The original Lady Chatterley: Sussex novelist sets the record straight

Annabel Abbs
Annabel Abbs

Frieda by Annabel Abbs, published by Two Roads, an imprint of John Murray Press, £14.99

Much has been written about the tempestuous relationship between the writer D. H. Lawrence and the German aristocrat Frieda von Richthofen – a relationship which too often comes bathed in a romantic glow.

Prizewinning novelist Annabel Abbs – in her new book Frieda – sets out to put the record straight.

Former Lewes Priory School student Annabel’s first novel of biographical fiction The Joyce Girl, became an immediate best-seller and won the Impress Prize for New Writers.

And like Lucia Joyce, Frieda is a hugely complex woman at odds with the age in which she lives. Unlike Lucia she manages to win the freedom she longed for – but thanks to the draconian divorce laws of the day, loses her children in the process.

Trapped in her marriage to English professor Ernest Weekley, she accepts an invitation to visit her sister in Munich – where she is lured into a love affair that changes her life for ever and leads to her sensual and intellectual awakening.

But that is only the beginning.

Back home in Nottingham, she meets her husband’s former student, the writer D. H. Lawrence, and the stage is set for a relationship which, at first, seems to offer everything Frieda craves.

Through Annabel Abbs’ writing we live Frieda’s life with her – from the early days of her passion for Lawrence through to disillusion and despair. Although on one level this is a love story between the writer and his muse, at its heart is Frieda’s love for her children and the nightmare choice she has to make between being a mother and a lover.

We learn much about Lawrence himself – his jealous rages at her obsession with getting her children back from Weekley and the cruel manipulation of the situation, which triggered the court case Weekley brought against her.

Annabel Abbs paints a sympathetic picture of Weekley himself – who loved her perhaps more than any other man in her life, but lived in a straitjacket of convention, which rendered him unable to express his love.

Frieda was a woman way ahead of her time, yet although she achieved the freedom to be herself, we ask ourselves whether she ever really did find true freedom. She aroused great depth of feeling in the men in her life, but she remained trapped, particularly by Lawrence. In today’s world we would say he used her – she was the inspiration for his greatest writing, particularly Lady Chatterley.

Yet eventually she does find a way out. Although she will remain with Lawrence until his death, she will, she says, give him everything except her soul. She would keep her own soul – and will one day see her children again.

This is another superbly written biographical novel by an author who probes deep into her characters’ lives in a way that makes them instantly accessible. Anyone lucky enough to be given a book token for Christmas should rush out and buy Frieda just as soon as the shops are open.

Annabel Abbs lives near Ringmer with her husband and four children.

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