When Florence met Lawrence
Maureen Hymas examines an unlikely pair of gardening friends
Published in October ’16
Who would imagine that Lawrence of Arabia, after all the turmoil of the Arab Uprising, which marks its centenary this year, would form a strong friendship with the sedate Florence Hardy, eleven years his senior and wife of the famous Dorset novelist? Their friendship, largely conducted through correspondence, mainly dwelt on the care and nurture of flowering shrubs. Lawrence’s love of nature was revealed by his choice of Clouds Hill, his Dorset cottage retreat. But it was his avid appreciation of plants like rhododendrons, shared by Mrs Hardy, that fuelled the long-standing exchange of letters.
In 1916 the Arab Revolt, amidst the Great War, sparked off the career of adventurer/revolutionary, T E Lawrence. By the time he met the Hardys, he had been awarded the DSO, gained the title of Prince of Mecca and become the government’s adviser on Middle East affairs. However, disappointment at the treatment of the Arabs triggered his withdrawal from politics and in 1923, seeking peace and privacy, he enlisted in the Royal Tank Corps, based at Bovington Camp near his home at Clouds Hill: a decrepit former labourer’s cottage built in 1808.
Both Lawrence and Thomas Hardy – Lawrence through exploits recorded in his Seven Pillars of Wisdom and Hardy through his established literary fame – attracted fellow-writers and other assorted luminaries like magnets. In a letter to a military friend, A E Chambers, Lawrence wrote that he had been invited for a weekend visit at Dunmow, the home of ‘Wells, H.G.’ who he described as: ‘a novelist, nearly famous’. On Boxing Day of the same year he was visited by George Bernard Shaw and his wife. Another visitor to Clouds Hill was E M Forster, who helped Lawrence revise his Seven Pillars text in the seclusion of the cottage. As Forster observed: ‘To think of Clouds Hill as T.E. Lawrence’s home is to get the wrong idea of it….It was rather his pied-a-terre, the place where his feet touched the earth for a moment and found rest.’ It was during daytime hours in the cottage that Lawrence worked on Seven Pillars, as his duties required him to sleep at Bovington.
Despite having many friends from wartime and the worlds of society, literature and politics, it was to the Hardys that he seemed most drawn. During the 1920s and early 1930s there were many visits to Max Gate, the couple’s Dorchester home, for ‘tea on Sunday’ and discussions about the plants for the garden he had designed at Cloud’s Hill. He told Florence how he sat and played Beethoven and Mozart on his gramophone to while away the time and sometimes the ‘Tank Corps slaves’ joined him. He travelled to Max Gate on his infamous, custom-made Brough motor bike, one of several owned by him which could do 100 mph, and which he prophetically referred to as a ‘poor beast’.
There were many such visits by Lawrence and his colleagues from Bovington Camp. He wrote that they seemed ‘slender fare for a real novelist’ so in return invited Hardy and wife to call for tea and ‘a visit to Oakers Wood’. The visit proved a success. He admired Hardy’s novels, but it was to Florence Hardy that he seemed to open up in scores of letters during idle hours at Clouds Hill. The seemingly rather one-sided correspondence revealed his delight in turning a simple cottage garden into an oasis of colour after years spent on barren stretches of desert.
His letters, particularly during the early 1930s, must have been of considerable comfort to Florence, who had been widowed in 1928. She was nearly 40 years younger than Hardy and just eleven years older than Lawrence. According to Harold Orians (Biography of a Broken Hero), his most satisfactory friendships were with older people who did not press for intimacy. Many others traded on his name to meet contemporary writers and poets.
Lawrence, expressing his sadness in a letter of condolence written from Karachi, commented: ‘Thomas Hardy was infinitely bigger than the man who died three days back and you were one of the architects….’ In reply, she wrote: ‘He was devoted to you. I think he might have lived had you been here. You seem nearer to him, somehow, than anyone else; certainly more akin.’
In 1930, while developing his garden, Lawrence warned a neighbour, Sgt Knowles: ‘A moving forest of rhododendrons are arriving from Derby for planting around the cottage. I understand they are the latest Tibetan and Chinese trees of all sorts of shapes and colours.’ In 1933 he wrote to Florence describing his own gardening prowess and offered some advice on the nurture of rhododendrons. Apologising for being out when she called, he wrote: ‘Flowers do not yet come to much. Laurel has been wonderful this Spring, better than I have ever seen it and very scented, but you are too soon for the rhododendrons. Yours is quite picking up now, but it takes hundreds of plants to make a good show on a hillside, and for that we must wait for the [yellow-hued] Pontica to come out. They are full of bud but not yet showing colour’.
He later wrote: ‘”Philpotts Hardy”, the rhododendron, is in good flower at the moment, leading his hillside by a month or two towards the promise of colour. I hope you will be able to see him some day….’ This would indicate that the pair, apart from discussing specimens, also swapped plants and named some of their own propagated species.
It was plain that Lawrence preferred the more showy and exotic blooms to traditional garden plants. He goes on to say how his mother must have put in ‘dozens of daffodils and things and garden flowers near the house’. He thought them very out of place. However, the rabbits seemed to like them, and he offered the rest to neighbour Mrs Knowles. ‘Clouds Hill is no place for tame flowers’, he added.
A first edition of his translation of Homer’s Odyssey in 1932, published in New York, was given to Florence as a Christmas gift, which she liked. He planned to put the royalties towards improvements to Clouds Hill.
Two years later he told Mrs Hardy he planned to write fewer letters, adding: ‘Let’s hope we may be able to see each other more often instead.’ In reply, in April 1935, she sent him a then unpublished Hardy work entitled ‘An Indiscretion in the Life of an Heiress’. His response is not known as the following month he suffered his fatal motor cycle accident, aged 47, in a Dorset lane.
So ended a gentle friendship which surely proved a pleasant diversion to them both. This is evidenced by a photo of Lawrence’s bust on a wall in the Hardy home, and a lock of his hair in Dorset County Museum’s Thomas Hardy collection. Who knows how the friendship would have grown had it not been so tragically cut short?