With no warning, one of Britain’s most brilliant young novelists suddenly burst into the room where his wife was chatting to friends.
Then, in a frenzied attack, he began beating her head, face and breasts. For a few moments, it looked as if he might kill her.
At that point, D.H. Lawrence and Frieda Weekley had been married for just two years. ‘The most wonderful woman in all England’, he’d called her the day after they first met, convinced she’d transform his life.
Many years later, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which Lawrence wrote in 1928, would become the subject of an infamous trial in 1960, also for obscenity. (Pictured, still from the 1981 film)
And she certainly did. It was Frieda, with her earthy and emancipated views on sex, who would go on to inspire some of his most enduring novels. Indeed, according to a fascinating new biography, he could never have written either The Rainbow or Women In Love without her influence.
So what exactly, on that Friday in May 1916, triggered his atrocious assault — witnessed with some horror by his friends, the writers Katherine Mansfield and John Middleton Murry?
Merely this: Frieda had remarked earlier in the day that Shelley’s To A Skylark was an awful poem. D.H. Lawrence had snapped back, probably with some justification, that she didn’t know what she was talking about.
That got Frieda’s blood up: she angrily ordered him to get out. ‘Now!’ she yelled. ‘Out of my house, you God almighty you. I’ve had enough.’
But Lawrence wasn’t about to concede. ‘I’ll give you a dab on the cheek to quiet you, you dirty hussy,’ he hissed.
At dinnertime that same day, Frieda announced to his friends: ‘I have finally done with him — it’s all over for ever.’ It wasn’t the first fight they’d witnessed between the ill-matched couple, so they doubtless thought she meant it.
It was then that Lawrence rushed in and started pummelling his wife. When Frieda finally managed to escape his fists, she dashed into the kitchen, closely followed by her husband who chased her round and round the table until he managed to grab her again.
‘He was so white, almost green, and he just hit — thumped — the big soft woman,’ Mansfield later wrote to a friend. ‘Then he fell into a chair and she in another. No one said a word.’
The silence wasn’t broken until a full 15 minutes later, when Lawrence suddenly looked up and asked Murry a question about French literature. When this subject was exhausted, he and Frieda started to reminisce fondly about a particularly delicious macaroni cheese dish they’d once enjoyed.
It was as though the beating had been just a momentary aberration, a blip in their marriage that merited no further consideration — let alone recriminations.
These days, of course, D.H. Lawrence would probably be locked up or at least served with a restraining order. But back then, no one seemed to blame him much for battering his wife; instead, his friends reserved their disapproval for his victim.
Did they revile Frieda because she was German? It was, after all, the height of World War I — and she had the added handicap of being a cousin of the fighter pilot Baron von Richthofen, known as the Red Baron.
Her nationality, however, is unlikely to have troubled Lawrence’s literary friends; they simply loathed her company and wondered why he put up with her.
Constance Garnett, a highly respected translator of Russian literature, found Frieda slow-witted and excessively sexual. The literary hostess Ottoline Morrell thought she was egotistical, while the author Aldous Huxley considered her ‘incurably and incredibly stupid — the most maddening woman I’ve ever come across’.
It was also maliciously noted that Frieda sat with her legs apart, and that while she grew fatter and more matronly her husband — who suffered for much of his adult life from tuberculosis — grew ever thinner.
Wasted by TB, Lawrence (pictured) weighed just six stone and had to be admitted to a sanatorium near Vence, where he died on March 2, 1930
Lawrence had first set eyes on Frieda in 1912. Already a published novelist, he’d decided on a whim to find work as a teacher in Germany and approached his former university professor for a recommendation. (Pictured,Frieda Lawrence, second wife of DH Lawrence)
She had no evident talents apart from sex, said her detractors, and seemed happy to bed just about any man with a pulse.
Viewed from the 21st century, of course, such criticism seems wincingly harsh, as if she somehow deserved to be beaten for her ignorance and vulgarity. Yet it’s striking that even Lawrence’s latest biographer, Frances Wilson, has difficulty finding anything positive to say about Frieda Lawrence.
Beyond the satisfaction of her carnal desires, writes Wilson, Frieda didn’t much believe in anything. Her ‘one achievement (not inconsiderable) was putting up with Lawrence’, she concludes.
Lawrence had first set eyes on Frieda in 1912. Already a published novelist, he’d decided on a whim to find work as a teacher in Germany and approached his former university professor for a recommendation.
Professor Weekley, who lived near Nottingham with his 31-year-old wife and their three children, invited him for Sunday lunch. But Weekley was finishing something in his study when Lawrence arrived, which meant Mrs Weekley had to entertain him alone for half an hour.
In those crucial 30 minutes, the novelist decided that the professor’s wife — with her blonde hair, green eyes and large bosom — was his destiny.
What did they talk about? Lawrence told Frieda that after a few sexual misadventures, he was finished with women; she laughed, and was soon chatting merrily about her favourite subject.
As she later encapsulated the philosophy that drove her: ‘Fanatically, I believed that if only sex were “free”, the world would straightaway turn into a paradise.’
Whether Frieda’s husband shared that view is unlikely. He’d met her on a walking holiday in Germany and married her in 1899. On their return from honeymoon, he told her parents: ‘I am married to an earthquake.’
Within a few years, Frieda had her first affair — with a lace-maker who’d drive her to Sherwood Forest so she could run naked through the trees. Another lover was a cocaine-addicted schizophrenic. A third was an anarchist railway worker.
And now she’d landed an intense 27-year-old novelist who appeared to worship her. They met again — just twice — before agreeing to travel together to Germany.
It hardly mattered that Lawrence had no money, no job and no home. As far as Frieda was concerned, she was having just another affair while she paid a visit to her parents.
But Lawrence was in earnest: he wrote to Professor Weekley to tell him they loved each other.
‘Mrs Weekley,’ he declared, ‘is afraid of being stunted and not allowed to grow and so she must live her own life.’
From Germany, they travelled on to Italy, where he worked on a novel Frieda named The Rainbow — because rainbows, composed from fire and water, symbolised their union: she was a full-flowing stream and he was a burning flame.
All very elemental and romantic, but Frieda was all too often drawn to other flames. One chance came on their honeymoon when they were walking in the mountains with bisexual novelist David Garnett and his good-looking pal Harold Hobson, a drama critic. Later, Frieda told Lawrence that Hobson had ‘taken’ her in a hay hut one day. It was the second time she’d strayed that summer; back in Germany, she’d slept with an officer in Metz. Lawrence shrugged — who was he to stunt her growth?
Yet even her sexual antics couldn’t mitigate Frieda’s genuine distress at being separated from her children, then aged 12, ten and eight. Lawrence, she recalled, ‘hated me for being miserable… In revenge I did not care about his writing.’
In fact, he was jealous of her children, wanting all of Frieda’s attention for himself. Mothers, he told her in all seriousness, must relinquish their spawn, and the sooner the better.
She couldn’t agree, but the decision was taken out of her hands: when her marriage ended, Professor Weekley was granted full custody.
The Rainbow was published a year after the Lawrences married, by which time they were living in London. Now widely viewed as a masterpiece, it charted the sexual awakening of three generations of women. The book caused instant outrage. It was condemned as ‘a mass of obscenity’ by magistrates, who ordered the rest of the first edition to be burned.
Many years later, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which Lawrence wrote in 1928, would become the subject of an infamous trial in 1960, also for obscenity. The publishers of the novel — avidly read by generations of teenagers for its sex scenes — were acquitted, but Lawrence by then was long dead.
In 1915, however, the suppression of The Rainbow came as a crushing blow. Unhinged, Lawrence talked wildly of leaving Britain to establish a ‘free community’ where people could live without money or rules.
Never lingering anywhere for long, the Lawrences moved to Cornwall, where they were joined by Mansfield and her boyfriend John Middleton Murry. Neither of them could bear Lawrence’s wife. Murry found her vulgar; Mansfield was convinced that Frieda actually ‘thrived’ on her husband’s beatings.
The son of a Nottinghamshire coal miner, Lawrence had been raised in a violent household and evidently saw nothing abhorrent in hitting his wife. He was also capable of being remarkably vile to friends.
At times ‘he simply raves, roars, beats the table, abuses everybody’, said Mansfield, while Murry recalled Lawrence becoming ‘transfigured by the paroxysms of murderous hatred, of his wife, of us, of all mankind’.
After a few weeks of this treatment, they decamped, leaving the novelist to complete his latest work: Women In Love.
In 1919, the Lawrences returned to Italy, where they shifted restlessly from one town or city to another. A year later, while his wife was visiting relatives in Germany, Lawrence renewed his acquaintance with an attractive 28-year-old friend, Rosalind Baynes, who’d recently split with her husband.
He asked her if she missed sex. When she said she did, he proposed in an offhand way that they should have a ‘sex-time’ together. Rosalind was enthusiastic, and suggested he spend the night with her.
Lawrence preferred to wait. The next night, when he came for supper, Rosalind had prepared her bedroom for their tryst, but still Lawrence wouldn’t stay.
On the third night, his 35th birthday, they finally had sex. The affair — if one can call it that — was an act of will, a conscious decision to affirm his freedom from Frieda, though there’s no evidence he ever repeated the experiment.
In 1921, Mabel Dodge, an eccentric American heiress who had become obsessed with him after reading his books, wrote to him out of the blue, offering the Lawrences a house in Taos, New Mexico, where she was then living with her Native American lover.
He accepted — arriving in America with Frieda just as the New York Society For The Suppression Of Vice was trying to ban Women In Love (which did wonders for its sales).
At 43, Mabel was the same age as Frieda, with the same full figure, and convinced that electricity flowed between Lawrence and herself. But there was little love lost between the two women.
At their very first meeting, Mabel wrote later, she realised Frieda was sizing up Mabel’s taciturn Native American lover and imagining what he’d be like in bed. As for Frieda, her hackles rose when Lawrence announced he wanted to write a novel with their benefactor.
On the first day of their collaboration, he walked over to Mabel’s house and found her sunbathing on her terrace, naked beneath a dressing-gown. It was a scene set for seduction, but he fell into a gloomy silence. ‘I don’t know how Frieda’s going to feel about this,’ he said eventually.
Nothing happened — just as well, as Mabel was suffering from syphilis. After they’d worked together for an hour, they strolled back to his house and found Frieda hanging out the washing.
‘Her rage was apparent from a distance of 100 yards and Lawrence started to chuckle,’ Mabel recalled. Yet it was Frieda who won a decisive victory by insisting she be present when the two of them were working. To scupper the next novel-writing session, she ‘stamped around, sweeping noisily, and singing in loud defiance’. The venture was soon abandoned, as were Mabel’s hopes of an affair.
In all likelihood, Lawrence couldn’t have bedded her: despite the clean air of the mountains, he was coughing blood and losing weight. His temper, however, remained ferocious: friends recall him trying to punch his wife in the face because he didn’t like the way her cigarette dangled from her lip. When asked why she stayed with him, Frieda said he was angry only because he was ill and she was well. In any case, she added, she had nowhere to go — but she wouldn’t leave him anyway.
The pattern of their lives together was set. Back in England, Frieda brazenly propositioned their old friend John Middleton Murry, who turned her down. And Lawrence, by now demented and increasingly ill, went beserk one day when she contradicted him in front of friends.
As he broke all the crockery in sight with a poker, he raved: ‘If you ever talk to me like that again, it will not be the tea things I smash, but your head. Oh, yes, I’ll kill you. So beware!’ Then he smashed the poker down on the teapot.
Two years on, the warring couple were back in Italy, where Frieda slept with a married Italian army officer, Captain Angelino Ravagli. She nevertheless accompanied her husband to France.
Wasted by TB, Lawrence now weighed just six stone and had to be admitted to a sanatorium near Vence, where he died on March 2, 1930.
Within weeks of his death, Frieda had sex with Murry, and the following year she returned to New Mexico with Ravagli.
In 1935, she despatched her Italian lover to France with instructions to dig up and burn Lawrence’s body, then return with his ashes. Her husband’s final resting-place, she’d decided, would be a specially built chapel, 8,000ft up a mountain in New Mexico.
But she’d reckoned without Mabel Dodge, who thought the new chapel looked like a lavatory. In her final battle of wills with Frieda, Mabel plotted to steal the ashes and scatter them on the mountainside.
Somehow, her rival got wind of this — and there are two versions of what happened next.
In one, Frieda made Ravagli stir the ashes into some wet cement that was being prepared to make the chapel’s altar stone.
The second account, still doing the rounds in Taos in the 1980s, was that Mabel, Frieda and another Lawrence acolyte sat down for a meal containing at least one unusual ingredient — human ashes. Then, without further ado, they ate the great novelist.
Burning Man: The Ascent Of D.H. Lawrence by Frances Wilson will be published by Bloomsbury on May 27 at £25. To order a copy for £22.25 go to www.mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193. Free UK delivery on orders over £20. Offer valid until 22/05/21.