“For my life is burning an invisible flame. The glare of the light of myself, as I burn on the fuel of death, is not enough to hide from me the source and the issue. For what is a life but a flame that bursts off the surface of darkness, and tapers into the darkness again? But the death that issues differs from the death that was the source. At least, I shall enrich death with a potent shadow, if I do not enrich life.” The Trespasser.
The Trespasser was published in 1912, one year after Lawrence’s very weighty debut The White Peacock. Originally titled The Saga of Siegmund, The Trespasser is a romantic story without a happy resolution. A married man sets off for a short break with another woman and on his return he commits suicide: Presumably because he can’t return back to family life, or possibly because he knows there is no longevity in the adulterous affair. Unrequited love is a recurring theme in The White Peacock, which more or less explores three unfulfilling mismatched relationships.
The Trespasser mirrors the real life experiences of Lawrence’s close friend Helen Corke, whom he knew from his school teaching days in Croydon. In August 1909, Corke spent five days on the Isle of Wight with her music teacher, who committed suicide on his return. But there were other parallels for Lawrence that may have affected his writing of the novel, namely that Corke had spurned his advances during an uncharacteristically randy period in his life. In 1912 Lawrence would convince Frieda Weekley, a married woman and mother of three children, to leave her family and elope with him to Europe.
Lawrence persistently drew from real life throughout his career. Sometimes this got him into trouble, other times he had to be bailed out by his agent when libel was threatened. But in this instance he sought permission from Corke, working directly from her 14 page memoir The Freshwater Diary. Lawrence described the memoir as a ‘prose poem’ and urged Corke to publish it for herself. She did this in 1933 as Neutral Ground. She would go on to write several biographical works on Lawrence, including one about his early relationship with Jessie Chambers, entitled D.H. Lawrence’s Princess. In her 90s, Corke would publish In our Infancy which would go on to win the Whitbread Award in 1975.
Of Lawrence’s interest in her tragic love affair, Corke wrote: “Of our five days’ experience in the Island enough has been written. Perhaps it was not unique – perhaps it only anticipated that of many lovers who, during the World War that was coming, were fated to compress the happiness of a lifetime into a few glowing days, and to part under the shadow of death. But something of its intensity and detachment, together with the memory of his own actual proximity to the scene, fired the imagination of D.H Lawrence.”
Jane Heath has suggested that Lawrence’s interest in Corke’s diary and his desire to turn the experience into a novel “had to do with the unparalleled importance literature assumed in their lives. Both writers idealized literature as means of negotiating the difficulties that beset them in their lives.”
Writing can act as a form of therapy, in that it enables us to make sense of the world and exert a level of control on the page that is not always possible in reality. But writing was more than just cathartic for Lawrence. It was at the very essence of his being. He was notoriously restless and would go on to cross continents during his ‘savage pilgrimage’, but he was largely unable to ‘move forwards’ until he had embedded his experiences of place on the page. As Anthony Burgess writes:
“A single week’s visit was enough for him to extract the very essence of the island (Sardinia) and its people, and six weeks were enough to set it all down in words without a single note as an aide-mémoire. This feat anticipates a greater one, which still makes Australian writers gloomy – the recreation of a whole continent, along with a wholly accurate prophecy of its political future, out of a few weeks stay in a suburb of Sydney.”
The same ethos could be applied to the writing of The Tresspasser. Prior to completion, Lawrence broke off his engagement with Louie Burrows, and immediately attempted to lure Helen Corke down to Limpsfield Common for a walk and a sleepover. But she turned him down. A letter to Corke dated 12 July 1911 sees Lawrence dramatically apologising for trying it on once too often, confessing “I’ll never ask you again, nor anybody. It is a weakness of mine.”
Helen Corke allowed Lawrence to fictionalise her relationship because she knew he would do justice to the memory of her dead lover. Although they initially agreed to wait five years before doing this, the date was rushed forward – after much pleading from Lawrence – due to financial difficulties he was experiencing. To this extent, writing served a more basic function: It put food on his plate. It paid his rent.
In the novel Siegmund married Beatrice at seventeen before he’d had time to know himself and now twenty years later, the two are strangers. He can’t return to “fake the old life up” any longer. As things can’t work with Helena, he commits suicide. But even this creates awkwardness, as depicted by the attempted removal of his body: “The man went into the room, trembling, hesitating. He approached the body as if fascinated. Shivering, he took it round the loins and tried to lift it down. It was too heavy.”
There are suggestions that Siegmund has sunstroke, that he’s feeling depressed, but it seemed to me the real problem was that he was unable to maintain his affair and had to return back to his humdrum married life. Helena – whom he has the affair with – has ‘inhibitions’. It’s been suggested that this is because Corke herself was ambiguous about her sexuality. Like her novel, she represented ‘neutral ground.’
Although Helena and Siegmund are lovers, they never quite connect throughout their holiday together. What appears to excite Siegmund the most is the journey, the anticipation of arriving somewhere new. Take this description from the boat: “Standing on the deck, he gave himself to the breeze and to the sea, feeling like one of the ruddy sails—as if he were part of it all. All his body radiated amid the large, magnificent sea-moon like a piece of colour.” Lawrence always seems happiest when homing in on something, when setting off. It’s the finality of arrival that’s the problem. As in all of his novels, nature is the one consistent that never fails to please: “The way home lay across country, through deep little lanes where the late foxgloves sat seriously, like sad hounds; over open downlands, rough with gorse and ling, and through pocketed hollows of bracken and trees.”
For Helena and Siegmund, something is always amiss. They never quite connect. At one point Helena remarks that Sigemund fails to reply to her so often she feels it best to leave him alone with his “sense of tragedy”. Elsewhere they discuss losing each other. Not what you’d expect on a dirty week away which should be full of connections and finding each other. On the rare occasions they do connect it’s an opportunity for Lawrence to develop his manifesto for male – female relationships which would become so integral to his later work: “It was the long, supreme kiss, in which man and woman have one being, Two-in-one, the only Hermaphrodite.”
Language is a problem for these doomed lovers as well. Siegmund is always probing Helena with questions such as “won’t you tell me what is the matter?” so that he can help her resolve them. But for Helena “speech was often difficult to render into plain terms” and so she is unable to articulate exactly what is eating away at her. Helena is, as Jane Heath has argued, “outside language” and therefore she is unobtainable. This is beautifully captured in a sea metaphor.
“The sea played by itself, intent on its own game. Its aloofness, its self-sufficiency, are its great charm. The sea does not give and take, like the land and the sky. It has no traffic with the world. It spends its passion upon itself. Helena was something like the sea, self-sufficient and careless of the rest.”
Lawrence is fascinated by individuals who are ‘outside language’ and who dare to live life by and on their own terms. As an author who faced censorship throughout his life and chose to live his life in exile, he was consistently outside of language. It is this that would drive him to “express the unspeakable and to hint at the unutterable”, as critic James Douglas wrote in his review of The Rainbow. Lawrence’s fourth novel features a brief lesbian fling between Ursula Bragwen and her school tutor Miss Winifred Inger. Was the casting of this taboo relationship influenced by his friendship with Helen Corke and the awareness that ‘neutral grounds’ exist within sexual identity?
- Jane Heath Helen Corke and D.H. Lawrence: Sexual Identity and Literary Relations Feminist Studies Vol. 11, No. 2 (Summer, 1985), pp. 317-342
- Jane Heath Helen Corke and D.H. Lawrence: The Croydon Years (University of Texas Press, 1965)
- D.H. Lawrence The Trespasser (1912)
- Helen Corke Neutral Ground: A Chronicle (1933)
- Helen Corke In Our Infancy Part 1: 1882-1912 (Cambridge University Press, 1975)
- Lawrence and Apocalypse (William Heinemann, 1933)