Article published on July 7, 2016.
Nottingham is now the City of Literature. Awarded by UNESCO, this prestigious title gives a city and area long linked with well known writers a huge chance to shine on the cultural stage. Of course, one writer famously stands out. David Herbert Lawrence.
There is always a topic associated with DH Lawrence. Yes – sex. But that is to vastly underestimate the nature of his wealth of writing and his wonderful intuitive love of nature and life. However the recent BBC dramatisation of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and countless other versions of both that novel and many others from him, are always influenced by the controversial banning of Lady Chatterley when first published, due to their explicit content. Born on 11th September 1885 many are now reviewing the life of DH Lawrence, as we have recently celebrated his 130th anniversary year, and in the East Midlands this writer remains firmly centre stage.
On moving to Nottinghamshire myself and re–reading Lawrence’s work I began with, perhaps a little known novel, The Plumed Serpent. Set in Mexico, a country in which he and his wife Frieda lived for many happy years, I was intrigued to read in a letter from Lawrence that “I consider this my most important novel, so far.” I certainly thought it different, delving with some detail into the mystical spirituality of Quetzalcoatl beliefs and gods. In the novel Lawrence writes of Mexicans seeking something in life, “Because there was a strange, submerged desire in the people for things beyond their world.” I think this sums up so much of Lawrence’s motivation to write and explain these emotions all swirling around his mind and our lives.
In ‘The Plumed Serpent’ he also has the central character, Kate Leslie, as a widow coming to terms with loss and isolation in life. It is a somewhat complicated read, but, as with Lawrence’s experience of Mexico, a startlingly sensual description of another culture.
In fact it reminded me of Lawrence’s deep empathy for widows generally, a topic close to my heart. Losing his own mother affected him deeply, and life in close proximity to his sisters and other female friends gave Lawrence a very deep understanding of all ‘womanly’ ways, from wash day to mind and emotions – so far beyond that image merely of his sexual desire for women. In one of his classic short stories, Odour of Chrysanthemums, Elizabeth Bates awaits her husband’s return from the pit, believing his lateness must be because of another drunken evening in the local pub. In fact, Walter Bates is dead, smothered from a roof collapse, another victim of the horrific conditions under which Nottinghamshire miners worked during this time. Elizabeth is pregnant, with their third child, and now alone.
In Lady Chatterley’s Lover Ivy Bolton had also been a young widow, whose husband’s early death due to Sir Clifford’s mine, left her struggling, destitute and having to now nurse the injured man, whose obvious wealth is flaunted before her. It makes her, I believe, one of the unsung characters in the novel. But above all, Lawrence contrasts Lady Chatterley’s intimacy with Mellors, to the tragic loneliness of Ivy and how she also seeks the loving touch of a man. Lawrence reveals much of his early life through such scenarios, where each day mothers, sisters, daughters or lovers could find themselves alone due to another death in the colliery.
In the village of Lawrence’s birth, Eastwood, is his first home, 8a Victoria Street. It is a tiny, but comfortable place which is now a museum. Visitors can see how the influence of the nearby pits and communal facilities, like toilets and washing houses, not only physically got under the skin of all the family, through its coal dust and grime, but into the hearts and fears of those awaiting every working day for the return of each miner. Lawrence’s father worked in nearby Brinsley mine, but although a supervisor, he too would have seen and discussed the tragedies of the pit.
Ironically, in Brinsley now all that remains are the Headstocks, the wheels at the top of the pit, showing not only the ravages of pit closures during our recent economic and political history, but the sealing, beneath the ground, of the memories of a world so closely entwined with Lawrence.
At Durban House, where the DH Lawrence Heritage museum is now based, visitors can recall how this was the grand office of the colliery owners, where Lawrence often had to queue in terror for his father’s meagre wages, whilst down the road, the pit owners lived in even more palatial style. How ironic that recently the local council, Broxtowe Borough, should, in its infinite philistine manner, contemplate closing this piece of history. A link in Eastwood, Lawrence’s birthplace to the world of his life and literature.
Because, never mind sex, Lawrence also wrote passionately about class. Its inequalities in money, status and treatment of the lower orders. In Lawrence’s short story, The Prussian Officer, a lowly orderly kills the officer who has been viciously tormenting him even though he knows it will mean his own life will be ended, “He stood and looked at it [the dead officer’s body] in silence. It represented more than the thing which had kicked and bullied him”. No wonder the establishment did not like what they read.
Lawrence called Eastwood, Nottingham and the surrounding, often, beautiful countryside, ‘the country of my heart’, and would place local beauty spots, people and experiences of his childhood into many of his novels, short stories and poems. His connection to nature was vivid. His views of the fields, harvests, animals and birds lifted Lawrence’s spirits, not only in England but during his travels in Europe and then to other continents. Lawrence seems at times to despise his home country, mostly I feel because of its boundaries preventing him from developing his writing. He also felt confined by normal ‘work’ – ie his brief and often erratic teaching career.
After being a somewhat disenchanted scholar himself – although he had gained academic scholarships much to his mother’s approval, I guess – his career choice was not something which brought him much happiness. All the while, particularly when he had left Nottingham schools, his work day was only a ‘means to an end’ to time writing from his imagination – be it copious amounts of correspondence, or the manuscripts and articles which he was experimenting with. Lawrence had taught in Croydon, escaping the grim Midlands, but then said of the town, “….there don’t seem to be many nice folk here. They are all glib, but not frank, polite, but not warm”. Through his writing Lawrence shared with us the sights but also the sounds and dialects of the people he did care for in the Midlands.
Women in Lawrence’s life? Well there’s a whole lot of them! As Doris Lessing once said of Lawrence, “No one ever wrote better about the power struggles of sex and love.” It was familial love too, often deeply heartfelt and overwhelmed by death and other traumatic experiences. His mother obviously. But then his sisters, particularly the youngest of the family – Ada, with whom he was closest. Then the local girls with whom relationships were made, however fleetingly. Particularly Jessie Chambers (on whom Miriam in Sons and Lovers’ is based), and Louie Burrows, with whom a whole raft of intimate letters were sent during their time at teacher training college and his short years of teaching. Highly intimate and wonderful were the ones as Lawrence declared love and affection and a hope to marry. Yet, after becoming engaged in 1911 and with continued financial worries, Lawrence suddenly becomes distant to Louie, in both words and actions. Academics point to Lawrence feeling constrained by a woman who wanted only a teacher as a husband, and that Louie frustrated his literary ambitions, and that should he have married her, there would have been no DH Lawrence the writer. But I think Lawrence wanted more passion beyond the traditional confines with which life so far had shared. Lawrence also needed a strong woman to take the lead. So many writers do. He wrote after one of her visits, “Somehow as soon as I am alone with her (Louie) I want to run away”.
But Lawrence ran into the arms of another woman. His aunt Ada had relatives in Germany and his connections with that country grew after meeting Frieda Weekley in early 1912. Despite already being married, Frieda eloped with Lawrence and he even wrote in November of that year to tell Louie, “I am living here with a lady whom I love, and whom I shall marry when I come to England, if it is possible. We have been together as man and wife for six months, nearly, now, and I shall hope we shall always remain man and wife”.
Louie was heartbroken, but maybe in actions that would have played well with Lawrence as a writer, she kept all of his letters and after his death made a visit, a pilgrimage perhaps, to his grave in France and laid flowers on his grave. Lawrence was proved right about her devotion, expressed in a previous poem to Louie, that she “takes good care… of my good name.” The relationship had its critics, not just past loves, friends and Lawrence’s family, but England as it went to war and was highly suspicious of a writer (not fighting) but living with a potential spy as Frieda was often viewed. This meant Lawrence wanting to spend the final years of his life abroad. Despite the censorship trials and criticism of much of his written work and art (the Home Office closed his exhibition within hours of it opening), these were the most financially and emotionally successful of Lawrence’s life. Living on a ranch in Mexico, out in the warm wilds with nature, animals and the love of his life were perhaps the happiest of his life. But his health, always frail, deteriorated during the late 1920s and Lawrence died in the French hills at Vence on 2nd March 1930. A phoenix mosaic (his own design) decorates his humble headstone, yet he continued to recall ‘home’ in Nottingham with fondness and his legacy lives on for many in the area.
Perhaps that is the dilemma for those who read DH Lawrence. His name as a literary genius was, and maybe still is, as it is always brought up, as a scandalous writer of explicitly sexual novels. Often using real life people he knew as characters in parts of society rarely discussed meant many were embarrassed to read. Yet reconnecting with his work, hopefully others, will discover a wider vivid palette of words and pictures on the page. Not only was it life and words as Lawrence knew it, but the look between us as lovers, families and the surroundings of our own lives which maybe we overlook everyday, but which Lawrence was there to record.
BA (HONS), MA
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