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’.

 

Now I am glad and free: DH Lawrence’s response to Cornwall – final part

[5 September 1916, to Dollie Radford,(pen-name of the poet, 1858-1920, real name

View from the moors above Zennor

View from the moors above Zennor

Caroline Maitland), from Higher Tregerthen] The blackberries are ripe: we have made about ten pounds of jam…We have had many many beans out of both gardens, and peas at last…they were very good. But it has been very rainy…The heather is all out on the hills – very beautiful indeed – purple patches. And the young gorse is all in flower again…The bracken is withering, the sunsets are tremendous, almost terrible, the autumn is coming in…The Murrys are both in London.

[In letters quoted in my earlier posts on Lawrence’s letters, he’d expressed his dismay and disappointment at what he saw as the desertion, from the cottage next to his own, by the Middleton Murrys: they found this part of Cornwall too bleak and ‘rugged’, he complained.]

Tinner's Arms, Zennor

The Tinner’s Arms, Zennor, where the Lawrences stayed before moving into Higher Tregerthen nearby. Stopped for a pint of Tinner’s ale there yesterday and took this picture.

[On 11 October L. writes to Murry a conciliatory letter: ‘what I hate in you is an old you that corresponds to an old me which must pass away, the beastly thing. Meanwhile he says he and Frieda continue their ‘long and bloody fight’, but are ‘at one’; ‘it is a fight one has to fight – the old Adam to be killed in me, the old Eve in her – then a new Adam and Eve. Till the fight is finished, it is only honourable to fight. But, oh dear, it is very horrible and agonising.’]

[On 7 Nov. he writes to Catherine Carswell that he wants ‘to go away from England forever’, to go to ‘a country of which I have hope, in which I feel the new unknown.’ In short, to America, which is ‘monstrous’, ‘falser’ than England, but ‘nearer to freedom’. It is less corrupted than England: ‘my Florida idea was right.’ Cornwall as Rananim, it seems, has failed. To Koteliansky he wrote, on the same day, his Rananim, ‘my Florida idea, was the true one. Only the PEOPLE were wrong…I have done with the Murries, both, for ever…So I have with Lady Ottoline Morrell and all the rest. And now I am glad and free.’]

Zennor moors

Zennor moors

[23 Feb. 1917, to D. Radford] The spring is coming also. Yesterday the lambs were dancing, and the birds whistled, the doves cooed all day down at the farm. The world of nature is wonderful in its revivifying spontaneity…the cooing of the doves is very real, and the blithe impertinence of the lambs as they peep round their mothers. They affect me as the Rainbow, as a sign that life will never be destroyed, or turn bad altogether.

[5 May 1917, to JM Murry! So much for ‘I have done with the Murries’.] I have been gardening very hard: made a new garden just above the little one, and planted also a large corner of a potato field – not with potatoes, but carrots, peas, spinach, etc…The primroses and blackthorn are out…

Zennor moors[11 May 1917, to Koteliansky] Today I have been cutting blackthorn and gorse to make a fence to keep the lambs out of my garden. I loathe lambs, those symbols of Christian meekness. They are the stupidest, most persistent, greediest little beasts in the whole animal kingdom. Really, I suspect Jesus of having very little to do with sheep, that he could call himself the Lamb of God. I would truly rather be the little pig of God, the little pigs are infinitely gayer and more delicate in soul. My garden is very beautiful, in rows. But the filthy lambs have eaten off my broad beans. The salads are all grown, and the scarlet runners are just ready for the sprint.

[Poor lambs! They suffer the same transformation of attitude towards them as many of L’s friends, the Murrys especially]

[23 May, to Murry] I have three gardens: the little one, which is a gem: pansies and columbine and fuchsia as well as veg: then the little field at the back…broad beans, etc., spinach, many beautiful rows: then in the field below, peas, beans, etc. I have worked hard.

Zennor moors[29 August 1917, to D. Radford] My garden was so splendid, thirty nice marrows sprawling and rolling abroad under the leaves, festoons of beans and peas, and myriads of sweet-peas and nasturtiums climbing, to say nothing of endive and beet and spinach and kohlrabi and all the rest….on the speckled melon plant there is a big green melon, lovely. If there were sun, it would ripen.

[23 Sept. 1917, to Koteliansky] We have had fine gardens full of vegetables…There has been a curious subtle mystic invisibleness in the days, a beauty that is not in the eyes.

[In October the Lawrences were ordered out of Cornwall by the military authorities, who suspected Frieda of spying. She was German-born, a von Richthofen, distantly related to the notorious air-ace, the Red Baron.]

I shall end this sequence of posts on how the letters of Lawrence reveal his response to Cornwall with this extract from John Worthen’s DHL biography website:

In spite of what he feared would be the fate of his fiction after The Rainbow, in the spring of 1916 he started again on the Sisters material, and – after an enormous creative effort in which he wrote the whole book twice – in November finished the first version of Women in Love.  But it was rejected by every publisher who saw it; the fact that it contained recognisable re-creations of several people (including Russell, Heseltine and the Morrells) did not help.

He and Frieda stayed in Cornwall, living as cheaply as they could; the English Review published the first versions of what would become Studies of Classic American Literature, his pioneering study of the great nineteenth century American writers.  Early in 1917 the Lawrences made another, more serious attempt to be allowed to go to America, but they could not obtain passports…All the Lawrences could now do was live precariously in friends’ flats and country cottages.  In 1917 he completed a major revision of Women in Love; it was the novel which represented his last comprehensive attempt to write for his country, as it examined and characterised contemporary anxiety and conflict.   In future novels, his voice would often – quite consciously – come from the sidelines: he staged guerrilla attacks as well a full-frontal assaults: his writing was goading, insistent, revelatory.

Photographs all my own.

The magic fades: DH Lawrence’s response to Cornwall, pt 3

DH Lawrence’s response to Cornwall, continued: the idyll fades, disillusion and desertion sets in. Extracts from the Collected Letters, ed. Harry T. Moore, Heinemann, London, 1970, vol. 1

[To Barbara Low, from Higher Tregerthen, nr Zennor (all the following letters were written from there), 1 May 1916] It is very lovely here, with the gorse all gone yellow and the sea a misty, periwinkle blue, and the flowers coming out on the common. The sense of jeopardy spoils it all – the feeling that one may be flung out into the cess-pool of a world, the danger of being dragged into the foul conglomerate mess, the utter disgust and nausea one feels for humanity, people smelling like bugs, endless masses of them, and no relief: it is so difficult to bear.

[As my last set of extracts showed, the military and other state authorities had started to show an unsettling interest in this ménage of the Lawrences: Frieda striding around W. Cornwall in brightly coloured mismatched stockings, speaking English in her heavy German accent, their cottage curtains similarly mismatched. Locals suspected this suspiciously unconventional couple were signalling to the enemy submarines which patrolled the waters off the peninsula. Nevertheless, DHL’s outbursts in letters of this time are disquieting, Nietzschean in their contempt – even if it’s understandable he’s so upset.]

Ottoline Morrell

Lady Ottoline Morrell, society and literary hostess, by Baron Adolf de Meyer, platinum print, 1912. Wikimedia Commons

[To Ottoline Morrell, ?4 May 1916] The country is very beautiful, with tangles of blackthorn and solid mounds of gorse blossom, and bluebells beneath, and myriads of violets, and so many ferns unrolling finely and delicately. I have begun a new novel [this would become Women in Love]

[To OM, 24 May] The country is simply wonderful, blue, graceful little companies of bluebells everywhere on the moors, the gorse in flame, and on the cliffs and by the sea, a host of primroses, like settling butterflies, and sea-pinks like a hover of pink bees, near the water.

[To Catherine Carswell, 19 June] I have nearly done my new novel. It has come rushing out, and I feel very triumphant in it.
The Murrys have gone over to the south side, about thirty miles away. The north side was too rugged for them. And Murry and I are not really associates. How I deceive myself. I am a liar to myself, about people. I was angry when you ran over a a list of my ‘friends’ – whom you did not think much of. But it is true, they are not much, any of them.
I give up having intimate friends at all. It is a self-deception. [He goes on to invite the Carswells to stay in the Murrys’ vacated rooms next door!]
It is very fine here, foxgloves now everywhere between the rocks and ferns. There is some magic in the country. It gives me a strange satisfaction.

[Lack of money – L calls it ‘penuriousness’ – is still a problem, and he smarts at the sense of living off the charity of others – but at least he has been exempted from military service.]

[To Barbara Low, 8 July] I should have died if they had made me a soldier… It is the most terrible madness. And the worst of it all is, that it is a madness of righteousness. These Cornish are most, most unwarlike, soft, peaceable, ancient. No men could suffer more than they, at being conscripted…they believe in their duty to their fellow man. And what duty is this, which makes us forfeit everything, because Germany invaded Belgium? Is there nothing beyond my fellow man? If not, there is nothing beyond myself…because I am the fellow-man of all the world, my neighbour is but myself in a mirror. So we toil in a circle of pure egoism…I know that, for me, the war is wrong…To fight for possessions, goods, is what my soul will not do…All this war, this talk of nationality, to me is false. I feel no nationality, not fundamentally…one fights too hard already, for the real integrity of one’s being.

[L is forced to type up the MS of his new novel, and revisions of The Rainbow, himself; he has only £6 in the world, he writes on 12 July. Next day he writes to thank J.B. Pinker for the cheque for £50 he’d received from him.]

[To K. Mansfield, 16 July; she has returned to Mylor, nr Falmouth, on the ‘soft’ north coast. L is benign and adopts a cheerful tone, gossiping about visitors and repairs and improvements being made to the leaking, damp house she and Middleton Murry had so precipitously abandoned. L generously hides his disappointment at this perceived desertion.] The corn is very high, the hay is out…the Tremeada [nearby farm] corn full of the most beautiful corn-marigolds…The foxgloves are really wonderful…full like honeycombs, with purple wells.
[Then his tone shifts:] Really, one should find a place one can live in, and stay there. Geographical change doesn’t help one much. And people go from bad to worse. I think I shall be staring out from Higher Tregerthen when I am a nice old man of seventy.
[He doesn’t try to disguise the rebuke.]