If the Ghost of Christmas Past were to drag his chains to the end of my bed on 24 December, I’d ask him to bypass the disappointment of my childhood stockings and fly me back a hundred years instead, to see the D H Lawrence show. The battles between Lawrence and his wife, Frieda, were a spectator sport and Christmas is guaranteed to bring out the worst in a couple. The year 1917 was a terrible one for the Lawrences: after being evicted from Cornwall on suspicion of signalling to German submarines, they were spied on by the police in London. The previous Christmas they had sung folk songs around the piano in Zennor, but now they were homeless and spent the period holed up in a borrowed cottage in Berkshire. Lawrence had been in a foul mood since the war began, but the Cornish debacle, together with the suppression of The Rainbow in 1915 and his failure to find a publisher prepared to take on Women in Love, turned him into a spluttering, fuming volcano, ready to flare up at the slightest provocation.
So there they’d be on Christmas Eve, cooped up in the kitchen. The aristocratic Frieda leaning back on a chair with her fleshy legs wide apart, puffing on a ciggie to annoy her husband. Lawrence, spare as a wild dog, peeling potatoes and basting the bird, having spent the day scrubbing floors, painting walls and reading reviews of his latest collection of poems, Look! We Have Come Through! It was, said Lawrence, about ‘the conflict of love and hate that goes on between the man and the woman’. Not everyone found the subject as interesting as he did. ‘They may have come through,’ grumbled Bertrand Russell, ‘but I don’t see why I should look.’ Each to his own, but I’m writing a life of D H Lawrence and so want to bag myself a ringside seat. Who should I support? I’m obliged, as a woman, to back Frieda but it’s the bantamweight punches of Lawrence I need to see.
Lawrence may have been the only male writer who also did the housework. He grew his own veg and made his wife breakfast in bed too. What, I wonder, did Frieda do all day? They wouldn’t have been expecting guests that Christmas because Lawrence had fallen out with all their friends. ‘As soon as I have promised to meet people I want to take to my heels in the opposite direction,’ he wrote to Mark Gertler on 29 December 1917. ‘It is only at rare sympathetic moments that I feel like talking.’ He had, until recently, been thick with John Middleton Murry and Katherine Mansfield, but that came to an end when the two couples tried communal living. According to Mansfield, Lawrence and Frieda were savages. On one occasion, when Frieda said something over tea about not liking Shelley’s ‘Ode to a Skylark’, Lawrence grabbed her by the hair and roared, ‘I’ll cut your bloody throat, you bitch.’ Several hours later, Mansfield heard them screaming and scuffling outside the house. ‘He beat her – he beat her to death – her head and face and breast and pulled out her hair. All the while she screamed for Murry to help her. Finally they dashed into the kitchen and round and round the table. I shall never forget how L looked. He was so white – almost green and he just hit – thumped the big soft woman. Then he fell into one chair and she into another.’ After fifteen minutes of silence, Lawrence ‘looked up and asked Murry a question about French literature’; subsequently Lawrence and Frieda began reminiscing about a particularly delicious macaroni cheese.
Frieda could land a good punch herself. On one occasion she crept up behind Lawrence while he was washing the dishes and brought a stoneware plate down on his head. Apparently his singing had annoyed her. Lawrence transported the scene to Women in Love, in which Hermione Roddice comes into Birkin’s room when he is writing a letter and repeatedly pounds him over the head with a lapis lazuli paperweight.
The Lawrences’ rows were a form of theatre, so with no guests to entertain they probably spent Christmas 1917 billing and cooing and enjoying a night off. Anyway, Lawrence had declared earlier in the year that his ‘long and bloody battle’ with Frieda was over. The critical battle is still going on, however, and women are still bashing him over the head.
D H Lawrence’s ability to offend while simply getting on with the job is one of his most striking talents. His reputation has not yet recovered from the blow Kate Millett landed on him forty-seven years ago in Sexual Politics. When I was at university in the 1980s my (female) tutor refused to teach Lawrence. My mother wouldn’t have his books in the house. Being a female Lawrence fan still requires explaining.
Lawrence, said Millett, was ‘phallocentric’, and the word has stuck. The purpose of Lawrence’s heroes, Millett argued, was to break their women and bring them to submission. This, to my mind, is a misreading. Lawrence has many flaws as a novelist – he can’t do plots, for one thing; his sentences, like his journeys through Italy, simply wander off with no sense of where they’re going – but he can never be accused of promoting women without character. Lawrence, I have always felt, knows me. It is his men who lack interiority. Take Ursula Brangwen, for example. The Rainbow gives us three generations of her family, and by the time we get to its sequel, Women in Love, we know all about her Polish grandmother, her class background, her nine months in the womb and her failed love affairs. We know who she is when she’s at work, when she’s at home, when she’s with her father, mother, sister and Anton Skrebensky, and – most importantly – when she’s alone. Brangwen is a complex woman hurtling through history: ‘my God, how far was she projected from her childhood, how far was she still to go?’ But who the hell is Rupert Birkin, apart from a human megaphone? He is given no family, no class, no context. While Lawrence’s women are composed of contradictions, his men have only strong blood and virile opinions. Rather than worship Birkin, Brangwen mocks him. In response to Birkin’s announcement that he no longer believes in love and prefers the idea of ‘a world empty of people, just uninterrupted grass and a hare sitting up’, she raises an eyebrow. Is that all you believe in, she retorts, ‘the end of the world, and grass?’
So when Lawrence says that ‘it was a fight to the death between them’, I believe that Brangwen’s irony wins the war. Either way, it’s time for a ceasefire. Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence.