Frieda Weekley met DH Lawrence in March 1912. She later eloped with him, leaving her husband Ernest Weekley and her three children. After obtaining her divorce, they were married in July 1914. This blog is about the complex ramifications of a woman leaving her children and her husband for her lover.
I have known three grown-up children of women who left their children for their lovers and one woman who left her husband and children for her lover. But I want to start with a woman who did not leave her husband and children for her lover. One whose lover died, suddenly and unexpectedly leaving her to grieve in utter silence and secretly as neither her husband nor her friends, indeed anybody, knew of her affair. This was a case of such overwhelming sorrow, unspeakable as it was, hidden and secreted beyond communion. And mystifying too as it was both inconsolable and incomprehensible. Her face was held rigid without much, if any, movement, any expression. So was her body, taut and tense, as if the merest tremor would precipitate a cataclysmic surrender of tamped down lava. Once she found the will to hint and then say what troubled her, it was not a torrent that engulfed her, paradoxically it was an easing of the burden of grief, of guilt and, of shame.
I am first talking about her because the tamped down swell was the equivalent of the strength of passion, call it love, if you wish, that she had felt for her lover. This mirroring of intensity is best exemplified by the story of Medea. She felt rejected, betrayed and abandoned by Jason for Glauce and the extremis of passion combining as it did anger, intense jealousy and a quickening desire for revenge prompted, if not promoted, by the depths of her love for Jason. After all, she had deceived her father, killed her own brother and fled Colchis to aid Jason’s quest for the golden fleece. The fury of her feelings was unleashed against Glauce and then surprisingly but comprehensibly against her own two sons. She killed them so as to inflict the deepest wound on Jason, one so cut to the quick, that it mirrored her own cauterized wound. This is the nature of equivalence, a bitterness so galling as to be reciprocated in the direst terms.
In the poetry volume ‘Look! We have come through!’ Lawrence writes in the opening argument ‘
After much struggling and loss in love and in the world of man, the protagonist throws in his lot with a woman who is already married. Together they go into another country, she perforce leaving her children behind. The conflict of love and hate goes on between the man and woman, and between these two and the world around them, till it reaches some sort of conclusion, they transcend into some condition of blessedness.
Here we have a hint of the effects of a mother leaving her children for a lover on the relationship with the lover- ‘conflict of love and hate goes on’. And in “And Oh- that man that I am might cease to be-“, Lawrence writes
I wish that whatever props up the wall of light
would fall, and darkness would come hurtling down,
and it would be thick dark forever.
Not sleep, which is grey with dreams,
nor death, which quivers with birth,
but heavy, sealing darkness, silence all immovable.
My point is that the deep sorrow of Frieda, grieving for her loss, her own deserting of her children is here mirrored in Lawrence, and described in words that call to mind how sorrow is distinguished from death itself.
In “She looks back”, Lawrence writes
And you stood alone, watching them go,
And that mother-love like a demon drew you from me
So then there shone within the jungle darkness
Of the long, long lush under-grass, a glow worm’s sudden
Green lantern of pure light, a little, intense, fusing triumph.
White and haloed with fire-mist, down in the tangled darkness.
Then you put your hand in mine again, kissed me, and we struggled to be together.
Still, the kiss was a touch of bitterness on my mouth
Like salt, burning in.
And my hand withered in your hand.
For you were straining with a wild heart, back, back again
Back to those children you had left behind…
The boy abandoned by his mother when she left to be with her lover grew to hold all women in contempt. He thought, drawing from his experience of his own mother, that all women were or would be unreliable. He was, unsurprisingly, extremely independent, solitary in his pursuits, with what would now be called ‘toxic masculinity’. He went to the gym as if to an altar. His biceps bulged and his pectorals showed through his tightfitting shirts. He walked tall, rigid but painfully insecure and fragile. I wonder whether it might have helped him to read Lawrence’s account of Frieda’s anguish, her distraction at her loss, her vacillation and uncertainty. That love and passion won did not nullify her maternal love for her children nor did it ameliorate the depth of grief.
One girl was mired in the murky slough of low self-esteem. Her sense of unworthiness was unparalleled: “If my mother did not love me enough not to leave me for her lover, I must have been unlovable. I am unlovable”. Her father’s self-respect was totally annihilated and the children not yet adults watched in horror as his whole being disintegrated.
Lawrence went on in “She looks back”
Still the joy was there also, you spoke truly,
The joy was not to be driven off so easily;
Stronger than fear or destructive mother-love, it stood flickering;
The frogs helped also, whirring away.
Yet how I have learned to know that look in your eyes
Of horrid sorrow!
How I know that glitter of salt, -dry, sterile, sharp, corrosive salt!
Not tears, but white sharp brine
Making hideous your eyes.
And, how I wished that I had read these poems before now. Frieda’s “glitter of salt, -dry, sterile, corrosive salt, not tears, but white sharp brine’ were the self-same salty tears that my boy and girls, all now adults cried, at recalling their loss of innocence and the incandescent anger that flared and flared, burning white phosphorous, sent out to signal to mother their distress and their wanting of her warmth and reassurance. Spitz talked about anaclitic depression in relation to maternal deprivation: the babies exhausted and resigned to their fate, curled up, foetal shaped and remained motionless and dejected.
Now to the woman who had left her husband and children for her lover at his promise that he too would leave his wife and children. He installed her in a flat but never did leave his wife or children. She merely became a mistress. She had burnt her bridges and the loss was so great, the investment of a possible but failed future, so immense that she clung to her lover, perhaps in hope but in shame as well. I never saw her smile. She lived for the crumbs that fell from her lover’s table, she savoured fleeting moments, counted the nights before he could spare her his few minutes, the precious moments that he bestowed upon her. But the reality of the moments was not the dreamed of and imagined lushness, but a desert with false springs, mirages shimmering in the distance that advanced further into the horizon, once she got close to them.
As Lawrence wrote: I am a naked candle burning on your grave. Well she was a naked candle burning on her lover’s grave. And the light she threw was paltry and flickering. It was neither endearing nor revealing, it symbolised how passion can be stripped to barest light. A warning.
There we have it.
Photos by Jan Oyebode