David Herbert Richards Lawrence drew his first breath on September 11 1885, in a small house in Victoria Street, Eastwood, near Nottingham. The fourth child of a coal miner, Arthur Lawrence and Lydia (nee Beardsall), it is not recorded if that first breath was taken easily, but within two weeks the child had bronchitis. It was to be a warning: ‘Bert’ Lawrence’s lungs would plague him all his life. David started school at only four years of age, he was withdrawn and didn’t return to the Beauvale Board School until he was seven. This late start, no doubt, disadvantaged him socially, setting him apart from the other children.
Indeed, he had few friends of his own, preferring the company of his younger sister, Ada, and her friends. He was a good scholar, however, and became the first boy from the school to win a scholarship to Nottingham High School. It caused the family considerable hardship to allow the boy to take up this scholarship but in September 1898, three days after his thirteenth birthday Lawrence went to the High School. (Bocker 45) He worked hard and made the best of this opportunity, but it was a strain, certainly on the family finances, and also on a delicate boy.
He took the train to Nottingham at seven in the morning and didn’t reach home until evening. Once again, he made few friends; Frieda, his wife, wrote that one boy who took Lawrence home to tea was horrified to discover that his father was a miner and refused to have any more to do with him. Brinsley Colliery – source of the Lawrence family income. Lawrence spent much of what today would be thought of as ‘leisure time'(and there was precious little of it) helping his overworked, and beloved mother. His early life is open to scrutiny in his third and autobiographical novel, Sons and Lovers. (Cambers 173)
At fifteen, with High School and the 19th Century over, Lawrence began work at Haywoods, a surgical appliance manufacturer in Nottingham. He seems to have had similar difficulties in making friends here too; finding the factory girls frighteningly ugly for his rather refined ways. Now away from home for fourteen hours per day, except on Sunday and one half day per week, working in dark and airless conditions, the frail health of the youth broke; within six months Lawrence had pneumonia. Due to his mother’s devoted nursing, and against expectations, he recovered. He went back to school within a few weeks.
Lawrence’s health, however, had been weakened and it was not considered wise that he should return to the Nottingham factory. He joined the local British School as a pupil-teacher. Pupil teachers were expected to help with classes after having arrived at school an hour earlier than the pupils in order to take lessons from the headmaster. Later he also attended the Pupil-teacher Center at Ilkeston where, for possibly the first time in his life, he made many friends. (Chambers 69) He also began to write. This writing was done in secret, under the guise of ‘lessons’, at home.
The only person to see this very early work was Jessie Chambers, a fellow pupil-teacher and close friend who lived at Haggs Farm. This farm and family provided a second home for the adolescent Lawrence, away from the strains of his own family. Here, he helped with the hay-making, discussed books and organized charades. (Letters 45) Lawrence’s first published work did not get his name into print. It was a story especially written for a competition run by the Nottingham Guardian in 1907. It was called A Prelude and won a 3 prize (this was a sizable prize given that when Lawrence began teaching a year later he earned 1. per week). Lawrence had entered all three categories. Once in his own name, the others in friends’ names; the winning entry was in Jessie Chambers’ name. (Chambers 687) In December 1904 Lawrence took the examination for the King’s Scholarship, which would guarantee him a day place at Nottingham University College, where he could obtain his Teacher’s Certificate. He passed – he was in the top 37 of over 2,000 candidates, but was unable to take up the position until September 1906 due to financial hardship. Lawrence was to be bitterly disappointed by college.
He felt that he gained nothing from the experience; the biggest disappointment being the lecturers themselves. (Bocker 78) In 1908 Lawrence became a qualified teacher and took up a post at Davidson Road School, Croydon. It is not difficult to imagine the wrench with which he left Eastwood, his beloved mother and Haggs Farm. The school had some very poor boys and it was not to be an easy introduction for the young schoolmaster. However, he was dedicated and innovative – he encouraged the boys to act out The Tempest rather than sitting at their desks reading it – and the headmaster was pleased with his work.
In his free time Lawrence wrote. In January 1911 his first novel, The White Peacock was published, but the suprise he may have felt from this success was second to the overshadowing death of his mother, from cancer, in the previous month. (Letters 46) In November of 1911 the poor health that had plagued Lawrence all year culminated in pneumonia. Once again, he fought his way free of the illness but his lungs had been damaged further. The doctor told him outright that to return to teaching would be to court tuberculosis and so, again, his life’s direction was dictated by his lungs.
An aunt had in-laws in Germany and a plan was suggested whereby Lawrence could go to stay with them and perhaps spend some time as a Lektor in a German college. Ernest Weekley, a professor of Modern Languages at Nottingham University College, where Lawrence had been a student, was consulted about the plan and invited the young man to lunch. Lawrence accepted the invitation and within two months was indeed in Germany. Not, however, as a Lektor but as lover of Frieda Weekley (nee von Richthofen), the thirty two year old mother of Weekley’s three children. Life was not easy for the couple.
Frieda had high hopes of having her children with her, but when her husband discovered her infidelity he flatly refused her access and sent the couple letter after letter containing pleas, threats and abuse. This trauma caused fierce arguments between the couple (their fights were to become legendary amongst their friends). Frieda was distraught at the loss of her children; Lawrence was angry that he was powerless to do anything, and he was the cause of her misery and also bitter hat she could not accept the loss of her children – as he had to accept the loss of his beloved mother eighteen months before. Bocker 15) With little money they traveled, often on foot, through Germany (where Lawrence was accused of spying) and Switzerland finally renting a room at Riva in Austria, very near to the Italian border.
Lawrence loved Italy – he felt that the Italian people really knew how to live – close to nature and unrestrainedly. During the journey, and at Riva, Lawrence continued to write. He was revising what was to be ultimately regarded as one of his greatest books, Sons and Lovers, and that he managed, under the circumstances, to write at all is surprising. Chambers 76) Twenty-one year old, David Garnett, son of Lawrence’s mentor of that time, joined Lawrence and Frieda for part of their journey. He recorded how little Lawrence’s writing affected any of them. Lawrence would sit in the corner, pen flashing, while David and Frieda talked joked and worked around him. Frieda had never learned how to cook and so Lawrence would frequently ump up to look after the dinner, then return to his writing.
Lawrence was also a great mimic; he could impersonate many of the literary figures he had met in London and he would entertain Frieda by acting out parodies of services at the chapel he had attended in his youth. Frieda found all of this hilarious and fascinating because as the daughter of a Baron in Germany she had experienced a very different upbringing. David Garnett recalls that Lawrence not only mimicked others, he frequently mocked himself while describing meetings with literary “lion-hunters” and ortraying events from his varied life. Letters 56) Almost everyone who ever spent time with the Lawrences remembered him in charades; he had a passion for the amusement – even as a youth – and would get everyone into the act. Indeed, in 1928, less than two years before his death from tuberculosis, he was still performing energetically, mimicking Navajo Indians complete with war-whoops; he delighted the visiting Americans but terrified his own party who feared that he would provoke another haemorrhage of the lungs. “I hadn’t lived before I lived with Lawrence” – Frieda Lawrence
In May 1913, Sons and Lovers was published in Great Britain. It did not sell spectacularly well, and Lawrence faced the possibility that he may have to return to teaching. He managed, however, to keep up a constant stream of short stories, articles, essays and poetry which enabled the pair to live the very simple life with which they were satisfied. The lovers returned to England briefly during this year for Frieda to try to make contact with her children. Access was denied her and the pair returned to Europe. (Chambers 57)