D. H. Lawrence: A Writer’s Life (Part 2)

Croydon, Teaching, Helen, Jessie, and Ford Maddox Hueffer

Image: Vanity Fair

It was a heavy load for the twenty-three year old David Herbert Lawrence to drag with him to Croydon: a load he was never able to fully discard.

Lawrence began teaching at the Davidson Road School, Croydon, on October 12th 1908. The school was highly thought of academically and Lawrence soon settled in, although, it soon became clear he “…was never really happy there…”, and as the American author, Harry T. Moore, describes, Croydon was:

“ …already in the process of becoming a complex of brick houses and chimney pots, past which the yellow electric trains from Victoria and London Bridge stations would speed on a high embankment; eventually the former neighborhood of the Crystal Palace became [a] stucco suburb…”

And it wasn’t only Croydon that was undergoing a time of great change. It was perhaps one of the biggest London house building booms since the 1870s, and the soon to be ailing Lawrence was in the middle of it and, for another writer it might have been a great transformative period in their lives, but not for Lawrence who, in The White Peacock (published in 1911), writes of what must be the countryside around Haggs Farm, Jessie, and the emotional shackles:

‘ Don’t you wish you were wild — hark, like wood-pigeons — or larks — or, look, like peewits? Shouldn’t you love flying and wheeling and sparkling and — courting in the wind?’ She lifted her eyelids, and vibrated the question. He flushed, bending over the ground.

‘ Look,’ he said, ‘ here’s a larkie’s’

Once a horse had left a hoofprint in the soft meadow; now the larks had rounded, softened the cup, and had laid there three dark-brown eggs. Lettie sat down and leaned over the nest; he leaned above her. The wind, running over the flower heads, peeped in at the little brown buds, and bounded off again gladly. The big clouds sent messages to them down the shadows, and ran in raindrops to touch them.

‘ I wish,’ she said, ‘ I wish we were free like that. If we could put everything safely in a little place in the earth — couldn’t we have a good time as well as the larks?’

‘ I don’t see,’ said he, ‘ why we can’t.’

‘ Oh — but I can’t — you know we can’t’ — and she looked at him fiercely.

‘ Why can’t you?’ he asked.

‘ You know we can’t — you know as well as I do,’ she replied, and her whole soul challenged him. ‘ We have to consider things,’ she added. He dropped his head. He was afraid to make the struggle, to rouse himself to decide the question for her. She turned away, and went kicking through the flowers…’

Such writing speaks of Jessie and Lawrence, even if the reader transposes the he and she, it speaks of their relationship so clearly: of their anguish and inability to do something positive about it. It is the first outing of such writing: writing that can fill the reader both with hope and despair. It is the birth of D. H. Lawrence, and his first attempt to rid himself of his mother’s influence. He never did, and the anger in his novels is all about that inability and the chances he missed of taking Jessie fully to his heart. If he had, if they had, I would be writing about a different man.

In Croydon Lawrence found lodgings with the Jones family at 12 Colworth Road, not far from the railway station. He seems to have been happy there, and even moved with them a few doors further along the road in September 1911.

Mr Jones was an administrative officer with the education department, and it does seem that Lawrence’s teaching was much admired by him and the headmaster of the school, although Lawrence never saw the job as a vocation but as a means to an end, although he liked the boys he taught (and they seemed to like him) but wrote in a poem probably written in the Jones’ home “ I carry my anger sullenly ‘cross these waste lands/For tomorrow will call them all back, the school hours I detest…”

Lawrence didn’t much care about school regulations, and the authorities who imposed them (perhaps with the exception of Mr Jones), but insisted that his pupils adhered to them rigidly — do as I say but not as I do. We’ve all known teachers like that. Having said that, he was nevertheless rigorous when it came to the actual school work, and although he complained he never “…shirked…the drudgery of the details which hamper the routine of a teacher’s life.”

Our young school master’s love of art and poetry, Shakespeare, and of biology was eagerly passed on to his pupils, and if anyone came into his classroom while he was teaching he made it very clear they were not welcome, including several Board of Education inspectors to whom he often quoted Shakespeare with full dramatic expressiveness, much to the delight of the boys and the consternation of the inspectors. Notes were made and passed back to Education HQ about the eccentric young teacher.

Lawrence loved walking, often doing so with Helen Corke, who taught at another school in Croydon, later becoming a novelist. They would often walk for miles over the still undeveloped countryside south of Croydon, invariably talking books and art. And when not walking went to the theatre and the opera, and the many concerts in Hyde Park. Lawrence’s friendship with Helen didn’t last after he left Croydon, but it did bring forth several poems, and undoubtedly sparked ideas for Women in Love.

When asked if she thought Lawrence was homosexual Helen said no, although she did admit that Lawrence, like many writers and artists, was often much more in touch with all derivations of sexuality, without perhaps having indulged in any. She also denied being Lawrence’s lover (even though Lawrence had wanted it so) as she was not physically attracted to him.

Helen knew Jessie, admitting she was much more attracted to her than to Lawrence, but felt that Jessie was too obsessed with Lawrence, but would probably have made him an ideal wife.

On one occasion Helen travelled by train with Lawrence to Nottingham where Lawrence left her to visit his mother for the weekend, with Helen taking a different route to visit Jessie and her family in the Arno Vale, where they had recently moved to take on another farm.

Helen and Lawrence met up again at Nottingham station on the Sunday night, travelling back sitting apart, with Lawrence, having heard about Helen’s visit to see Jessie, in an extremely morose mood. Hardly a word passed between them as Lawrence seethed in jealousy. The result of the journey back to London at the dead of night was an erotic poem aimed at Helen, but more probably at Jessie. All it did was add more weight to the emotional baggage Lawrence was carrying.

Lawrence had met Helen at the home of a Miss Mason where she lived with her invalided father. And it would be this Miss Mason who first showed an interest in Lawrence’s failing health. Inevitably a friendship grew, with Lawrence becoming a regular visitor to the Mason home, with him becoming quickly dependent on her with regard his health and personal life. Other than Haggs Farm (and to an extent his lodgings), the Mason home was the only place that was not rife with turmoil and argument.

While Lawrence was away in Croydon, Jessie had been working hard on his behalf sending his work to the editor of the English Review, Ford Madox Hueffer, who replied saying that he thought the pieces were very interesting. Jessie showed Hueffer’s letter to Lawrence when he returned to Eastwood after spending a summer holiday with his mother in the Isle of Wight. Lawrence thanked Jessie for what she had done, telling her that “… she was his luck.” He then gave the letter to his mother to read, who never returned it.

Lawrence went to see Ford Madox Hueffer (later Ford Madox Ford), on his return to Croydon, and a selection of poems were published in the November 1909 edition of Ford’s magazine, taking up the first six pages. Harry T. Moore has written:

“ Hueffer later said he never really ‘liked Lawrence much. He remained too disturbing even when I got to know him well.’ And although Lawrence didn’t whine, he continually needed solicitude, as well as moral support, to replace the influence of the mother he was away from, and about whose personality and opinions he talked ‘ in a way that is unusual in a young man out to make his fortune.’ ”

But Hueffer also sent the MSS of the poems, and of Lawrence’s novel The Trespasser, to Edward Garnett, Heineman’s senior reader at that time, and as Lawrence wrote:

Hueffer “… introduced me to Edward Garnett, who, somehow, introduced me to the world.” In effect, as Lawrence later wrote, Hueffer “ left me to paddle my own canoe. I very nearly wrecked it and did for myself. Edward Garnett, like a good angel, fished me out.”

Helen Smith, in her 2017 biography of Edward Garnett, writes of Lawrence’s first visit to Garnett’s house, The Cearne, in 1911:

“ It was his first visit and he had to keep his wits about him: the house was isolated and not visible from the road. Trees thickened the darkness as the visitor followed a sharply sloping track; The Cearne stood beneath a steep, coppiced hill and it was not until he was nearly on top of it that he realised he had arrived. He made his way to the immensely solid oak front door and raised the knocker.”

Helen Smith’s wonderfully theatrical description of Lawrence’s dark journey to ‘The Cearne’, prepares us well for what follows:

“ The guest Edward greeted was, at twenty-six, seventeen years his junior. Above average height, the young man was slight but wiry, with his hair, which had definite reddish streak, parted to one side. He sported a rather scrubby moustache, but his eyes were his most arresting feature — blue and, according to David Garnett’s later description, ‘ so alive, dancing with gaiety.’ ”

It was the first of many visits that Lawrence made to The Cearne’, and there can be no doubt, as Smith points out, that Garnett’s involvement with Lawrence was crucial (as it was with Joseph Conrad) in helping him to effectively give his energies and emotions some sort of style. Which he did, but like Conrad, Lawrence was strong willed and pretty much went his own way after his initial publishing success, at the same time never forgetting the help, at a crucial time, that Garnett was able to give to get Lawrence’s work before the reading public.

In Carolyn G. Heilbrun’s 1961 biography of the Garnett family, she is very critical of Lawrence biographer, Harry T. Moore’s (as she sees it) downgrading of Edward Garnett’s part in the literary life of Lawrence. Heilburn writes:

“ Some of Moore’s comments on Garnett are, by implication at least, simply unjust. Speaking of Sons and Lovers, he writes: ‘ Except for Garnett’s subsequent bowdlerizing — painful to Lawrence — the novel was at last finished.’ Nowhere does Lawrence himself accuse Garnett of bowdlerizing.”

What Garnett had to make clear to Lawrence was that the publisher (Duckworth, Garnett’s employer) objected to certain sexual passages in the book. They had to go or the book could not be published. Lawrence understood and asked Garnett to make the changes.

Of course, by the time of Moore’s biography, first published in 1954, and then, more importantly, in 1962, the old publishing establishment were being criticised for giving in (as Moore and others saw it)to censorship in those very different days of the early 20th century. Had Lawrence not agreed to the editing his work by a man he trusted, his work would be unknown to us.

Read Part 3

Read Part 1


The Priest of Love: A Life of D.H. Lawrence — Harry T. Moore (Wm. Heineman 1974); Out of Sheer Rage — Geoff Dyer (Abacus 1997); The Uncommon Reader: A Life of Edward Garnett — Helen Smith ( Jonathan Cape 2017); The Garnett Family — Carolyn G. Heilbrun (George Allen & Unwin Ltd 1961); Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life — Claire Tomalin (Viking 1987);David Garnett’s column in The New Statesman, June 1938; Now All Roads Lead To France: The Last Years of Edward Thomas — Mathew Hollis (Faber & Faber 2011); Linda Ruth Williams — D. H. Lawrence (Northcote House, Plymouth, 1997); And the Fiction, Short Stories, Poems, Plays & Essays of D. H. Lawrence

Playwright, Historian, Biographer & Freelance Writer Living and Working in Shakespeare’s Stratford

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