Jessie and Bert: their lives and loves
Jessie and Bert: how their lives and loves nurtured the genius of DH Lawrence. A talk by Andrew Cooper and Kate Foster, Café Philosopique, Scarthin Books, October 2019
I arrived at Scarthin Books in the pouring rain on a dark and gloomy October evening. All was quiet; the café empty - I began to wonder how many people would turn out on such an inclement night, how much interest in Lawrence was there over the border from his home county? But David Mitchell was quietly positive; he knew at least a couple of people were coming and coffee and cake were ready. Gradually the room started to fill and fill and fill… and rather like the magic porridge pot – to overflow – into the corridor, the conservatory – now the concern was not that anyone would come, but that everyone could sit down.
Our aim was to convey the vital part Haggs Farm and the Chambers family, and Jessie in particular, played in Lawrence’s early development as a writer, and beyond that to show Jessie as a woman in her own right – a talented writer some of whose work the Haggs Farm Preservation Society is going to publish in a new book in 2020.
Andrew began by outlining the history of Haggs Farm and reading from The White Peacock, Sons and Lovers and Jessie’s memoir to focus on different perspectives of Lawrence and Jessie’s profound, intense and ultimately painful relationship. I read from her letters which showed her love of nature, her faith and spirituality, her insight into character and her pain on reading the final proofs of Sons and Lovers which she felt depicted her so unfairly. We discussed the ways in which each nurtured the other’s talent – as Jessie says at the end of her memoir: ‘And with the clarification that time brings and its truer perspective, those of us whose youth was the richer for knowing him see again the dear familiar figure, and we remember how much of our joy came to us through the inspiration of Lawrence’s gay and dauntless spirit.’
To round off Andrew talked about our correspondence with the Barber family and the work they are doing to preserve the estate as a haven for wildlife. We only hope that one day we can persuade them to preserve the farmhouse too.
After the talk we had some thoughtful discussion about where a writer’s influence comes from, what duty, if any, they owe to those they write about, how far Jessie might have developed as a writer if Lawrence had supported her as steadfastly as she supported him.
It was a special evening, made so by a warm and enthusiastic audience, we hope it will be repeated.
Society members Rob Bathie and Sheila Bamford give their thoughts below:
The erudite gathering which forms the Café Philosophique at Scarthin Books, Cromford, went totally Lawrentian recently when our society’s chair, Andrew Cooper, and society secretary Kate Foster gave an entertaining and absorbing account of the beautiful intensity of DH Lawrence’s youthful relationship with Jessie Chambers of Haggs Farm. Using photographs, extracts from Jessie’s and Lawrence’s letters, and extracts from Jessie’s ‘DH Lawrence: A Personal Record’, Kate and Andrew brought vividly alive the early fervour of Bert and Jessie’s relationship at Haggs Farm, a relationship which quickly grew complex and consuming, focused as it was on a mutually impassioned appreciation of all aspects of nature, including human nature, and on ideas, literature and writing. Andrew and Kate traced the relationship from its ‘lad and girl love’, to Jessie’s fundamental role in Lawrence first getting published, to the relationship’s strains and conflicts and its dark, sad ending when, in Jessie’s view, Lawrence totally betrayed the truth of their relationship in his portrayal of her as Miriam in ‘Sons and Lovers’, a characterisation very much dominated by Lawrence’s mother’s dislike of Jessie. Overall, Kate and Andrew revealed fully the intellectual and emotional influence of Haggs Farm and Jessie Chambers on Lawrence the man and author, showing why Haggs farm is such an iconic place in the life and work of one of the world’s great writers, and why it is so important to preserve it.
On Friday 25th October 30 people squeezed into Scarthin Bookshop for an illustrated talk. Andrew Cooper and Kate Foster took us through Jessie, Bert and Haggs Farm from the day that they met until when Jessie learned that Lawrence had died.
All the people there were Lawrence readers and the discussion afterwards was about why Jessie was so distressed and offended by the depiction of her as Miriam in ‘Sons and Lovers’.
There were photos of Haggs Farm over the years, the last one was sad to see as it looked very forsaken.
Andrew had been in touch with a Barber family member who revealed that the wildlife, especially birds have really flourished there. How nice it would be if human life was there too.