Saturday, May 21, 2005

Bolsover and D. H. Lawrence

Just as it was more or less obligatory for someone of my generation to study Lord of the Flies at O level, so D. H. Lawrence was hard to avoid if you took English Literature at A level.

Perhaps for that reason, I always think of Lawrence as a writer who appeals most to adolescents. No doubt this is unfair, but I have seldom been tempted to spend much time on Lawrence since leaving school.

One thing I disliked about him even as a teenager was his exaggerated rhetoric about industrialisation. Again and again, industrialism and the way of life it leads to are compared unfavourably with rural, "organic" alternative. It seemed reactionary, and at worst to point the way towards something like Nazism.

I could not have put it half so neatly, but Edward Mendelson expresses this distrust of Lawrence and the other early twentieth century Modernists perfectly.

One of the unexpected side-effects of my visit to Bolsover Castle yesterday is that I now understand Lawrence better.

Let me explain. Even to those of us who live elsewhere in the East Midlands, the area to the north of Nottingham and the east of Chesterfield is a non-descript one that we imagine to have always been industrialised. We think of it as all Dennis Skinner and slagheaps.

Yet a little study shows that this is a travesty. Mining came much later to the area than you might imagine. So much so that the first coal mine did not open at Bolsover until 1891.

For centuries this was an area of great landed estates - so much so that there is an area of Nottinghamshire still known "the Dukeries" because of the number of leading aristocrats who had houses there. We should imagine instead a rural landscape dotted with great houses, the whole devoted to sport or, in the case of Bolsover, more amorous pleasures.

In Eastwood, where Lawrence grew up, the mines opened a decade or two earlier. But it remains true that, in his own boyhood, Lawrence saw the rural, aristocratic landscape summoned up by Bolsover Castle transformed into one of exceptional industrial desolation

This should not lead you to a Tory love of aristocrats - it was, after all, they who sold the land or the mineral rights to allow this spoilation to take place - but it does explain Lawrence's extreme reaction to industrialisation. It was something he had lived through in his own lifetime.

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