Jessie Chambers was the second daughter of the smallholder of Haggs Farm where the teenage D H Lawrence became a welcome visitor because of his “exuberance, his gaiety, his powers of mimicry, his resourcefulness….his readiness to help” causing even Mr Chambers to exclaim “Work goes like fun when Bert’s here: it’s no trouble to keep them going”.
Jessie and Lawrence became close friends, paying weekly visits to the library where they took out more books than were strictly allowed, read and discussed them earnestly. For about a decade, Jessie was the sounding board for Lawrence’s musing over, say, the obligation to use one’s talents to do good, the nature of love, or his need to be free to travel abroad, without a fixed home which was a foretelling of the course his life would take.
Sadly, this intellectual closeness aroused the jealousy of his over possessive mother, who forced them to consider the emotional aspect of their relationship. With the callousness he was to show so often in the future, Lawrence told Jessie, “I’ve looked into my heart and I cannot find that I love you as a husband should love his wife”. Yet since he could not bear to give up her company, he suggested they could marry if she wanted, but he would need to seek physical fulfilment elsewhere, or if he managed to find a woman to satifsy him physically, he and Jessie could continue a clandestine intellectual relationship. Clearly this marred their friendship, obliging Jessie to conceal the love she felt for him, until his elopement with the married mother-of-three Frieda Weekley put an end to any further relationship.
In the meantime, her distress did not prevent Jessie from copying out some of Lawrence’s poems and sending them to a publisher, when he was all for giving up the attempt to get his work accepted after several rejections. Years later, he wrote to thank “the girl (who) had launched me, so easily on my literary career, like a princess cutting a thread, launching a ship”.
Jessie was also among the first victims of his habit of including people he knew in his books without any attempt to disguise them, although in making Jessie his model for Miriam in “Sons and Lovers”, what really upset her were the distortions in the portrayal of her relationship with Lawrence. This was despite his assertion “It isn’t meant for the truth. It’s an adaptation from life, as all art must be”.
This memoir was written after Lawrence’s early death from tuberculosis in 1930. Written with great clarity, this impresses the reader as utterly authentic, insightful and moving. Along with her inner suffering over his overt insensitive agonising, she notes his love of nature, acute powers of observation, and gift for putting sensations into words.
The memoir is also a vivid evocation of life in the early C20 in the rural and mining communities of Nottinghamshire. In a world devoid of television and social media, Jessie’s father read magazine instalments of Tess of the D’Urbervilles aloud to his enthralled wife, and the family acted out Macbeth under Lawrence’s direction, “half-amused, half-vexed” when Mr. Chambers , horrified by what he had to say as McDuff, was driven to exclaim, “Oh dear, oh dear! How awful!” Yet ironically, in the awful social class divide, Lawrence’s first publisher Hueffer was uncertain how to talk to working men, clearly unaware that they could be sensitive and self-educated.
Even the comments included in inverted commas in the memoir could be precisely what was said, because Jessie first began writing an account of her friendship with Lawrence under the title “The Rathe Primrose” as early as 1911. After her final break with Lawrence in 1913, she destroyed this manuscript, and it is interesting to speculate whether she was the victim of the sexism of the day when a publisher rejected it earlier as “unlikely to be a commercial success”.