A Madder Caress, Vita Sackville-West and Violet Trefusis
In 1918, writers Vita Sackville-West and Violet Trefusis ran away to Cornwall together to begin one of the most sizzling affairs in literary history.
Dear Sir Edward,
This is from my cottage and we have just been playing your 2nd Symphony. Three of us, a sailor, a Tank Corps soldier, and myself. So there are all three of the Services present: and we agreed that you must be written to and told (if you are well enough to be bothered) that this Symphony gets further under our skins than anything else in the record library at Clouds Hill. We have the Violin Concerto, too; so that says quite a lot. Generally we play the Symphony last of all, towards the middle of the night, because nothing comes off very well after it. One seems to stop there.
You would laugh at my cottage, which has one room upstairs (gramophone and records) and one room downstairs (books): but there is also a bath, and we sleep anywhere we feel inclined. So it suits me. A one-man house, I think.
The three of us assemble here nearly every week-end I can get to the cottage, and we wanted to say ‘thank you’ for the Symphony ever so long ago; but we were lazy, first: and then you were desperately ill, and even now we are afraid you are too ill, probably, to be thinking of anything except yourself: but we are hoping that you are really getting stronger and will soon be able to deal with people again.
There is a selfish side to our concern: we want your Symphony III: if it is wiser and wider and deeper than II we shall very sadly dethrone our present friend, and play it last of the evening. Until it comes, we shall always stand in doubt if the best has really yet happened.
Imagine yourself girt about by a mob of young pelicans, asking for III: and please be generous to us, again!
T.E. Lawrence was introduced to Elgar by his friends George Bernard Shaw and his wife Charlotte in 1932. Lawrence owned ten recordings of his works and although the Second Symphony was his favourite, it was Elgar’s Concerto in B Minor, Op. 61 (Elgar conducting the London Symphony Orchestra) that was on his turntable when Lawrence died and this is where it has stayed.
After completing the Second Symphony, Elgar wrote to his long time confidante Alice Stuart-Wortley, ‘I have written out my soul’. He was a man with a huge love for his country of England but like Lawrence, had always felt himself an outsider. He did not recover from the illness Lawrence mentions and died two months after this letter was sent.
Born in 1888, Thomas Edward Lawrence was an archaeologist, soldier, military officer, diplomat and writer. His heroism in the 1914-18 Arab campaigns won him the title of ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ and celebrity on a massive scale before he was thirty years of age.
This acclaim was due in part to the efforts of an American publicist, Lowell Thomas, whose travelogues about the campaigns in the Middle East, focusing on T.E. clothed head to foot in Arab dress, were played to packed cinema audiences around the world. Lawrence had cooperated with Thomas but found the ensuing fame embarrassing and intrusive. His relationship with fame was contradictory, summed up by a friend as his ‘genius for stepping backward into the limelight.’ Wanting to put the genie back in the bottle, he turned down various honours after the war and opted to enlist in the RAF, using the pseudonym of Ross. Later he served as Private Thomas Edward Shaw in the Tank Corps at Bovington, Dorset.
In 1923 Lawrence leased a derelict cottage near the Tank Corps where he was based. Isolated and austere, it stands in a dell on the edge of Hardy’s Egdon Heath (The Return of the Native), near Wool.
T.E., as he preferred to be called, wanted a haven from army life and a quiet place in which to revise The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, his extraordinary account of the Arab Revolt. He wrote to a friend:
I’ve taken a little cottage (half ruinous) a mile from camp and water-tighted it to act as a work-room for myself. There I hope in future to do my writing, which is becoming more and more a habit.
Lawrence grew to love the cottage so much that he poured all his money into rebuilding it, even selling his golden Arabian dagger to obtain more funds. He crafted a bolthole that was earthy, homely and had in his words, ‘all of the luxuries, none of the essentials’. In a letter to T.W. Beaumont, who served with him in 1918, he wrote:
No. Clouds Hill wouldn’t look right with a valet! It is a cottage in the middle of a great heath, of bracken and heather. Two rooms, no bed and no kitchen and no drinks but a spring in the garden, and a feeling of utter peace.
A hand carved lintel above the entrance reads ‘no worries’ in Greek. There was hot running water for the bath, but no lavatory; visitors were invited to take a spade into the woods. Upstairs was a music room with gramophone and record collection, while downstairs was a library and fireplace. There were neither drains nor electricity.
In 1925 when T.E. rejoined the RAF cadet college at Cranwell in Lincolnshire, his brother Arnold and his wife stayed at Clouds Hill for a while and T.E. wrote to his mother: ‘Arnie & his wife are in Clouds Hill. They do not seem to me to understand the rarity & beauty of the place. They eat in it! In my day there was no cooking allowed. However, they seem quiet & happy.’
It was important to him that Clouds Hill should be unfussy and not too pretty: just as quickly as his mother planted flowers by the front door, he would pull them out. But he wrote to Mrs Shaw: ‘The cottage is nearly closed in with mountains of rhododendron bloom, of the screaming blue-pink which I used to dislike: now they are my plants. I love them.’
Clouds Hill provided him with much needed solitude and a place for company whenever he felt in the mood. His library of books from floor to ceiling provided insulation, and other walls were lined with thick silver foil. Eventually he did have a bed, and a chair in which to do his writing by the fire. He asked the local blacksmith to craft candle holders, and a local potter to throw mugs, both to his own design. He was still putting finishing touches to it in the weeks before he died.
Along with regular friends from the Tank Corps, guests at Clouds Hill included George Bernard Shaw, Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves and the artist Augustus John.
‘What was Clouds Hill?’ T.E. wrote to Mrs Shaw after a convivial evening of conversation and music in 1924: ‘A sort of mixed grill, I fancy: but very good. Everybody is beginning to fall in love with it. The air of it is peaceful: and the fire burns so well.’
One of Lawrence’s best friends, E.M. Forster, recalled several visits to Clouds Hill where people would gather around the log fire and talk, listen to Beethoven’s symphonies on the ‘windy gramophone’; drink water or tea only, never alcohol, and if hungry, ‘you opened a tin and drifted about with it’.
I don’t know whether I’m at all conveying in these trivial remarks the atmosphere of the place–the happy casualness of it, and the feeling that no one particularly owned it. T.E. had the power of distributing the sense of possession among all the friends who came there. When Thomas Hardy turned up, for instance, as he did one sunny afternoon, he seemed to come on a visit to us all, and not specially to see his host. Thomas Hardy and Mrs. Hardy came up the narrow stairway into the little brown room and there they were–the guests of us all.
To think of Clouds Hill as T.E.’s home is to get the wrong idea of it. It wasn’t his home, it was rather his pied-a-terre, the place where his feet touched the earth for a moment, and found rest.
The Listener, September 1st, 1938.
A slight man, short in stature, T.E. had terrific presence. He mesmerised, influenced and captivated people. Forster considered Seven Pillars a masterpiece and acknowledged its influence on the last few chapters of his novel A Passage to India. Winston Churchill sounded as breathless as a schoolgirl on first meeting him in Paris and he trusted T.E.’s positions on the Middle East almost to a fault. T.E. made several unannounced visits to Chartwell, and Churchill’s daughter remembers there would ‘pin-drop silence’ when he spoke – even from her father. Churchill said of Seven Pillars, ‘As a narrative of war and adventure it is unsurpassable.’
Yet many struggled to find words to describe him. As his brother Arnold told his friend Jim Ede, ‘I think you are not alone in finding it difficult to isolate the essential TE from the mind he merged in your own. I mean he tended to call things out of people, rather than give them himself when he talked, and the result is that many think of him as rather like themselves, but more so.’
Lawrence was the illegitimate son of a baronet, Sir Thomas Chapman and Sarah Junner. Unhappily married, Sir Thomas had left his family in Ireland with his children’s governess, Sarah, whom he hoped to marry. But his wife refused him a divorce on religious grounds so not only had the couple transgressed class barriers but they were forced to live in sin, a shameful state of affairs in Victorian Britain. As deeply committed Christians, this caused them profound and enduring guilt. They changed their name to ‘Lawrence’ and pretended to be married; T.E. only discovered his illegitimacy at the age of 31 when his father died.
After eleven years of drifting around Britain and France, the family finally settled in suburban Oxford. T.E. was the second born of their five sons.
The boys grew up in a repressive atmosphere, conscious of taboos and secrets; Sarah was ridden by anxiety and a fierce desire to maintain appearances. Three times every Sunday the family would attend an Evangelical church. She was a domineering mother who set extremely high standards for her children and if they fell short, she would whip their bare buttocks. Her aspirations for T.E. were such that he had to be punished more than the others; he was the ‘contrary’ and ‘stubborn’ one, with whom she had a lifetime battle of iron wills.
T.E.’s younger brother Arnold confided to T.E.’s friend and first biographer, Robert Graves, ‘the strongest impression I have is that his life has been injured by his mother’. He also said, ‘a childhood like his would create an imbalance in anyone’s mind.’ Arnold felt the damage done by their mother had a worse effect on T.E. than the horrific treatment meted out to him by the Turks during the war. In A Touch of Genius, Malcolm Brown says that in Arnold’s view, their mother sought to redeem herself from her sins vicariously through her children. ‘To this end she tried to steer them towards a lifelong commitment to God and Christianity, an aspiration which was realised in Bob’s case but certainly not in that of Arnold or T.E.’
Writing about his mother to Charlotte Shaw, T.E. said ‘I always felt she was laying siege to me, and would conquer, if I left a chink unguarded.’
In adolescence he is said to have developed a freezing response to his mother’s beatings and also at the prospect of physical pain, a defensive response common to trauma sufferers. To read more about this, see Maarten Schild’s article.
It is perhaps unsurprising then that T.E. became a ferociously independent adult, almost pathologically averse to the attempts of others to control him, yet cripplingly shy, with a boyish fear of being noticed. As he grew older, he set about building his confidence and self-control through sheer efforts of will, inflicting on himself punishing routines involving feats of physical and mental endurance, and food and sleep deprivation.
T.E. described his schooldays as miserable, but at Oxford University he revelled in a new found freedom.
For several years T.E. was an archaeologist in the Middle East at a dig in Carchemish funded by the British Museum. When war broke out, he worked in military intelligence for two years in Cairo before being seconded to help the Arab Revolt, an uprising against the Turks. He became the principal liaison officer between Prince Faisal and General Sir Edmund Allenby, who was in charge of British forces in Egypt and Palestine. He worked with Arab rebel allies, methodically attacking bridges, blowing up trains, and destroying the Turkish line of supply linking its garrisons in the Middle East to its Turkish heartland. In the process, T.E. found himself the champion of a downtrodden people, siding with the Arab cause.
In November 1917, while conducting a reconnaissance mission to the town of Deraa, he was briefly captured by the Turks and tortured and raped. He wrote of this experience in a letter to Charlotte Shaw.
You instance my night in Deraa. Well, I’m always afraid of being hurt: And to me, while I live, the force of that night will lie in the agony which broke me, and made me surrender… For fear of being hurt, or rather to earn five minutes respite from a pain which drove me mad, I gave away the only possession we are born into the world with – our bodily integrity.
He wrote further that the offence would ‘hang about me while I live’ and made him feel unclean (he became obsessed with baths and cleanliness). In its immediate aftermath, this experience seemed to unhinge him. After escaping back to rebel lines, T.E. became hard, even merciless, ordering his men to take no prisoners and undertaking near-suicidal risks. At one point he ordered an attack on a Turkish troop train despite having so few weapons that his men had to resort to throwing rocks at the enemy.
After the war he suffered from nightmares and intermittent depression and many Lawrence scholars have suggested that he suffered from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder),
When he leased Clouds Hill, T.E. had already completed his masterpiece, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, his account of the Arab Revolt. This accomplishment satisfied his earliest ambition, to become a writer and produce a classic. The books he especially admired were what he called ‘titanic’: Nietzche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, Melville’s Moby Dick, Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. He hoped to produce a work that would come fourth on this list. The war that had nearly broken him had also delivered the raw material to fashion such an epic. He wrote in the keynote statement of the book:
I had had one craving all my life – for the power of self-expression in some imaginative form – but had been too diffuse ever to acquire a technique. At last accident, with perverted humour, in casting me as a man of action had given me a place in the Arab Revolt, a theme ready and epic to a direct eye and hand, thus offering me an outlet in literature, the technique-less art.
In the peace of Clouds Hill, he set about revising the work for a private subscriber’s edition. The Seven Pillars of Wisdom has since been translated into over a dozen languages and has never gone out of print. T.E. also wrote his observations of life in the RAF, published as The Mint in 1927, and in 1932 he produced a translation of Homer’s Odyssey. Publication of this translation earned him sufficient money to buy his beloved cottage outright.
Clouds Hill represented a safe haven for T.E. after his traumatic episodes at war. Here he could craft a new life of seclusion, work and pleasure. As he explained in a letter to George Bernard Shaw in 1922: ‘You see the war was, for us who were in it, an overwrought time, in which we lost our normal footing’.
At Clouds Hill he went a long way to restoring that footing. He also created the type of democratic haven E.M. Foster describes, bringing writers, artists and tank corpsmen together. They came and went as they pleased, encouraged to feel shared ownership of the place and its possessions. It was a world away from his mother’s rule-bound, class conscious respectability and her suffocating expectations. As he wrote in a letter to a friend: ‘it should be a safe feeling, to have a house to live in, without a rule’.
After retiring from the Air Force in February 1935 Lawrence moved to Clouds Hill permanently. At last he could have his days and nights completely free to get on with his life, spend time with friends and use his mind and body in equal balance. But the adjustment was not always easy; in May 1935 he wrote to Sir William Rothenstein, the painter: ‘I just sit here in this cottage and wonder about nothing in general. Comfort is a very poor state after busyness.’
He was nevertheless writing every day and set about completing a glass-covered swimming bath amid the rhododendrons. His last addition to the cottage was the installation of a ship’s porthole above a cabin-style bunk bed on the upper floor.
Barely three months after he retired, on 13th May 1935, he was returning from the post office to Clouds Hill after sending a telegram to a friend. He swerved to avoid some errand boys on bikes and came off his motorbike, sustaining critical head injuries.
Lawrence was taken to the Bovington military hospital where press reporters waited for news. A decision was made to withhold information about his condition but ironically this only intensified nationwide interest, and the circulation of wildly speculative articles. Soon, everyone in England came to know of the little cottage at Clouds Hill. Some suggested that Lawrence was not in hospital at all but had slipped out of England on a secret mission. There was talk of sinister agents who tried to kill him because he was an embarrassment to the government; mysterious fires in the woods near the house; attempted suicide. It was implied that Britain would be in deep peril if Lawrence were to die.
Just after eight o’clock on 19th May 1935, T.E. Lawrence drew his last breath without regaining consciousness. He was forty-six years of age.
After meeting T.E. for the first time over lunch at their cottage in north-west Devon, the novelist Henry Williamson (Tarka the Otter) and his wife Loetitia struggled to describe him. Williamson asked Loetitia:
‘Did you like him?’ ‘Very much.’ ‘Would you say he was charming?’ ‘Charming? No, that’s not the word. Gracious? No, that’s not the word either. I can’t explain what I feel.’ Nor could I. He was laughter, pure, sweet laughter.
In an elegy he wrote after the death of his friend, Williamson recalled that T.E. had confided in him:
I am a chameleon. Every child is a chameleon, in that sense, taking colour from its surroundings, absorbing ideas, sayings, attitudes, from its elders. So are all young mammals, birds, and even fish. Only those who have not needed to strive to maintain their life or integrity remain static.
This capacity of T.E.’s to almost disappear, and mirror the personality of whoever he was with, meant that he frequently contradicted himself. And his elusiveness only increased the type of public attention and speculation he desperately sought to avoid.
The telegram T.E. sent on the day of his fatal accident was to Williamson. It read:
Lunch Tuesday wet fine cottage one mile north Bovington Camp SHAW.
Photographs of Clouds Hill have been taken with the kind permission of the National Trust.
I arrived at Clouds Hill in Dorset on a dawn ramble. I’d been unable to catch a glimpse of the cottage from the entrance and was just about to leave when an enormous motorhome bowled up containing two sleepy ladies in pyjamas and a bewildered little dog. Apparently, there was a problem at the cottage and, slinging a national trust badge around her neck, one of the women rushed in to fix it. She kindly let me walk inside a little way to take some photographs of the surrounds, and the front of the cottage in the early morning light. So there we have it – our first exclusive for Return of a Native!
Later I returned for a formal visit. I found it almost unbearably moving. The cottage is womb-like and dark, spare and aesthetic. It is much as T.E. left it and would have offered the perfect comfort for this enigmatic, shining man.
The National Trust Website with details about Clouds Hill including access and opening times: https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/clouds-hill
The trailer for David Lean’s 1962 epic drama Lawrence of Arabia which is based on Seven Pillars of Wisdom and stars Peter O’Toole. The story of the allied campaign in the Middle East as seen through T.E.’s eyes is considered one of the most influential films in the history of cinema and won seven of the ten Oscars for which it was nominated, including Best Picture.
Elgar’s Concerto in B Minor, Op. 61 was the recording on T.E. Lawrence’s gramophone at Clouds Hill when he died. It features the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Edward Elgar.
Seven Pillars of Wisdom can be read online.
A seven-part BBC documentary about T.E.’s role in the Arab Revolt.
The head injuries Lawrence suffered led to pioneering research that highlighted the need for motorbike riders to wear crash helmets.
The Visit Dorset website.
Brown, Malcolm and Cave, Julia. A Touch of Genius, J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd, 1988
James, Lawrence. The Golden Warrior, Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Lawrence, T.E. Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Doubleday 1991
Lawrence, T.E. The Letters of T.E. Lawrence, Ed. Malcolm Brown, J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd, 1988
TE Lawrence Before and After Arabia, ‘Did TE Lawrence Have a Happy or a Miserable Childhood?’ Maarten Schild, 27 March, 2011
T.E. Lawrence Studies, ‘T.E. Lawrence at Clouds Hill’, Jeremy Wilson, 2008
Williamson, Henry. Genius of Friendship: T.E. Lawrence. Faber and Faber