#MondayBlogs Poet Becky Cullen on Miriam Leivers

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Sons and Lovers has been a massive influence on poet Becky Cullen ever since she came across it at college in 1983-5. But she’s never been happy with the way that Lawrence drew Miriam Leivers. In this guest blog Becky explains how a Creative Writing exercise gave her the chance to tell Miriam’s side of the story

 

Miriam

For Stephen

 

My brothers whooped like savages when they saw you coming up the hill:

romping round the farm with sticks and snares, you boys had a grand time.

I set the tea and waited; later, in our almost private minutes,

you went too far, pushing the swing too high, leaving too late for the train.

 

Which you knew would drive your mother to distraction, bristling,

what’s that Leivers girl got that’s so fascinating? Well, for a start,

I had you, my own exotic mushroom, watching you paint, stopping

myself from smoothing the loose lock of hair behind your pretty ear.

 

I know your mother quaintly warned you not to spoon and do,

but it wasn’t me you took bare-faced, bare-shouldered to the theatre.

In the end, the red carnations you spat out did me a favour.

Now you’re galavanting somewhere hot with someone’s wife called Frieda.

 

This poem was written during my MA in Creative Writing at NTU – our task was to write something using quatrains, a stanza or 4 lines. So it is interesting to me that in trying to produce something with a shape I fell back on Sons and Lovers, a book that shaped my experience of reading so much that it has filtered into my writing.

I read Sons and Lovers for ‘A’ level at Bilborough College in 1983-5, taught by the formidable English and Drama specialist Gilly Archer. It’s no surprise then that my recollections of Sons and Lovers are of the drama of the novel, the tensions between the characters, and Lawrence’s attempts to let the reader know exactly what is simmering under the surface.

This poem deals with the figure of Miriam Leivers, and her relationship with Paul Morel, the novel’s protagonist. Paul visits the family farm I draw into the poem, playing with Miriam’s sturdy brothers. Alone, Paul instigates intense conversations about their relationship, in which Paul criticises Miriam for being too spiritual in her approach. They have an on-off relationship for 7 years, in which time Paul becomes friends with Clara Dawes, taking her out to the theatre, and eventually having a physical relationship with her. Neither of these women please Mrs Morel, Paul’s greatest love, who is disgusted that Paul might ‘spoon and do’ with anyone. So there are details from the novel I’ve drawn on in this poem.

Sons and Lovers is a semi-autobiographical novel, which is another way of saying it’s based on Lawrence’s relationship with Jessie Chambers, a girl from a local farming family who first submitted his work for publication. Fiction is fiction, but tensions still run so high about the representation of Miriam/Jessie, that the Chambers family have allowed no access to their land for Lawrence-related filming and so on. This poem finishes with a similar blend of fictional and factual detail in the final line, a reference to Lawrence’s elopement with Frieda von Richthofen, the wife of his university lecturer.

I always felt that the character of Miriam was drawn rather unfairly. She comes across as being a bit drippy, and Paul is quite cruel to her on occasions – I suppose this poem is an attempt to allow her to voice her side of the story. I recently re-read the novel, which was fascinating, developing a new empathy, as mother of a son myself now, for Mrs. Morel.

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Image from http://www.dawnoftheunread.com

Sons and Lovers is so enmeshed in my literary influences that I cannot smell flowers in moonlight without thinking ‘the beauty of the night made her want to shout’, or look down on the lights of Goose Fair without thinking of Paul Morel doing exactly the same thing in the final paragraphs of Sons and Lovers. The novel feels like part of my writing heritage.

Finally, this poem is dedicated to Stephen Lowe, the Nottingham playwright whose play Empty Bed Blues draws on Lawrence’s life and work. Stephen encouraged me to do a Creative Writing MA, and to write every day. His encouragement has been a great gift, so it was appropriate to send him this poem as a birthday present one year. I like the idea that the poem brings together three Nottingham writers in this way, so there is a continuing dialogue in the present, between writers both on and off the page.

Further Reading 

#MondayBlogs DH Lawrence: Interpreting literary heritage through creative writing…

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Over the past couple of years we have seen the DH Lawrence Heritage Centre at Durban House converted into a ‘beauty lounge‘ and the subsequent artefacts that comprised the museum are currently homeless. But not all is doom and gloom. Heather Green, a first year PhD student at Nottingham Trent University, is researching the potential of creative writing to interpret literary heritage and thereby engage with new audiences… 

It is often said that texts we consider to be “classics” within English Literature are considered so because they continue to resonate with each coming generation. My research explores how we present these classics within the museums and heritage sites devoted to their authors. Many literary heritage sites struggle to interpret their collections in a way that I feel is engaging enough to inspire new readers. The trouble, I suspect, is with the nature of literary collections: antiquarian books or archives can be displayed, but must be conserved. The easiest story to tell is often the life of the author; interesting in relation to ideas of inspiration, but not really the reason an author would be considered part of our literary heritage. If an author’s legacy is one of stories which stand the test of time, it is surely ideas and themes which you would expect to encounter at a museum devoted to them.

The exploration of Newstead Abbey, Byron’s ancestral seat in Nottinghamshire, was the first inspiration for my research into how literary heritage sites interpret their collections. In my opinion, although much of Newstead was engaging for those who were either already engaged with Byron’s works or simply interested in historic houses, not much was done to explore his legacy for those who were complete novices. This, I felt, was an aspect particularly missing for a younger audience – always a key audience for museums, but not a group ready to directly engage with Byron’s work. It was an ideal audience, however, to explore some of Byron’s heritage. I felt the difficulties of being born with a condition that made you different, the pain of standing out from the crowd and the embracing and exaggerating of individuality were ideal subjects for those younger visitors. But how to do it? How to make it engaging? Research suggests that fictional narrative is more engaging that the didactic, and as a method this seemed appropriate for sites dedicated to the written word.

The result of these musings was a PhD proposal, and a picture book entitled Mad, Bad and Dangerous Crow, which endeavoured (rather clunkily) to take ideas of Byron’s literary heritage and present them through a new piece of creative writing. The text was illustrated by Jonathan Green and printed as a one-off accompaniment to my MA research.

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In relation to Lawrence, I recently presented a paper proposing the use of creative practice to respond to Lawrence’s more controversial aspects. It should be noted that by controversial, I was not referring to the salacious and sexual content which causes such scandal on publication, but instead the elements which might raise eyebrows when reading Lawrence today. Lawrence remains difficult, because although so forward thinking in many ways, his writing can also be considered problematic. We are left with a dilemma when heralding him as – for example – a queer modernist writer, because his imagined relationship between Ursula and Miss Ingram in The Rainbow is short-lived, stereotypical and ultimately regretted. This aspects are thus often ignored (or skated over) in sites devoted to his heritage. I suggested that responding to these aspects through new creative fiction could address these issues without negating Lawrence’s impact.

My paper was theoretical, but there was substantial interest about taking the idea further from potential contributors.  Sean Richardson (an English literature PhD student at NTU) and myself are currently aiming to edit and produce an anthology of creative writing which would present various responses to Lawrence’s work; such as female responses to his portrayal of women, or a response by a queer writer to his portrayal of queerness. Our intention is to put out of call for contributions this summer, and perhaps the publication will inspire a cohort of new readers to delve into the unique wonders and frustrations of Lawrence’s works. If it does, I would consider it an effective contribution to Lawrence’s heritage.

Heather was recently commissioned to produce interpretation for children at Beeston Canalside Heritage Centre, which took the form of a children’s picture book. Dog and Duck’s Canal Adventure can be seen at the Canalside Heritage Centre itself and will be available to purchase as a picture book later this year. Heather is also a vital component of the final year English module ENGL30512, where she gives students critical feedback on their proposed designs for our digital ‘memory theatre’. 

FURTHER READING