“It was captivating and exhilarating from start to finish. You couldn’t wait to hear what happened next.”
NO MAJOR SPOILERS
Behind every great man, so the saying goes, is a great woman. What the saying doesn’t add is that those women are too often forgotten, lost in the volumes of history or, at the very least, relegated to the footnotes.
In this lushly written, beautifully crafted second novel, Annabel Abbs redresses the balance somewhat for the ‘real Lady Chatterley’, Frieda von Richtofen, whose scandalous affair with the struggling young author D H Lawrence was the inspiration behind many of his most famous works.
The daughter of a down-on-his-luck German baron, Frieda marries the upright English philologist Ernest Weekly and moves with him to Nottingham. Three children later, she slowly comes to realise that the life she has painstakingly built, and the lifestyle of the English that she has so desperately tried to fit into, is trapping her. An affair with the psychoanalyst Otto Gross follows, encouraged by her sisters in Munich, and it is this, in Abbs’ retelling, which forms Frieda’s intellectual, creative and sexual awakening. When Otto fizzles out, she is introduced to a student of her husband’s: a young, flame-haired and idealistic Lawrence. Literary history would never recover, and neither would Frieda’s family life. After running away with Lawrence to the continent, she eventually divorced Weekly and married her lover, but she was effectively banished from her children’s lives, suffering the full force of the law at the time for adulterous mothers. (Incidentally, Lawrence’s response to her suffering makes for some gritty reading in the midst of the atmosphere of love and bohemianism and sexual revolution – Abbs portrays him as selfish and completely self-absorbed, unable to comprehend Frieda’s grief in the slightest).
The role of a muse is an uncomfortable one. Frieda was Lawrence’s great love, the reason (he claims in the book) that he could write at all, and yet she is also his editor, housewife, confidante, cheerleader, and occasional punchbag. “If you have lived with an artist, other men are just so boring” is her witty excuse, and yet there is something a little sad about a woman so determined to be emancipated and free, and yet at the same time so totally in thrall to her lover that her life becomes his work. Frieda, then, emerges as a complex character: in some ways a throughly modern woman who wouldn’t look out of place in today’s feminist movement, and yet still, to a certain extent, dependent on her lover in order to be that modern woman. It is only at the end of the book that we see a glimpse of Frieda as content, happy, and as the self that she has been striving to find.
There are instances where things feel a little clumsy, a little contrived or heavy-handed, but these can be forgiven in the general vibrancy of the novel. Abbs has finally brought Freida out of the shadows behind Lawrence and given her her own place in the spotlight, a place richly deserved.
Elodie Rose Barnes
Added 6th May 2019