At home with Byron and Bert

24th September 1999 at 01:00
Valerie Hall goes to Nottinghamshire to examine the contrasting domestic arrangements of Byron and D H Lawrence.

On the face of it, Nottinghamshire's most famous literary sons came from opposite ends of the social spectrum. Lord Byron was born into the nobility in 1788 and inherited the ancestral pile, Newstead Abbey, at 10 years old; D H Lawrence was a coalminer's son born in 1885.

But Byron was no stranger to straitened circumstances. He spent his formative years with his mother in a small rented flat in Aberdeen following the desertion of his father, Captain John "Mad Jack" Byron. Even after moving into Newstead at 21, he was forced to sell up a few years later to settle his debts.

Both writers had scandalous love affairs, spent years of voluntary exile overseas and died young (Byron aged 36 in Greece, Lawrence aged 44 in France).

Many traces of Byron's life remain at Newstead, originally a 13th-century Augustinian priory. With his limited funds he furnished a few rooms where he and his friends led a "mad, bad and dangerous to know" existence. They used the great hall for pistol practice, the spacious salon for boxing, fencing and battledore, and donned monkish habits to carouse from a real skull cup. Despite this irreverent behaviour, Byron's epic poem Don Juan reveals how much his surroundings influenced him: "Huge halls, long galleries, spacious chambers ... left a grand impression on the mind."

In his apartments are manuscripts, letters, first editions of his works, his wedding ring, pistols, boxing gloves, his bed from Cambridge undergraduate days, a screen he decorated with pin-ups of his favourite boxers and actors, and carved oak bookcases containing skulls. In the grounds is a monument to Boatswain, his beloved dog.

On my visit, Newstead is swarming with GCSE students from Brunts secondary school in Mansfield led by teacher Denzil Moran, who has collaborated with the Nottingham City Council education team on a site visit programme.

Some students are in the library researching Byron's life from objects and documents. Nicola Park, aged 15, has discovered that: "He died of a fever, liked boxing and kept a tame bear, a wolf, tortoises and a hedgehog."

Mr Moran comments: "There's a wide range of ability in this class, but we get good work out of them all this way and they ask more sophisticated questions. They are looking for Byron's ancestral home, but what they get is a Victorian country house".

This becomes apparent in the octagonal kitchen - not open to the public - where guide Beverley Macauley in Victorian servant guise explains to another group what life was like below stairs: "A typical day would start at 5.30am and end at 10pm. Sometimes servants were so exhausted they crawled upstairs to their attics and fell into bed without getting undressed. There were no carpets, heating or gas lighting in the servants' quarters - candles were used instead - and because they were expected to be "not seen and not heard" they used separate corridors between, say, the kitchen and the dining room."

She elicits answers to questions such as why the jars containing sugar and tea were numbered - servants couldn't read, but knew numbers from receiving wages - and gets them to do laundry using dolly pegs and tubs. Meanwhile, the housekeeper, Mrs Webb, is conducting another group upstairs.

D H Lawrence was always nostalgic for his home town of Eastwood, but his sentiments were not reciprocated: "E wor nowt b'r a mardy bugger, we kicked 'im outa Eastwood, and we kicked 'im outa England..." He had caused offence by criticising the area and caricaturing local people in novels such as his fictionalised autobiography Sons and Lovers and because of the Lady Chatterley controversy.

His life as "Bert", the sensitive Victorian boy who bettered himself through education, can be explored at the imposing Durban House, where he used to collect his father's wages. It became the D H Lawrence Heritage Centre in 1998, run by Broxtowe Borough Council, and is divided into interactive areas on, for example, the pit, the home, the school, the Lady Chatterley trial and transport.

An education pack costing pound;4.75 has been produced for early years and primary pupils to use in conjunction with a visit to the D H Lawrence Birthplace Museum, five minutes walk away. A secondary programme is planned. Topics include: everyday life in Victorian Britain, local history, places, jobs and journeys, fiction and poetry, design and technology, and numeracy.

In the blackened pit area, pupils use sheets from the pack to discover the life Lawrence escaped after he won a three-year scholarship to Nottingham High School aged 12. They lug sacks of coal, drag themselves through the coalcrawl and realise that workers did not stand upright all day. Activities include working out how long the lift took to travel down the mine shaft. In the school area, they take a lesson with Bert Lawrence and his classmates, find out whether "Knocker" Bradley truly was a "fierce boy tamer", and work out the meanings of dialect words such as "clat-fart" and "stinkpot". The kitchen section allows them to learn more about the drudgery faced by Victorian women like Mrs Lawrence.

The Birthplace Museum in Victoria Street is where sickly "Bert" spent his first two years. It overlooks rolling wooded hills, which have changed little except that the ugly mining scars he hated have healed: "I know that view better than any in the world. That's the country of my heart." (Nottingham and the Mining Countryside, 1930).

The recreated Victorian miner's home comprises a parlour, kitchen, two bedrooms and an attic room. Since his mother ran a haberdashery, the parlour window is laid out with lace caps, aprons and linen. Some of the original furniture including the novelist's initialled travelling trunk are displayed.

Newstead Abbey Park, Ravenshead, Nottingham NG158 GE. Tel: 01623 455900. History programme: 0115 915 3692. For groups of more than 10 children: house and garden pound;2 each, pound;1.50 garden only. House closes September 30 to April 1. D H Lawrence Heritage Centre, Durban House, Mansfield Road, Eastwood and DH Lawrence Birthplace Museum, 8A Victoria Street, Eastwood. Groups: both sites pound;1.50 per child. Tel: 01773 717353

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