Oh, those awful, lovable Lawrences

January 22, 1995|By Ann Egerton

These days, we seem to be reading more about the lives of writers than their actual works. Many of us are probably more familiar with the relationships of Ernest Hemingway, C. S. Lewis and Emily Dickinson than with their books.

Phyllis Rose, in her book "Parallel Lives," about five marriages during the Victorian era -- of Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, John Stuart Mill, Charles Dickens and George Eliot -- notes that while we may disdain gossip as small-minded, we are at the same time fascinated by it, for it helps to tell us how to live -- and how not to live.

The marriage of English author D. H. Lawrence to the German baroness Frieda von Richthofen (cousin of World War I ace aviator the Red Baron) would be called dysfunctional today; their verbal and wild physical fighting -- in private, at parties, in the street -- might prompt a witness to call 911. Yet, the Lawrences were one of the world's most sought-after couples.

They were popular houseguests in England, Germany, Italy, Ceylon, Australia and New Mexico. When they wore out their welcome, there was always another invitation, because they were also charming and delightful. Lawrence, the son of a coal miner, was handy and usually left a rented, borrowed or visited house better than he found it.

Finally, people were drawn to his prestige and to his obsession with sex, which was the dominant topic of most of his novels, short stories, poetry, plays, even of some of his newspaper and magazine articles.

Brenda Maddox, author of the prize-winning "Nora: The Real Life of Molly Bloom" (about James Joyce's wife), describes their romance and marriage in 515 pages packed with new information, largely from the Cambridge edition of Lawrence's nearly 2,000 letters, which had never before been published and which reveal endless nuggets of his personality and psyche. Elaine Feinstein's recent "Lawrence and the Women: The Intimate Life of D. H. Lawrence" was a nicely detailed book, but Ms. Maddox's work sizzles with new material and a deeper examination of Lawrence's personal and professional lives, which often crossed.

In May 1912, the sexually inexperienced D. H. Lawrence was invited to lunch at the home of his professor, Ernest Weekly, and in 20 minutes was in bed with Weekly's chronically unfaithful wife, Frieda. An earlier lover had called her "an erotic muse for the comfort and liberation of the creative male." A tumultuous affair ensued, culminating in her leaving her husband and three children, cohabitation with Lawrence and her long, litigious divorce. After marrying in 1914, they loved and battled each other until his death of tuberculosis in 1930, at 44.

Wherever he was, he wrote like a man possessed. Some say that the body of his work is a continuing autobiography. While a single schoolmaster, he produced two novels and several short stories. During his romance with Frieda, he wrote "Sons and Lovers," which reflected his love of his mother and his rage against all women, two repeated themes of his writing. Another was his trademark ambivalence toward homosexuality.

In three weeks in 1913, he wrote 12 short stories. He wrote countless articles on a variety of subjects, from psychoanalysis to (rather muddled) political opinion to travels; Ms. Maddox contends that his travel writing is unsurpassed to this day. He wrote in longhand, and getting manuscripts typed was an expensive, lengthy proposition. His work, when it wasn't being banned, was more popular in the United States than in England, and he began to make money in the last six or seven years of his life.

His prodigious output of work (more than 50 collections of poems, essays and short stories plus 11 novels, not counting articles and letters) and his frequent traveling are hard to reconcile with his chronic, debilitating illnesses. This irascible, funny, supersensitive man was often bedridden, and yet he pressed on, to the next book, the next country. He wrote "Lady Chatterley's Lover" two years before he died. Frieda, with indiscretions here and there, stood by this most complicated man. In one sense, the Lawrences do show us how to live; they lived every moment.

Ms. Egerton is a Baltimore writer.

Title: "D. H. Lawrence: The Story of a Marriage"

Author: Brenda Maddox

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Length, price: 515 pages, $30

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