Interview with Annabel Abbs, author of ‘Frieda’

 

annabel Abbs
Photograph: James Walker

Annabel Abbs is the guest speaker at the 2019 D.H Lawrence Birthday Lecture. Specialising in historical fiction, Annabel recently said that ‘when you write characters, they stay inside you’. We were intrigued as to what aspect of Frieda Lawrence, a non-conformist libertarian, had stayed with her…

Tell us about your childhood. We hear that D.H. Lawrence was almost like ‘a second father’

I grew up in Wales, where my father was attempting to make a living as a poet.  DH Lawrence had been a huge influence on him.  I think he identified very strongly with Lawrence’s circumstances: a working class father, an aspiring mother who believed she had married beneath her, an education system that hadn’t recognised his talent.  He also loved Lawrence’s poetry, so it was all around us.  We grew up hearing about Lawrence to the extent that he became a shadow member of the family. No other writer was quoted – or revered – half as much.

 

What do you think about the observation by historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich that ‘well-behaved women seldom make history’?   

So true.  Although well-behaved women did make history, it was ‘quiet’ history that holds little drama or interest for most people.  Today we want to hear about Rebel Girls.  I think this is a little sad: It was women (like Lydia Lawrence, for example) who set up hundreds of community charities and the Women’s Institute and wrote cookery books and books of household management – but this reflects their domestic confinement.  Today, as women struggle to escape domesticity, we’re not interested in exploring the ‘well-behaved’ women who revolutionised the kitchen or the local community.  Frieda makes a great story because she refused to confine herself to the typically female sphere and she refused to conform. But I often pay tribute to all the ‘good’ women who worked tirelessly to make their communities better places and have since been lost in the wash of history.

 

It could be argued that ‘women in general seldom make history’ but this is something you appear to be addressing in your first two novels. Why has it taken so long for women to be given a voice and how important is this to you as an author (and a woman)?     

We’re beginning to uncover many lost female voices (like the poet, LEL who was a best-selling poet in the 1830s but has – this month – had her first biography published).  It was often difficult for women (particularly artists and writers) to build up the body of work that men could, either because of their other responsibilities or because they didn’t have the same sort of support.  Even those that were successful in their time were often then squeezed out of the Cannon. These voices are starting to be resurrected and/or republished.  This is important for us, as a society.  Our daughters need to know they’re part of a richly creative legacy of women.  Our sons needs to know that women have always been making history.  Only in this way can we build a genuinely equal society.

 

Who was Frieda Lawrence and why should she be remembered? 

She was the daughter of an impoverished German baron, who married a Nottingham professor called Ernest Weekley, but left him and their three children (after 12 years of marriage) to live a very different life with DH Lawrence.  She’s worthy of a place in the ‘cannon of women who helped forge history’, albeit doing it inadvertently! The decisions she made – essentially to live life on her own terms – were very radical for their time.  Very few of us are so ready and able to shake off the values inculcated in us since birth. She was – and did. A married, mother-of-three baroness living in sin with the (much younger) son of a coal miner (having left the comforts and propriety of home, family and income) was a huge scandal.  It took courage and self-belief – both of which she had in spades.

 

She also deserves remembering because of the impact she had on Lawrence.  Would he have been the writer he became without her? I suspect not. She read and edited much of his work.  She came up with titles.  She believed in him utterly. How many wives (in 1928) would have urged their husbands to publish a book as scandalous as Lady Chatterley’s Lover?  She did and was fully prepared to take on the financial risk of self-publishing a book she knew would shock the world.

 

Tell us why you focused your book on a specific period in Frieda and Lawrence’s life?

I wanted to explore the rift between Frieda and her first husband and children.  I wanted to understand how a woman, devoted to her young children, could simply walk out with a man she barely knew.  I felt this experience – and her subsequent pain – had been largely overlooked.  I also wanted to examine its impact on Ernest Weekley and their children.  We now know that early childhood adversity can have long-term implications – and, of course, Frieda’s departure did indeed result in considerable collateral damage.  At some stage we have to ask ourselves about the price of art (and freedom).  Arguably, Lawrence’s art (and Frieda’s liberation) came at the cost of several people’s happiness.  My first book, about James Joyce’s daughter, explored this theme too: should someone’s happiness be sacrificed for a book?

 

Given the focus of the novel were you ever tempted to write a trilogy? (Frieda, Dorothy Brett and Mabel Dodge Luhan in Mexico would make a wonderful drama) or are you done with Frieda and Lawrence now?

My next book has already been commissioned (it’s non-fiction) and a fifth of it is about Lawrence, Frieda and an episode I didn’t write about in my novel.  So I’m not done yet!  

 

What are the challenges of writing historical fiction and how do you determine what constitutes historical accuracy? I’m thinking in particular of the first time that Frieda and Lawrence got it on… 

Ah yes.  Even biographers have to speculate!  The joy of fiction is having room to imaginatively explore the holes left in biographies. The bits that can’t be footnoted, that have to be pondered and guessed at, are always the most interesting to write because you have free rein to go where you want. I also think these are the scenes in which one slips most effortlessly beneath the skin of one’s characters.  I’m always looking for emotional truth.  This, even if it’s my version, probably has more resonance for a reader than an accurate list of dates and places (although I always try and get these right, of course).   My general policy is to create a scaffolding from the facts and only invent an episode where there’s a line somewhere – however obscure – to indicate it may have happened. 

 

In researching the novel you read the letters between Otto Gross and Frieda. Who was Otto Gross? 

He was a pioneering psychoanalyst who is now credited with devising the extroversion-introversion theory that Carl Jung (according to Gross’s biographer) stole and made his own.  Jung had the drug-addicted Gross locked up, on at least one occasion, in a sanatorium. Gross had a short affair with Frieda that profoundly influenced her. Many of his ideas (Freudian ideas about sexuality, the unconscious and repression, for example) subsequently found their way into Lawrence’s writings.  Lawrence, in his usual magpie style, also used Gross as a character in several stories.  But, more importantly, Gross gave Frieda a deep sense of herself as a free woman, as a woman who could excite the imaginations of great men and thus propel them to genius.  She carried Gross’s letters with her, for the rest of her life.

 

In your novel you credit Frieda as being a big influence on Lawrence’s writing. How important was she? 

Huge.  There’s a brilliant essay-piece-of-fiction by John Worthen in which he imagines what might have happened to Lawrence if he hadn’t met Frieda. Essentially he dies, depressed, in 1912 and is – like the majority of writers and poets – forgotten.  Frieda changed his life, giving him a new impetus to live, to write.  And giving him the companionship, support and intimacy he craved. Without her there would have been no Lady Chatterley’s Lover.  And without Lady Chatterley’s Lover, perhaps the sexual revolution of the 1960s would have been a little tamer, or delayed. Perhaps.

 

Frieda has had an unfair press as someone who walked away from her children but it was more complicated than this… 

Indeed it was.  She never intended to leave them. Lawrence manipulated the situation to ensure he got what he wanted: Frieda.  Weekley’s intransigence and shame sealed her fate.  Effectively both men combined forces, so that Frieda was unable to see her children.  Women who committed adultery had no right of custody then. Neither Weekley nor Lawrence wanted her to see her children (for very different reasons) and so she paid a very high price.  She then had to suppress her pain and anguish because Lawrence wouldn’t tolerate it.  And by then she was entirely reliant on him emotionally and financially. Fortunately times have changed…

 

What kind of person was Ernest Weekley? 

Extraordinary… focussed, diligent, aspiring, kind.  If she hadn’t met Otto Gross or spent time in bohemian Munich, perhaps they would have stayed together.  

 

You once said that ‘when you write characters, they stay inside you’. What part of Frieda has remained with you? 

Her ability to feel so at ease in her own skin, regardless of how wrinkled, droopy or hairy she became.  In a society where women are increasingly supposed to look thin, shaved and instagrammable, I often reflect on Frieda’s lack of self-consciousness.  We could all learn from her determination to simply be herself.

 

dhl-trunk garterIn the DH Lawrence Memory Theatre we want to address various aspects of Lawrence’s life through artefacts to try to understand this complex writer. How do we represent Frieda, Lawrence’s free-spirited and courageous wife? Is it possible to distil the spirit of such an enigmatic person into one artefact? In 2019 we begin building our Memory Theatre and retracing Lawrence’s savage pilgrimage both physically and digitally. If you have an idea for an artefact get involved and submit ideas here

Lorenzo in Taos 3: Mabeltown

 

Mabel-Dodge-Luhan-House
Mabel Dodge Luhan’s home in Taos, New Mexico.

Born in 1879, Mabel Dodge Luhan (MDL) had a difficult childhood. Her controlling wealthy parents were incapable of affection meaning her childhood was lived ‘in a rigid unlovely inescapable pattern.’ Art offered her the emotional connection missing from family life and would lead to her finding escapism as a patron of the arts in Taos, New Mexico. It was here that she hoped to build a colony that would offer an alternative to the mechanical modernism of Western society. Lawrence arrived in September, 1922 but their relationship would turn sour due to a clash of personalities.

Her memoir of their time together is absolutely bonkers; a mixture of psychic discord and infatuation, laced with snipping comments. Take this early description of Lawrence. She makes it quite clear that he’s not her type, yet throughout her memoir she pines for his attention. ‘(He) is tall, but so slightly built and so stooped that he gives the impression of a small man. His head seems too heavy for his slim body and hangs forward. The whole expression is of extreme fragility…He has very large, wide-apart grey eyes, a long, slender face with a chin that is out of proportion long, a defect that is concealed by the aforesaid beard. His upper lip protrudes from his dainty decoration of the beard in a violent red that makes his beard look pink. In the midst of all this, is a very podgy, almost vulgar, certainly undistinguished nose.’

Lawrence’s slenderness is in stark contrast to Frieda’s solidity, something MDL is keen to point out again and again in their opening encounter (as recorded in our previous blog). But after sending Lawrence out to see an Apache Fiesta with her ever so considerate husband Tony, she has the opportunity to spend a bit of time with Frieda. She observes she is better company when Lawrence isn’t around, ‘as is the case with all wives’.

But MDL isn’t interested in bonding with the earthy Frieda – who prefers fags to fonts – she only has eyes for Lawrence. Hoping that he will pen a novel about her journey from New York to New Mexico, she invites him over to her place but makes the mistake of not getting dressed. Lawrence, despite his reputation as a smutty author, was, by all accounts, a bit of a prude. Her casual attire no doubt made him feel uncomfortable, an unnecessary sexual pressure. In Dorothy Brett’s memoir, she notes how ‘you do not care to be touched, to be pawed. Necking makes you furious. Your sex is not to be played with, nor to be belittled by playfulness. It is serious, a danger to be respected as the tiger is respected, hidden in the jungle.’

It’s not surprising, then, that he immediately reported back to Frieda who from that point onwards insisted they work in their house while she was around. This was immensely frustrating for all involved and denied MDL ‘the opportunity to get at him and give him what I thought he needed’. The lack of privacy meant she was unable to ‘unload my accumulation of power’ on him. And so begins the struggle for possession of Lorenzo that will inevitably end up in tears for all involved, as well as bruises for Frieda.

When Lawrence turns down MDL’s psychic advances, the claws come out. She accuses him of power games, and vacillating between the two women. When siding with Frieda he would ‘sling mud at the whole inner cosmos, and at Taos, the Indians, the mystic life of the mountain’ and when with MDL he would ‘talk just wonderfully, with far reaching implications, of the power of consciousness, the growth of the soul’. She reiterates once more that she wanted Lawrence for his mind rather than his body as ‘he’s not physically attractive to women. I don’t think women want to touch him.’ But rather than being an honest appraisal of her feelings, it reads more like an attack on Frieda for desiring him. Or, perhaps, the bitterness of a woman scorned.

Rage
Image from http://www.dawnoftheunread.com

Throughout their time together, MDL never once saw Lawrence just sit. Meditation wasn’t his thing. On his protracted trip over to New Mexico he stopped off at Ceylon. After getting bad guts he took his frustration out on the Buddha statues, complaining “Oh I wish he would stand up!” He was certainly restless, although MDL observes that it was more than restlessness, he was pernickety, and a bit of a pain in the arse.

MDL was the daughter of Charles Ganson, a wealthy banker from Buffalo, New York. Her upbringing was in stark contrast to that of Lawrence’s in the mining community of Eastwood. It was no wonder he was restless. Leisure wasn’t a luxury of the working classes. ‘(He) really had very little sense of leisure. After the housework was done, he usually crept into a hedge or some quiet corner and wrote something, sitting on the ground with his knees drawn up.’ The problem was, he wasn’t writing about her.

All of this housework enabled Lawrence to instruct others on the virtues of cleanliness. ‘You don’t know your floor until you have scrubbed it on your hands and knees.’ This wasn’t an option for MDL as she had miles of floors. It would take her all day to clean, time better spent on more useful pursuits, such as connecting with the cosmos. She had servants to do the chores for her. Needless to say Lawrence disapproved, believing servants removed contact with life. He would apply the same criticism to cars that sped past through the living world, though he didn’t mind a lift when it suited him.

MDL describes her body as being square and therefore she tried to mask her solidity through loose fitting clothes that hung off the shoulder. Lawrence didn’t approve of this either, believing the female form should be celebrated rather than concealed, proclaiming ‘the kind of clothes my mother wore were the most-lovely pattern any woman could have’.

Despite their clashes over housework and clothing, there were many happy occasions too. MDL taught Lawrence to ride horses which he would be eternally grateful for. He seemed to pick it up really quickly, despite ‘riding as though the saddle hurt’. It meant that they could go on long rides together. But even this backfired when Lawrence taught Dorothy Brett to ride and ended up preferring her company on long journeys, presumably because they often rode in silence on account of her deafness.

mabel big and book

When MDL decided to give marriage a fourth shot, she married Native American Indian Tony Luhan in 1923. He persuaded her to buy a 12-acre (49,000 m2) property which included a ranch up on Lobo Mountain which Lawrence would fictionalise in the novella St. Mawr. The ranch was a present to her son John who was engaged to marry Alice Corbin. Despite her feminist principles, MDL asked Lawrence to give him a bit of advice. John reported he was advised ‘Never to let Alice know my thoughts. To be gentle with her when she was gentle but if she opposed my will, to beat her’. Despite this ‘useful’ advice, the two inevitably soon fell out.

It wasn’t long before Lawrence had had enough of ‘Mabeltown’ and so he and Frieda rented a separate cottage further up on Del Monte Ranch. MDL hoped that corresponding via letters may give her the intimacy with Lawrence that they’d been unable to achieve in person, but again she was wrong. These were shared with Frieda, ‘just to make everything square and open’.

Lorenzo in Taos is a fascinating social document that captures an earnest attempt to forge alternative ways of living in between the Great Wars. Some observations make you cringe and wince and are unintentionally hilarious. But there are some prescient observations too that shed light on life with a notoriously difficult writer.

‘Of course he was often gay. I don’t want you to think that in those first years he was cross or morose all the time. He was all right so long as things went his way. That is, if nothing happened to slight him. He simply couldn’t bear to have anyone question his power, his rightness, or even his appearance. I think his uncertainty, about himself, a vague feeling of inferiority, made him touchy.’

dhl-trunkIn the DH Lawrence Memory Theatre we want to address various aspects of Lawrence’s life through artefacts. How could we represent the tension between Lawrence, Frieda and Mabel Dodge Luhan? If you have an idea about this or other artefacts you think should be included, you can submit ideas here.

 

FURTHER READING

Stephen Lowe on ‘Altitude Sickness’

stephen-lowe-5
Photograph by James Walker in Stephen’s study.

Stephen Lowe has dramatised and fictionalised the life of D.H. Lawrence many times over the year. His most recent play explores Lawrence’s life in Taos, where he found himself surrounded by three very independent women: Mabel Dodge Luhan, Dorothy Brett and Frieda Lawrence. 

Why is DH Lawrence important to you?
The easy answer is I’m a working class lad from Nottingham who wanted to be a writer and you can’t grow up not reading Lawrence. Lady Chatterley’s Lover came out when I was thirteen and I’ve spent my whole life living with and thinking about him. I’ve written about him so much he’s like family now. But sometimes we fall out.

Your new play Altitude Sickness deals with an area of Lawrence’s writing that’s problematic…
It deals with his notions about the submission of women and how the stronger the woman is the more she has to place herself, like The Taming of the Shrew, under the foot of the master. His notions of wills between relationships I now think are rather silly, particularly the phases through which this play looks at: when an artist makes a move from being an artist to a prophet and then a messiah.

What’s the context to the play?
Mabel Dodge Luhan was a wealthy heiress and patron of the Arts. The American equivalent of Lady Ottoline Morrell in that she came from that tradition of holding soirées for artists of all kinds. In 1923 she pays for Lawrence to come over to Taos, New Mexico along with a selection of arty folk to help set up her dream artistic community. She wanted Lawrence to write about her life.

He doesn’t strike me as someone who’d settle down into an ‘Arvon’ type commune.
Lawrence sees art as being like a grenade. It blows the world up and some will rise from the ashes with the phoenix. For him, art must have this tremendous revolutionary action that moves from the head to the blood to the pagan again. That’s what he wants from this meeting of people. He doesn’t want a commune with everyone writing poems on their own. He wants a commune in which he can lead as a revolutionary God. Which is what the play is about. It’s very funny, honest.

How does the play start?
Lawrence loved playing charades, which I find most curious. The problem was he had to win, and increasingly, he had to play all of the parts as well. I got this idea for this playful but significant game of charades that they’re setting up before breakfast in Mexico. The twenty minute script that Lawrence actually wrote – on which this play is based – is not important. What’s interesting is why he didn’t finish it.

Which has something to do with women…
Altitude Sickness explores what happened around the time that this opening scene is written and how Lawrence coped with having three powerful women vying for his attention. These were Mabel Dodge Luhan, aristocratic painter Dorothy Bret and, of course, his wife Frieda. It’s exactly what he would have liked, the three women fighting over him. It’s a classic play about sex and the relationship between a man and a woman. It’s important to look at the three women and how they represent challenges and changes to Lawrence.

Lawrence met his match in Frieda. A strong-willed woman…
There’s a famous story about how Lawrence and Frieda met in 1912. Lawrence went around to see his old tutor Ernest Weekley on Private Road, who Frieda was married to at the time. Weekley was out. The debate that goes around is whether it took her 20 or 25 minutes to get Lawrence into bed. Frieda had been the mistress of Otto Gross, one of Europe’s most notorious sexual revolutionaries and was an advocate of free love. Everything Lawrence knew about sex, Frieda taught him. But he found it very difficult to accept the consequences of her liberalism. He was very rarely unfaithful, she was determinedly so.

How did Lawrence cope with this?
Initially when they were on the move, Frieda carried on as she always said she would. As an advocate of free love. But eventually, when she sees the pain it causes him, she stays quiet about her affairs. Instead she says she is ‘visiting’ her mother in Baden Baden. Frieda is an incredible woman. Her principles and history are amazing.

She’s been unfairly derided by critics and painted as a heartless mother who abandoned her children…
When Frieda was married to Ernest Weekley she would take male friends to Germany to have her fun and always returned home. When she took Lawrence on one such trip, he wrote to her husband saying she wasn’t coming back. When Weekley got this letter he quickly got the lawyers and stopped Frieda from coming back and seeing her three children. Lawrence was very manipulative and I’m sure this caused their relationship friction over the years. But there’s no doubt that as much as they argued, they genuinely cared for each other.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Helmut Naumer, Sr. (1935-36) Taos Pueblo

Lawrence was a restless beast who travelled the world in search of Rananim, a kind of utopian community of like-minded people. Did he find this in Taos?

Everywhere he’d gone before where he’d met the ‘natives’, he ended up disliking them, for not living up to his expectations. This wasn’t prejudice, it was Lawrence’s own personal ideology. But, from the Pueblo Indians of Taos, he felt there was something to be learned. I explore this in the play through the Hopi Indian dance, but beware of the snake…

Why was he searching for Rananim in New Mexico?
Taos is cut off. It’s up in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of New Mexico. It’s about communing with nature. Lawrence yearned desperately for that pagan way of living; running naked into the forest when it rained. This wasn’t unusual in the twenties. People were seeking completely different ways of living after WWI. You either went hedonistic, like the bright young things of Evelyn Waugh’s novels – who Lawrence detested – or you went pagan. You went backwards to see if native cultures had something.

Have you visited the ranch?
I was offered a place to write there thirty years ago when I was a shepherd in Yorkshire. But I couldn’t afford the air fare at the time. I got to go five years ago when they were doing my play Empty Bed Blues, which is about a dying Lawrence trying to find a publisher for Lady Chatterley. It’s pretty basic and freezing in winter because it’s 6-7,000 feet up. Lawrence and Frieda were terrific about being poor. Frieda made the worst dresses you can imagine out of old curtains and didn’t give a damn.

Do you think he was truly happy in Taos?
Lawrence was massively influenced by the philosopher and transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau, who was into simple living in natural surroundings. Lawrence wanted somewhere without a divide so that when you opened your door you were straight into wilderness. Primitive. With a cow. Lawrence loved milking his cow every day. It was this that led to the ‘prophet’ notion. So landscape and place was crucial to him. The cruel irony is that after travelling all over the world to find this spot, he finally finds it and he’s told he has to move out because it’s bad for his health.

altitude-sickness
The cast discuss the play after the performance.

Altitude Sickness, Lakeside Arts Centre as part of NEAT16, Tuesday 17 May 2016, 2pm & 8pm, £5.

Steven Lowe’s website