a woman.

It is most astonishing to remember that Lawrence, who traveled so much (on so little money), had so many friends and produced such a prodigious body of work, never felt very well. He died at 44.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Lawrence and the Women: The Intimate Life of D. H. Lawrence"

Author: Elaine Feinstein

Publisher: HarperCollins

Length, price: 252 pages, $27.50

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