The life of D.H. Lawrence: The miner’s son who became the toast of the aristocracy
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In the latest of our series exploring the lives and times of people commemorated with blue plaques, Adam Sonin explores the working class roots and aristocratic connections of writer DH Lawrence.
A floor stone at Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey commemorates DH Lawrence’s short life.
The writer, whose full name was David Herbert (Richards) Lawrence (1885–1930), was born on September 11, 1885, in Eastwood near Nottingham, the fourth of five children of Arthur John and Lydia Lawrence.
Eastwood was very much a mining town and Arthur Lawrence, like his three brothers, was sent to work “down pit” from the age of 10 to 65.
The first time Arthur returned home from work, his wife, Lydia did not recognise him and thought he was a “Negro”.
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The young DH Lawrence, or Bert as he was known, found life difficult as a boy. He was bullied at school and often suffered from poor health.
The frail child didn’t participate in physical activity, preferring instead the company of girls who talked rather than fought. From an early age Lawrence knew he would not follow in his father’s footsteps and become a miner.
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At the age of 12 he became the first Eastwood boy to win a county scholarship that granted him a place at Nottingham High School. Having started well Lawrence failed to distinguish himself.
This might have been due to the notoriety brought on his family by the arrest of his uncle Walter, who in 1900 killed his 15-year-old son. Lawrence left school in 1901 having made few friends and with little to show for his time and began work as a factory clerk.
He later started work as a pupil teacher at the British School in Eastwood where he spent the next three years. During this time he met the Chambers family and, in 1905, under the influence of the daughter, Jessie, started to write poetry, remarking sardonically, “A collier’s son a poet!”.
In 1906 Lawrence started his first novel, which eventually became The White Peacock. Jessie Chambers saw his early writing and her encouragement, admiration and support were crucial in the young writer’s development.
By 1908, having qualified as a teacher, Lawrence moved to Croydon, describing his pupils as a “pack of unruly hounds”.
Despite the demands of teaching in a large school in a poor area he soon established himself as an energetic and innovative teacher, ready to use new methods such as turning Shakespeare lessons into practical drama classes.
Lawrence’s breakthrough came during the summer of 1909 and was the result of Jessie Chambers’ persistence in sending copies of his poetry to Ford Madox Hueffer (later Ford), at the English Review. Hueffer not only printed them, but met Lawrence and, after reading the manuscript of The White Peacock, wrote to publisher William Heinemann recommending it.
Fortunately Lawrence was able to present his mother with a copy of his first published novel as she lay on her deathbed.
However, after his father struggled through half a page, he asked his son how much he was paid. “Fifty pounds, father,” Lawrence replied. The old miner was incredulous. “Fifty pounds! An’ tha’s niver done a day’s hard work in thy life!”
On March 3, 1912, whilst away in Germany visiting cousins, Lawrence met and fell in love with Frieda von Richthofen (1879–1956). She was six years older and eventually left her first husband to be with him.
Having spent time in Germany and Italy they returned to England, settling in London, where they married on July 13, 1914.
Lawrence was now starting to move in circles centred on Garsington Manor and Lady Ottoline Morrell.
He particularly liked the idea of the common man mixing with the aristocracy and it was at one such soiree that he met and deeply impressed Bertrand Russell.
On another he befriended the writer EM Forster and enjoyed talking to a young Aldous Huxley.
In a letter to Bertrand Russell, Lawrence wrote of Forster, who had recently been his house guest: “He sucks his dummy – you know, those child’s comforters – long after his age. But there is something very real in him, if he will not cause it to die. He is much more than his dummy-sucking, clever little habits allow him to be.”
Between August and December 1915 Lawrence and his wife Frieda lived at 1 Byron Villas in Vale of Health, Hampstead.
Apparently it was the only London address Lawrence ever regarded as home, as opposed to numerous temporary lodgings. His time at the ground-floor flat saw the publication and suppression of his novel The Rainbow on the grounds of obscenity.
Visitors to Byron Villas included modernist writer Katherine Mansfield, who was living up the road at 17 East Heath Road, and poets W.B. Yeats and Ezra Pound.
Both Huxley and E.M. Forster also visited and one story tells of how Lawrence upset Bertrand Russell by apparently describing him as “false, cruel and evil” over his pacifist attitudes to the war.
One day, while lying on Hampstead Heath in the first summer of the First World War, the Lawrences saw a German Zeppelin pass over during one of the first air raids.
The writer immortalises the scene in his 1923 work, Kangaroo, in which the character Harriet, based on Frieda, looks up as the Zeppelins pass over and says, “Some of the boys I played with when I was a child are probably on it”.
While living in the area, Lawrence and John Middleton Murry set up The Signature, a literary magazine to which Murry’s future wife, Katherine Mansfield, contributed articles. Owing to the publication’s pacifist attitudes, at the height of the war, it folded after just three issues.
In 1960 when Penguin Books was accused of obscenity over the publication of Lawrence’s most notorious and controversial work, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the defence called E.M. Forster as a witness.
When questioned on how he would rate D.H. Lawrence, he replied: “I would place him enormously high. The greatest imaginative writer of his generation.”
The plaque to Lawrence at Byron Villas was unveiled in 1969 by Montague Weekley, Frieda’s son by her first husband.