Frieda: A Novel of the Real Lady Chatterley…
About the Book:
The moving story of Frieda von Richthofen, wife of D.H. Lawrence – and the real-life inspiration for Lady Chatterley’s Lover, a novel banned for more than 30 years
Germany, 1907. Frieda, daughter of aristocrat Baron von Richthofen, has rashly married English professor Ernest Weekley. Visiting her family in Munich, a city alive with new ideas of revolution and free love, and goaded by a toxic sibling rivalry with her sisters, Frieda embarks on a passionate affair that is her sensual and intellectual awakening.
England, 1912. Trapped in her marriage to Ernest, Frieda meets the penniless but ambitious young writer D.H. Lawrence, a man whose creative energy answers her own needs. Their scandalous affair and tempestuous relationship unleashes a creative outpouring that will change the course of literature – and society – forever. But for Frieda, this fulfilment comes at a terrible personal cost.
A stunning novel of emotional intensity, Frieda tells the story of an extraordinary woman – and a notorious love affair that became synonymous with ideas of sexual freedom.
‘Her entire past, she reflected, had been a long arduous struggle to become herself.’
While I was reading Frieda, I found myself treading a very winding path in terms of the thoughts this novel was provoking. It wasn’t until the very end, after I’d closed the book and just sat for a few minutes inside my own head space, that I realised I needed to approach my review of Frieda a little differently than usual. See, when I read a novel that is a fictional biography, I find it impossible to think of the character separate to their real self. It’s like the fiction bit just drops off, and on account of this very realness, there’s an instinctive urge to review the character, and essentially the real person they were, along with my feelings about them rather than the actual novel itself. Problematic if you didn’t like the character whose life informs the subject of the novel.
I did in the beginning have a great deal of empathy for Frieda. I could intimately understand her frustration at the restraint she was expected to live with, both inside and outside of the home. And Frieda’s situation of being married to an older man with no capacity to understand, much less connect, was all too common, I’d wager.
‘She felt as if the piano and the music she was thumping out were the only things holding her in place. And if she were to stop playing, she would shrink so far inside erself she might disappear.’
She was also a foreigner among her contemporaries, which of course would not have helped things. It was an extra barrier securing her isolation and compounding her frustrations, which I feel fashioned her into being more open to the manipulations of other, more flamboyant and impressionable people. She was intelligent, yet had no forum for expression.
‘She’d been to one of Mrs Dowson’s suffragette meetings, of course she had. But when she spoke out, saying change wouldn’t come from voting, they had turned on her. She had tried to explain – in her broken English – that a new society needed creating in the image of woman, that simply voting for laws made and controlled by men was insufficient, that behaving like angry men was the wrong way to get change.’
Sometimes with historical fiction, there is an urge to be outraged by the situations contextualised. Yet we, as readers, are approaching the text with a modern gaze and all of the benefit of hindsight that comes with our modernity. In her author note, Annabel Abbs writes:
‘She [Frieda] was not, therefore, a woman ‘leaving her children’. She was a woman who believed in her right to choose her own life and, as a result, was denied access to her children.’
This is valid on both points: Frieda did believe in her right to choose her own life and as a woman, I believe in this as well. All women should be able to choose their own life. Absolutely. And yes, Frieda was denied access to her children based on the choices she made. However, poke a finger in this and it gets a little mucky and grey, and I do believe viewing the situation with a modern gaze compounds this further. I liked how this was brought up in a frank fashion by Katherine Mansfield in conversation with Frieda as they stalked the gates of her son Monty’s school in an effort to catch a glimpse of him:
‘“But weren’t you aware of the law when you ran away with Mr Lawrence? You must have known you would lose the children.” Katherine prodded impatiently at the ground with the tip of her silk parasol.
“I didn’t run away with him. I was just going to my father’s party and he was going to his relatives and we thought we’d have a few days in Germany together. But then he wrote to Ernest and everything blew up. Anyway, I’m their mother!”
“You’re also an adulterous, deserting wife. Didn’t you know there’s a special punishment reserved for mothers? Anyway, the laws here are archaic.”’
I wasn’t overly sympathetic towards Frieda over not having access to her children. Frieda struck me as a woman who wanted it all: the security of marriage but the freedom of a single woman. She wanted her lovers and she wanted her children. She wanted material comforts but didn’t want the obligations that came with possessing them. She seemed intent on martyring herself as a woman with no choices: I want to be with my children but D.H. Lawrence needs me, he can’t write without me, he won’t be a great author unless I am his muse. I want to use my brain more so I’ll use it vicariously through a man who has no respect for me instead of using it in my own stead. I don’t want to be married anymore so I’ll run off with a man who wants me to marry him. She was inconsistent, inconsiderate, and often times naive. Given Lawrence’s toxicity within their relationship, and his apparent loathing for her children alongside his jealousy of her love for them, the fact that she refused to choose them over him is paramount to the entire issue. The impression I formed of Frieda was of a woman in a permanent state of confusion. Take these extracts as an example, and they are presented chronologically:
‘She shook her head so frenziedly a hairpin clattered to the floor. “I want so much to be loved. To be a full part of someone’s life. To have passion. Children cannot give that. And I must use my brain! Men keep all the brainy work for themselves.”’
‘She didn’t want to be married any more. She didn’t want to swap one married life for another. She needed more time…
Yes, that was how she wanted to live, not for show or convenience but for pure wild passion.’
And veering back to:
‘She wished she could find the words to explain the rightness of Lorenzo, of their future together, of how she felt this rightness with a brilliant intensity, as if she held a finely cut diamond in her hand.’
She was all over the place. The true tragedy in this story is that the alternative for her children was pretty grim, with their fanatical grandparents, timid aunt, and deeply depressed father. They lost so much. I found her inability to set aside her own desires ultimately selfish and her inconsistency set her on a path of unreliability and emotional destruction, not just for herself, but for all of those who loved her.
Ernest, Frieda’s husband and father of her children, was an interesting man. Being of a older generation and a different culture to Frieda, he was completely unable to relate to her. He was repressed, old fashioned, emotionally crippled. For a professor of words, he was entirely useless at communicating with his wife. Yet, he loved her deeply, obsessively even. And she had no idea. Her leaving him, the shame of her conduct; it broke him:
‘He slumped against the wall and examined his hand. It was grazed all along the side and blood was beginning to leak from the broken skin. And then he started crying again and his chest heaved so that horrible, garrotting sounds came from his throat, slicing open the morning air and scaring all the birds from the sky.’
As if the act of leaving him in such a scandalous way was not enough, Frieda insisted on rubbing his face in the shame by sending him her old lover’s letters and a copy of Anna Karenina:
‘To help you understand me, I send you these letters from my old lover, Doctor Otto Gross. Please try to understand who I am.’
‘I beg you to read this. See what terrible things happened to Anna after Count Karenin refused to divorce her. I beg you to let me see my children.’
The author note indicates that Frieda actually did this, fact not fiction. It was in times like this, where I doubted her grasp on reality, and questioned her maturity. She certainly had no compassion for Ernest and what he may have been suffering. And to be fair to her, he was driven quite mad with grief and kept up a steady stream of hateful correspondence that would have rattled even the most solid of women. But, despite his failings within the marriage and his reactions to Frieda’s leaving, he was not a bad man.
‘It seemed to him that every minute in the last forty years had been pushing him towards this moment. His wife, his children, his house, his professorship were like markers, arrows, pointing him onwards. He was nearly there. His book and a Cambridge Chair were his final destination. And then he could pause and draw breath. Spend time with his family. Perhaps travel with Frieda. At times he felt close to his destination, it was as though he could smell it in the air.’
His greatest sin was being frigid and dismissive, old fashioned and uptight. Frieda swapped Ernest for Lawrence, a man who was emotionally unstable and prolific in his abuse because life with an artist was ‘never boring’. I believe she trapped herself more fully with Lawrence than she ever was with Ernest. I’m on the fence as to whether this is tragic or poetic justice.
Frieda really is an outstanding novel. Annabel Abbs writes in a manner that instils empathy and presents a full understanding for all of her cast. I detested Frieda, despised Lawrence, despaired over Ernest, but wholly appreciated the novel itself. Annabel has taken a woman whose scandalous behaviour shadowed her entire life, and has told her story with clear impartiality. By offering the perspectives of Ernest and her three children alongside that of Frieda herself, she makes no attempt to persuade us to one side or the other. She gives us everything, good and bad, and then within the context of the era, and the social movements that were in focus at that time, we are able to see, with a certain clarity, that life is complicated. In any era, life has been complicated and punctuated by shades of grey. This is a novel that will invoke strong feelings within some readers and would make for an invigorating book club session. No matter what you end up feeling about Frieda von Richthofen, whether you love her or hate her or fall somewhere in between, this novel will leave an impression upon you. The prose is glorious, vivid and immersive, with a captivating flow. For those who love literature and digging into the stories behind the stories, Frieda is an ideal read.
‘She ran through the trees, her bare feet sinking in and out of the leaves that spread, damp and pulpy, across the forest floor. For the first time since leaving England she felt the freedom she’d been yearning for. It swept her up in a blast of exhilaration, so that for a few minutes she forgot Lorenzo and felt herself to be absolutely alone. She felt the air gusting in and out of her, with its pungent black odour of fungi and earth. She felt the breeze whipping through her hair, drawing her up and up, as if she was being tossed high into the elements.’
Thanks is extended to Hachette Australia for providing me with a copy of Frieda for review.
About the Author:
Annabel Abbs lives in London with her husband and four children. Her bestselling debut novel, The Joyce Girl, won the Impress Prize for New Writers and was longlisted for the Bath Novel Award, the Waverton Good Read Award and the Caledonia Novel Award.
Published by Hachette Australia
Released on 11th September 2018