“Ugliness, ugliness, ugliness” were the words that David Herbert Lawrence used to describe his upbringing in the coal mining town of Eastwood in the United Kingdom. It is ironic, therefore, that this small community, just eight miles west of Nottingham, should today put its faith in tourist dollars, all to be generated in the name of the native son who yearned for the day that he could escape.
Yet, after the last mine closed in 1985, Eastwood has been banking that visitors would want, as one brochure puts it, “to follow in the footsteps of a literary legend.” Lawrence’s modest birthplace is now a museum where one can learn about working class life in the late-Victorian period; and the headquarters of Barber, Walker and Company, the mining enterprise that employed his father, is now the D.H. Lawrence Heritage Center. In the latter facility, visitors can examine exhibitions in the Rainbow Gallery, named after the author’s 1915 novel “The Rainbow,” or have lunch in the Collier Bistro.
On a day trip from Lincoln with Michael Budd bravely at the wheel, sticking to the left side of the road and circumnavigating a seemingly endless series of roundabouts, we traveled to Eastwood to catch the eleven o’clock guided tour of Lawrence’s birthplace. Those readers familiar with the first of his novels to put him on the literary map, the semi-autobiographical “Sons and Lovers” (1913), will already have all the background that they need to appreciate life at 8A Victoria Street.
This was the first and humblest of the four homes that the family was to inhabit in Eastwood. Like the character of Gertrude Morel in “Sons and Lovers,” Lydia Lawrence was an ambitious woman – her son also described her as “clever, ironical, delicately molded” – who desperately desired to move up in the world and to carve a more comfortable niche for her children. Her husband, Arthur, on the other hand, was perplexed by his wife’s determination to keep their sons out of the mines and their daughters from marrying miners. Her dream eventually trumped his, and all five children climbed the social ladder.
The Lawrences had two sons. Until his untimely death at the age of 23, Lydia doted on her first son Ernest, who had succeeded in becoming a shipping clerk in London; after his demise, she turned most of her attention to David Herbert, nursing him through a life-threatening bout of pneumonia and seeing to it that he was eventually admitted to the University of Nottingham. Arthur Lawrence, it is said, “hated books, hated the sight of anyone reading or writing”; but thanks to his wife’s determination, his surviving son went on to become a teacher and eventually a professional author.
On the corner of the block, the birthplace is largely undistinguishable from all of the other flat-fronted, red-brick dwellings that, row upon row, meet the eye in all four directions. Visitors first pass through a couple of rooms devoted to Lawrence memorabilia – an imitation leather traveling trunk, a pen holder Lawrence himself molded from coal, and several of the author’s early attempts at landscape painting – until a local guide escorts them into the house proper, staged as it might have been when the Lawrence family was in residence.
Beyond its associations with one of the twentieth-century’s most important writers, the house museum reflects the common experience of working class people in the late-Victorian Period. The house has the traditional “two up, two down” floor plan with the living room and kitchen on the first floor and two bedrooms on the second.
The first room visitors enter is on the second floor: the parents’ bedroom. As an infant, Lawrence probably would have slept in the bureau’s bottom drawer, removed and placed before the fire. Eventually, however, he joined his brother in the unfinished attic, which served as storage space and sleeping quarters for the two boys. His three sisters shared a room across the landing from their parents.
The first floor boasts the tiny parlor. Mrs. Lawrence sold handmade linen and baby clothes that she displayed in the single window that faced the street. Behind that room are the kitchen and a small yard with a communal wash house shared by four families. Monday was laundry day in the neighborhood.
Lawrence helped his mother in the cramped kitchen. He could cook and bake, which was unusual given the strict gender expectations of that time period. Our guide said that these skills came in handy when Lawrence eloped in 1912 with Frieda von Richtofen, with whom he shared his life until his death in 1930. Because of her noble birth – she was a relative of the notorious “Red Baron” of World War I – Frieda did not know her way around a stove.
Frail and prone to illness, the young D.H. Lawrence was bullied at school and heckled by the rough miners – he especially dreaded Fridays when he had to walk to the company office to collect his father’s wages. He derived inspiration from his mother, whose death, like that of the character Gertrude in “Sons and Lovers,” proved a major turning point in his life.
When she died of cancer in 1910, he lost his biggest support up to that period in his life; ironically, however, that loss forced him out into the larger world, from Eastwood to London, and eventually abroad. In their lives together, he and Frieda led a largely nomadic existence.
As with all iconic literary figures, there is more than one place that claims some connection to Lawrence: Taos, New Mexico – his ashes are interred in a chapel that Frieda commissioned just outside of town – as well as Gargnano, Italy and Thirroul, Australia. The former coal mining community of Eastwood is not alone in its desire to reap the rewards of literary tourism.
A recipient of the prestigious Carolina Trustee Professorship, Dr. Tom Mack holds the G.L. Toole Chair at the USC Aiken.