Was DH Lawrence’s wife the real Lady Chatterley? An expert sheds light on the story


No book has scandalised Britain quite as much as Lady Chatterley’s Lover, D.H. Lawrence’s unsparing depiction of adultery and unbridled passion.

So explicit was his portrayal of the sexual attraction between the unhappily married upper-class Constance Chatterley and her working-class gamekeeper, Mellors, that his novel was the subject of a landmark obscenity trial, whose 60th anniversary is next week.

That its content was shocking to a Britain still largely sexually buttoned-up is undeniable.

Quite apart from the fact that both protagonists were married at a time when divorce was granted only on proof of a matrimonial crime, the book used supposedly unprintable four-letter words and made an indirect reference to anal sex.

It was at the age of 26 that David Herbert Lawrence first met Frieda Weekley (both pictured), who would prove a formative influence in his later work, including Lady Chatterley’s Lover

Yet in what is seen as a seminal moment in literary history, the trial ended in victory for the publishers, Penguin, and is credited as a crucial step in the liberalising of the country’s cultural landscape. 

Nonetheless, the jury who returned their verdict after just three hours of deliberation would doubtless have been shocked to learn that, while a work of fiction, the book’s earthy sexual encounters were drawn from the author’s real-life experiences and its complex heroine was inspired by not just one but three extraordinary women, among them Lawrence’s insatiable German wife Frieda.

A miner’s son who had grown up in a working-class Nottinghamshire coalmining town, David Herbert Lawrence certainly drew on the dour, grey-skied landscape of his youth as the backdrop for his novels. 

It was at the age of 26 that he first met the woman who would prove a formative influence, imbuing his later work — including Lady Chatterley’s Lover — with an earthy sensuality a world away from his provincial upbringing.

Six years his senior, Frieda Weekley was the German wife of Professor Ernest Weekley, one of Lawrence’s teachers at University College, Nottingham. 

Born a baroness and a distant relation of the German flying ace Manfred von Richthofen (better known as the Red Baron), she was uninhibited, direct and utterly sensual.

By the time Lawrence met her in March 1912, after being invited for lunch at Professor Weekley’s home, Frieda had already had a series of lovers — and was soon to add Lawrence to the roster.

They were left alone together for half an hour before Professor Weekley’s return, and their attraction was instant and mutual. 

The duo embarked on an affair, cemented when they travelled to Germany together two months later, heading for Frieda’s home town of Metz.

This proved to be the last straw for Frieda’s husband, to whom she had confessed details of some of her previous affairs just before departing. 

He sent a telegram to her, saying their marriage was at an end and denying her access to their three children.

So Lawrence and Frieda began a union that would last until Lawrence’s death 18 years later. 

Although Lawrence hankered after a solid marriage and a family — in fact the couple did not have children — Frieda continued to believe in ‘free love’.

Perhaps to make this explicitly clear to Lawrence early on, Frieda promptly went to bed with a German officer after the couple’s arrival in Metz — and then swam across the chilly Isar river at Icking to offer herself (shades of Lady Chatterley) to a no-doubt startled woodcutter.

No book has scandalised Britain quite as much as Lady Chatterley's Lover (above, TV adaptation featuring Joely Richardson and Sean Bean)

No book has scandalised Britain quite as much as Lady Chatterley’s Lover (above, TV adaptation featuring Joely Richardson and Sean Bean)

From Metz, Lawrence and Frieda chose to trek over the mountains into Italy, departing in August and equipped with knapsacks and just £23 in cash.

Again, Frieda was free with her favours: en route she made love to Harold Hobson, a student who had joined the trek, while Lawrence was out picking Alpine flowers.

According to Lawrence’s unfinished autobiographical novel Mr Noon, Frieda told him Harold ‘had me in the hay hut’ because ‘he wanted me so badly’.

Despite such distractions and some faulty map-reading, they eventually arrived on the northern shores of Lake Garda, then part of Austria. 

And when they moved from there to Gargnano, in Italy proper, his love affair with the country could fully begin.

Here was a nation, he wrote, as ‘beautiful as paradise’, where everything was ‘of the blood and the senses’ and where even the moon could be seen as ‘a woman glorying in her own loveliness as she loiters superbly to the gaze of all the world… sometimes looking at her own superb, quivering body, wholly naked in the water of the lake’.

It was against Italy’s sensual backdrop that Lawrence would also meet the second woman who, along with the serially unfaithful Frieda, would inspire him to create the character of Constance Chatterley — although first the threat of war, coupled with the need to get married once Frieda’s divorce had come through, sent them back to England in 1914, where the couple lived through the war first in Buckinghamshire and then in Cornwall.

By then, Lawrence was almost certainly already infected with the tuberculosis that would later claim his life, and while he had been passed fit for non-combat duties he was never called up.

So it was not until 1919 that Lawrence’s love affair with Italy resumed in full.

After visiting Capri, Lawrence and Frieda moved on to Sicily. But in the summer of 1920, after a series of rows, they were ready for a break from each other and, when Frieda left for Baden-Baden in Germany, Lawrence headed for Florence.

It was there that he had a passionate and, for him, rare adulterous affair with Rosalind Baynes, whose brown-eyed pre-Raphaelite beauty had first struck him on a previous encounter in England.

She was by then separated from her doctor husband and living in Florence with her baby daughter — and Lawrence was nothing if not direct when he first saw her again, asking her if she missed sex. 

She replied that she did but was, he would later say, ‘fastidious’.

He then suggested she should have sex with him, adding that she was free to say no. ‘Yes, indeed, I want it,’ she replied.

The second woman who would inspire D.H. Lawrence to create the character of Constance Chatterley was Rosalind Baynes, who had brown-eyed pre-Raphaelite beauty

The second woman who would inspire D.H. Lawrence to create the character of Constance Chatterley was Rosalind Baynes, who had brown-eyed pre-Raphaelite beauty

Lawrence made no move until the following Sunday, when they cooked a typical English lunch of roast beef and walked into town afterwards to buy sorb-apples, a local fruit. They then returned to the villa to sit outside as night fell. 

‘We sit there until it is quite dark, our hands held together in union,’ Rosalind wrote in her diary. ‘And so to bed.’

Sensing ‘something in the air’ on her return from Baden-Baden, Frieda forced Lawrence to confess. He wrote to Rosalind over the years but never saw her again, although her delicate beauty, combined with Frieda’s earthy sexuality, has long struck Lawrence scholars as part of the blueprint for Constance Chatterley.

However, one element was still missing from her character — until 1925, when Lawrence and Frieda returned to the Italian Riviera and met Rina, the Anglo-Italian wife of his publisher, Martin Secker.

Rina Secker had come to Italy with the couple’s son Adrian on the recommendation of doctors, who believed the climate was favourable to the sickly boy. Rina may also have needed to recover from some sort of nervous breakdown. 

Either way, she liked the Lawrences, so when her parents bought a hotel in Spotorno — the Hotel Miramare — she lost no time in inviting them to stay.

Yet, slightly strangely, there was no room at the Miramare for them when they arrived — an oversight that threw Frieda into an angry frenzy. So Frieda and Lawrence moved into a local auberge before renting a villa up the hill. 

As was her wont, Frieda soon began an affair with their landlord, Angelo Ravagli, a dashing Bersaglieri (light infantry) officer who would become her third husband after Lawrence’s death, whose eye she caught by strutting ahead of him in a clinging skirt that showed off her buttocks as he showed her the house. 

Rina, with her high cheekbones and winning smile, was also attractive to men. Conscious of her appearance, she kept her hair fashionably styled and Lawrence once complimented her on how her ‘bangs’, or fringe, set off her ‘wonderful eyes’. 

Complex, vibrant, observant, mischievous and coquettishly aware of her charms, she is strikingly similar to Lawrence’s description of the ‘feminine’ and ‘womanly’ Connie Chatterley, with her growing restlessness and sense of ‘disconnexion’ which drives her into Mellors’s arms.

Frieda certainly seemed to think so: Rina, who had a talent for imitating Frieda’s booming voice and her rolling Teutonic ‘rrrs’, would later tell a story of how Frieda electrified a staid literary party shortly after Lady Chatterley’s Lover had been published by roaring: ‘Rrrina my dear, you must read it, she is you, you will see.’

If Rina believed she was at least the partial inspiration for taboo-trampling Constance, though, she never acknowledged it.

Nor did she ever publicly comment on another story written by Lawrence, Sun, in which he also appeared to call on Rina’s complex, contradictory and emotionally vulnerable character for his tale of a nervous and exhausted young American mother called Juliet, who is advised by her doctor to head to Italy and sunbathe naked, which she eventually does in the olive groves.

So explicit was D.H. Lawrence’s portrayal of the sexual attraction between Constance Chatterley and Mellors, that his novel was the subject of a landmark obscenity trial

The style of the story is both sensual and sexual, with Juliet finally responding to a sun that ‘lifts himself naked and molten, sparkling over the sea’s rim’ by finding an overgrown rocky bluff where she can she her clothes away from prying eyes.

Her newly exposed breasts are soon ‘warmer than ever love had been, warmer than milk or the hands of her baby’ and, having dispensed with the rest of her clothes, she finds considerable pleasure as the sun warms ‘her loins, the backs of her thighs, even her heels’ and lies ‘half stunned with the wonder at the thing that was happening to her’.

Then, rejuvenated and with her sexual desire reawakened, Juliet finds herself drawn to a strong, handsome peasant ‘with powerful shoulders’ and fantasises (in a second, expanded version quite explicitly) about having an affair and even a child with him.

And finally, what of the men in Lawrence’s books?

Were they, too, inspired by people Lawrence had met on his travels? The muscular Mellors in Lady Chatterley’s Lover could be a composite of Frieda’s many lovers — but what of the cuckolded Sir Clifford Chatterley?

Perhaps the answer lies in a strange episode in Ravello on the Amalfi coast, where, during another angry separation from Frieda, Lawrence had travelled with Dorothy Brett, an aristocratic artist who was also an admirer and his occasional secretary.

On this occasion, it seems Lawrence had sex rather than dictation on his mind. But although Brett was willing — ‘passionately eager’, she would later recall — she was inexperienced and his two attempts to make love to her were both disasters. 

Lawrence stalked out of the room with an anguished cry of ‘it’s no good’.

There is a more-than-bitter irony in the fact that the author of one of the most scandalous novels in British literary history was, by then, almost certainly impotent.

Lady Chatterley’s Villa: D.H. Lawrence on the Italian Riviera, by Richard Owen, is published by The Armchair Traveller and available from www.hauspublishing.com

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