D. H. Lawrence: Frieda, The Rainbow, World War One & Cornwall

David & Frieda. Image: britishinstitute.it

In 1912 Lawrence sought the advice of his old English Professor, Ernest Weekley, and it was at the professor’s home that he not only found that advice, but also his future wife: Professor Weekley’s German wife, Frieda.

Frieda, in her autobiography, writes passionately, and with clarity, about the first time she and Lawrence met, and their subsequent meetings:

“He came on Easter Sunday. It was a bright, sunny day. The children were in the garden hunting for Easter eggs.

What I couldn’t understand is how he could have loved me and wanted me at that time. I certainly did have what he called ‘sex in the head. My real self was frightened and shrank from contact like a wild thing.

“ So our relationship developed.

“ One day we met at a station in Derbyshire. My two small girls were with us. We went for a walk through the early spring woods and fields. The children were running here and there as young creatures will.

“ We came to a small brook, a little stone bridge crossed it. Lawrence made the children some paper boats and put matches in them and let them float downstream under the bridge. Crouched by the brook, playing there with the children, Lawrence forgot about me completely.

“ Suddenly I knew I loved him. He had touched a new tenderness in me. After that things happened quickly.”

Less than a month later Frieda left her son with her unsuspecting husband, took her two daughters to stay with their grandparents in Hampstead Heath and, “… blind and blank with pain, dimly feeling I should never again live with them as I had done…”, meet Lawrence at Charing Cross Station, where they caught a train for Dover, crossed the English Channel and, a day later, ended-up at Frieda’s mother’s home at Metz, in Germany.

Lawrence made an instant hit with Frieda’s mother, who was at the height of her aristocratic beauty, and always dressed in the most ‘chic’ of Paris fashions.

“ You can go with him. You can trust this man.” She told her daughter.

Lawrence and Frieda then began to live the life of the leisured classes ( paid for by Frieda’s mother of course) and travelled widely across Europe. They’d walk in the Alps, and then down into Italy.

After lengthy divorce proceedings, and a promise from Professor Weekley that Frieda would never see her children again (she did manage to see them on several occasions) Lawrence and Frieda married at Kensington Register Office, in London, on July 13th, 1914.

It was an unconventional, and stormy marriage from the outset, but always passionate, with Frieda the ideal companion, and champion of her husband’s work. And Lawrence did — with three published novels under his belt — settle into the life of a full time writer.

With the declaration of war, in August 1914, Lawrence began to look for a place where he and Frieda could escape the patriotic overload (as he saw it) going on around them, and after completing , and the short story collection, Lawrence and Frieda found themselves the centre of attraction in Cornwall, whereas, in London, they had at least been able to loose themselves in the crowd.

When Lawrence and Frieda first moved to Cornwall, in the summer of 1916, he saw it as a first step toward emigrating to America, and away from a Britain with which he had become disaffected, and from a war he did not support.

But the travel restrictions, and the fact that the new Military Service Act of 1916 meant he was in danger of being called up for military service himself, made it impossible for him to even consider leaving the country.

And it wasn’t only the travel restrictions brought about by the war that made him feel dreadfully trapped (in fairness he felt trapped wherever he lived), no, this time it was also because of the suppression, due to the ‘obscene’ content, of his recently published, and perhaps his best novel, , that Lawrence knew he had to get away somewhere, anywhere, otherwise his understandable anger and growing depression might lead to a nervous breakdown. They chose Cornwall.

After much searching, in a pony and trap, around the Penzance area, the couple eventually came to rest in a small cottage (rented for £5 a year from a retired sea captain) on the wild north-west coast of the county, less than a mile from Zennor, and a half dozen miles or so from St Ives.

The cottage, at Upper Tregerthen, was set part way up a hill overlooking the sea (the very busy approaches to Bristol and Cardiff, where dozens of British merchant ships were being sunk by German U-Boats), which, even at the height of the war was — U-Boats not withstanding — filled with small fishing vessels trawling for pilchards.

In their extraordinary naivety neither the green corduroy suited Lawrence, or Frieda, in her long flowing dresses, realised they had chosen one of the most security sensitive areas in the UK to settle.

Frieda describes (and it can’t be bettered), in her 1935 autobiography, how they made the cottage livable:

“ We had made it very charming. We washed the walls very pale pink and the cupboards were painted a bright blue.

“ There was a charming fireplace on which lived two Staffordshire figures riding to market, ‘Jasper and Bridget’. On the wall was a beautiful embroidery by Lady Ottoline Morrell [a great champion of Lawrence and his work, and the lover of H.G. Wells, amongst others] had embroidered, after a drawing by Duncan Grant, [of] a tree with big bright flowers and birds and beasts. Behind the sitting room was a darkish rough scullery, and upstairs was one big room overlooking the sea, like the big cabin on the upper deck of a ship. And how the winds from that untamed Cornish sea rocked the solid little cottage, and howled at it, and how the rain slashed it, sometimes forcing the door open and pouring into the room.

“ I see Katherine Mansfield and Murry [ John Middleton Murry] arriving sitting on a cart, high up on all the goods and chattels, coming down the lane to Tregerthen. Like an emigrant Katherine looked. I loved her little jackets, chiefly the one that was black and gold like bees.

“ It was great fun buying very nicely made furniture for a few shillings in St Ives, with the Murrys. The fishermen were selling their nice old belongings to buy modern stuff. Our purchases would arrive tied to a shaky cart with bits of rope, the cart trundling down the uneven road. I think our best buy was a well-proportioned bedstead we got for a shilling. Then, such a frenzy broke out of painting chairs and polishing brass and mending old clocks, putting plates on the dressers, arranging all the treasures we had bought.”

At first all went well, with the Murrys renting the cottage next door in what Lawrence hoped would be the start of a commune, his so called ‘Rananim’ with Lawrence helping out at Lower Tregerthen Farm (most of the farm’s workers were in the army), and cultivating his own garden, where he grew much needed vegetables. And there has been some speculation that Lawrence had a homosexual relationship with the handsome young farmer, William Henry Hocking, who owned Lower Tregerthen, a speculation reinforced by Frieda in a statement to that effect she made after Lawrence’s death.

After four weeks Lawrence and the Murrys fell out (plus the climate was not doing Katherine Mansfield’s TB much good ether) with the Murrys returning to a London now under threat from nightly Zeppelin bombing raids. But they were probably safer than the Lawrences, who, soon after, came under suspicion of spying when Frieda — who was a cousin of the celebrated German air-ace, Baron Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron — was heard singing ‘German’ songs (most of which were in fact Scottish ballads sung in Gaelic.)

If that wasn’t enough Frieda had also subscribed to the newspaper, which was delivered every week (a bad move, and logistically quite amazing), and was seen hanging her red stockings on the washing line in what were thought to be coded signals to passing German U-boats.

That suspicion may now sound slightly ridiculous, but it must be understood that, back in 1916/17 — with the ever longer lists of the British war dead taking up more and more space in the daily, and local newspapers — the residents of St Ives and the surrounding area felt threatened, and not unreasonably took against the strange bohemian couple who acted as if the war could never touch them. A dreadful resentment began to build.

Helen Dunmor’s evocative novel, , gives a wonderful, and moving account, not only of the Lawrences time in Cornwall, but of the negative effect the war had on a small, vulnerable, and tightly knit community; a vulnerability capitalized upon by the authorities who were always looking for handy scapegoats:

“ If the cottage ever had that virginity of lostness and secrecy which Lawrence once thought it possessed, it is gone now. The red floor is printed with clumsy bootmarks from yesterdays search. The searchers did not care what traces they left. They wanted the Lawrences to know that their lives had been stripped bare and pawed over. Drawers had been pulled open, small belongings tipped out and searched. Letters and manuscripts have been taken.

“ The Lawrences were not at home when the men came yesterday. The first search is over, and nothing that follows it can shock them as sharply. Frieda came home humming to herself, pushed her door open absently, thinking of something else, and found her home broken open like an egg.”

Go to Zennor today and there is a somewhat reluctant acceptance that Lawrence and Frieda once lived nearby. The local Wayside Museum, now sadly closed, in the village, used to have an informative, but rather small, exhibition about Lawrence. The cottage they rented is less than a mile from the village, itself bearing no outward sign of its historic tenants. I remember taking a drink in the Tinners Arms at Zennor (where the Lawrences stayed before moving into the cottage) and felt the place hadn’t really changed, nor the attitude, which then, seemed less than wholly welcoming. One can imagine the consumptive Lawrence sitting hunched by a cheerless unlit fire, working on a short story, or writing to the Murrys back in London asking them desperately to come and visit. The man was already at his wits end.

One of the few places in Zennor where there is a welcome, of sorts, is the church of St Senara (opposite the pub) where you can still see, and caress, as Lawrence did, the Mermaid carved onto the side of a small medieval oak pew that was considered corrupting and evil. In no way is this ancient piece of folk art protected (it would be the easiest thing in the world to steal), nor is there any reference, anywhere in the church, of the Lawrence connection . But the building was, even for the agnostic Lawrence, a place of peace and contemplation.

The time Lawrence spent in Cornwall would haunt the writer for the rest of his life, and make him increasingly bitter in his attitude toward the working classes, and their — as he saw it — intolerance toward art and literature.

In Zennor, and St Ives, a whispering campaign began to build around them, vilifying them in the same way the mermaid in Zennor church was vilified, making them almost the scapegoat for the war, and most certainly for the deaths that came as a result. Such was the determination, such the zealotry, of the local inhabitants against the Lawrences that the military were quick to act, and had, by October 11th, 1917, ordered the couple (for their own safety) out of the county.

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

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