D.H. Lawrence’s Life in West Berkshire 1917 – 1919 (Part 1)

Introduction

Back in the early 1990s we were having our house painted by John Webb, who then lived on Pangbourne Road, Upper Basildon, next door to Myrtle Cottage. He told me that for the second year running a group of Japanese tourists had come to stand outside Myrtle Cottage, to see where the ‘great man’ had lived. The great man in question was D H Lawrence, who I later discovered is big in Japan. But as a local historian I knew that even though Myrtle Cottage was once located in the Parish of Pangbourne, it had always been an estate cottage and not somewhere a writer such as D H Lawrence would have stayed.

So I put on my sleuthing hat and eventually discovered that for a month in August 1919, D H Lawrence and his German wife Frieda had in fact stayed at The Myrtles (now called Kylemore) in Pangbourne. When I broke the news of my discovery to the then owners of Kylemore, they were staggered. Shannee Marks is American and a writer, while her husband Per is German and a sculptor; not quite a mirror image of the Lawrences but close. As the house name had changed the Japanese tour company had obviously done some research, found Myrtle Cottage in nearby Upper Basildon and had ended up taking their tour party to the wrong property.

I then found out that the University of Reading had acquired most of Lawrence’s voluminous correspondence from that period and that the Lawrences had actually had a longer period of residence in Hermitage before moving to Pangbourne. 

I was inspired to write this piece which has languished on my computer ever since and I am most grateful to Penny Post for agreeing to publish it here (in three parts) and to Thames & Hudson, Ltd for permission to reproduce photos from D.H. Lawrence by Harry T Moore and Warren Roberts.

 

Clive Williams
Local Historian

 

Part 1: Finding a Rural Idyll in West Berkshire 

David Herbert Lawrence, poet, novelist and essayist, was born on 11 September 1885 in Eastwood, Nottinghamshire, the son of a miner and his school-teacher wife. As a child he had pneumonia and became susceptible to consumption, which was to lead eventually to his early death at Vence, France in 1930, just 44 years old.

Lawrence’s poor health prevented him following his father down the pit. Instead, strongly influenced by his mother, he developed literary talents. Initially a teacher he became a full-time writer in 1911 on the strength of the critical acclaim which greeted his first novel The White Peacock

In 1912 he met Frieda Weekley, the German wife of Professor Ernest Weekley of Nottingham University, a former tutor of Lawrence’s. Within a few weeks Frieda Weekley had abandoned her husband and three children and she then eloped to Germany with Lawrence. 

D.H. Lawrence on his 21st birthday.
D.H. Lawrence on his 21st birthday.
Frieda Weekley (born von Richthofen), who was to marry Lawrence on 13 July 1914.
Author Katherine Mansfield, a dear friend of Lawrence's.

Theirs was a turbulent relationship. In a letter to Katherine Mansfield, the New Zealand writer, who was a close friend and a fellow consumptive, Lawrence described his wife as ‘the devouring mother’. It was an apt description but Frieda Lawrence was also undoubtedly her husband’s inspirational muse and a major force behind his prolific literary output. After the Weekleys divorced, Lawrence and Frieda married on 13 July 1914, just prior to the start of the First World War.

In 1912 Lawrence wrote The Tresspasser and in February 1913 his Poems and Others came out, followed in May 1913 by his most widely read novel Sons and Lovers. These works, particularly Sons and Lovers, established his reputation but his fortunes deteriorated with the onset of the War in 1914. His poor health meant that he was exempt from military service. 

He was never a conscientious objector, but he refused to contribute in any way to the war effort and this did not endear him to his compatriots or the authorities. The fact that he was also married to a German national and one, moreover, who was a cousin of Baron von Richthofen (‘the Red Baron’), the German air ace who had shot down more Allied aircraft than anyone else, only exacerbated the hostility the couple encountered. 

In 1915 they took refuge in a cottage in Zennor, Cornwall but Frieda liked going for long walks along the coastline and such was local paranoia that the locals convinced themselves that she was a German agent trying to signal German U-boats. 

In 1915 Lawrence’s major novel The Rainbow was published by Methuens and almost immediately banned as obscene. Methuens were prosecuted for publishing an ‘indecent’ book and chose not to defend the action and Lawrence was totally mortified as he always prided himself on being a highly moral writer. The prosecution made it very difficult for Lawrence to get any more novels published (Women in Love for example, was written in 1917 but not published until 1920).

By October 1917, the Lawrences found themselves expelled from Cornwall by military decree due to suspicions about Frieda. Homeless and with virtually no money coming in from Lawrence’s writing they had to throw themselves on the mercy of their friends for both accommodation and financial support (Lawrence eventually wrote with great bitterness about his experiences at that time in his novel Kangaroo, written in Australia in 1923).

Two of these friends owned cottages in West Berkshire and thus it was that between October 1917 and 1919, the Lawrences came to spend a considerable part of their time in West Berkshire, mainly in Hermitage but with one short stay in Pangbourne in August 1919.

Life in Hermitage  1917 – 1919 

In Hermitage the Lawrences spent most of their time at Chapel Farm Cottage, Pond Lane, now called Warborough Cottage and home to Mrs Chris Tucker. 

When Mrs Tucker first moved to Warborough Cottage in the 1960s there were still villagers around who could remember Lawrence. They nicknamed him ’Jesus’. And she has a spoon engraved with Lawrence’s initials, which they left behind in the cottage when they vacated.

Lack of money was a great concern to the Lawrences. They were not interested in material possessions – contemporary accounts record their making do with just two deckchairs for seating in Chapel Farm Cottage. But Lawrence did like to have some money in the bank and on 12 February 1918 he wrote from Chapel Farm Cottage to Lady Cynthia Asquith to inform her that he had just £6-19s to his name.

We know from other correspondence that the Lawrences were forced to move into rented rooms at the village store (this is now a second-hand car business opposite the Fox Public House). The owner Mrs Bessie Lowe charged £1-15s a week for full board, so that moving from Chapel Farm Cottage to Mrs Lowe’s to save money showed how close the Lawrences were at that time to destitution.

Lawrence was in consequence forced to swallow his pride and start writing begging letters to his friends and acquaintances, though his rather high-handed tone was not best calculated for success. He wrote to Arnold Bennett, a successful fellow writer “I hear you think highly of me and my genius, give me some work”. Bennett replied “Yes, I do think highly of your genius but that is no reason why I should give you work”. Nevertheless Bennett did eventually arrange for Lawrence to receive £25 through a third party (about £1250 in today’s money). George Bernard Shaw gave £40 (£2,000) and Lawrence thought it should have been more ‘a miserable £40’ he wrote. Other friends rallied round and there was also a small income from non-novel writing. So the Lawrences scraped by – just.

During his time in Hermitage, Lawrence wrote the first 140 pages of his novel Aaron’s Rod. Based on his early life experiences in Nottinghamshire, it contains a chapter in which two of his major characters, the Lillys, stay at a labourer’s cottage in Hampshire, which is a thin disguise for Chapel Farm Cottage, Hermitage. In the chapter there are visits to the Post Office, to the station (which Hermitage then boasted), descriptive passages on the woods near the cottage and on the violets, anemones, crocii and wild flowers in the cottage gardens and the white cocks crowing in the quiet hamlet. The novel was eventually finished in Italy and published in 1922 to mixed reviews. 

Hermitage also receives a mention in Lawrence’s novel Kangaroo, written as previously stated in Australia in 1923. This time Hermitage becomes an Oxfordshire village. In an autobiographical chapter entitled The Nightmare Somers (Lawrence) describes his time in Cornwall, the humiliation of being medically examined to see if he were fit for active service and the harshness of his expulsion from Cornwall. Hermitage then becomes an oasis in a hostile world. “It was a lovely spring and here in the heart of England – Shakespeare’s England – there was sweetness and humanness that he had never known before. The people were friendly and unsuspicious though they knew all about the trouble. The police too were delicate and kindly. It was a human world once more, human and lovely, though the gangs of woodmen were cutting down the trees, baring the beautiful spring woods, making logs for trench props”. Later Somers and his wife Harriet (Frieda) plan to leave ‘accursed Derby and the hated Midlands to go back to the Oxfordshire village, which they loved’.

While at Chapel Farm Cottage, Lawrence also wrote a novella The Fox. No doubt the proximity of the local pub ‘The Fox’ to Chapel Farm Cottage played a part in his choice of title. In the story two spinsters, living almost as husband and wife, struggle to run their small holding, Bailey Farm, in the face of the depredations of the Fox, which steals their fowls with impunity. Then a human Fox appears in the guise of a young soldier. The human Fox kills his animal counterpart but then steals the heart of one of the two women, killing the other one accidentally. 

The story is clearly based on Grimsbury Farm, which was run as a not very successful small holding by the cousins Cecily Lambert and Violet Monk. Lawrence had met them at the village stores in Hermitage and they became close friends. The Lawrences also spent some time at Grimsbury Farm and Violet Monk did some of his typing. 

Miss Violet Monk of Grimsbury Farm typed the first part of the manuscript, which Lawrence had posted to her from Italy.

Now demolished, the farmhouse stood at the rear of Doltons Animal Food warehouse in the garden of a modern property, called Fairmead. 

But Cecily Lambert described the story of The Fox as pure fantasy and both she and her cousin went on to become respectable married ladies. Although written in 1918, The Fox was not published until 1921. Lawrence received £30 for it (£1,500).

Lawrence and Frieda at Grimsbury Farm

 

While at Hermitage in January 1918, Lawrence also resumed work on the critical essays, which were to become Studies in Classic American Literature. By July 1918 he had also written the first chapters of Movements in European History, which was a text-book for children, commissioned by the Oxford University Press. This was completed by January 1919. In the second half of 1918 he wrote some essays on education and in addition to The Fox he wrote two other short stories The Blind Man and Tickets, Please. He also wrote a play Touch and Go. During the winter of 1918, when the Spanish flu epidemic was raging and taking many lives both Lawrence and Frieda were quite ill with influenza and pleurisy respectively and Lawrence stated that he had lost the desire to write. 

Lawrence was a prolific letter-writer and had a circle of close friends in the literary and publishing world, most of them just names today. One has to be impressed by his stamina in keeping in touch with them over many years. Scarcely a day passed when he did not write a letter or two and they make interesting reading with many pertinent asides and descriptive passages. He was also familiar with the Bloomsbury set, though he was on close terms only with Mark Gertler, the Jewish artist and a working-class outsider, similar to himself. Gertler visited Lawrence at Hermitage and the possibility of Dora Carrington also visiting was mentioned, although there is no evidence that she ever did. At the time she and Lytton Strachey were living at Tidmarsh Mill.

One of the risks of meeting Lawrence was that you stood a good chance of subsequently ending up as a character in one of his novels or stories. Cecily Lambert and Violet Monk were broad-minded enough not to be worried by the hints of a lesbian relationship in their The Fox novella characters, Nellie Marsh and Jill Bamford. However, Lady Ottoline Morrell of Garsington Manor took great umbrage at her portrayal as Hermione Roddice in Women in Love and threatened to sue. In one of his letters from Chapel Farm Cottage, Lawrence wrote “I once was very fond of her – and I still am in a way”. However Lawrence wrote that when he was still trying to get Lady Ottoline’s support for having the novel published. When he heard that not only was there no support but instead the threat of a lawsuit he changed tack and wrote petulantly and bitterly “As for the Ott- why should I bother about the old carrion. If I can publish, I shall publish. But ten to one I can’t and I don’t care a straw either way”.

There is no doubt that Lawrence was happiest communing with nature. If he sometimes dips his pen in acid when writing about his fellow human beings, he invariably writes with affection about Hermitage and the West Berkshire countryside. His initial doubts about Chapel Farm Cottage were quickly dispelled – on 12 January 1918 he described it as “cold and comfortless”. Within 5 days, however, he was writing “Having been seedy this week, I have sat in bed in my usual style and looked out of the window in front. There is a field – the thatched roof of a cottage – then trees and other roofs. As the evening falls and it is snowing, there is a clear yellow light, an evening star and a moon. The trees get dark. Those without leaves seem to thrill the twigs above – the firs and pines slant heavy with snow”. The thatched cottage has gone and there are bungalows standing in the field but the writing is still evocative of a snowy winter’s day in the Little Hungerford region of Hermitage.

Only a fortnight later Lawrence wrote “It has been very warm – but almost more like autumn than spring: like early October, so still and languid – there’s nae luck aboot the hoose…certain snowdrops are out in the garden and in the woods and the birds sing very loudly at evening. One almost feels like a bird oneself, whistling out of the invisible”.

On 15 February 1918, he wrote to Catherine Carswell, another writer friend – “The money is coming to a dead end – don’t quite know how to raise the wind… Nothing good, except a day of beautiful sunshine today. – They are chopping down much timber here, we go out and get wood – it is strange and sort of other world – the fires in the clearings…There are primroses in the woods – and avenues of yellow hazel catkins, hanging like curtains”.

By March 1918 the Lawrences were thinking of settling permanently in the area. “It is very nice here – Hardy country – like woodlanders – all woods and hazel copses, and tiny little villages that will sleep forever. There are two such charming cottages we could have here – one in the village, under the church, with fields slanting down, and a hazel copse almost touching the little garden well; the other on top of a hill against a big wood… there is a gypsy camp near here – and how I envy them – down a sandy lane under some pine trees. I find one is soothed with trees. I never knew how soothing trees are – many trees, and patches of open sunlight, and tree presences. It is almost like having another being…” The cottages in question were in Hampstead Norreys, not Hermitage.

Catherine Carswell, one of Lawrences first biographers.

On 16 April 1918 he wrote to Cecil Gray “That’s all the news – except that yesterday there was deep snow, though the trees are in bloom. Plum trees and cherry trees full of blossom look so queer in a snow landscape. Their lovely foamy fullness goes a sort of pinky drab and the snow looks fiendish in its cold incandescence. I hated it violently”.

At the end of April 1918 Lawrence wrote to Mark Gertler “I am incapable of everything – except I dig and set potatoes… We went for a walk this evening through the woods – and I found a dead owl, a lovely big warm brown soft creature, lying in the grass at my feet, in the path, its throat eaten by weasels. It sticks in my mind curiously – as if something important had died this week-end…also we found some very lovely big cowslips, whose scent is really a communication from the source of creation – like the breath of God breathed into Adam. It breathes into the Adam in me”.

In August 1918 Lawrence wrote “The plums are out in the garden – I picked them from the tree last evening… It is very pleasant here – corn in stook – very many blackberries – very peaceful, somnolent”. In October 1918 he wrote “We have been out all afternoon, getting chestnuts… country very nice and yellow… Here the woods are all yellow – big yellow woods. I never saw them more lovely”.

Despite, or perhaps because of, Lawrence’s love of their new home, he was particularly unpleasant in his correspondence about the Radfords, who were renting Chapel Farm Cottage from its owner Mrs Emily Pocock, and in turn letting the Lawrences have the cottage when they had no need for it themselves.

Lawrence particularly disliked the mother, Margaret Radford, who was sometimes there at the same time as the Lawrences. ‘The horrible Margaret Radford’ she was referred to in one letter. Ernest Radford unfortunately developed mental illness from which he died in 1919. Instead of extending sympathy, Lawrence refers to him in one letter as ‘that madman’. When the Radfords required the cottage in July 1919 – presumably so that Ernest Radford could have somewhere quiet to see out his days, Lawrence wrote “The Radfords, with stinking impudence, having let us this cottage, now want us to clear out by July 25 and then we shall have nowhere to go”. 

The Move to Kylemore (formerly The Myrtles) in Pangbourne, August 1919

It was then that the Lawrences went to stay for a month at The Myrtles, Pangbourne with Rosalind Baynes and her three children, “Pleasant house – hate Pangbourne itself” wrote Lawrence, although in mitigation for Pangbourne it was a heat-wave at the time. Rosalind Baynes was a great beauty, and probably the inspiration for Lawrence’s character Alvina Houghton in The Lost Girl and she had a brief romantic liaison with Lawrence in Florence in 1920. 

Myrtles (in fact Myrtle Grove) is now Kylemore, 38, Reading Road, Pangbourne, until recently the home of Mr and Mrs Per Marks but now of Jane and Mohan Patel, who kindly granted permission for the photograph of Kylemore to be reproduced.

While at Pangbourne, Lawrence regained his zest for writing. He edited a translation by his friend S S Koteliansky, of a work by the Russian philosopher Leo Shestov, entitled The Apotheosis of Groundlessness. This was eventually published as All things are possible.

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