D.H. Lawrence

 

 

 

Ironies abound in the saga of the nearly two years D.H. and Frieda Lawrence spent in the West Country.  Disillusioned by the patriotic fervor surrounding World War I and the suppression of his novel The Rainbow (1915; republished 1921), Lawrence fantasized about founding a utopian community in some idyllic setting.  He considered facetiously “’Thibet-or Kamschatka-or Tahiti—. . . the Ultima ultima ultima Thule’” (Letters 330) and more seriously, if equally improbably, Fort Meyers, Florida.  He finally washed up in Zennor, Cornwall, five miles from St. Ives on the north coast and, for England at least, the “ultima ultima Thule.”  Staying initially at the Tinners Arms, founded in 1271 and still the best—and only—pub in Zennor, Lawrence and Frieda moved to a two-room cottage at nearby Higher Tregerthen.  There they were briefly joined by Katherine Mansfield and John Middleton Murry, who quickly fled from the isolation, Lawrence’s philosophies,  and his violent quarrels with Frieda.

Lawrence enthused in his letters about the rugged beauty of the Cornish coast:  “The heather is all in blossom:  there are very many blackberries, heavy on the briars: we got some mushrooms on the cliffs yesterday, small and round in the close grass:  the sea was very beautiful, dark, dark blue, with heavy white foam swinging at the rocks” (Letters 608).  But friendships and events from the period—not the landscape—are what make their way into his fiction.  Lawrence completed the manuscript for Women in Love (1920) at Higher Tregerthen, and Middleton Murry and Katherine Mansfield are conventionally taken as models for its protagonists Gerald and Gudren, with Ursula and Birken inspired by Frieda and Lawrence himself.  More bitterly, the “Nightmare” chapter of the semi-autobiographical Kangaroo (1923) is drawn from the ordeal that, literally, drove the Lawrences from Cornwall.

Like Lawrence, Kangaroo’s Somers is an outspoken critic of militarism:  “he hated the war and said so to the few Cornish people around.  .  .  . And because of his isolation and his absolute separateness he was marked out as a spy” (221). To make matters worse, Somers’s wife, like Frieda Lawrence, is German, a suspect status intensified in Frieda’s case by the fame of her cousin, the (Red) Baron von Richthofen. Rumors of the Somers’s betrayals proliferate:  “He and his wife carried food to supply German submarines.  They had secret stores of petrol in the cliffs.”  They couldn’t “hang out a towel on a bush” or paint their chimney without it being seen as “a signal to the Germans” (231).  The crisis comes at last when police and coast watchers break in on an evening of German folk songs, accusing the Somers and their friends of leaving a light burning in “a window facing the sea” (238).  They are ordered to leave Cornwall immediately, as the Lawrences themselves were on Oct 12, 1917.   Historically accurate in many details,“Nightmare” chronicles the demolition of Lawrence’s  Cornish utopia.

Burgess, Anthony.  Flame into Being:  The Life and Work of D.H. Lawrence. London:  Heinemann Ltd, 1985.
Lawrence, D.H.  Kangaroo.  London:  Heinemann Ltd., (1923) 1966.
Lawrence, D.H.  Women in Love  London:  Penguin Books, (1920) 1983.
Sagar, K.M.  The Life of D.H. Lawrence.  London:  Eyre Methuen Ltd 1980.
Zytaruk, George J. and James Boluton.  The Letters of D.H. Lawrence.  Cambridge:  Cambridge UP, 1981.

Zennor Headlands
Tinners Arms Pub, Zennor
Higher Tregerthen, Zennor, Cornwall

© Copyright Kim McMullen 2007