As job descriptions go, few seem to fit the ‘nice work if you can get it’ category more snugly than ‘muse’. Inspiring lasting works of art by simply existing? It’s at once indolent and noble, evocative of days spent lounging on a chaise longue and nights filled with dance and glittering conversation.
A look at the life of Frieda von Richthofen might leave you feeling rather differently. She was the inspiration – and model – for many of DH Lawrence’s female characters, including his most scandalous, Lady Chatterley. Yet muse, as she lived it, was a far from undemanding role, encompassing everything from lover and confidante to punch bag. At least, that’s the way Annabel Abbs tells it in a new novel based on her life, titled simply Frieda.
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The daughter of a penniless German baron with a roving eye, Frieda craves adventure and intellectual stimulation. Marriage is all that’s available to her and so, in 1899, aged just 20, she weds British philologist Ernest Weekley. They make their home in Nottingham, back then a heavily industrial town whose factories are a chorus of “clanging and clacking, hissing and spitting”, and in whose air particles of soot hover “like swarms of aphids”.
In Abbs' novel, Weekley turns out to be the kind of chap who’s far happier thinking about his “snowflower” in absentia, as an ideal, than having to engage with the desires and frustrations of a real woman. While he toils over his seminal book, she has three children, the eldest of whom is seven when she begins to feel something stirring within her. She calls it “the what-I-could-be”.
Her fickle sister suggests a tonic: infidelity. And as history shows, it was through Else von Richthofen that Frieda met maverick psychoanalyst Otto Gross, who did indeed become her lover, though the affair doesn't cure her of her restlessness. Then Mr Lawrence comes to lunch. A scrawny, gifted miner’s son six years her junior, he’s her husband’s former student. It takes just a single charged conversation for their passion to ignite.
Frieda paid a staggeringly high price, not only losing access to her children but surrendering her entire self to Lawrence’s art
Theirs was a pugilistic relationship, and as studies like John Worthen's DH Lawrence: The Life of an Outsider have shown, Lawrence did hit Frieda, though on occasion she – physically the larger of the two – threw the first punch. And then there were his verbal attacks, vividly captured in Brenda Maddox's still-riveting 1994 biography, DH Lawrence: The Story of a Marriage. Abbs sets the tone of this irelationship on the couple's second meeting. In the absence of her maid, Frieda turns out to have no idea how to light the gas in her own kitchen, so Lawrence boils the kettle and makes them tea. He even does the washing up afterwards. “Are you always this lazy?” he asks her. “I like the way you talk to me,” she replies.
Though the novel portrays Lawrence as being willing to scrub a kitchen floor and deft enough with a needle and thread to sew Frieda a pair of calico bloomers, he’s no feminist pin-up. He becomes jealous of her children, and as actually happened, writes to Weekley, telling him of their affair, setting in motion divorce proceedings that will strip her of her maternal rights, nearly destroying her. Even then, Lawrence rages violently at his lover’s distress, all the while lashing her ever more tightly to him with emotional blackmail, telling her how much he needs her, how much his work needs her.
For Frieda’s part, Abbs depicts her as being thrilled by his outbursts, becoming defiantly complicit in her own humiliation. This is one explanation for the fact that while their friends were forever assuming the relationship to be finally over, they stayed together until Lawrence’s death in 1930. Toxic though it seems, in that unlikely relationship Frieda found herself. She paid a staggeringly high price, not only losing access to her children but surrendering her entire self to Lawrence’s art. As Abbs observes, it doesn’t take long for her to feel “like a dissected rabbit, that she had given him everything she had”.
Abbs drew criticism with her first novel, the tale of another muse, James Joyce’s daughter, Lucia, for what some viewed as excessive artistic licence. This latest ends with an author’s note, attempting to untangle fact from fiction, but what’s indisputable is that Frieda was a woman possessed of powerful creative impulses. She yearned to be an active collaborator with the men in her life, but was born at the wrong time. Her plight underscores the deeply discomfiting nature of the muse: revered, yes, but also powerless and mute – if not in her own lifetime, then certainly for posterity. It must get lonely, too, perching on an unasked-for pedestal day in, day out. And then there’s the objectification... As Robert Graves, who kept a veritable harem of muses, once declared: they should be “quiet, unemphatic, non-competitive, but breath-taking”.
In the post #MeToo era, the muse looks outdated and downright sexist. Too often, there have been power imbalances that today seem queasy-making to say the least: just consider the case of Charles Dickens, a globally bestselling author in his 40s, and Nelly Ternan, a teenage failed actress.
Of course, muse doesn’t always mean lover, and even when it does, the adoration isn’t necessarily returned. WB Yeats proposed four times to suffragette and spiritualist Maud Gonne, but though they were close, and though they seem to have slept together at least once, his love went unrequited.
The literary muse is remembered solely for her service to her writer
Dante’s love for Beatrice was strictly courtly. Having first met when she was nine and he eight, they encountered one another just once more before her early death, at just 25. Nevertheless, his courtly love for her fuels his poetry collection La Vita Nuova and has gone on to inspire countless other artists as an example of devotion to a muse. Of course, she was also the ultimate blank slate onto which the poet could project his own desires and aspirations.
But Beatrice’s fate is in some senses shared by all muses, even those that reach a fine old age. The literary muse is remembered solely for her service to her writer, and in his language, too. Take the case of Hester Thrale, Samuel Johnson’s intimate friend and pen pal. Though she was a tough-minded diarist and collector of interesting individuals – Fanny Burney, David Garrick and Sir Joshua Reynolds were all acquaintances – she endures solely as ‘Dr Johnson’s Mrs Thrale’. The words even appear on her tombstone.
As for Baudelaire’s Haitian-born Creole muse, Jeanne Duval, she’s even lost her name. They were together for a tempestuous two decades, during which the poet swooned over her “ebony thighs” and “dark eyes like the chimneys of her soul”. Along with ‘mistress of mistresses’, he called her his ‘Black Venus’, and that is how she’s gone down in literary history, a minor footnote about whom even the barest facts remain obscure: she might have been born in 1820; she might have succumbed to syphilis in 1862 – or perhaps 1870? In 1985, Angela Carter published a short story about her, titled, naturally, Black Venus.
‘A mere muse’
There have of course been male muses, and they tend to suffer similar fates. Think of the mysterious ‘Fair Youth’ of Shakespeare’s sonnets, Oscar Wilde’s Lord Alfred Douglas, or Peter Orlovsky, who inspired Allen Ginsberg (Neal Cassady did, too). Look beyond literature and there are the likes of Jean Marais, Jean Cocteau’s inspiration, and George Dyer who did the same for Francis Bacon. But even so, their function tends to be spurring men on to creativity. Ever since its inception in ancient Greece, the notion of the muse has been inextricably bound up with the male gaze, and, despite exceptions like Cassady and co, deeply gendered – so much so, that when women authors cast around for inspiration, they also turn to women. Think of Gertrude Stein’s Alice B Tocklas, or Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf, who inspired one another.
So in thrall are we to the cult of the individual that the idea of creativity being anything other than a pure manifestation of the self is anathema
Vita and Virginia are not lone examples of muses who also wrote. Zelda Fitzgerald, for instance, lent shape to the female characters her husband created, while managing to toil over her own prose. In the visual arts, muses including Frida Kahlo, Lee Miller and Yoko Ono can all be found creating and inspiring simultaneously but they all struggled for recognition in a world that was far more comfortable viewing them as muses.
There’s no denying that the muse is profoundly problematic from a 21st-Century viewpoint, so maybe it’s for the best that concept has fallen so thoroughly out of fashion. We’re obsessed with the story behind the story these days – we can’t get enough of hearing authors talk at literary festivals and the like, and yet the muse is almost never mentioned. So in thrall are we to the cult of the individual that the idea of creativity being anything other than a pure manifestation of the self is anathema.
Where does this leave the likes of Frieda von Richthofen? Muse was one of the few roles open to her, and she seized upon it at devastating expense, wringing all that she could from it. Nevertheless, there’s a scene towards the end of Abbs’ novel in which she tells her son she’s written a novel of her own. She has, at least by the author’s reckoning, rewritten whole sections of Lawrence’s prose, but the novel remains a lie. Why does she say it? Because she doesn’t want him to think of her as “a mere muse”.
Whether or not she was additionally the conduit of something as ephemeral as inspiration, Frieda’s contribution to Lawrence’s oeuvre was very real. She typed up his manuscripts, she gave him notes as she read each draft, she insisted that Paul Morel instead be given the title she’d dreamt up: Sons and Lovers. It leaves musedom looking a lot like yet another way of undermining women’s creativity and denying them due credit.
As for lounging on that chaise longue, the closest Abbs allows Frieda to come is when – just like Mellors does with Lady C – Lawrence has her lie back while he weaves spring violets into her pubic hair during an al fresco tryst. Such is the muse’s lot.
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