In Julia’s Morrab Miscellany through the alphabet we arrive at D, where we learn about DH Lawrence and the time he and his wife Frieda spent in West Cornwall, and how Charles Darwin’s beloved dogs helped him develop his influential ideas.
D is for DH LAWRENCE
DH Lawrence’s relationship with Cornwall was as passionate and conflicted as so many other aspects of his life. ‘Cornwall is very primaeval,’ he wrote ‘great black jutting cliffs and rocks, like the original darkness, and a pale sea breaking in, like dawn. It is like the beginning of the world, wonderful.’
In 1916, already a controversial figure, prosecuted for obscenity after publication of his novel The Rainbow, Lawrence opted for escape to West Penwith with his German wife, Frieda. Here he envisaged founding an aesthetes’ community, its members distancing themselves as far as was possible from the harsh realities of life in England during WW1.
He wrote many lyrical letters and the manuscript of Women in Love while renting Higher Tregerthen Cottage, a primitive and isolated house set high on the cliffs at Zennor.
Lawrence – capacity for acute observation
Lawrence hoped they’d live there ‘a long, long time, very cheaply…it is so free and beautiful,’ and although he and Frieda on occasions fought ‘like tigers’, he got enjoyment from walking the coast path and tending three windblown patches of garden in which he grew vegetables and flowers.
This period was prolific for Lawrence’s writing. Writing on flowers, often a subject for his poetry, he combined a capacity for acute observation with a uniquely earthy expressiveness.
Here’s how he treats gentians:
Bavarian gentians, big and dark, only dark
darkening the daytime, torch-like, with the smoking blueness of Pluto’s gloom,
ribbed and torch-like, with their blaze of darkness spread blue
down flattening into points, flattened under the sweep of white day
torch-flower of the blue-smoking darkness,
In 1916 conscription was announced. By mid-year Lawrence was relieved to be declared medically unfit for military service. Yet he was not destined to find lasting peace in Zennor.
The wild beauty of West Cornwall’s landscape
Early on, he had noted ‘the gorse is sunshine itself’, with its ‘sweep of lovely sea beyond’, ‘St Michael’s Mount like a dark little jewel.’ But the landscape’s wild beauty couldn’t outweigh the effects of the suspicion which his and Frieda’s disconcertingly provocative behaviour, such as loudly singing German songs while out walking, had aroused amongst their neighbours.
This turned to hostility, even outright intrusion, and eventually, after enduring for nearly two years, to their being ousted as potential spies under the Defence of the Realm Act, given four days to leave Cornwall.
Lawrence wrote about Cornwall in The Fox in 1918, and in The Kangaroo in 1923 (Complete Novellas Blackthorn 2019) he described his persecution while in Zennor.
He and Frieda never returned to Cornwall, living abroad and travelling widely before settling in the United States in Taos, New Mexico. Lawrence was never well and his death from tuberculosis came in 1930, in France.
Writers and creatives have occupied Higher Tregerthen Cottage since Lawrence’s time, notable among them Michael Morpurgo, whose manuscript of his West Country-based best seller novel War Horse (Egmont 2017) was written while there.
D is also for Charles DARWIN.
On 2 October 1836 Darwin was in Cornwall, disembarking at Falmouth docks from ‘The Beagle’, his vessel for his astounding 5 years’ global circumnavigation, down South America’s length to Patagonia, then Chile, Peru, across the Pacific to the Galapagos, Tahiti, New Zealand, Mauritius, the Cape and home.
Once on Falmouth’s terra firma, Darwin left on the mail coach to get himself and his flora and fauna findings home post haste.
A reading of Emma Townshend’s book Darwin’s Dogs: How Darwin’s Pets Helped Form a World-Changing Theory of Evolution (Frances Lincoln 2009) suggests what Darwin had most missed whilst away was his DOGS.
Calling Darwin ‘an incurable dog-lover’, Emma’s book mentions many of the naturalist’s beloved canines by name, arguing that from observing their behaviour Darwin built his evidence that all animals, including human beings, descend from one common ancestor.