A Genius for Living: The Life of Frieda Lawrence

A Genius for Living: The Life of Frieda Lawrence

by Janet Byrne

With lively intelligence and keen psychological insight, Janet Byrne tells the story of Frieda Lawrence's rich and tumultuous life, from her aristocratic Prussian childhood in one of the most divided regions of Europe, through her first marriage to a staid English professor in Nottingham; her wild affair with the cocaine-addicted psychoanalyst and free-love advocate…  See more details below


With lively intelligence and keen psychological insight, Janet Byrne tells the story of Frieda Lawrence's rich and tumultuous life, from her aristocratic Prussian childhood in one of the most divided regions of Europe, through her first marriage to a staid English professor in Nottingham; her wild affair with the cocaine-addicted psychoanalyst and free-love advocate Otto Gross; the scandalous abandonment of her husband and three children for the love of a coal miner's son who would become one of the twentieth century's greatest novelists; and her later years in and near Taos, New Mexico, first with Lawrence and then with her third husband, the handsome and massively unfaithful Angelino Ravagli, a former sharpshooter in the Italian army. Frieda is "in" every major novel D.H. Lawrence wrote during their eighteen years together, from The Rainbow and Women in Love to Lady Chatterley's Lover. She was his most trusted reader; his dependence on her was absolute. Hardly the untutored earth mother or sexual libertine frequently portrayed in books about Lawrence, Frieda had an uncanny and complex vision of relations between the sexes and a blithe, aggressively anti-intellectual surefootedness that helped shape one of the most famously embattled unions of the century as well as its literary progeny. Drawing on scores of unpublished archival sources, memoirs, and interviews with friends and relatives, Janet Byrne has brilliantly captured Frieda's peculiar genius in this compelling biography, a dramatic saga of individualism, humor, will, and creative energy.

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Editorial Reviews

Donna Seaman
If you know anything about D. H. Lawrence, you know something about Frieda--his muse, wife, and nurse--but not much. Frieda has always been embedded in her husband's literary life. Now, thanks to Byrne, a remarkably skilled first-time biographer, we can finally know Frieda for herself, and she was a character. The daughter of a Prussian baron, young Frieda was "athletic, headstrong, and undisciplinable." She became a carelessly beautiful, passionate, and unconventional woman frank about her appetites and possessed of a keen and unpretentious intellect. She was also a woman without a country. Born in Lorraine during the German occupation, Frieda was stigmatized for her nationality throughout her youth and during the frenetic world-war era when she lived in England, Italy, and the U.S. Byrne chronicles Frieda's pre-Lawrence life with flair, emphasizing her free spiritedness and the conflicts inherent in her first marriage to a staid Englishman. Her ardor for Lawrence, a student of her husband's and not the first or the last of her lovers, drove Frieda to abandon her family and undertake what became her lifework, assisting Lawrence in the creation of his revolutionary writings. Byrne's insights into their volatile relationship are fresh and illuminating, while her coverage of Freida's life after Lawrence's early death adds the finishing touches to this rich and memorable portrait.

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Edition description:
1st ed
Product dimensions:
6.50(w) x 9.45(h) x 1.61(d)

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Born Emma Maria Frieda Johanna Baroness (Freiin) von Richthofen, Frieda reached New Mexico after a wandering life in countless borrowed homes and several dozen fourth-class hotels. Her looks were profoundly Teutonic and her temper likened, by admirers and detractors, to that of an Aztec war god, Gypsy, simpleton, fascist, or Bavarian peasant. She saw herself as a nomad, more by default than by choice, and remained by turns oblivious or contemptuous of what others thought of her.
Her story begins in war-weary, starched, petit-bourgeois, and citified circumstances, with the forced germanization of the French city of Metz, in Lorraine, after the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. Between the ages of two and sixteen she lived in the suburb of Sablon, where the family address was 208 Augny West, a large, two-story farmhouse abutting the tin barracks that were home to many of the ten thousand German troops who occupied the city. Mounted cavalrymen in blue capes patrolled the hillsides beyond Sablon and the flatlands between the von Richthofen grange and Metz. The surrounding fields—in more peaceful times bounteous with lilac, roses, poppies, potatoes, asparagus, cabbage, and the Riesling and Sylvaner grapes for Moselle wines—were terraced with lunettes, trenchlike fortifications that Frieda's father, Baron Friedrich Ernst Emil Ludwig von Richthofen, had helped construct during the war. They were overgrown with marguerites and lady's slipper, and Frieda, athletic, headstrong, and undisciplinable, loved to play in them, dodging patrolling sentinels, almost always coming home filthy.
The baron was a Silesian-born engineer who, throughfamily connections and no particular effort of his own, had achieved a good position in the Prussian bureaucracy. His great pleasures were hunting, fishing, gambling, and whoring. By day his work, inspecting canals and other civic projects, seems to have brought more titles than responsibilities. At night he lost large sums in the Artillerie Offiziers Casino or, his bankroll not permitting, in the Allgemeines Militaer Casino, Metz's gambling house for common soldiers.
The scion of generations of Junkers, Prussian landed aristocracy, he spent much of his life depressed, pining for the gentleman farmer's existence that had been his birthright, but of which his ancestors' lack of foresight, business acumen, and luck had robbed him. The only work that made him happy was horticulture, and he designed a variegated, musky, sprawling garden where Frieda and her sisters, Elisabeth "Else" Helene Amalie Sophie and Helene Johanna Mathilde, spent a great deal of time, following him around while he transplanted wildflowers from the outlying fields, cultivated tulips and iris, and planted an impressive grove of fruit trees, including mirabelles and other plums, strawberries, his own small Riesling grape arbor, and white Argenteuil asparagus with purple tips. A wisteria vine climbed the front of the house. Else, the eldest, was a meticulous and reliable help in the garden. Johanna, nicknamed Nusch, was a beautiful girl with dark skin, "velvety eyes"—at least as Frieda later remembered them—and a tendency to remain aloof from the family, who both adored and neglected her as the youngest. Frieda usually got bored after a few minutes of weeding or planting and wandered off, though she did make great ceremony and drama of seasonal milestones, as when her father got out the asparagus shears for the first cutting every March. Her marching steps behind the baron filled him with pride and a rare sense of domestic happiness.
Returning home from his office, Friedrich usually surveyed his garden extensively before greeting his wife, Baroness Anna Elise Lydia von Richthofen-Marquier; Frieda, waiting in the trees for him, admired the low light catching the gold buttons of the officer's uniform to which his civil service rank then entitled him. Out of the garden, however, he was an unconvincing patriarch. Of his household of Anna, Else, Frieda, Nusch, and four servants, only Frieda, the wild child, could be called an intimate, and from an early age she felt it her duty to compensate for what had gone wrong in his life. Later in life she would describe his temperament, and that of the von Richthofen side of the family, as "mystical," and she spoke appreciatively of "belong[ing] to a family of unusual men." As a child, however, she was convinced that her father "had suffered from inferiors." Hindsight never entirely reversed her precocious conviction that she somehow shared the burden of his sadness, or her immediate, visceral identification with his spectacular flaws and enormous charisma; when she spoke or wrote of him, she often seemed to be describing herself. He looked, she felt, as though he had been hurt. People would say the same of her.
On the rare occasions when he was moved to rein in her unruly temperament, she entered his private study with defiance and a blithe and not-unwarranted assumption that she would be forgiven. He nicknamed her Fritzl, the diminutive of his own name, then Fitzli-Putzli—short for the Aztec war god Huitzilopochtli—after an intense reading of William Hickling Prescott's History of the Conquest of Mexico. The baron liked to read history. The baroness read French novels and, like Emma Bovary, envied their heroines, "femmes entretenues [kept women]," she felt, "who get it all." Otherwise she "took refuge in . . . virtue," as Frieda later wrote, and in "an attitude of superior morality toward [Friedrich]. . . . She thought him immoral, so he would be."

Frieda loved the fact that her mother refused to enter the baron's study—because he let the dogs up on the sofa. Sinking into a happy trance amid the cushions, she would admire his guns, the game heads mounted on plaques on the wall, and the lions and peacocks of the von Richthofen coat of arms, embossed both on the baron's writing paper and on the white handkerchief displayed in the breast pocket of his officer's jacket. It was a vainglorious coat of arms—a black-robed judge on a red chair clutching an eagle-topped gold scepter—and one that the baron and most of his immediate forefathers had little hope of living up to.

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