Chapter 2: London and first publication: 1908-1912
Lawrence found Croydon in October 1908 quite a shock. For the first time in his life (apart from holidays) he was away from home, in lodgings; he was a long way from family and friends, and missed them badly; he was living in a fast-developing and rather squalid suburb of a suburb; and he was teaching full-time in a school very different (and much tougher) from any he had so far experienced. He wrote a letter "like a howl of terror" (Letters I: 82) to Jessie Chambers on his second day in Croydon: all his life, he later confessed, he had found new places and experiences upsetting - "Very rarely have I been able to enjoy the first weeks of anything, even a holiday" (Letters I: 106) - and Croydon took a great deal of getting used to, especially as he found himself working under a headmaster, Philip Smith (1866-1961), who was not (like George Holderness) concerned to protect him. The sons of colliers in Nottinghamshire, however rude they had been to the snuffly-nosed mard-arsed kid young Bert Lawrence, had been (by Eastwood standards) not badly off. But now Lawrence was teaching boys from institutions, and from the really poor and deprived. He had very bad discipline problems; the account of Ursula's horrendous experiences at school in The Rainbow probably stemmed from Lawrence's own problems in his first weeks in Croydon, and - like Ursula's - his problems seemed only to have been solved by the eventual, self-brutalizing use of the cane.
What living in Croydon did offer, however, was a new set of landscapes (he explored far and wide on his bicycle); and, in London itself, he went to plays and operas and explored art galleries and second hand book shops. But he found little intellectual stimulus in Croydon itself; and its lack of diversion offered him time to write. During his first year in Croydon, his social life was probably confined to occasional visits to pubs with his landlord, John William Jones (1868-1956): his evenings were spent marking or writing, or helping Mrs Marie Jones (1869-1950) with the children. He signalled the end of his mother's idea that he should study for a degree by symbolically turning two partly-used Nottingham University College notebooks into storehouses for completed poems and poem drafts; as late as 1918 he would be still drawing upon drafts of poems first written down there. During his first year in Croydon, too, he managed a complete revision of Laetitia: "I am astonished to find how maudlin is the latter. It needed to come out here to toughen me off a bit; I am a fearful, sickly sentimentalist" (Letters I: 106). His reading broadened to include French poets like Charles Baudelaire (1821-67) and Paul Verlaine (1844-96); he was also lucky in having a sympathetic colleague at school - Arthur McLeod (1885-1956) - with a love of books and an extensive library.
It was his poetry that led to his first significant break into print. He had continued sending all his writing to Jessie Chambers for her to read and comment on; and in June 1909 she sent some of his poems to the editor of the English Review, the critic and novelist Ford Madox Hueffer (1873-1939). She and Lawrence had both admired the magazine when it started publication at the end of 1908; it had quickly established itself as one of the major journals. Hueffer was at the heart of the London literary scene: he had worked with Joseph Conrad (1857-1924), corresponded with Henry James (1843-1916), knew W. B. Yeats (1865- 1939) and H. G. Wells (1866-1946) and (of the new generation of writers) Ezra Pound (1885- 1972). And he was struck by Lawrence and his poetry: by the facts of Lawrence's upbringing, perhaps, as much as by the poetry itself. The English Review saw itself as a radical journal with left-wing sympathies, and "a collier's son a poet" must have seemed heaven-sent. At all events, while the Lawrences were away on a family holiday on the Isle of Wight at the start of August 1909, Hueffer not only wrote to Jessie saying that he had decided to print some of the poems, but asked to see Lawrence and - even more to the point - "says he will be glad to read any of the work I like to send him" (Letters I: 138). In order to produce a clean draft of Laetitia to replace the patched together and rewritten draft of 1908-09, as soon as he was back in Croydon Lawrence commandeered his friends to help him: a rather older fellow teacher at Davidson School, Agnes Mason (1871-1950), and a new, younger schoolteacher acquaintance, Agnes Holt (1883-1971), whom he found very attractive. His poems came out in the November number of the English Review, and Agnes Holt made a fair copy of them into his second poetry notebook: to celebrate his success, to mark the start of the second notebook, and - doubtless - to show her own response to the successful young schoolteacher to whom she too was drawn. Success followed success; by the start of November, with the help of his friends, Lawrence had also got the new, clean manuscript of Laetitia into Hueffer's hands; and, during December, made his first appearances in London literary society, introduced by Hueffer and his mistress Violet Hunt (1866-1942). He visited Wells, met Yeats and stayed with Pound: all the time conscious of his socially unpresentable boots and shabby schoolmaster's suit.
At a stroke, he had been catapulted into the heart of contemporary literary intellectual circles. And yet in 1909, just as he would for the rest of his life, Lawrence felt distinctly uncomfortable. He did not fit easily in that world - "I am no Society man - it bores me" (Letters I: 156): was too aware of its pretensions, of its self-conscious artistry, of his own kinds of difference. He never became a popular author, nor an author much involved in contemporary writers' circles. A good deal of his life, he lived and worked a long way from the metropolis; cast himself in the role of an outsider, and remained on the outside. He would become closer, in London, to practising psychoanalysts than to literary folk; visited a small circle of friends and relatively rarely moved beyond it.
It can hardly be an accident, however, that Lawrence's writing about his own background in the mining community started at exactly the time when Hueffer was a great influence upon him. He had completed his play A Collier's Friday Night by the end of November 1909, had a draft of "Odour of Chrysanthemums" finished by December, and would write the first version of his play The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd early in the spring of 1910: all three of them probably responses to Hueffer's suggestion that he should write about "þthe other half' - though we might as well have said the other ninety-nine hundredths" (Worthen 1991: 216) of which he had such intimate knowledge. Although Lawrence later described A Collier's Friday Night as "most horribly green," it remains eminently actable, negotiating as it does the difficult waters of the Sons and Lovers family situation without the aid of a pilot-narrator; the audience's sympathies are beautifully controlled as they swing from mother to son to father.
It was, however, his major fiction that Lawrence still thought most highly of - as he was right to do, if he was thinking of making a career of his writing. With a letter from Hueffer recommending it, he placed the manuscript of his novel Laetitia in the hands of the publisher William Heinemann (1863-1920) in mid-December. Heinemann took just a month to accept it, returning the manuscript in mid-January with requests for cuts and some changes, all of which Lawrence was happy to make. He worked on it during the early spring with a new friend, Helen Corke (1882-1978), a teacher in another Croydon school whom he had met through his fellow-teacher Agnes Mason. Helen Corke was still recovering from an appalling experience suffered the previous summer. On the Isle of Wight (by coincidence, at the same time as but never meeting the Lawrence family party) she had gone through five days of extraordinarily mixed feelings of love, liking, sexual repulsion, admiration and astonished response to the natural world, in the company of a married music-teacher and violinist in his late thirties, Herbert Macartney (1870-1909), who had persuaded her to go on holiday with him. On their return to south London, her lover - after two days back with his family - had killed himself. Helen herself was still coming to terms with what had happened, and part of her therapy for herself was a long diary letter to her dead lover; she had also written a diary of her five days on the island. Lawrence became closely involved with her; listened to, sympathized with and analyzed her experiences, found himself intensely imagining the man's own version of events; and began to work out his own version of the story. Doing this while revising Laetitia, he accidentally incorporated one of the names belonging to the other story in his first novel, thus betraying the power of the new story on his imagination; and as soon as he had finished the revision of Laetitia (now to be called The White Peacock) he turned to writing a novel based on Helen Corke's story. The White Peacock had, up to this point, taken him over four years to write: the new novel he wrote between March and August 1910. He called it The Saga of Siegmund - Siegmund being the Wagnerian name given by Helen Corke to her lover (he called her Sieglinde). It suited Lawrence, too, and the tragic kind of novel he himself was writing, with its use of motifs and its full-blown Wagnerian ambience.
His experiences in Croydon during the autumn of 1909, followed by his growing involvement with Helen Corke, seem to have triggered off his attempts at establishing a new kind of relationship, too. He had thought of an engagement to Agnes Holt - but had broken off from her when she resisted his attempts to make the relationship sexual. A week or so later, at Christmas 1909, he had ended his eight years or so of purely intellectual companionship with Jessie Chambers by suggesting that they should become lovers. Jessie, who had loved him for years, agreed that they would - later. Back in Croydon, increasingly attracted to Helen Corke, Lawrence finished his revision of The White Peacock (about the tragedy of a man who marries the wrong woman) and sketched out in The Saga of Siegmund what happens to a man in love with a woman who does not respond to him sexually; and then, in the Whitsun holidays, after getting a good way into the writing of The Saga, started his affair with Jessie. It seems to have been desperately unhappy and unsuccessful from the start: as Jessie wrote, later, "The times of our coming together, under conditions both difficult and irksome, and with Lawrence's earnest injunction to me not to try to hold him, would not exhaust the fingers of one hand" (Worthen 1991: 251). Lawrence finished the final revisions of The White Peacock, and went on working at The Saga, with a sense that he was in danger of badly messing up his life, as well as Jessie's life. Come August 1910, and within a week of finishing the novel, he resolved on a complete break with Jessie; perhaps the cruellest thing of all the cruel things he ever did to her.
His family would, however, have been both pleased and relieved; a few months later Lawrence confessed that his mother "hated J. - and would have risen from the grave to prevent my marrying her" (Letters I: 197). It must have been with an extraordinary sense of the way in which her own influence had worked on her son, that - only a fortnight after Lawrence had told her of his break with Jessie - Lydia Lawrence, on holiday in Leicester, herself collapsed from the cancer that was going to kill her. It was as if her guard had finally dropped. Lawrence, too, seems to have been struck by the coincidence. Within a month he was at work on an autobiographical novel which was going to go deep into the nature of his parents' marriage and the influences which had been at work on him; the novel would, too, investigate what had happened to its hero's relationships with women, and with a woman drawn closely from Jessie Chambers in particular. Lawrence had the unerring sense, as an artist, that what troubled him most deeply in his own life was also the substance of much contemporary anxiety, and that the divisions from which he suffered could become the central subject of major works of fiction.
All that autumn, with his mother slowly dying and in increasing pain, and Lawrence making regular (though exhausting) weekend visits, he tried to work on the novel; but he only managed to write 100 pages or so. Cut off from Jessie, he was increasingly lonely, and it was with relief that he started to see more of his old friend Louie Burrows, who was still living near Leicester and who was also doing her best to care for Lydia Lawrence. Un- intellectual, un-neurotic, undamaged by experience, but warm and generous-hearted, and always fond of Lawrence without ever knowing him very well, Louie was a good companion at such a time: "Someone to rest with - you perhaps don't know what a deep longing that may be," he told her (Letters I: 198). At the start of December, Lawrence proposed to her: marriage to Louie suddenly seemed a brilliant answer to his problems. He had already discussed the idea with his mother, as if the news might comfort her and her fears for him: and Lydia had a little grudgingly accepted the idea. Louie accepted at once. The day before proposing to Louie, he had put into his mother's hands the first, specially bound copy of The White Peacock; but she had hardly responded (Letters I: 194). The book symbolized the side of her son she associated with Jessie, and with his potential abandonment of a proper professional career, as well as with his independence - intellectual and moral - of her.
On 9th December, Lydia Lawrence died; they buried her on the 12th, and Lawrence went back to Croydon to work - he described it as "The desert of Sahara" (Letters I: 202). But now he had the thought of Louie helping to sustain him; writing her a letter from school as it grew dark one December afternoon, he remarked "I've had the gas lighted. I wish I might light myself at your abundant life" (Letters I: 202). Family Christmas back in Eastwood was an unbearably gloomy prospect; Lawrence and Ada went to Brighton to get away.
It is too easy to dismiss Lawrence's engagement to Louie as an aberration. It was clearly exceedingly important to him at the time; a break with the past and with the gloomy emotional ties binding him to his mother and (in a different way) to Jessie. Though he ended up very critical of Louie - there was so much of his life which she, a more conventional person than he was, could not share - he always retained a good feeling for her and for the support she gave him in the winter of 1910-1911 and through into the spring. But the year 1911 was, all the same, a very difficult one for him. The White Peacock came out in January, and should have been an occasion for great cheerfulness; but its links with his dying mother inhibited any such celebration. The conflict between the demands of school, the demands of the engagement, and Lawrence's desire to build upon his early success in order to become a full-time writer, grew increasingly problematic. He wanted to write and to be published: and did not have the time he really needed to concentrate and work. Ford Madox Hueffer had, too, been damning about The Saga of Siegmund; and its links with the life of Helen Corke made it, anyway, a dubious prospect for publication. The matter was effectively settled by the attitude of the publisher of The White Peacock, Heinemann, who found Lawrence's second novel tedious and not very good.
Throughout the spring and early summer of 1911 Lawrence accordingly struggled with his third novel, Paul Morel: this was the book which would have to cement his reputation. But it went very slowly; and he ended up in July with it only just over half written, and no desire to go on with it. He had continued to write poems, and produced a number of short stories, and the English Review continued to print small quantities of his work; but he had no sense of a breakthrough. And, all the time, his renewed attraction to Helen Corke meant that he felt guilty about Louie. Helen, however, refused to sleep with him, so that he felt frustrated and hurt as well as guilty: and he soon lost the companionship and shared intellectual life which Helen offered. It seems likely that, at around this point, he started an affair with a married woman, Alice Dax (1878-1959), an old Eastwood friend now living in Shirebrook, who had loved him for years; but he could only see her rarely (she seems to have visited London once). In the summer, Louie went on holiday with him and Ada, but the holiday seems to have been an unhappy affair; and return to school for the autumn term did not lift his spirits. Only a new contact with a literary mentor - the publisher's reader Edward Garnett (1868-1937) - seemed to hold out any prospects of future publishing success. A chance meeting with Jessie Chambers in October led, however, to his doing what he had always done in the old days: sending her the whole unfinished manuscript of Paul Morel for her comments. And she offered to write what she remembered of their early days: so perhaps he would be able to get the novel back on track.
But the relationship with Louie now did little more than weigh on him and his sense of guilt, while offering him no relief and no sense of a future; and the whole of the autumn seems to have followed the pattern of a complex slide into depression and bad health, unrelieved by a new determination to re-start Paul Morel in November. When he finally collapsed with pneumonia later that month, after getting wet at Garnett's and not changing his clothes, it seemed an almost inevitable outcome to the year since his mother's death.
He was very seriously ill, and nearly died. Ada went down to Croydon to nurse him; Louie was kept away, at his earnest request. After almost a month lying on his back, he began to struggle back to life (and to writing) in mid-December. Helen and Jessie both paid him visits; and it was after seeing the latter that he wrote an anguished, nostalgic account of his break with her and with the Haggs Farm, the story which eventually became "The Shades of Spring." Louie finally joined the Croydon party for Christmas - Ada had her Eastwood fianc‚ Eddie Clark (1889-1964) with her, too; but early in January, Lawrence had to go to Bournemouth for a month's convalescence. What for many people would have been a month relieved of all thoughts of work was, for Lawrence, a heaven-sent opportunity to take firm hold of the literary career which was now being forced upon him; he had been advised not to go back to work as a teacher. Edward Garnett had cheered him immensely by saying that The Saga of Siegmund was nowhere near as bad as Hueffer or Heinemann had suggested, and that Lawrence only needed to knock it into shape to get it published; Garnett supplied notes and Lawrence took the manuscript with him to Bournemouth, to help re-build his literary career.
And during January, in the intervals of going for lengthy walks and eating enormous meals, to build up his strength, he rewrote a good deal of it and revised the rest. It may have been good for his recovery and his career to do this (it gave him a novel to follow up the relative success of The White Peacock, and Garnett's firm of Duckworth would take it); but thinking about the tragedy of Siegmund was nothing but a disaster for his relationship with Louie. He ended the month knowing that he would have to break his engagement to her; and this he did at the start of February, greatly to her distress. She believed that there must be another woman in his life, and there was, of course, more than one, though that was not the reason for his break with her.
On 9 February 1912, Lawrence returned to Eastwood, feeling he had unexpectedly been given (and had grasped at) a whole new set of chances. He had left home in 1908 to start work as a professional man, and had almost settled down to conventional marriage of the kind of which his mother would certainly have approved; he now returned to start a new kind of life, in which he would have to live by his writing. He no longer needed to placate the two women (Lydia Lawrence and Louie Burrows) for whose sake he had stuck at working to earn a decent salary; but his prospects were fairly bleak, all the same. He thought of going abroad; but knew that first he must finish that third novel, Paul Morel, due to Heinemann for more than a year now.
Jessie Chambers had made the notes she had promised to make; and she read the new draft of the novel as he wrote it, very fast. It was one of the turning points of his career, this creation of the revised Paul Morel in the Eastwood house he was sharing with his sisters and his father, while showing the manuscript to Jessie, the representative of his past life. He was surrounded by the past, but for the first time was trying to get it into real perspective, and to understand what had really happened between his parents, and to himself when young. He was also looking with profound skepticism at his relationship with Jessie Chambers; the fictional arena gave him a chance to work out what kind of a self-conscious and ruthless prig he had been, but also how incapable she too had been of a balanced relationship. He wrote the novel at white heat, and to her lasting terror and distress. She would later blame his continuing love for Lydia Lawrence for the way in which he dismissed both the fictional Miriam and the real-life Jessie; but the resolution of the novel seems, rather, to have been one of those breakthroughs into understanding and hard, intellectual clarity of which Lawrence was capable: often to his own dismay, certainly to that of his friends. By the end of March, the novel was done, all but a last revision; but another symbolic miracle had occurred. He had been writing to free himself of the past, and had now discovered something of his future: he had met Frieda Weekley.
© "Biography of D.H. Lawrence" John Worthen, 1997
Next page: Chapter 3: Frieda and the escape abroad: 1912-1914