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Chapter 1: Background and youth: 1885-1908

Part I

D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930) was born on 11 September 1885 in the small house which is now 8a Victoria Street, Eastwood, Nottinghamshire. Eastwood was a growing colliery village of around 5000 inhabitants: there were ten pits within easy walking distance, and a massive majority of the male population were colliers (Lawrence's father and all three paternal uncles worked down the pit). The district had grown and prospered because of the rewards offered by the industry; the very house where Lawrence was born had been built by the largest of the local colliery companies, Barber Walker & Co. But by the mid 1880s the great coal-boom was over; and though Eastwood continued to grow, the only future it seemed to offer was in the coal industry itself. A tight-knit community of men whose lives depended upon each other also supported wives few of whom had jobs, and children who mostly could not wait until they were - at fourteen - able themselves to start as colliers. It was not a promising background for a man who would make his life's work writing about the fulfilled relationships of men and women, and the crucial relationship between human beings and the natural world: although such things were remarkable in his background by their very absence.

Lawrence was the fourth child of Arthur Lawrence (1846-1924) and Lydia Beardsall (1851-1910), and their first to have been born in Eastwood. Ever since their marriage in 1875, the couple had been on the move: Arthur's job as a miner had taken them where the best-paid work had been during the boom years of the 1870s, and they had lived in a succession of small and recently built grimy colliery villages all over Nottinghamshire. But when they moved to Eastwood in 1883, it was to a place where they would remain for the rest of their lives; the move seems to have marked a watershed in their early history.

For one thing, they were settling down: Arthur Lawrence would work at Brinsley colliery until he retired in 1909. For another, they now had three small children - George (1876-1967), Ernest (1878-1901) and Emily (1882-1962) - and Lydia may have wanted to give them the kind of continuity in schooling they had never previously had. It was also the case that, when they came to Eastwood, they took a house with a shop window, and Lydia ran a small clothes shop: presumably to supplement their income, but also perhaps because she felt she could do it in addition to raising their children. It seems possible that, getting on badly with her husband as she did, she imagined that further children were out of the question. Taking on the shop may have marked her own bid for independence.

She certainly needed to stand up for herself. Arthur's parents - John (1815-1901) and Louisa (1818-1898) and his brother George (1853-1929) lived less than a mile away, down in Brinsley, where his brother James (1851-1880) had been killed at work, three years earlier, while his youngest brother Walter (1856-1904) lived only 100 yards away from them in another company house, in Princes Street. When the family moved to Eastwood, Arthur Lawrence was coming back to his own family's center: one of the reasons, for sure, why they stayed there.

Lydia Lawrence probably felt, on the other hand, more as if she were digging in for a siege. Eastwood may have been home to Arthur Lawrence, but to Lydia it was just another grimy colliery village which she never liked very much and where she never felt either much at home or properly accepted. Her family originally came from Nottingham but she had been brought up in Sheerness, and her Kent accent doubtless made Midlands people feel that she put on airs. Her grandfather lived not far off, but the rest of her family were all still in Nottingham, twelve miles away. Her father George Beardsall (1825-1899) was a pensioned- off engine fitter who had been injured at work in Sheerness back in 1870, and who had never worked since. The family had come back to Nottingham and her mother Lydia (1830-1900) had somehow contrived that they should survive on his tiny pension, and on what the children of the family had been able to bring in. Lydia the daughter had originally had ambitions to be a teacher, was always bookish and interested in intellectual matters; but following her family's financial disaster, like her sisters she had had to fall back on the humiliations of lace- drawing - one of the sweated home-working jobs that Nottingham's lace industry created. George and Lydia Beardsall probably became a little better off, as their children grew up and married; but it also seems probable that their daughter Lydia's marriage to a collier in 1875 created a great deal of tension in the family. She married beneath her, her parents would have said. No matter their own poverty: Lydia had married, for love, a man who worked with his hands (and came home black) - and the Beardsalls had a cherished and legendary family history in which they had owned factories and had (once) even married into the aristocracy. They felt themselves to be gentlefolk even while everything about their circumstances ensured that they were not.

Arthur Lawrence was a butty - that is, a man responsible for the working of a small section of coal-face along with the team of workmen he organized - and it seems possible that when he married Lydia he had not told her that he himself worked underground. The loss of her own family, her disillusionment with her husband, and her anger at the ease with which - after early promises - he slipped back into the male world of evenings spent drinking with his mates, her dissatisfaction with her own roles as wife and mother in the succession of - to her - alien villages in which they had lived, had created in Lydia Lawrence both depression and a great deal of anger. Finding herself pregnant again in the early months of 1885 cannot have helped. The Victoria Street shop had not done well (Lydia was probably not an engaging saleswoman): and a new baby born in September 1885 - they called him Bert - she had to care for signalled, perhaps, the end of her attempt to be independent which the shop had marked. In 1887, shortly after the family had moved down into a larger company house in "The Breach" - and the Breach, if well-built, was notoriously common, even by Eastwood standards - she had another baby, Lettice Ada (1887-1948): another link in the chain she felt binding her down.

Home life for the Lawrence children became polarized between loyalty to their mother as she struggled to do her best for them, in scrimping and saving and encouraging them in taking their education seriously, and a rather troubled love for their father, who was increasingly treated by his wife as a drunken ne'er do well: and who drank to escape the tensions he (as a consequence) experienced at home. Lydia Lawrence consciously alienated the children from their father, and told them stories of her early married life (like, for example, the episode when Arthur locked her out of the house at night) which they never forgot, or forgave their father for. All the children apart from the eldest son George grew up with an abiding love for their mother and various kinds of dislike for their father. Arthur Lawrence, for his part, unhappy at the lack of respect and love shown him and the way in which his male privilege as head of the household was constantly being breached, reacted by drinking and deliberately irritating and alienating his family. It seems quite likely that, for long periods of their childhood, his drinking and staying out in the evenings, until his tipsy return would lead to a row, effectively dominated the children's experience. His behaviour - and his spending of a portion of the family income on drink - caused all the major quarrels between the parents, divided the children's loves and loyalties, and left Bert with a profound hatred of his father and an anxious, sympathetic love for his mother. The young Paul Morel lying in bed at night praying "Let him be killed at pit" (Sons & Lovers 85) is probably a true memory of the young Bert Lawrence, lying in bed waiting for his father's return home at night.

It is as well to keep this matter in perspective. Arthur Lawrence never left his family (though he may have threatened to): he never seems to have had to miss work because of his drinking: his earnings were never so diverted into drink as to leave his family seriously hard- up: he was rarely if ever violent; and it is probably wrong to think of him simply as an alcoholic. And, as always, the problems with the marriage did not stem from the behavior of only one of the partners. Lydia Lawrence certainly played her part in alienating the children from their father and in setting the agenda for their behavior. They were not to look forward to becoming colliers, like their uncles and their father, and like the vast majority of their contemporaries at school. They would take the teetotal pledge; they would treat school and its possibilities very seriously; they would go to Sunday school and chapel; they would become clerks and teachers; they would not grow up believing that men should boss women about; they would have ambitions to rise, if possible, into the middle-classes. All this, of course, still further alienated and angered Arthur Lawrence. But, in short, the Lawrence children would conform to the Beardsall family's image of itself rather than to Arthur Lawrence's; and they would grow up to do the things, and take the chances, she herself would have liked to have done and taken.

For - without her children - all Lydia Lawrence had to look forward to, in the long- term, was the growth of her children, and especially her sons, into manhood and independence. Both literally and metaphorically she always seems to have looked forward to some kind of painful struggle back up the hill into respectability. In 1891, the family managed the literal move when they moved up to a bay-windowed house in Walker Street commanding a magnificent view over the valley and beyond; and, the same year, the eldest son George left school and started work. Her favorite child, however, was her second son Ernest, who was the cleverest of all her children at school (Bert was delicate in health and missed too much school when young to do particularly well). Ernest left Beauvale school in 1893, and quickly found work as a clerk; and his mother's hopes became bound up with his success. George was always rather a problem to his mother: he ran away to join the army in 1895 and his mother had to buy him out: and then, in 1897, he had to marry his pregnant girl-friend Ada Wilson (1876-1938). Altogether he probably seemed (to his mother and to his siblings) rather too much like his father, whom he always thought very highly of. But Ernest went from strength to strength, through a succession of relatively well-paid jobs. As well as working, he studied in the evenings, read widely, taught shorthand at the local night school and also gave private lessons. He ended up, at the age of 21, getting a job in London at £120 a year. Arthur Lawrence, even in a good year, would not have earned as much as that, and would normally have earned considerably less.

The family dynamics changed with George and Ernest leaving home. The eldest daughter, Emily, was not especially good at school and had always done a great deal of caring for her younger siblings (they never forgot the stories she would tell them); she would remain living at home until her marriage to a local man, Sam King (1880-1965) in 1904. Bert was, however, starting to florish: a sickly child, who had been bullied as "mard-arsed" - soft - when young and who had preferred the company of girls to boys and of books to either: cardinal sins in a male-dominated society. But he was doing better and better at school: he won a scholarship to Nottingham High School in 1898, his last year at the Board School in Beauvale he had been attending since he was seven: the County Council was sponsoring the children of the poor to allow them access to such institutions. Bert Lawrence was only the second miner's son ever to go to the High School in Nottingham. Having never been a normal, games-playing and colliery-directed Eastwood boy, he was now going to be a distinctly abnormal one, with his high collar and dark suit, and the books under his arm.

His performance at Nottingham, however, was only briefly distinguished, and bottomed out badly at the end of his second year. He turned out to be even more of a fish out of water in an almost completely middle-class school than he had been in Eastwood. Events in March 1900 must have contributed to making things worse still. His uncle Walter Lawrence (now living in Ilkeston, three miles away, just over the border into Derbyshire) was arrested for killing his son by throwing the carving steel at him during a row, and committed for trial at the Derby assizes. The story was splashed over the local newspapers: and Bert Lawrence's performance at school that summer was his worst yet. He left at the age of 16, in the summer of 1901, with almost nothing to show for his three years there: years which (in spite of the scholarship) had cost the family a good deal of money.

It was now imperative that he get a job. Although his Nottingham High School training had equipped him to start as a pupil-teacher in a local school - if he could get a place - it seemed more important that he should start earning than that his long-term future should be considered. Accordingly, in the early autumn, like his brother Ernest, he started work as a clerk. He acquired a position in a Nottingham surgical goods factory and warehouse: at last doing something to offset the railway fares and the cost of the clothes he was now fast growing out of. Having always been a small child, he was now getting lanky.

It was while he was at work in Nottingham, at Haywoods, that the great tragedy of the family occurred. Ernest was still working in London, and had recently become engaged to a London stenographer. Louisa "Gipsy" Dennis. He had been home for the traditional October Nottinghamshire holiday, known as the Wakes; but had fallen ill with erysipelas on his return to his south London lodgings. His landlady sent a telegram to Eastwood, and Lydia Lawrence braved the trains and the suburbs to go and nurse him. She found him unconscious and dangerously ill when she arrived; doctors could do nothing (the disease commonly led very quickly to blood-poisoning, high fever and pneumonia); and he died within a day of her arrival.

Of all the possible disasters in Lydia's disappointed life, this must have been the worst. She took little interest in her family that autumn; and when Bert himself fell ill, just before Christmas, it came only as a dull shock to his mother. But the work in the factory, the strain of the long day (twelve hours at work, and two more hours travelling), combined doubtless with the fact that his mother was effectively ignoring him, weakened him, and Bert went down with double pneumonia. And his mother nearly lost him too. Release from the emotional traumas of the autumn, and Bert's recovery, led her to identify her hopes and emotions with her youngest son to an extent which she had never done before; he came back to a new and very significant kind of intimacy with his mother. He would now be carrying the weight of her hopes and expectations - and of her love: a love to which he instinctively responded, and never forgot.

 

Part II

Something else Lawrence came back to after his illness - he never returned to Haywoods - was a new awareness of the country around his home. For all its griminess and ugliness, Eastwood was set in a surprisingly rural landscape; Arthur Lawrence could gather mushrooms on his morning's walk across the fields, and at work would chew grass-stems picked on the same walk. Lawrence's new relationship with the countryside was largely gleaned from visits to the Haggs farm, two miles north of Eastwood. The Chambers family and the Lawrence family had gone to the same chapel in Eastwood, and Mrs Ann Chambers (1859-1937) - another stranger in Eastwood - had struck up a friendship with Lydia Lawrence. In 1898, the Chambers family had gone to live and work at the farm; and Bert Lawrence had first visited them there, with his mother, during his last summer at Nottingham High School. Now the walk to the farm, and the life he could share there, became an important part of his convalescence. We may suspect, too, that he found the tensions and outbursts of a very different family from his own more bearable than the sometimes stiflingly moralizing and emotionally constrained atmosphere of home. He became friends with the two younger boys first, and then with the eldest son Alan (1882-1946), three years older than himself. The elder daughter, May (1883-1955), was in the process of an adolescent extraction of herself from the family toils; but the younger daughter, Jessie (1887-1944), seems to have worshipped Lawrence from the start. And his relationship with her developed into the most significant of his young life.

For one thing, she was already fascinated by poetry and fiction; and in her Lawrence found the willing companion in reading and discussing who was so significantly lacking at home. Lydia Lawrence always read a good deal - but only novels; and although at times she wrote poetry, she regarded such things as merely the diversions of a busy life lived to other and more significant ends. But Jessie and the young Lawrence - who had always read a good deal, the natural occupation of a rather withdrawn but clever child - now devoured books, lived through them, lost themselves in them. And Lawrence found that, in their discussions, he could express himself to Jessie as to no-one else.

During the spring and early summer, he got better; he had a month's convalescence at Skegness, at a boarding house run by his maternal aunt Nellie (1855-1908). He had to work too: his aptitude for maths got him a job doing the accounts for a local Pork butcher in the evenings. But that autumn, too, he embarked on a new career. A place had been found for him at last as a pupil-teacher in the British Schools in Eastwood; he received his own lessons from the headmaster, George Holderness, for an hour before school started; then spent most of the rest of his time teaching the collier lads who only a couple of years earlier would have jeered at him for being a softy. But being a pupil-teacher was the natural way forward to gaining (in the end) a teacher's certificate, and to becoming the teacher that both Lawrence and his mother now recognized as his natural vocation. The work was taxing, but Lawrence impressed Holderness with his dedication and his intelligence. The pupil-teachers also spent some time each week at a pupil-teacher center in Ilkeston, rather to their Headmaster's annoyance, because he lost valuable teachers while they were away; and here Lawrence met with a whole group of other men and women in his situation (he also thoroughly impressed the head). Jessie Chambers started to attend the center the year after Lawrence began, for example; so did Lawrence's younger sister Ada.

After two years as a pupil-teacher in Eastwood, paying visits to the new center in Ilkeston, furiously reading, going out to the Haggs farm and talking to Jessie, Lawrence sat the competitive King's Scholarship examination in December 1904. And now for the first time he emerged as a real star. He was placed in the first class of the first division; his name was printed in the local papers, he had to send an account of himself and his working methods (and a photograph) to the magazine The Schoolmaster. Remained the question of how he would actually study for his teacher's certificate. This could be done either full-time at an institution, and sitting final examinations, or by fitting the study into your spare time and taking the examinations externally. It was decided that Bert Lawrence would go to College: to Nottingham University College. This would be yet another strain on the family finances to which Lawrence had, as yet, contributed almost nothing; it was decided that he would spend a year (this time, in full-time teaching) at the British Schools, earning £50, before going.

 

Part III

The interval between taking the King's Scholarship Examination and going to college in September 1906 proved to be perhaps the most significant period of Lawrence's life so far. In the first place, in the spring of 1905, he started to write. It was, perhaps, the most natural outcome of the years he had spent reading and discussing literature; yet he began writing with a strong sense of the oddity of his ambition. "What will the others say? That I'm a fool. A collier's son a poet!" he remarked, scathingly, to Jessie Chambers. It was poetry that he began with. "I remember the slightly self-conscious Sunday afternoon, when ... I þcomposed' my first two "poems." One was to Guelder-roses, and one to Campions, and most young ladies would have done better: at least I hope so. But I thought the effusions very nice, and so did Miriam." (Worthen 1991: 130-31) For perhaps a year it was poetry which he wrote. And then, at Easter 1906, he started the greatest experiment of his early life: he began to write a novel which he called Laetitia, the first version of The White Peacock.

But other feelings also came to a head at Easter 1906. For four years he and Jessie had accompanied each other's intellectual and literary development; they had progressed from the delighted sharing of novels to the serious work of reading Carlyle, Schopenhauer and Emerson. Lawrence had helped answer her need for intense involvement in matters apart from the everyday life of the farm girl. And Jessie had been not only the audience for all of Lawrence's fledgling work but in many ways its nurse, too: fiercely possessive of it, demanding its creation, loving it when she saw it. She and Lawrence had continued to see all they could of each other. But to other people - in particular to Lawrence's mother Lydia and his sisters Emily and Ada - the relationship with Jessie must have seemed to have been growing positively unhealthy. Lawrence was out at all hours with her, walking and talking and reading; to a loving and possessive mother confronting his college career, and all that depended on it, the time he spent with Jessie, like his writing, must have seemed a dangerous waste. Emily - now a married woman - thought her brother and Jessie must be lovers, and wanted them to behave more respectably. And even Ada resented the way Jessie monopolized her brother. Lawrence was confronted with an ultimatum from his family. He should either become formally engaged to Jessie, or he should stop seeing so much of her. It was explained to him that he was damaging her chances of getting to know other men: spoiling her chances of marriage.

Lawrence gauchely went and told Jessie what he felt he must; that he did not love her enough to want to marry her; and that he must see less of her. She was horribly hurt: especially as her own feelings for him had grown more and more like love, over the years. They agreed to see less of each other, and if possible only when a third person was there. But it was a savage blow to Jessie: the ending of her first, implicit, unexpressed belief that she and Lawrence were destined to spend their lives together. The Lawrence family, however, must have felt that they had seen off a dangerous and distracting influence in Jessie.

That September, Lawrence brought his teaching in Eastwood to an end with some regrets. Holderness, a tough disciplinarian, had clearly valued him and protected him against the toughest of his pupils, while the pupils seem to have liked him as much as he liked them. But Lawrence had to start at college in Nottingham: another break with the old days. He acquired a new group of friends, among them a girl from Cossall he had first met at the Ilkeston Center, Louie Burrows (1888-1962); and moved into new worlds intellectually, eventually spending a good deal of his time with socialist and free-thinking companions. Emily recalled "a psychological set at the University, who ridiculed religion" (Worthen 1991: 178). He also spent a lot of time writing; for example, he finished the first draft of his novel toward the end of his first year in College, and wrote a second draft during his second year. This seems to have been his main achievement at Nottingham; he found the course stultifying and the teachers too often patronizing toward students working only for teachers' certificates rather than for degrees. His mother seems to have been keen on the idea of his transferring to a degree course, or continuing studying part-time for a degree after he had obtained his teacher's certificate; but Lawrence seems to have done what he had to do, and no more. In spite of this, he came out with the best marks of any of the men in his final year, 1908.

But the two years at Nottingham which he later felt had been largely wasted (he strongly advised Jessie Chambers to take her certificate as an external student) were actually another crucial opportunity for his development. He had more time for his writing than ever before. Not only did he continue to write Laetitia, he worked hard at his poetry, and in the autumn of 1907 started to write short stories. This was originally because Jessie and Alan Chambers had challenged him to enter the annual Nottinghamshire Guardian competition, which had three categories for stories with a local setting. Lawrence determined to enter all three categories: he employed Jessie and Louie Burrows to submit entries for him, and himself entered the story he thought had the best chance - an early version of "A Fragment of Stained Glass." As it turned out, the sentimental story entered by Jessie, "A Prelude" - containing recreations of the Haggs and her family - won the category for the best story of a Happy Christmas and was printed in the Nottinghamshire Guardian. Jessie's father Edmund (1863-1946) cashed the £3 cheque for Lawrence. He rewrote both the other stories eventually (Louie's being an early version of "The White Stocking"), and wrote at least one other story ("The Vicar's Garden") around the same time. He also submitted some work - probably an essay - to the essayist and novelist G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936) at the Daily News, but to his irritation had it returned and (according to Jessie) resolved to "try no more" (Worthen 1991: 191). He may well have sent a version of the essay "Art and the Individual" which he wrote to deliver at a debating society at the house of Willie (1862-1951) and Sallie (1867- 1922) Hopkin (noted socialists both, who would stay his friends for years) in Eastwood, in the spring of 1908. Socialism mattered to him a lot, at the time: he joined a "Society for the Study of Social Problems" at College.

That last fact suggests, once again, his development during College away from his adolescent acceptance of the values of his mother and her world. In the first place, although he continued to live at home during his College years, he moved further away from the conditioning and expectations of home than he had ever done before. Although he was training to work as a teacher, his writing, reading and thinking became increasingly important to him. He started to rebel against chapel; his friends were astonished one night in 1908 when, walking home to the Haggs with the Chambers family, he launched into a savage denunciation of the minister, the Reverend Robert Reid (1865-1955). Only the previous year, he had engaged in a scholarly dispute with Reid over contemporary objections to Christianity (Letters I: 36-7, 39-41), and Reid had chosen to deliver a series of sermons in the Eastwood Congregational Chapel specifically aimed at Lawrence and his increasingly free-thinking friends. Lawrence had been reading Schopenhauer, Haeckel and William James since before going to college, but now moved decisively against Christianity, and eventually (under the influence of one of his teachers at College) declared himself to be a Pragmatist of the William James sort: agnostic, not atheist.

But his immediate problem, after the exams that concluded his college career, was getting a job. Some of his College friends quickly assumed teaching posts (Louie Burrows, for example, had begun teaching in Leicester as soon as her College exams were over, probably to help pay for the expense of her years of study). But Lawrence was determined to hold out for a decent salary, and to move out of Nottinghamshire if possible, and his family was obviously able to support him. He spent the summer helping with work on the Haggs farm, writing and reading, and applying for jobs; eventually being interviewed at the end of September in Stockport but failing to get the job. But he was interviewed in the south London suburb of Croydon a few days later and was offered a post as Assistant Master at the Davidson Road Boys' School, starting on 12th October. He was twenty-three years and one month old: a committed poet and prose writer who had only been published once: a man steeped in the life and characters of his particular background and who (in one sense) would never leave the place he had grown up in, but whose taste for literature, contemporary thought, art and music marked him out as an oddity and exception in it. His move to London would, however, be decisive in his career: and after numerous farewells to old Nottinghamshire friends, he travelled down to Croydon on Sunday 11th October, to start work the following day.

© "Biography of D.H. Lawrence" John Worthen, 1997

 

Next page: Chapter 2: London and first publication: 1908-1912

 

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