DH Lawrence’s idyllic cottage in Cornwall

Estate agent's advert for DHL cottage

The ‘tower house’ at Higher Tregerthen, nr Zennor, where the Lawrences lived in 1916-17; advertised for sale by a local estate agent last week

An advert in the property pages of last week’s local Cornish newspaper, The West Briton, provided the inspiration for today’s post. Two years ago I posted a series of pieces on DH Lawrence’s letters written during his stay here in 1916-17. I shall dip into these posts here, with some added material from the letters of that time (he was a prodigious, brilliant correspondent).

The first post was on Aug 11 2016:

When we came over the shoulder of the wild hill, above the sea, to Zennor, I felt we were coming into the Promised Land. I know there will be a new heaven and a new earth take place now: we have triumphed. I feel like a Columbus who can see a shadowy America before him: only this isn’t merely territory, it is a new continent of the soul. Letter of 25 Feb. 1916 to Lady Ottoline Morrell, from The Collected Letters of D.H. Lawrence, ed. Harry T. Moore (Heinemann, London: 1962, repr. 1970; all quotations here are from this text), vol. 1, p. 437

The copy at the bottom of the estate agent’s ad gives the Lawrence quotation(s)

The quotation in the estate agent’s copy (I’ve gone for a full-size image in the hope it can be read) conflates and slightly misquotes two different letters from Lawrence. The first part I quoted in that first post of mine. It should read

At Zennor one sees infinite Atlantic, all peacock-mingled colours, and the gorse is sunshine itself, already. But this cold wind is deadly. [24 Feb. 1916, from Porthcothan, to JM Murry and K. Mansfield]

Not surprisingly the agent omits that second sentence. Their second sentence cites part of this, which I quoted in my second post:

 [5 March 1916, from the Tinner’s Arms inn, Zennor, to John Middleton Murry and Katherine Mansfield] We have been here nearly a week now. It is a most beautiful place: a tiny granite village nestling under high, shaggy moor-hills, and a big sweep of lovely sea beyond, such a lovely sea, lovelier even than the Mediterranean… To Penzance one goes over the moors, high, then down into Mount’s Bay, looking at St Michael’s Mount, like a dark little jewel. It is all gorse now, flickering with flower…

The rooms and fabric of the house have clearly been modishly updated since the Lawrences lived there in relative squalor

In the same letter he goes on to describe the house, in good estate-agentese:

What we have found is a two-roomed cottage, one room up, one down, with a long scullery. But the rooms are big and light, and the rent won’t be more than 4/- [4 old shillings, 20 pence in new currency, if I remember rightly: a pittance even then; it’s rather more expensive to buy now!] The place is rather splendid. It is just under the moors, on the edge of the few rough stony fields that go to the sea. It is quite alone, as a little colony.

DHL planMy picture left from the text captures the whole of the rest of this excited letter, with Lawrence’s sketches of the site plan. I see I’ve underlined his likening the place to ‘a little monastery’. As my posts of two years ago indicate, he was hoping to set up a ‘Rananim’, a sort of Utopian commune of like-minded higher spirits (with his own and Frieda’s at or near the top of the heap, he assumes, with characteristically disarming lack of modesty). If you can read the text in my picture you’ll see that he enthusiastically allocates living space to his chosen companions; the Mansfields were unable to put up with the primitive, ‘rugged’ living conditions and escaped to the ‘soft’ part of the county. ‘The walls of their cottage are rather damp,’ he admits in a later letter to Barbara Low (?30 May).

Lawrence had a sturdier spirit, and preferred this ‘queer outlandish Celtic country [where] I feel happy and free’ [16 April 1916, Higher Tregerthen, to Catherine Carswell].

The estate agents might feel the need for some judicious editing of some of his other descriptions, as here in that same letter to Barbara Low cited above:

The place is perfectly lovely. The cottage is tiny…The stairs go up at the side, nice and white, the low square window looks out at a rocky wall, a bit of field, and the moor overhead. The fireplace is very nice, the room has a real beauty. Upstairs is a good bedroom with a great window looking down at the sea – which is six fields away. There is also a window, as in the living room, at the back, looking over the road on to the hill which is all rocks and boulders and a ruined cottage. It is very lovely, and dear to my heart.

Third post, Aug. 13, 2016

By this time the euphoria Lawrence had felt on entering this ‘promised land’ in the far west (‘there is something uralt and clean about it’, he said in that letter about the house) had faded, transformed into something bitter and disillusioned. This was partly because he felt betrayed by his ‘truly blood kin’ – principally the Middleton Murrys, who failed to share his enthusiasm for Higher Tregerthen and the ‘rough primeval’ scenery around – ‘too rocky and bleak for them’, he wrote disparagingly to Ottoline Morrell on 16 April; and partly because of his and his German wife’s experiences with the locals, who suspected them of signalling to the enemy (this is at the height of WWI), a feeling reinforced by their tendency to hold forth heatedly on the stupidity of the war and the bigots (as they saw them) who blindly supported it (‘one hates one’s King and Country’ he wrote to Ottoline Morrell on 18 April). The dream ended when Lawrence was exempted from conscription on the grounds of his ‘consumption’ – which relieved him (‘I should die in a week, if they kept me’, he wrote to Catherine Carswell, 9 July) and saddened him, for he felt a deep sympathy for the Cornish conscripts, ‘most unwarlike, soft, peacable, ancient’ – yet ‘they accepted it all…with wonderful purity of spirit’ and sense of ‘duty to their fellow man’. This was an attitude he pityingly admired, for he despised what he saw as wrong-headed patriotism (and a nationalist sentiment unfortunately being encouraged in some political quarters again today):

All this war, this talk of nationality, to me is false. I feel no nationality, not fundamentally. I feel no passion for my own land, nor my own house, nor my own furniture, nor my own money. Therefore I won’t pretend any…the truth of my spirit is all that matters to me.

Post 4, Aug 14 2016

In October 1917 the police raided the house at Higher Tregerthen and the Lawrences were ignominiously evicted from the county, still half-suspected of being spies in the pay of the enemy. Lawrence in these last Cornish letters had given up on this Celtic paradise – ‘here one is outside England’ he had written ecstatically to JB Pinker from Porthcothan, nr Padstow, on 1 January 2016, on first arriving in Cornwall, before moving to Zennor – and was now talking of going instead to the actual, not his fantasy Celtic America/new found land, which despite its shortcomings was ‘nearer to freedom’.

 

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13 thoughts on “DH Lawrence’s idyllic cottage in Cornwall

    • Thanks, Jacqui. What’s not clear is whether it’s the two adjacent cottages (a selling point in DHL’s letters to potential fellow Rananimites) or just the tower house, which is tiny, as he says in the pieces I quoted

  1. Thanks for posting this, Simon (and hello!). Great to re-read these extracts. Incidentally, we spent 3 days in Zennor this summer and spotted the cottage. Strange to think of it as featuring in some Estate Agent’s window as a mainstream desirable property…

    • My goodness, Catherine, how lovely to hear from you here! I follow your posts from exotic/interesting places on FB with interest. Oddly enough I found this cottage some years ago, but more recent visits have failed to locate it. Must try again, posing as a buyer. Hope you are keeping well. Just look at the price tag of the renovated cottage now!

      • It would be a great idea to pose as a potential buyer! I guess the price tag almost left me unfazed considering this is the price of a tiny flat in London. Pleased to hear my photo ramblings are of some interest – and here’s to yet more interesting blog posts.

  2. Katherine Mansfield stayed with the Lawrences in Cornwall towards the end of her life, in this house, I suspect. I don’t have the bio to check when or exactly where it was, but this is what I wrote in my review of Katherine Mansfield The Storyteller, by Kathleen Jones
    “There are also revealing insights about other writers, especially Virginia Woolf (who was jealous of Mansfield’s talent and snooty about her behaviour) and D.H.Lawrence. It seems as if Mansfield’s incomplete novel, ‘The Aloe’ was stymied in part by Lawrence. Mansfield and Middleton Murry were installed at the Villa Pauline in Bandol (France) and after a long period of stasis she was making progress with the novel – when Lawrence wrote, insisting that they all live together in a kind of community in Cornwall. Murry, who was never keen on living in France anyway, agreed to go. Mansfield (whose fragile health depended on a milder climate) reluctantly acceded even though she knew that she was better able to write where she was, and of course the entire venture turned out to be a disaster and the novel was never finished.”

    • Indeed she did stay there, Lisa. That letter of invitation to her and her husband, Murry, with his sketch of the layout of the two buildings is from a letter written to the couple. Lawrence was disgusted and felt betrayed when she and Murry left the 7-roomed ‘tower house’; it was formerly three old cottages. Katherine could have the ‘tower room’, he’d suggested in the same letter. In a slightly later letter, just before they arrived, he’d predicted, with typical overoptimism, that they’d live there ‘a long, long time, very cheaply…it is so free and beautiful.’ There they could live without further acrimony, ‘treacheries and so on’, with ‘no more quarrels and quibbles’ – they would have, he cheerfully predicted, a ‘Blutbruderschaft’, they’d be, he said in another letter, ‘truly blood kin’. He’d sadly miscalculated how alienating his behaviour could be – he and Frieda fought like tigers – they can’t have been easy housemates. He also miscalculated that they share his delight in such basic accommodation, assuming that his impecunious disdain for comforts would be shared by the more patrician Murrys. They didn’t get off to a good start; soon after their arrival Murry was arrested by a local policeman bearing a warrant for his evasion of conscription – he produced a dodgy ‘rejection certificate’ from the Officers’ Training Corps that seems to have satisfied the law. In a letter of 24 May he wrote to Lady Ottoline with the first signs that the Murrys were unhappy there: they ‘do not like the country – it is too rocky and bleak for them. They should have a soft valley, with leaves and the ring-dove cooing’. His disdain is palpable in the rest of the letter. Why can’t they just rough it, as he and Frieda did? He can’t forgive such feebleness (as he saw it). In that letter of 30 May to Barbara Low he wrote that they were to leave ‘in a fortnight’. So they only stayed a month or so. ‘I give up having intimate friends’, he wrote acidly to Catherine Carswell soon afterwards.

      • Hi Simon, have been reading but remaining silent for the last month or so, with nothing that felt as if it would be much of a contribution. Hope this doesn’t come across as Pollyanna-ish, but it seems such a sad waste of life force for someone like Woolf to be jealous of other writing talent, like a butterfly and a peacock coveting each other’s beauty.

        I really liked this quote from David Lodge on the creative writing process, which I may have sent to you before:

        “[I]t is like a chemical, or alchemical reaction between form and content [with factors including life experience, genetic inheritance, historical context, reading, powers of recall, capacity for introspection, fantasy life, understanding of the springs of narrative, responsiveness to language, its rhythms, sounds, register, nuanced of meaning, and so on].”

        • Maureen: I’m just pleased you’ve been a silent reader! I think VW had a bit of a tendency to be spiky about the apparent success of others – even Vita S-W, a far lesser talent. I find it hard to imagine her and DHL hitting it off: his incandescent flame and her icy controlled one (or is that just the received view? She was pretty passionate herself, maybe expressed herself with more sang froid)

        • Maureen – PS don’t feel you have to ‘make a contribution’; I’m always delighted to hear from readers; it sometimes seems like I’m whistling in an empty cave, so all responses are most welcome, even if it’s just to say yes or no to what I’ve been posting

          • That is good to know, Simon! I recommend you whenever I find what I sense could be a receptive audience. Your work deserves a wide readership. Cheers!

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