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).
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 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…
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.
My 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.
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.
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’.