Jessie Chambers: D.H. Lawrence’s First Love

Steve Newman Writer
Aug 4, 2018 · 8 min read

Haggs Farm was Lawrence’s Second Home

Jessie Chambers. Source: mirabile dictu

Jessie Chambers was one of the most influential, and important persons in D.H. Lawrence’s life. She was certainly his first real love, and perhaps his only true love, notwithstanding his later, scandalous, and enduring love for Frieda. Their relationship was not without its ups and downs, but both, in the early days, seemed to understand each other, and they always did (rightly or wrongly depending on their mood)what they considered to be right for the other.

Jessie’s large family, and Haggs Farm were, for David Herbert Lawrence, his second home, and maybe his first, in the sense that it was a happy place and a happy family, whereas his own was far from happy with a constantly bickering mother and father with David invariably taking his mother’s side.

The Chambers Family at Haggs Farm. Jessie behind her Father. Source: Lawrence Museum

David first met Jessie in the summer of 1901 at Haggs Farm, where eggs and milk could be bought. As Harry T. Moore writes, Lawrence:

“…was still attending high school in Nottingham and not long before he went to work in a factory there. Jessie, more than a year younger than Lawrence (she was born on January 29, 1887), was the second daughter of the large family at Haggs Farm, about two miles north of Eastwood. The tormenting relationship of Lawrence and Jessie, which was to last for about a dozen years, became one of the principle theme of Sons and Lovers,(1913)with Lawrence as Paul Morel and Jessie as Miriam Leivers.”

So much has been written about Jessie being the model for Miriam in Sons and Lovers that I’m going to take something of a left turn, and take a look at another of Lawrence’s novel, The White Peacock, written two years earlier, and of certain things it suggests.

Lawrence was still at Nottingham University when he wrote The White Peacock, which, as Richard Aldington reminds us had:

“ …nothing to do with peacocks, white or blue-green, and everything to do with English people of the soil…”

Lawrence was a very complicated and contradictory young man (as he would remain as he aged) as he wrote his first novel, which he began in 1907, six years after meeting Jessie. Jessie would undoubtedly have a hand in the novel’s construction, and a presence within its pages, as would her brothers, and the home in which they lived, and the countryside around them.

This is the opening of Chapter One of The White Peacock:

“ I stood watching the shadowy fish slide through the gloom of the mill-pond. They were grey, descendants of the silvery things that had darted away from the monks, in the young days when the valley was lusty. The whole place was gathered in the musing of old age. The thick-piled trees on the far shore were too dark and sober to dally with the sun; the weeds stood crowded and motionless. Not even a little wind flickered the willows of the islets. The water lay softly, intensely still. Only the thin stream falling through the mill-race murmured to itself of the tumult of life which had once quickened the valley.”

A young D.H. Lawrence. Source: University of Nottingham

Lawrence walked past that scene every time he went to Haggs Farm. But it’s also a description of Jessie: not a physical portrait, but one of her soul, and the inherited love of place and family, and of a darkness, a deep passion, held within her that will open itself — like the valley — to the sun one day: his day, Lawrence’s day. Lawrence saw her as part of the actual landscape — that she had somehow absorbed it, and it her — and of his literary landscape, which was something completely different: a place not yet created in full, but one that must have Jessie in it.

But it would not be as simple as that. How could it?

Jessie’s background is one of aspiration, with her grandfather, Jonathan Chambers (a former miner), becoming the owner of an off-licence that sold beer in the then, coal mining, village of Brinsley, not far from Eastwood. His son, Edmund — Jessie’s father — worked for his father for several years before moving away to get married. When he returned three or four years later, he moved his wife and family into a cottage close by his father’s business, from where he started a milk round.

In the 1890s Edmund became the tenant of Haggs Farm, from where he would maintain and build up his milk round, a round that now included deliveries to Eastwood.

When Lawrence first visited Haggs Farm he made little impression on Jessie as she baked bread and cakes with her mother. Her brothers took an instant dislike to this sickly looking boy with a book of poetry clasped in his thin hands. They sniggered that he’d probably be unable to lift a bale at harvest time, which brought a sharp reproof from their father, and a need to show good manners to the boy from their mother. They apologised, and Jessie made him a cup of tea and insisted he eat one of her cakes, which he did, dropping crumbs on the floor, much to the delight of one of the dogs.

Not long after that first visit Lawrence was taken ill with pneumonia, which laid him low for quite a while, injuring his voice, making it slightly higher pitched. Thereafter Lawrence was convinced it was that illness, when he was seventeen, that caused his life long ill health. The doctors didn’t agree, but Lawrence had little time for doctors.

Then, one morning, with his health improving Edmund Chambers picked David up from his Eastwood home, and took him back to Haggs Farm, as Harry T. Moore describes:

“ Lawrence was ‘frail and eager’, happy to be with them all again. The elder Chamberses welcomed him as if he were their own son, and even the boys’ gruffness towards him began to wear off.”

Soon after Lawrence’s mother sent him to stay with her sister in Skegness for a month. The young Lawrence loved it, and wrote to Jessie and the rest of the Chambers’ family extolling the beauty of the Lincolnshire resort, but he couldn’t wait to get back home, and see them all again.

He now made frequent visits to Haggs Farm, ostensibly to see the brothers who he now considered friends. But Jessie was showing more interest in him, and he in her.

There’s a passage in The White Peacock that hints at Lawrence’s first visit to Haggs Farm — amalgamated with later visits — when, in the novel, the narrator (Lawrence)is taken to the fictional version of Haggs Farm by one of the fictional brothers. It also brings into relief the position of women at the time, which was something both Jessie and David were to fight against in the years ahead, albeit in different way:

“ We went through the large scullery into the kitchen. The servant girl was just hurriedly snatching the table-cloth out of the table drawer, and his mother, a quaint little woman with big brown eyes, was hovering round the wide fire-place with a fork.

“ ‘Dinner not ready?’ said he with a shade of resentment.

“ ‘No, George,’ replied his mother apologetically, ‘ it isn’t. The fire wouldn’t burn a bit. You shall have it in a few minutes, though.’

“ He dropped on the sofa and began to read a novel. I wanted to go, but his mother insisted on my staying.

“ ‘ Don’t go,’ she pleaded. ‘ Emily [Jessie] will be so glad if you stay, and father will, I’m sure. Sit down now.’

The visit becomes something of a pleasant meal, albeit with a younger refusing to eat the beef, only wanting well done potatoes. It’s a wonderful piece of writing about a meal were our narrator can’t take his eyes off Emily, or she him. It’s wonderfully paced and quite funny in places, especially with the father who seems to lack control of his daughters. It’s of the moment (1911 remember), and is very mature for a very young writer who wouldn’t have been published at all if not for Jessie.

And it would be a shared love of books that brought David and Jessie together ever more closely. Lawrence began to show her his work, especially his poetry, which she praised and criticised, corrected and sent off to magazine editors without telling him. When a poem was accepted by Ford Maddox Hueffer (later Ford) for The English Review, and Jessie showed the letter to David he was over joyed. His mother was less so, and took the letter away; it was never seen again. Mrs Lawrence had suddenly realised she was no longer the only woman in her son’s life.

What of their relationship?

It’s clear to me, through Lawrence’s own writing, that he and Jessie did become lovers, but possibly only the once, as much through fear of pregnancy than anything else, although I’m sure Lawrence was, in his late teens, no great lover, and probably still a virgin. Also it is now thought that Lawrence had something of a homosexual dalliance with one of Jessie’s brothers during one harvest, where Lawrence proved he could man handle sheaves of corn, which soon turned into wrestling matches between the two men, which…? Whether true or not it could account for the deterioration of the relationship between David and Jessie, but not of the love they felt for each other — which became somewhat debilitating — and the ideal that Lawrence now sought, and promoted throughout all his work: that of a kind of universal love between people: that people should not be constrained by government, but be allowed to live in a society that cared one for the other, his so called ‘Rananim’, his utopia.

Sadly Lawrence didn’t treat Jessie too well: always asking for her advice, then ignoring it. It saddened both Jessie and her father, who had hoped his beloved daughter might marry her David. It was not to be. Lawrence was on a hunt for bigger game, and he found it. But at what a cost.

Jessie was rather disappointed with the way Lawrence portrayed her in Sons and Lovers, and felt rather saddened when Lawrence sent her £5 for all the help she’d given him in the novel’s preparation.

The White Peacock is a much better source about how Lawrence really felt about her and her family, about the love he felt for all of them. They re-appear, as the ideal family, throughout his fiction. A family he never had because he turned his back on the one person who could have given him that. But would we have had the D.H. Lawrence we either love or hate, and his work, which is full to overflowing with Jessie Chambers?

Jessie was, in her time, an important advocate of female suffrage, and the fuel for a new modern movement in English literature. She did marry, and wrote a rather good book about her relationship with Lawrence. She died in 1944.

Click on this Link to the Haggs Farm Preservation Society

Read: My Feature about D.H.Lawrence and his Life with Frieda in Cornwall and Italy

Read: D. H. Lawrence — London 1908

Steve Newman Writer

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Playwright, Historian & Freelance Writer Living and Working in Shakespeare’s Stratford

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