A Modernist birthplace
Hannah Comer visits our past clients at the D. H. Lawrence Birthplace Museum
This piece of writing was influenced by The Birthplace by Henry James and various works by D. H. Lawrence. In his novel, James questions the status of the writer and Shakespeare’s legacy, and Lawrence, throughout his essays and fictional writings, questions the value ascribed to physical possessions. I wanted to explore this by looking at the notion of time and how Lawrence, and the figure of the author, has come to be regarded and represented within literature and culture. Moreover, Eastwood (Lawrence’s home town) and the surrounding area was a continual influence within Lawrence’s work and I wanted to capture the modern experience of visiting the birthplace museum and heritage centre. As a student at the University of Nottingham, Lawrence’s literary legacy and his place within Modernism form a large part of study and research, especially in the facilities which are available and the connection to the heritage centre.
‘Time and the flux of change passed away from her’
– D. H. Lawrence, The Rainbow.
The house stands still within the flux of time, preserved against continual and inevitable change. Positioned on the corner of Victoria Street, its deep-red brick façade and black painted shop window recollects its own time, its Victorian past and its role in local history, singled out from the uniformed row of terraced mining houses. This single house was the place of his birth, the first physical location of his life and the sense of his literary legacy pervades the air.
Above the window, the sign ‘Birthplace Museum’ creaks, shifting slightly and proudly in the historical air and signifying the precise spot to the tourists, who armed with a timed ticket, are waiting to begin their literary pilgrimage. Their faces, as they bide their time, agitated by either excitement or boredom, search the surrounding area and seek to capture the spirit of the place. For its spirit has been somewhat reinforced by its literary occupant and his writings; returning again and again to the miners and the Midlands. Looking down the street, a visionary illusion encroaches upon the mind, reminiscent of his writings, as the imagined stream of miners flow down the road after remerging from the darkness of the underground. They traipse home, clothes blackened and bowed by the physical exertion of their work, branching off from the stream to return to their houses, pursued by the waning light of day.
At the appointed time, the tour begins. It is a recorded time upon which to step back into someone else’s past and in which to continue the quest for knowledge of his life. The family had only lived here for two years after his birth and had later moved down the road to the ‘Breach’. To step inside from the present time, is to go back once again to the home’s former use as a shop, as it has now become the gift shop of his legacy. His works, notably his most famous, line the window and the shelves within, accompanied by their filmic adaptations and the small souvenir teddy bears which stare out, with their beady eyes and his signature inscribed across their tiny t-shirts. Beyond the shop, the house with the nucleus of his valuable possessions, partakes of a promise to answer or provide further affirmation to the knowledge which is being sought.
The rooms are reminiscent of family life and the displays are suggestive of this, presenting scenes of what life was like and they hold these moments, almost as if the family are set to return at any moment. Firstly, the parlour with its pale, yellow wallpaper, detailed with dusky roses and the stuffed armchairs, a cluttered space exuding the sense of Victorian and familial life. The white and blue pot dogs guard the mantelpiece, almost as if they are surveying the scene too, withholding the information of the past. On the wall hangs a painting of a quintessential cottage of the past with a traditional garden, a place reminiscent of pastoral idyll. Further along, a photograph of his mother smiles down, in a dull gold floral frame hanging above the piano, surveying her room and overseeing her possessions. The only living belongings are the potted plants, placed there by present museum professionals and their bright green leaves highlight the pale shades of the objects, the whiteness of the handmade lace placed across the window and the rich mahogany of the furniture. Then the kitchen, with its dominant fireplace and its warm yet strangely cold terracotta tile flooring. The only infusion of colour comes from the brightly-coloured rag rug beside the fireplace, textured and snug. The table has been set with jugs, bowls, jars and butter; the ensemble of the articles for domestic and daily occurrences.
Outside to the wash house, in the courtyard behind the house, and the air has immobilised and retained the smell of carbolic soap. In the room, the mangle is loaded with the clothes, ready to squeeze out the water and a continual coldness persists within the walls. Now onto the front bedroom, with its patterned wallpaper of entwined yellow and pink flowers, a possible mimicry of the expensive taste of William Morris designs. The tour guide announces this to be the room in which he was born and the tourists draw in the scene- the iron bed, the bowler hat and coats and black umbrella hung in the alcove. The book that lay open across the bed.
His possessions are enshrined within and line the walls of the gallery, a small, almost empty room which tells of his life and death- the watercolours of his travels highlighted by the brilliant white walls, the beige brown battered travel case stamped with the ownership of ‘DHL’, the mahogany and rich green writing desk and his headstone imbibed with the symbol of the phoenix. The importance of life so freely celebrated within his work. A mythic symbol of renewal, a cycle of rebirth stamped upon his books, a symbol which hints to the story of the life presented within the room and the continual rise and fall of the interest which his work generates.
The birthplace is connected to the self- guided and prescribed ‘blue trail’, which is part of the journey to the Heritage centre. To go through the centre is to travel through his life; the visitor explores his family life within the mining community, which shaped his formative years. There are displays and boards to present the figures who were a part of his life, artefacts and a room dedicated to the controversy which surrounds his arguably most famous figure, ‘Trial of Lady Chatterley’. Quotes from his works are painted around the rooms, they shine through the pulled down blinds and stand out next to his photographs. They tell of a story of a man and of a place, a village which strives to be forgotten, proved to be unforgettable.
Hannah Comer is a heritage associate with Culture Syndicates. Having completed her English Literature BA at The University of Derby, she is to continue her studies at The University of Nottingham, where she will complete her English Literature MA.