On Friday I made a literary pilgrimage to Beauvale Priory, the inspiration for Lawrence’s short story A Fragment of Stained Glass. This was originally submitted to the Nottinghamshire Guardian competition in December 1907 as Ruby Glass, under the pseudonym Herbert Richards. To get around rules regarding one entry per person, Lawrence also had two friends submit entries on his behalf. Louie Burrows sent in The White Stocking and Jessie Chambers submitted A Prelude, which would win the £3 prize. During this period, Lawrence was working on Laetitia, which would later be published as his debut novel The White Peacock (1911), as well as a series of poems. Clearly he was ambitious to be published. But the incident also demonstrates another defining trait – his refusal to submit to other people’s rules and expectations.
Beauvale Priory was founded in 1343 by Nicholas de Cantelupe, Lord of Greasley. The Priory was originally home to twelve monks, the third of nine houses of the Carthusian Order established in England. It was here that some Carthusian monks refused to change their faith and became the first martyrs of the Reformation in 1585. They would be known as the Carthusian Martyrs and were canonized in 1970 by Pope Paul VI. One of the martyrs was Robert Lawrence. Although no relation to DHL, not that I know of, he suffered a brutal death standing up for his rights. After a hanging intended to bring maximum pain (rather than death), he was then butchered, mutilated and quartered for his beliefs.
Lawrence opens the story with an evocative image of the changing landscape he famously described as ‘the country of my heart’.
‘Beauvale is, or was, the largest parish in England. It is thinly populated, only just netting the stragglers from shoals of houses in three large mining villages. For the rest, it holds a great tract of woodland, fragment of old Sherwood, a few hills of pasture and arable land, three collieries, and, finally, the ruins of a Cistercian abbey. These ruins lie in a still rich meadow at the foot of the last fall of woodland, through whose oaks shines a blue of hyacinths, like water, in May-time. Of the abbey, there remains only the east wall of the chancel standing, a wild thick mass of ivy weighting one shoulder, while pigeons perch in the tracery of the lofty window.’
My favourite passage is the description of the vicar of Beauvale, a bachelor of forty-two years. Lawrence informs us that ‘quite early in life some illness caused a slight paralysis of his right side, so that he drags a little, and so that the right corner of his mouth is twisted up into his cheek with a constant grimace,’ and then relates this affliction to his personality ‘his soul had some of the twist of his face, so that, when he is not ironical, he is satiric’. Given what we know about Lawrence’s own health, particularly his aversion to naming TB as anything other than an irritating catarrh, I always find his bodily descriptions and their relation to our sense of self fascinating. You only need read a few of his letters to feel the rage of his soul transferred to paper and (temporarily) removed from his being to understand the physicality of his writing.
The story divides critics. For Graham Hough it represents ‘a feeble juvenility’ with a ‘laborious… pointless narration’ whereas Joseph Baim found ‘an essentially religious vision of the redemption of a fallen, mechanical, dead society’. Whatever your interpretation, there are some classic Lawrentian themes in this early offering. Most notable is the obligatory references to nature and landscape. We learn that Martha’s hair ‘was red like beech leaves in a wind’ that the snow is the ‘colour of a moth’s wing’ and ‘the wood seemed to pursue me’. As always, nature is pulsating and alive. We ignore it at our peril. This enables Lawrence to explore the tensions between primitive cultures of the past – in this case, 15th century monks who claim to have seen ‘a malicious covetous Devil’ – with the destructive ugliness of contemporary industrialised Britain. I also sensed a bit of a nod to Robin Hood in the descriptions of outlaws in the forest entering ‘the bounds into faery realm’. Here the liminal space of the forest has mystical spiritual qualities that simply can’t exist in modernity with its emphasis on rationality and logic.
There’s barely anything left of Beauvale Priory, and the stained-glass window alluded to in the title has long gone. But there’s a nice café now, serving ridiculously large cakes, for those considering a 5.7mile trek through Lawrence’s heartlands. My visit here was part of a day trip that also took in Breach House, the inspiration for ‘The Bottoms’ in Sons and Lovers, and Brinsley Colliery where Lawrence’s father worked as a butty. I was accompanied by two students (Stephen Tomlinson and Kim Nguyen) who are helping me curate artefacts for the Memory Theatre as part of their third year dissertation module ENGL30512 (English and Creative Industries).
If you want to truly understand what Lawrence felt then you have to see the world through his eyes. For example, Sherwood Forest, or more accurately Birklands and Bilhaugh, once formed a much larger, royal hunting forest, which extended into several neighbouring shires and was bordered on the west along the River Erewash and the Forest of East Derbyshire. The Doomsday book (1086) records the forest as covering a quarter of Nottinghamshire in woodland. Although it is still pretty beautiful, with Morning Springs and High Park Woods forming a thick forest that frames the priory, you have to walk and breath in this landscape to understand how it would have felt to see it destroyed and polluted by the 10 collieries that sprung up locally during the turn of the 19th century. Indeed, Nottingham was described by Charles Deering in 1721 as a ‘garden city’ on account of the orchards, parklands and open spaces surrounding well laid out houses. A century later the city had a reputation as the worst slums in Europe on account of the factories that furnaced the industrial revolution.
Our guide for the day was Malcolm Gray, the Chair of the DH Lawrence Society, who kindly gave up his time to show us these important literary locations as well as offering insightful commentary. He even drove us around and bought us all tea and cake. We were also joined by David Amos, a mining historian who gave us the backstory to what life would be like in a mining community, and Paul Fillingham, my partner on digital literary heritage projects, who was there to answer any questions about the launch of our memory theatre in 2019.
In taking time out of the classroom, students got six hours of teaching instead of two. They had access to experts, all of whom have handed over their email addresses and are happy to offer additional support. And we managed to do a bit of psychogeography in order to better understand the complex mind of DH Lawrence: the landscape offers a kind of reading that you can’t get from books alone. In March, Stephen will be producing a short ‘visual essay’ of his visit which will be uploaded to our YouTube channel and the DH Lawrence Society can use this to promote tourism.
Beauvale Priory, New Road, Moorgreen, Nottingham NG16 2AA
In the DH Lawrence Memory Theatre we want to address various aspects of Lawrence’s life through artefacts. How could we represent Beauvale Priory or Lawrence’s first published short story? If you have an idea about this or other artefacts you think should be included, you can submit ideas here.
- Walking in the Steps of Lawrence (5.7miles) theaa.com
- Beauvale Abbey Farm website beauvalepriory.co.uk
- Baim, Joseph. “Past and Present in D. H. Lawrence’s ‘A Fragment of Stained Glass.'” Studies in Short Fiction. Newberry, South Carolina: The State Printing Co., 1971. 323-326.
- Baker, P. G. “By the Help of Certain Notes: A Source for D. H. Lawrence’s ‘A Fragment of Stained Glass.'” Studies in Short Fiction. Newberry, South Carolina: The R.L. Bryan Company, 1980. 317-326.
- DH Lawrence. ‘A Fragment of Stained Glass’ in The Prussian Officer online-literature.com