#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 

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#MondayBlogs Viola Meynell and a Presentation copy of The Rainbow

In this guest blog Derek Aram attempts to uncover the origins of his presentation copy of The Rainbow, a literary adventure that leads him to Greatham and Viola Meynell’s Rackham Cottage…  

The Rainbow presentation copyI read with interest Jonathan Long’s piece on the known presentation copies of The Rainbow and the possibility of there being others unaccounted for; (‘The Rainbow: A Miscellany’: Jonathan Long: Journal of D.H.Lawrence Studies: Vol 4, No 4). His article caused me to take a closer look at my first edition copy, which I added to my D.H.L. collection a few years ago, since my copy purports to have once belonged to Viola Meynell and indeed is stamped ‘Presentation Copy’ over the Methuen Publisher Address at the bottom of the Title Page.

Regrettably there is no inscription by Lawrence or indeed by Meynell herself – unless they were obliterated by the pasted insertion of a contemporary (1915) newspaper article about the book’s banning, which covers the whole of both sides of the first front endpaper. See illustration 2 and Appendix 2

Of additional relevance to the history of this copy are an inscription in pencil on the inside of the front pastedown by a J A Gatehouse (see illustration 2 and Appendix 1) stating the volume to be a ‘Review Copy’, given to him by Viola Meynell possibly in 1945; and two loose inserts (see illustration 3), one being a contemporary (c 1910) photograph of ‘Miss Viola Meynell’ cut out from a magazine or newspaper and the other a photograph without inscription of a family group in what looks like 1950s dress around a central figure potentially resembling Viola Meynell herself.

The Rainbow presentation copy 2

Illustration 2: New Statesman Article of November 20 1915 and inscription by J A Gatehouse.

The Rainbow presentation copy 3 Viola Meynell

Illustration 3: Loose inserts in volume: Contemporary photograph of Viola Meynell and later unascribed family photograph with strong resemblance to Viola Meynell 2 from R back row.

Like many an enthusiast I love my Lawrence acquisitions to have a ‘story’, be it quirky or historic or whatever; just something that gives that special cachet, that links me in to the man and his time. I have Lawrence works or works about him, which once belonged to E M Forster, Stephen Spender, Moira Shearer, Louie Burrows and even Exhibit No 4 at a certain Central Crown Court trial Regina v Penguin Books; and a couple of summers ago I made a short journey which was to bring some of that cachet, plus a degree of corroboration to the volume under current consideration.

Returning from a visit with grandchildren to the Amberley Chalk Pits Museum near Arundel and realising we were quite near to Greatham I took a short detour to try to locate the cottage loaned to Lawrence and Frieda by Viola Meynell during the first half of 1915, where ‘The Rainbow’ was completed. With the help of the West Sussex A to Z and the photograph of ‘Shed Hall’ in Volume 1 of Edward Nehls’ ‘D H Lawrence- A Composite Biography’ (I knew it would come in handy one day!), my grandson Byron soon spotted the house in question by the configuration of its chimneys. I pulled in to the verge and approached the gate of ‘Rackham Cottage’.

A family group was sitting at a garden bench table enjoying the fine weather; I came to them with some trepidation and apologising for the intrusion asked if they knew anything about the writer D H Lawrence having stayed there in 1915. A lady introduced herself as ‘Hannah’ and confirmed that Lawrence and Frieda had indeed stayed there in the long low building end on to the road, which they called ‘the Shed’.

Delighted to have this confirmation and feeling I owed them some explanation for my invasion I told them of my acquisition of the book and the details including its ownership by Viola Meynell, who had also lived there. ‘Yes’ said Hannah, ‘we knew Viola Meynell’ – she corrected my pronunciation, saying it was ‘Mennell’ not ‘Maynell’ – she was our grandmother!’ I heard these words with not a little frisson of delight accompanied by a favourite saying of my mam passing silently through my head: ‘Well, I’ll gu ta Trent!’

Hannah called her brother Oliver over and recounted my interest, especially in J A Gatehouse’s assertion that Viola Meynell had given him the book in 1945. Oliver thereupon went into his study and brought out his grandmother’s Visits Book from which he was able to demonstrate that Mr Gatehouse had indeed visited in 1945.

So; Meynells (or Dallyns) still occupied Rackham Cottage; the link with that critical time in Lawrence’s career was forged and the mysterious Mr Gatehouse was real and had visited Viola. But my sense of delighted discovery was now being assailed by pressures from two sides; I was acutely aware that my family were still in the car, chafing to go and it was likely I had long overstayed my welcome, so I left with profuse thanks, a couple of photographs, Hannah’s e-mail address and a promise to send her the images of the book, included in this piece.

This I duly did and offered to send the hard copy of the family photograph if they indeed confirmed it to include Viola. Sadly I received no reply, although the message was delivered and a retry a month later similarly elicited no response, so I have had to conclude that the family’s privacy has to be respected (and I didn’t even mention ‘England My England’!). So many further questions will have to wait…

The jury must be out on whether Lawrence physically gave this book to Viola; it is presumably still a possibility it was a Review Copy, although I have never read of a review by Viola; certainly according to Methuen it is a presentation copy and I guess it is possible it escaped the judicial flames by being sent to Viola directly on Lawrence’s instruction.

Whether my volume fills one of the two unaccounted holes referred to in Jonathan’s piece or not I leave up to you but this account may at least provide an interesting slant and a tiny addition to the Lawrence record. Whatever it be, it holds a place of delight in my long appreciation of D H L’s work and life.

Rackham Cottage Greatham

                               illustration 4 ‘The Shed’ Rackham Cottage Greatham

REVIEW: The Trespasser (1912)

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“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.”

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THE RAINBOW, Amanda Donohoe, Sammi Davis, 1989, ©Vestron

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?

RELATED READING

  • 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)

Review: A Novel Trial – Chatterley’s Lover

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The audience take on roles during the reenactment of the trial

On the 2 November 1960 Penguin books was acquitted of obscenity at the Old Bailey. Finally, after a 32 year wait, D.H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover was declared a legitimate read. The novel was deemed controversial due to its explicit language and the openness with which it portrayed sexual acts. But what really rattled the establishment was the suggestion that a toff might wish to commit adultery with someone at the bottom of the pecking order. The fact that Penguin were selling the book for 3/6 – then the equivalent of a packet of ten fags – meant the working classes might get silly ideas in their head. The entire social order was under threat.

The trial lasted six days and so I was curious as to how the Galleries of Justice were going to pull this off given that they had programmed in one hour for their ‘show’, the third Lawrence related performance of the NEAT16 festival: the others being Stephen Lowe’s Altitude Sickness and The Fight for Barbara.

Thirty members of the public were ushered through into the Victorian styled courtroom and we took our seats at the back of the courtroom. I then sat excitedly waiting for a cast of actors to walk through to be given some kind of contextual account of the trial. Instead three members of the Galleries of Justice, dressed in suitable attire, explained that volunteers were required to take on key roles. These roles included: Judge, Court Usher and Clerk; the defendant Penguin Books; two witnesses for the Prosecution – American critic Miss Esther Forbes and Lawrence’s friend/foe, editor and author John Middleton Murray. The Witnesses for the Defence were – Vivian Pinto, a Professor of English at the University of Nottingham, The Sunday Times Literary Editor Jack Walter Lambert, Roy Jenkins MP, Reverend Donald Tytler and the courageous publisher, Sir Allen Lane.

Surprisingly, the audience were very forthcoming and eager to participate and so the roles were quickly taken up. This was largely due to the stern and entertaining direction of the Galleries of Justice staff member playing the part of the Prosecution Barrister. She had a lovely demeanour about her and put all of our nerves at ease. But another reason the audience were so keen to get involved is most of them were members of the D.H Lawrence Society. Consequently, the role of judge was quickly snapped up by David Brock, a keen animal rights activist, who wasted no time in questioning what material his outfit was made from. Oh dear. There’s only one thing more passionate than D.H Lawrence and that’s a fan of D.H Lawrence. But Mr Brock also hammed up his role and was very entertaining.

The participants were issued with a script and on occasion, some chose to deviate in the name of humour and Laurentian education. For example, when it was announced that Penguin had sold over 250 million books and therefore Allen Lane was a very wealthy man, Mr. Brock interjected that money was a corrupting influence and no guarantee of happiness, echoing the sentiments of DH Lawrence.

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Artwork from www.dawnoftheunread.com

The script skimmed over key parts of the trial and gave a broad picture of what went on. Although one member of the D.H Lawrence Society was completely aghast that cultural critic Richard (‘we’re not all the same, us working class lads’) Hoggart wasn’t one of the five witnesses for the defence. This is a fair point as Hoggart’s testimony was deemed a key turning point of the trial. But these criticisms were politely rebuffed by the Prosecuting Barrister.

I thoroughly enjoyed myself and I think this is largely because it went against all of my expectations. Instead of a dry recital of facts and quotes, the audience were completely immersed in the trial through role play; active participation is always the best way to learn. This was signified by the jury being sent out to deliberate and decide for themselves if Penguin were guilty or not. Their verdict was ‘not guilty’, thus history remained on course and the future would still have a place for Malcom Tucker, the 4 minute fuck scene in The Wire and Fifty Shades of Grey.

A Novel Trial: Lady Chatterley’s Lover was performed at the Galleries of Justice on 2 June, 6.30-7.30pm £7.50

For more information on other performances, please see the NEAT16 festival guide