DH Lawrence was a master of dialect. His plays, novels and poetry captured the rawness of mining communities with such precision, it frightened the life out of middle class Edwardian critics. As part of a BBC Radio 4 series Tongue and Talk: Dialect Poets, I’ll be visiting Lawrence’s childhood home Breach House, and exploring ‘pit talk’ and the Nottingham accent with various poets and musicians.
Like DH Lawrence, I grew up in a mining village. Whereas he was born north east of Nottingham in Eastwood, I was raised in Cotgrave, five miles south east of the city centre. Cotgrave derives from an Old English personal name, Cotta, + grāf, (grove or copse). So over time we went from ‘Cotta’s grove’ to the more sinister Cotgrave. Our respective divides across the city also influence the way we speak and use dialect, even though we might be referring to the same word. This is best illustrated by the commonly used word ‘mardy’. I pronounce this ‘mardeh’ using what Al Needham calls the south Notts ‘eh’ or ‘ah’. Living on the Derbyshire border, Lawrence would have experienced the trimming off of syllables, shortening it to mard as in ‘Eh, tha’rt a mard-arsed kid’ a famous line from his poem The Collier’s Wife.
Mardy is a brilliant word. It means sulky, as in a badly behaved child, and is used throughout the East Midlands as well as parts of Sheffield and Yorkshire. However, it can also mean non cooperative, bad tempered or terse in communication, attributes we can definitely associate with DH Lawrence. In 2017 Toby Campion selected it as his word for Leicester as part of the Free the Word campaign.
Lawrence came from a family of coal miners. His father, Arthur, worked as a butty. The butty was popular during the early part of the nineteenth century when the coal miners were not directly employed by the owners. The butty acted as a contractor, putting together a team to mine coal at an agreed price per ton. I had a slightly different experience growing up. My mother was a typist and my stepfather was a manager of a company in Mansfield. But in the eyes of the locals, anyone who didn’t work down the pit was a ‘posho’. Therefore we were fair game for the occasional kicking. These were rough times, particularly during the Strike of 84. Like Lawrence, I couldn’t wait to escape.
Lawrence would vividly capture life growing up in a mining community in novels such as Sons and Lovers, his Eastwood trilogy of plays, and dialect poetry such as The Collier’s Wife. I’ve done this through a BBC Radio 4 series called Tongue and Talk: The Dialect Poets. In episode 2, broadcast on Sunday 20 May at 4.30pm, I’ll be exploring the Notts dialect and the ‘pit talk’ of mining communities.
One of the guests on the programme is David Amos, an eight generation miner and fellow member of the DH Lawrence Society. David has been working as a research assistant with Natalie Braber at Nottingham Trent University on mining heritage projects. He invited me to attend a rehearsal for Songs and Rhymes from the Mines as part of the Nottingham Poetry Festival. Bill Kerry III told me he had discovered that his grandfather had worked down Ormonde Colliery at the same time as Owen Watson, author of Strong I’th’ Arm – The Rhymes of a Marlpool Miner (1975) and so he’s turning his poems into folk songs to make them accessible to new generations. Meanwhile Al Rate (who also uses the pseudonym Misk Hills) has penned some new songs inspired by pit talk, introducing new generations to words such as ‘powder monkey’. This was the poor bogger who had to set off the explosives down the mine. Such songs are a reminder of how dangerous life was down the pit, something beautifully captured in Lawrence’s poem The Collier’s Wife. In this, a miner has had yet another accident down the pit:
It’s a shame as ‘e should be knocked about
Like this, I’m sure it is!
‘E’s ‘ad twenty accidents, if ‘e’s ‘ad one;
Owt bad, an’ it’s his!
The wife in the poem has seen and heard it all before and is more bothered about the compensation as food still needs to be put on the plate. You can hear David Amos read the entire poem is one go during our show. I only managed the first verse.
When Lawrence used dialect in his early plays about life in a mining community they were dismissed as a ‘sordid picture of lower class life’ with middle class Edwardian critics unimpressed with ‘its lack of verbal beauty’. Lawrence was a master of dialect, using multiple variations of speech patterns that drew influences from the Erewash Valley, Derbyshire and Notts. By using dialect, Lawrence enabled the reader to understand a collier’s particular social class, their education, and their intelligence. The way his characters spoke represented the history of the community, even down to what street they lived on.
Lawrence’s family moved many times across Eastwood, upscaling each time. So during the programme we visit ‘Breach House’ where the family of seven lived between 1887 until 1891. To enter Breach House is to step back in time to Edwardian Britain. Moleskin trousers hang up above the fireplace, the snap tin is on the table, and the Bible and piano take pride of place in the ‘best’ room. Of course it would have been nice to record the show in Durban House, where a young Lawrence and other miner’s sons would go and collect their father’s wages, but this was sold off by Broxtowe Council and has now been converted into a spa – which I guess is more preferable than a Spar.
Breach House was the inspiration for The Bottoms in Sons and Lovers, my favourite Lawrence novel. It opens with this wonderful description:
‘To accommodate the regiments of miners, Carston, Waite and Co. built the Squares, great quadrangles of dwellings on the hillside of Bestwood, and then, in the brook valley, on the site of Hell Row, they erected the Bottoms. The Bottoms consisted of six blocks of miners’ dwellings, two rows of three, like the dots on a blank-six domino, and twelve houses in a block.”
The novel also helped solve another mysterious word from my childhood: blue. But if you want to know what this means then either read Sons and Lovers or tune into Talk and Tongue on the iPlayer. Let us know what you think on Twitter using the hashtag #TalkandTongue. The programme was a Made in Manchester production.
In the DH Lawrence Memory Theatre we want to address various aspects of Lawrence’s life through artefacts. How do we represent his childhood growing up in Eastwood? What role does coal have to play in his writing? How can we incorporate dialect into our memory theatre? In 2019 we will be building our Memory Theatre and retracing Lawrence’s savage pilgrimage both physically and digitally. If you have an idea for an artefact, get involved. Submit ideas here.
When DH Lawrence attended Nottingham High School he would most likely have taken a detour from Waverley Street and headed through the arboretum. The arboretum was the first designated public park in Nottingham selected under the authority of the Enclosure Act 1845. It was opened on 11 May 1852 at a cost of £6,554 7s. 10d. At the bottom of the arboretum is a bust of the philanthropist Samuel Morley (15 October 1809 – 5 September 1886) by Joseph Else. In this guest blog, Ali Emm gives us a potted history of this much loved philanthropist and political radical.
The youngest son of Sneinton-born John Morley, Samuel was born and raised in London where his father had moved to expand his hosiery business, I & R Morley, co-founded with his brothers at the end of the eighteenth century. If you wanted a proper pair of stockings, theirs were what you splashed out on.
John Morley was no stranger to good deeds, himself having been Mayor of Nottingham and a Luddite sympathiser – even though his factories came under attack – as well as being involved in setting up the Mechanics Institute, a place where artisans and mechanics could go to learn, improve their skills and socialise. So it’s no surprise that he raised Samuel and his five siblings to think for themselves from the get-go, telling them, “I will tell you why I am a Nonconformist and why I am a Liberal, and, if you think I am right, you can be as I am and do as I do, but you are perfectly free to form your own conclusions.”
Samuel was educated until he was sixteen and was considered a methodical student; something that stood him in good stead for when he began working in his father’s business in 1825. His first job at Morley’s was in the counting house, and he stayed there for seven years to learn the business. With factories established across the Midlands and in London, it wasn’t until Samuel left the counting house that Morley’s branched out into flannel under his management. As brave a move as this was – and however much we all love a bit of flannel these days – it wasn’t too successful and he quickly realised that his strength was in numbers, so he returned to the counting house.
Samuel and his brother John took over from their father in 1840, working together until John’s retirement in 1855. It was in 1860, when Samuel’s uncle passed away, that he became the head of the Nottingham business as well. He visited to determine how the business should be handled and employed Thomas Hill as manager. Morley didn’t interfere with the management of the Nottingham businesses, even making Hill a partner in 1870, but made sure he was kept up to date with the welfare of employees, their state of health and all that stuff business owners don’t usually seem to give much of a damn about.
In fact, Morley’s factories in the area were considered the best in the North Midlands: clean, light, well ventilated. He also paid top price for labour and introduced pensions. This might not seem much of a big deal, but his pension scheme was introduced forty years before the Old Age Pension Act was brought in. A nice little anecdote about Morley was when he gave a gift of £5 to a workman. The worker was asked how he reacted, to which he said, “What did I say? I could do nowt but roar.”
Under the Morley/Hill partnership, the Nottingham business was expanded to include a factory on Manvers Street; on the corner of Newark Street. Their choice of location was influenced by Sneinton’s long-established hosiery-making trade, meaning there was a skilled workforce available. They had a bit of bad luck though, with two serious fires in the factory’s early years, the second of which was the costliest blaze in Nottingham’s history at the time. The factory was eventually rebuilt, and went on to employ 500 workers. There was another Morley factory in Daybrook – now, unsurprisingly, a block of flats – and in 1879 the Alfred Street factory, which once created work to a further 350 people, is home to Backlit, an independent gallery and studio space for artists.
Although kind and concerned with the wellbeing of his workers, Morley was a stickler who couldn’t tolerate bad work or laziness, and he loathed waste. He also considered drinking to be an unmitigated evil and regularly spoke up about temperance and total abstinence, especially to working men. Challenged once by a labouring man who interrupted Morley’s speech on abstaining, he was asked, “Do you go without yourself? I dare say, if the truth’s known, you take your glass of wine or two after dinner and think no harm of it. Now, sir, do you go without yourself?”
Of course, Morley did like to have a couple of glasses with his dinner. “This rather shut me up for an instant,” Morley said when recounting the story, “but when I looked round at those poor fellows whom I had been asking to give up what they regarded – no matter how erroneously – as their only luxury, I had my answer ready pretty quickly. ‘No’, I said, ‘but I will go without from this hour.’” True to his word, he didn’t touch another drop, with the exception of a couple of ‘medicinal’ drinks during a period of illness on the insistence of his physician.
A dedicated father, Samuel wrote to his eight children regularly when he or they were away from the family home. He kept all correspondence from them, and these letters show an openness in their relationships in that they freely discussed their successes and failures with him. He encouraged his children in all their hobbies – even though he was not partial to any sports or pastimes himself, preferring to work, lobby and help the church – but he drew the line at dancing, which he objected to greatly.
To say that he wouldn’t compromise on his morals would be an understatement. Morley was no wallflower, especially where reform was concerned. In late 1854, the Crimean War was in full swing and, partly as a response to this, the Administrative Reform Association was formed with Samuel Morley as president. A pressure group – of which Charles Dickens was another notable member – aimed to expose abuses of the departments of state, and Morley believed that the necessity for this reform existed long before the war and would exist long after its conclusion.
An abolitionist, Morley helped to free an escaped American slave, Josiah Henson. Henson went on to document his life in Uncle Tom’s Story of His Life: an Autobiography of the Rev. Josiah Henson. This later inspired the classic anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. When asked to join the anti-slavery movement that was part of the American Civil War, he declined stating, “… while the South disgusts me with its shameless advocacy of its ‘peculiar institution’ as the ‘corner-stone’ of its government, I cannot sympathise with the North, for it is, I fear, abolitionist in proxy – only through force of circumstance – and not from the conviction of the inherent immorality in slavery, or humane consideration for the welfare of the slaves.” So no half measures from him then. On the more positive side of things, it wasn’t long after this request that he consented to stand for the town of his ancestors, Nottingham, in 1865.
He was one of two Liberal candidates in the running against the Conservative Sir Robert Clifton. Never one to be associated with anything boring, the election fight was said to be “the most sharp and bitter of any throughout the country.” As is often our way, the borough was once notorious for its lawlessness, and it was during the elections that this old spirit came to the fore in support of Clifton; riots broke out and the mob ruled.
On one occasion, the magistrate sat in the Exchange Buildings with the entire body of the borough police gathered round for protection, and a reserve set up in another building, while the crowd wielded stones, bludgeons and faggots; bundles of steel to you and me. This crowd then moved on to the hotel where Morley was staying and pelted him with stones, forcing him to remain hidden until they’d passed. These rather unsavoury sorts were the notorious Nottingham Lambs, a right bunch of ruffians who’d do pretty much anything for the price of a couple of pints. Rabble rousing and rioting aside, Morley just swung it with 2,393 votes over Clifton’s 2,352.
Sworn in, his early impressions of parliament weren’t that great, but he hung on to the hope that he could do some good. Morley was unseated by petition after his peers voted him out of parliament in April 1866. A bit of a blow, he questioned if he’d been sufficiently suspicious of friends, but took solace in the fact that he’d maintained integrity. He stated, in regard to the election, that “he never said a word he wished unsaid, or did a deed he wished undone.”
The Bristol branch of the Liberal party still believed in him and made it clear that they still wanted Morley in their corner, so when a seat became available, they approached him. In a case of ‘you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone’, when the Nottingham branch heard, they grovelled a bit to try and get him back.
He was defeated in Bristol and the hopes of electors at Nottingham were revived, asking Morley again to represent Nottingham. However, it seemed that the opponent in Bristol had been up to no good, Morley accusing him of “gross and illegal acts”, and in June 1868 his opponent was unseated. Morley – probably really politely and not with a two finger salute – declined to return to Nottingham and stood as Bristol’s representative for seventeen years.
A long-time fan of Gladstone, you’d think he would have been pretty chuffed to be offered a peerage by him. But when Gladstone wrote to him with the offer in 1885, Morley turned it down because he didn’t want to appear to have gained personal advantage from his selfless acts. If only all politicians thought that way, eh? With regards to wealth, Morley also saw this as a means to an end, giving it value based only on its use for noble purposes. He felt that it laid upon him the most binding obligations, and that he was accountable not only for the right use of it, but the best use possible. What a guy.
He received hundreds of letters annually asking him for his help. Allegedly he read each one, and at the top left-hand corner of each is a note in his hand, brief but functional: yes, no, litho (letter of refusal to be sent), inquire further, impossible, sorry, unable, acknowledge, don’t know, apologies for delay, or amounts to be sent in appeals for money. Solely chucking money at things wasn’t what he was about, though. If he gave to societies, he personally acquainted himself with their work, would visit the churches he gave assistance to, and took pains to make sure that the beneficiaries of his help were the right ones, offering his knowledge in tandem with any donations.
One of the reforms that Morley believed in most was the introduction of a National Education scheme. England was behind most ‘great’ countries when it came to educating the lower classes. More than two thirds of children were left without ‘instruction’ and Morley spent 25 years trying to convince the government to change this so that every child received a good education. More locally, in 1881, the University College, Central Library and Natural History Museum on Sherwood Street and Shakespeare Street were opened.
The library, however, was a no-child zone and was only open to those aged fifteen and over, but Morley believed that young ‘uns should have access to libraries. He proposed to the mayor, “Everywhere in our towns the working classes are deluged and poisoned with cheap, noxious fiction of the most objectionable kind, I should be thankful to do something to counteract this mischievous influence, and if young people are to have fictitious literature, and I see no reason why they should not, to do something to ensure that all events, it shall be as pure and wholesome as we can provide for them. I gladly offer £500 as a commencement of a library for children…”
Nottingham Corporation didn’t hang around, and in 1883 a separate library for children was opened about 100 yards from the main library. It was the first of its kind, and although it’s not been used for this purpose for over eighty years now, the building’s still there today.
Later in life, he relaxed a little bit and conceded that entertainment and amusements were, in moderation, no bad thing. He became involved with the ‘Old Vic’ – the Victoria Temperance Music Hall – a theatre that had been reopened by another philanthropist, Emma Cons. Once known for being a place to get sloshed and see a bit of action, Emma Cons reopened it to provide moral and affordable entertainment, a place for temperance meetings and ‘penny lectures’ by eminent scientists.
These lectures helped pioneer adult education, and not just for the wealthy. Morley, satisfied that they were above board and not a den of iniquity, offered them his financial and personal skills. The popularity of the penny lectures led to the opening in 1889 of the Morley Memorial College for Working Men and Women. The college is still going today and maintains a lot of the original ethos it was built on.
Morley passed away in 1886, leaving an estate of £474,000. As you’d imagine, he made sure that this was all distributed and dealt with properly. He left instructions to the executors that they were under moral obligation to fulfil all the promises he had made in life. The money went to all the causes he had supported, plus he also left some legacies to long-serving workers in his firm.
After the publication of this blog we received an email from Carol Mills who believes there may be a more tangible link between Lawrence and Morley. Carol wrote: “The connection is mentioned in May Holbrook’s (nee Chambers) letter to her brother David, dated 28 November 1949, which is held in the Manuscripts & Special Collections at Nottingham University ref. LaCh56. In it she states that from the age of three, their maternal grandmother, Jane Newbold, was brought up by John Morley, of I & R Morley, as his daughter. Apparently, so the story goes, she fell in love with one of the Morley sons but something happened and she left. She had to earn her living by working in the Lace Market and moved in with her married sister. This is confirmed in the 1851 census. However, in the letter, May appears to confuse John Morley with Samuel his son and since that side of the family were based in London in the 1820’s, I wonder if the benefactor was Richard Morley, who remained in Nottingham.
The catalyst, whichever Morley was responsible for Jane’s upbringing, appears to be the suicide of her father, Thomas Newbold, which as far as I have been able to ascertain seems to have occurred in 1826 which fits in with Jane’s age. This tragedy forms the basis of Jessie Chamber’s short story ‘ The Bankrupt’ also held by the Manuscripts Department ref.LaCh/4/6. (Jessie Chambers being Lawrence’s childhood sweetheart and the person credited as kickstarting his writing career). Both Clive Leivers of the HFPS & myself have been researching this death, unable to trace any record but have recently discovered a newspaper report that may be relevant.”
In the DH Lawrence Memory Theatre we want to address various aspects of Lawrence’s life through artefacts. The arboretum, which hosts Morley’s bust, would have been of great interest to Lawrence given his love of nature. In 2019 we will be building our Memory Theatre and retracing Lawrence’s savage pilgrimage both physically and digitally. If you have an idea for an artefact, get involved and submit ideas here.
As summer 1925 came to a close, Dorothy Brett considered spending the winter on her own in the ranch in New Mexico. But Lawrence was worried for her safety and insisted she visit Capri, a small island off the Bay of Naples. She is issued with a letter to the Brewsters, and so begins her last adventure with Lawrence in our final blog from Brett’s memoir.
Capri is a tiny island (10.4 km2) in the Tyrrhenian Sea off the Sorrentine Peninsula, on the south side of the Gulf of Naples. It became a popular refuge for artists, writers and celebrities after the publication of Discovery of the Blue Grotto on the Isle of Capri by the German artist August Kopisch (1838). By the 19th century it had become a haven for gay men and lesbians to live a more open life. One of its most famous residents was Compton Mackenzie, who lived here between 1913 – 1920, and who would later satirise the lesbian colony in his 1928 novel Extraordinary Women.
Dorothy Brett spent five months with the Brewsters in their villa Quattro Venti, high up on the island. Brett’s initial description of Achsah Brewster conjures an image of an ageing Princess Leia ‘all in white, with a long floating veil draped over her hat and a long white cape that hangs loosely from her shoulders, has a pale face and white grey hair parted in the middle, which sweeps down on each side of her oval face…She is entirely unexpected – of no race and of no time’. Earl Brewster is ‘small, has gray hair, almost white, a sharp, pointed nose, and dark, dark eyes, with a strange, hidden look’.
When Lawrence eventually turns up he’s looking very dapper to the point that Brett doesn’t recognise him at first in ‘a new brown overcoat, a new gray suit, a brown Homburg hat, brown shoes – heavens!’ During his absence, Brett’s mastered all of the local walks on the tiny island and acts as his guide. But despite admiring the ‘deep ultramarine blue’ of the sea and the olive trees that offer ‘a waving mist of silvery green’ Lawrence is shattered and the long walks are too much for him. He informs the reason for his visit is he has been very ill again and, uncharacteristically defeatist, confides he is becoming so tired of it all. ‘There is such a depth of weariness in your voice, so hurt a look in your eyes, that nothing I can say seems adequate. I look at the bright sea, the faintly smoking mountain; I can hardly bear to look at the weary man beside me – pale, fragile, hopeless.’
On such occasions, Lawrence would usually pick a country and head off to start a new life. But now his restlessness required a more radical solution. ‘I would like to buy a sailing ship and sail among the Greek Islands and be free…free! Just to be free for a little while of it all.’ As always he’s happy to get his hands dirty and just needs a captain and a couple of sailors to guide him. Frieda has also felt the brunt of his frustration and he confides ‘you have no idea, Brett, how humiliating it is to beat a woman; afterwards one feels so humiliated.’ Then he targets his frustration at those who can walk but don’t.
‘People never will discipline themselves enough; and they have absolutely no pride. Their legs mean nothing to them. Think what a beautiful, alive thing a leg is – so narrow and strong, with the sensitive sole of the foot at the end of it. This is why I like to wear thin shoes; I like to feel the earth; I like my feet to be as close to the earth as possible. I used to love to feel the water in the irrigation ditch at the ranch, running over my sandals, round my feet. Sometimes I wish I had never left the ranch, the horses, the ditch. I envy you going back there’
As a result of his illness and the usual struggles for money, Lawrence begins recounting the difficult struggles his parents underwent to survive. He is acutely aware that his sickness as a child would have had a profound effect on their finances as ‘to be sick meant the doctor; that meant any extra shillings went for the doctor’s fee and medicine’. He surmises that his brother Ernest’s death was the result of ‘those early days of semi-starvation, of never having enough clothes, enough warmth, enough to eat’. No wonder he resented money so much when it had the power to determine life itself.
It’s in the final chapter of Brett’s memoir that she is explicit about her love for Lawrence and gets a bit gushy. ‘I sit and watch you. The sun pours down relentlessly on your head; a heavy lock of hair falls over your face; your beard glitters red in the sun’. Then things get a bit more surreal as she imagines Lawrence morphing into Pan, ‘As I watch you, the meaningless modern suit seems to drop away. A leopard skin, a mass of flowers and leaves wrap themselves round you. Out of your thick hair, two small horns poke their sharp points; the slender, cloven hoofs lie entangled in weeds. The flute slips from your hand. I stare at you in a kind of trance’.
Their time together is coming to a close. The Brewsters are packing for India and Brett is set to sail to America. She offers to delay her trip but Lawrence insists she goes. They have one last adventure together and head off to Amalfi. Lawrence has been subjected to a vegetarian diet with the Brewsters which has given him a huge appetite. He eagerly wolfs down a large steak with onions and potatoes. They visit Villa Cimbrone in Ravello, sketching a blue Venus in the garden, then sit in the scenic belvedere Terrazzo dell’Infinito and watch the ships pass below.
Then it is finally time to say goodbye. Lawrence waits on the little stone pier as Brett heads for the awaiting steamer via a row boat. ‘You wave to me. I stand there in my white coat, waving back to you. Something – God knows what – tells me I will never see you again. I am filled with this dread apprehension, as I stand and wave and wave. You lean out of the carriage, a small figure, waving the blue and green scarf I have given you. And, still waving, you are borne round the bend of the road, and are gone…gone forever…’ Brett was wearing a white coat and has never worn white again since.
It’s a terribly sad end to their friendship, particularly as we learn in the epilogue that Brett had left out one important fact that was only allowed to be revealed after her death – she and Lawrence had attempted to match their spiritual relationship with a physical relationship in Ravello but it all went horribly wrong. In fact, it ended rather cruelly, with Lawrence storming out of the room complaining ‘your boobs are all wrong’ which left Brett feeling ‘ashamed, bewildered, miserable’. Lawrence would later fictionalise this incident in the short story Glad Ghosts, but this time the two would successfully get it on.
Brett’s memoir is a loving testament to their troubled but intensely close relationship. Its power lies in being written directly to Lawrence, rendering the reader a voyeur. She ends the memoir with ‘I could go on writing of you forever’ which I believe she could quite happily have done so. But Brett is a remarkable character is her own right. She turned her back on her aristocratic heritage, spent the rest of her life in New Mexico, and during Lawrence’s life acted, as John Manchester rightly points out, as a ‘soul image to Lawrence, a counterpart to his own inner feminine side.’ Together, they are one of the greatest literary love affairs never to have happened.
In the DH Lawrence Memory Theatre we want to address various aspects of Lawrence’s life through artefacts. Lawrence is a complex individual and we need to capture all aspects of his personality if we are to represent him correctly. How do we capture his relationship with Dorothy Brett? His violenec towards Frieda? His desire to set sail and escape the rest of the world? In 2019 we will be building our Memory Theatre and retracing Lawrence’s savage pilgrimage both physically and digitally. If you have an idea for an artefact, get involved and submit ideas here.
As hard as Lawrence tried to create Rananim, it only lasted for short bursts of time. Either he became restless and needed to find new pastures, or some kind of argument would ensue that made living peacefully impossible. For Frieda, two was company and three was most definitely a crowd, and so Dorothy Brett found herself ejected from the latest excursion to Oaxaca and back in New Mexico.
Brett headed back to the DH Lawrence Ranch, as it is now known, a 160-acre (0.65 km2) property located at 8,600 feet (2,600 m) above sea level near Lobo Mountain near San Cristobal in Taos County. Originally named the Lobo Ranch, then the Kiowa Ranch, it was given to Frieda Lawrence as a gift by Mabel Dodge Luhan. Although the Lawrence’s would leave New Mexico in1925, Frieda would return after Lawrence’s death, remarry, and settle in Taos for the rest of her life. Frieda died in Taos on her 77th birthday. Brett, too, would live out her days in Taos, becoming an American citizen in 1938. She died in 1977 at the age of 94.
Lawrence was worried for Brett travelling alone. Although the Mexican Revolution had technically ended after 10 years of civil war (1910-1920), tensions were still high and threatened to break out at any moment. But the severing of ties was necessary if the tension between him and Frieda – brought about by his close friendship with Brett – were to abate. But the parting wasn’t enough for Frieda. Neither did she want Brett on the ranch when she returned. And so Lawrence arranged for her to borrow a cabin from Bill and Rachel Hawk, in the orchard of Del Monte.
Lawrence was very ill in Mexico, and was very close to death. This coincided with an earthquake, the significance of which wasn’t lost on Brett. This led to her having a very strange dream in which Lawrence meets a young man while out walking with Frieda. ‘The young man was yourself as a young man – young, without a beard,’ explains Brett. ‘You had met your youth and fallen in love with it and gone off with it. I do not like this dream. Years later I find out why: I am told it foretells death’.
When Lawrence was feeling slightly better he returned to New Mexico. When Brett got news of this she jumps on her horse, Prince, and gallops over snow and ice to see him. She is greeted by Frieda who informs he’s upstairs, resting. He is frail and ill. Lawrence confides that he was so ill when he reached Mexico City from Oaxaca that Frieda applied rouge to his cheeks to bring some colour to his face.
Brett soon receives a visit from Ida Rauh (March 7, 1877 – February 28, 1970). Rauh was a lawyer, suffragist, actress, sculptor, and poet who moved to Santa Fe in 1922. She would make a bust of Lawrence which now resides in the Lawrence Memorial Library in New Mexico. Lawrence wrote the play David for her, which Brett was currently typing up. He would give Brett six copies of his manuscripts as a thank you for her typing services. Once she had finished typing up David, the two friends ride together to see Lawrence and he performs the entire play for them, with only a pause for tea.
During the one man performance, Frieda is fagging it as usual. Brett reminds the QB of her practical worth and hunts down a rabbit which goes in the pot for tea. A compromise is reached and Brett is allowed to see Lawrence again, but no more than three times a week. ‘I won’t have you up here every day. I won’t have you on the place. You are a mischief maker. I hate you, hate you!’ screams Frieda, but Brett finally stands up to her, telling the QB to go to hell and that she won’t be bossed by her. Shocked at this rare outburst, Frieda slams the door in Brett’s face. When Brett later relays this to Lawrence he is highly amused.
These squabbles soon result in the obligatory writing of fierce letters, though ‘you are always gentle and friendly after your angry letters. How tiresome it all is! You are weary of it; so am I. The only difference between us is that I am hopeful and you are pessimistic.’ A lot of this tension was symptomatic of other issues, namely Frieda’s desire to have her children up on the ranch. Perhaps this was one reason why Frieda resented Lawrence’s bonding with Brett: If she couldn’t be close to her children, why should he be allowed to be close to anyone else but her?
Despite these inevitable strains on their friendship, there were many good times together, such as trips up Raspberry Canyon to watch men take honey from the wild bees in the trees. But most of the time, it was just Brett and Lawrence. When they weren’t doing a bit of DIY together, such as building a shed for the pet cow Susan, one favourite pastime was painting together, or, perhaps more accurately, Brett painting and Lawrence correcting her. On one occasion Brett was working on a painting of the desert and their ranch life, which opened up a debate about the process of painting. ‘You insist that landscape without figures is dull’ writes Brett. ‘We are agreed, though, that most pictures should be painted from memory: the imagination works better that way.’ Lawrence is sceptical of artists who feel the need to sit in front of what they paint, arguing ‘they feel nothing inside them, so they must have it before their eyes. It’s all wrong and stupid: it should all be brought from inside oneself’ and then he spits on the floor, as if to reinforce the point.
Frieda had a go at painting once. Lawrence demanded to see what she’d done but she refused. He snatched the painting from her, flung it on the ground and stamped on it. Brett tries to rationalise this irrational behaviour, suggesting it could be the ‘fatigue of his writing’ and that she’d seen the artist Mark Gertler in similar tempestuous moods. Lawrence’s behaviour was violent and vindictive. But the tortured artist, it would appear, could torture other people and get away with it in the 1920s
Lawrence loved to be the teacher, or ‘preacher’ as Knud Merrild observed in his own memoir of their life together. So when Brett takes Lawrence shooting, it is a rare reversal of roles. He is very much the pupil, protesting ‘I have never fired a gun in my life and I hate killing things’. They use the doorknob on the toilet door for fire practice and after a few goes, the lock is blown to smithereens. The toilet door can never be locked properly again. It’s soon after this that Lawrence shoots a porcupine, justifying it on the grounds that they damage the trees. ‘You are immensely proud of yourself in one way, and full of regrets in another’ observes Brett.
We learn from Brett that Lawrence was an avid reader of the pulp magazine Adventure. First published in November 1910, it ran to 881 issues, ending in 1971. Noted explorer and journalist Trumbull White was the first editor (until 1912) and established two editorial principles: An “adventure” story did not have to be set in an exotic location; the story should be as historically, geographically, and socially accurate as possible. Brett said that Lawrence liked reading it more than anything. ‘It has just plain tales of adventure. Simple, unaffected storytelling, sometimes really very good, too’ he said.
One reason that Frieda disliked Brett and Lawrence’s friendship is because they acted like a spinster and a curate. It infuriated her that they didn’t have the guts to get it on. Despite the common perception of Lawrence as a smutty author, he was actually quite prudish in real life. ‘How untouchable you are, I think to myself’ writes Brett. ‘How true, how important to you is your constant cry of ‘Noli me tangere!’ You do not care to be touched, to be pawed. Necking makes you furious. Your sex is not to be played with, not to be belittled by playfulness. It is serious, a danger to be respected as the tiger is respected, hidden in the jungle.’ Brett feels very much the same and this is something else that brings them closer together.
The biggest sin they commit is coming home late from one of their excursions together, which would send Frieda into a rage. ‘One day she stands, arms akimbo, eyes wild, mouth a long tight slit; her close fitting bodice, pleated, full skirts all arrogant and belligerent. The next, she is a big, warm, bounding creature, eyes blue and free, mouth a broad grin, bodice and skirt colourful and glowing: rough, hearty, and undoubtedly handsome.’
When the summer of 1925 is over and plans for winter start to emerge, Brett does not want to return to London. She considers staying out here on the ranch on her own but Lawrence is worried for her safety. Instead he convinces her to visit Capri, a small island off the coast of Napoli. She is issued with a letter to the Brewsters, guaranteeing her somewhere to stay. Their life together in New Mexico is over. Capri will be their last adventure.
In the DH Lawrence Memory Theatre we want to address various aspects of Lawrence’s life through artefacts. Lawrence is a complex individual and we need to capture all aspects of his personality if we are to represent him correctly. How do we address his violent bullying of Frieda? Or his guilt at shooting a porcupine? His friendship with the inspirational Ida Rauh? The compassion and gentleness of Dorothy Brett? In 2019 we will be building our Memory Theatre and retracing Lawrence’s savage pilgrimage both physically and digitally. If you have an idea for an artefact, get involved and submit ideas here.
In our fourth blog exploring Dorothy Brett’s memoir we focus in on Lawrence’s relationship with a young boy called Rosalino, who was his moxo in Oaxaca. A mozo is an assistant, servant or male porter who ‘really goes with the house’. But what was it about the boy that so intrigued Lawrence?
In Oaxaca, Lawrence developed quite a fatherly relationship with Rosalino, their mozo. In Mornings in Mexico, he describes seeing him ‘lurking in the patio, and glancing furtively under his brows’. This furtive glance is different to the ‘black, incomprehensible, but somewhat defiant stare’ of other Indian boys, leading Lawrence to wonder whether he might be a bit different. ‘The difference lies in a certain sensitiveness and aloneness, as if he were a mother’s boy’ which is in stark contrast to ‘the bold male glare of most of the Indians, who seem as if they had never, never had mothers at all’. This is classic Lawrencian analysis, focussing in on one minor detail to make broader observations of an entire culture.
Rosalino works for four pesos a month, and his food. He owns ‘two cotton shirts, two pairs of calico pantaloons, two blouses, one of pink cotton, one of darkish flannelette, and a pair of sandals.’ His morning duties mainly consist of sweeping the house with ‘a sort of duster made of fluffy reeds’. In the afternoon he lounges about waiting for the wind to blow so that he can go through the process again. In the evenings he sleeps in the doorway to the home, the zaguán, on ‘a low wooden bench about four feet long and eighteen inches wide’.
The only thing keeping Rosalino warm at night is a threadbare serape. When Lawrence expresses his concern for the young boy, a local priest advises that mozos are used to living like this. But just because they are used to living like this doesn’t make it right, and so they head off to the market to rectify the problem. The market is on the Mitla Road which Brett describes as being ‘ageless’ and ‘timeless’ due to the ‘ceaseless flow of silent, trotting people: the slow oxen carts, the little tripping burros, with the large baskets hanging on each side, or with women crouched on their backs with a baby in front and one behind’.
Lawrence instructs Rosalino to choose a new and warmer serape from a pile. ‘For a moment he stares at you incredulously’ observes Brett, ‘then, with a broad smile and a gleam of white teeth, he begins to bargain. He sees the one he wants, and in true Indian fashion he goes about getting it as cheaply as he can. We move off, knowing that the job will be a long one.’ Rosalino succeeds in getting one incredibly cheap. ‘You give him the money and he hurries back, returning with the treasure folded over his shoulder. From that moment, he is your slave.’
Lawrence was incredibly fastidious when it came to money, largely because he lived so much of his life in poverty. Sea in Sardinia, for example, is full of details about the cost of travel and food, so he no doubt admired Rosalino’s bartering skills. From that point onwards, Lawrence gave him money to bargain for essentials. ‘This he simply loved to do’ he observes. ‘It put him into a temper to see us buying without bargaining, and paying ghastly prices.’
Rosalino comes with a complicated history. After refusing to be conscripted for the army, Brett notes he is ‘so severely beaten that his back is permanently injured.’ This means he’s unable to carry heavy weights. This wasn’t an ideal situation for Lawrence given his own poor health, but he admires Rosalino for standing by his principles: ‘He is one of those, like myself, who have a horror of serving in a mass of men, or even of being mixed up with a mass of men. He obstinately refused, whereupon the recruiting soldiers beat him with the butts of their rifles till he lay unconscious, apparently dead.’
After ensuring he was suitably dressed, Lawrence then drew on his experience of teaching to help Rosalino with his self-education. Rosalino had been attending a night school for two years for reading and writing and was set the task of learning and copying a series of long poems. But the problem was ‘he had written the thing straight ahead, without verse-lines or capitals or punctuation at all, just a vast string of words, a whole foolscap sheet full.’ Realising that he was having difficulty, Lawrence stepped in and offered to teach him every morning for one hour. Mozos were not used to this level of kindness and so this latest gesture had a profound effect on Rosalino, leading to mimicry. Lawrence enjoyed a bath every Saturday evening and a clean shirt on a Sunday. So Rosalino goes to the public bath every Saturday and on a Sunday ‘he appears in a gorgeous flowered shirt, spotlessly clean’. But he only has two shirts and so Lawrence buys him some more.
He was fed well too. Instead of the daily diet of tortillas, ‘we started feeding him from our own meals, and for the first time in his life he had real soups, meat-stews, or a fried egg, he loved to do things in the kitchen. He would come with sparkling black eyes: ‘Hé comido el caldo. Grazias!’ (I have eaten the soup. Thank you.’)–And he would give a strange, excited little yelp of a laugh’.
When Rosalino suddenly went missing one day, Lawrence was understandably annoyed. He’d shown the boy fatherly affection and so was offended when he thought this wasn’t being reciprocated. Brett records a typically irrational outburst: ‘Give friendship and they deceive you and go. They don’t really care – they really hate us. It makes me hate them.’ Rosalino had left because he was homesick for his people. This had been brought on by accompanying Lawrence and Frieda on long walks to small and remote villages. But he returned a few days later.
Observing that one minute Rosalino is ‘thrilled and happy’ the next he is imbued with a ‘black, reptilian gloom, and a sense of hatred’ – he could almost be talking about his own erratic mood swings. ‘He didn’t forgive himself for having felt free and happy with us. He had eaten what we had eaten…He had been happy, therefore we were scheming to take another advantage of him. We had some devilish white monkey-trick up our sleeve; we wanted to get at his soul.’
Lawrence had an indifferent relationship to his childhood home of Eastwood. His novels evoke glorious landscapes destroyed by industrialisation. As much as he may have felt the occasional pang to return home, whenever he did he couldn’t get out of there quick enough. It would lead him to observe ‘I can be anywhere at home, except home.’ So too Rosalino found himself conflicted; when they trekked to Huayap, an Indian hill village reminiscent of his former home, ‘the black Indian gloom of nostalgia must have made a crack in his spirits.’
In Mornings and Mexico, Lawrence goes into hilarious detail about Rosalino’s indecisiveness which is worth quoting at length.
‘At lunch-time on Monday he said he wanted to leave. Why? He said he wanted to go back to his village. Very well. He was to wait just a few days, till another mozo was found. At this a glance of pure, reptilian hate from his black eyes. He sat motionless on his bench all the afternoon, in the Indian stupor of gloom and profound hate. In the evening, he cheered up a little and said he would stay on, at least till Easter. Tuesday morning. More stupor and gloom and hate. He wanted to go back to his village at once. All right! No one wanted to keep him against his will. Another mozo would be found at once. He went off in the numb stupor of gloom and hate, a very potent hate that could affect one in the pit of one’s stomach with nausea. Tuesday afternoon, and he thought he would stay. Wednesday morning, and he wanted to go…’
This indecision echoes Lawrence’s own travel plans when he was first invited to New Mexico by Mabel Dodge Luhan, as reported in an earlier blog. He constantly delayed his plans, took detours east to Ceylon and Australia so that ‘strengthened with Buddha, noisy, rampageous America might be easier to tackle,’ and pretty much back tracked on everything he planned and promised to do. No wonder he writes so affectionately about Rosalino’s failure to return to his roots. It was a route he had taken himself many times.
In the DH Lawrence Memory Theatre we want to address various aspects of Lawrence’s life through artefacts. How can we capture his friendship with Rosalino? How do we represent his time in Oaxaca? Do we need a serape for visitors to keep warm or should we build in a zaguán so you can snuggle up at night and guard our project? In 2019 we will be building our Memory Theatre and retracing Lawrence’s savage pilgrimage both physically and digitally. If you have an idea for an artefact, get involved and submit ideas here.
In our previous blog, Dorothy Brett identified a wild change in Lawrence’s mood during their stay in New Mexico. He was becoming paranoid, angry, and convinced those closest to him were traitors. This irrational appraisal of his circumstances was a recurring theme that propelled Lawrence to up sticks and move on. His latest quest to find somewhere authentic to live led Lawrence, Brett and the QB to Old Mexico.
The Mexican Consulate in El Paso is ‘not the most cheerful of places’. While waiting to get passports stamped, comedy ensues when a passport official first believes Brett is Lawrence’s wife and then, adding insult to injury, inquires whether the QB is his mother. Lawrence is not impressed and ‘something in your eye silences him’.
After clearing things up the trio board a train rammed with passengers, many of whom travel on the roof of the carriage. There’s also a heavy military presence. Frieda is dismissive of their new circumstances but Lawrence remains optimistic. Her mood will change when she meets the real locals he reassures her. They arrive in Mexico City four hours later than planned and book into the Hotel Regis, the ‘smartest hotel in the city’. But Lawrence doesn’t like it, so the next night they head to a more familiar haunt, the old Monte Carlo hotel.
Then, before you know it, they’re off again, this time to Oaxaca. As always throughout her memoir, Brett paints an evocative picture of their journey: ‘At seven in the morning, we get into the Oaxaca train. Popocatepetl and Ixtaccihuatl, the twin volcanoes, are snow white against the sky. A faint trail of smoke floats out of Popocatepetl. In the vast fields, little men like gnats are working, shining white, crowned by their gigantic hats. The train is crowded, but we don’t care. The excitement of movement, of adventure, of new rhythms, is on you. Your eyes gleam, and you bite your beard; you are alert and happy.’
The Mexican Revolution of 1910-20 was triggered by the failure to find a presidential succession to Porfirio Diaz when his 30 year old dictatorship came to an end. The ensuing political conflict would see vote rigging, assassinations, and the civil war of 1914-15, as various shifting alliances were formed before the establishment of a constitutional republic. What started out as a relatively simple political movement broadened into a major social and economic transformations that ran on until 1940.
When Lawrence and co turned up, they were the first white people to go to Oaxaca since the revolution finished in 1920. In the stifling heat they buy sugar cane and suck it while observing stations pockmarked with bullets. There is an eerie silence at every station: ‘rows of silent men in clean white clothes sit along bits of broken walls, their faces in pools of dark shadow from their big hats. But the glinting eyes watch us unceasingly.’
From Oaxaca station they rattle off on a mule tram. To her horror, Brett discovers she’s lost her beloved Toby – her ear trumpet. They are warned by the owner of the Hotel Francia that theft is rife and so they mustn’t leave anything within reach of the windows as the favourite game of local thieves is a variation on ‘Hook a Duck,’ courtesy of long poles with a nail on the end. A few weeks later Brett catches a thief in action and manages to steal his pole, much to the hotel owner’s delight.
These are uncertain times and Lawrence is worried about the constant rumours of another revolution. The locals here have been isolated in Oaxaca for four years, with the railway the only way in or out. Then there’s the incurable diseases. War, disease, and claustrophobia are things Lawrence had been avoiding all his life, but it was the threat to his precious freedom that worried him the most. Therefore he ignores advice not to walk at night, preferring to risk getting robbed.
The locals are intrigued by the sheer otherness of the new white visitors. Lawrence, with his red beard, pale skin, and piercing blue eyes, quickly earns the nickname of ‘Cristo’. He may look completely alien, but he’s well-travelled and therefore privy to the tricks of local traders. While buying sandals, Lawrence warns Brett that they tan the leather with human excrement and to offer half of whatever price she’s offered. In the market, Brett finds an intelligent tinsmith who is able to craft her a replacement ear trumpet until her replacement arrives from London.
Their new accommodation was spacious, consisting of large rooms and a patio ‘with its big, shady trees and flowers and quietness. The scarlet poinsettias are out; the parrots incessantly chatter in their tree; and the little dog snoozes comfortably at your feet. The ducks are fattened and heartlessly eaten one by one”. But the patio also acts as a kind of prison, with Lawrence observing: ‘In spite of the beautiful climate I don’t believe I will ever be able to stand the lack of freedom. I wish we could buy huge revolvers and knives and kill somebody. It’s all so silly and tiresome.’ It didn’t help that Lawrence’s letters were being opened, as they had been in Cornwall, but this is resolved after a complaint to the local Governor.
‘A strange feeling is coming over us; a dual feeling’ writes Brett. ‘One of imprisonment, and then another of a fierce desire to sally forth armed to the teeth and to shoot – to assert ourselves noisily in this noiseless unease. We can find no freedom, for ourselves or in anyone else. Everybody is virtually a prisoner. The Indians are afraid of the Mexicans, the Mexicans are afraid of the Indians, and the Americans are afraid of both’.
The endless Fiestas should have offered escapism from the tensions, but even these were tinged with fear. During the Fiesta of San Felipe, just before Christmas, Lawrence observes ‘the people are not allowed to shout or sing in case of too much excitement rousing more trouble. The rulers want to keep the people quiet’.
The Fiesta of the Rabanos, however, brought about some much needed hilarity. Here large white and pink radishes are hung over booths. ‘No proportion of their anatomy is missing,’ reports Brett ‘and certain unmentionable portions are so exaggerated that I am overwhelmed with embarrassment.’ This, of course, brought great pleasure to the store owners, who relished in the discomfort of outsiders perusing their phallic produce.
In the end Brett buys a ‘fairly modest, unexaggerated radish’ and smuggles it into her coat pocket, but of course everyone is privy to her coyness and lets her know through knowing smiles. During this time, Lawrence has been ill in bed. But Brett’s account of her shopping trip is the perfect remedy for ill health: ‘your eyes twinkle: a gleam of wicked amusement shines in them. I am becoming more and more embarrassed as I tell my tale, and the laughter is dancing in your eyes: they are two gleaming specks of light. You are biting your beard and you are vexed at having missed it all.’ Lawrence insists the radish be hung up on the Christmas tree. When the Indians notice it they explain the story of The Fiesta of the Rabanos. The radish is the delicate way that a young man can declare his love for a woman and his desire for her. In later years Brett would paint the radish festival and send a copy to Lawrence as a gift. As the painting was not signed, it was presumed to be one of Lawrence’s own paintings and incorrectly appears in The Paintings of DH Lawrence.
When Brett and Lawrence weren’t giggling over phallic radishes, they enjoyed long walks together. Given her deafness, these solitary walks were an opportunity for Brett to open up and discuss how she felt about life. ‘All my ideas come pouring out, easily and simply; and you, eager, gay, sympathetic, with your quick understanding, agree with much of what I say. Somehow we are in harmony’. Lawrence was a good listener, and his personality intrigued Brett. She tries to pinpoint the energy he gives off, his charisma, but it is hard to capture. ‘It is that something from your heart, that has nothing to do with upbringing or training…I can find no word. How describe the real aristocracy of the heart and mind? I watch you now and know that it surrounds you, gives you that strange ‘quality’ that others see and feel as well as I, and which clothes you even from that distance as I watch you drifting lightly across the street and round the corner.’
When they return home Frieda is sat smoking on the patio. A cold and silent tea follows. The next day she is in a rage, attacking Lawrence for his friendship with Brett. Lawrence pens a letter to Brett that ‘is fierce, cruel, telling me that the three of us are no longer a happy combination and that we must stand apart.’ Angry letters had dictated Lawrence’s relationship with Mabel Dodge Luhan, with the two of them venting spleen back and forth. But Brett is a different, more delicate, creature. She is too shocked by this outburst to immediately respond and instead lets it dwell. When Lawrence pops down to see her a few days later he explains the letter is all Frieda’s doing.
Brett can see the damage this is doing to Lawrence and, selfless as ever, offers to go back to Del Monte Ranch for a while to let things blow over between him and Frieda. Lawrence is appreciative of her gesture, but when he reveals Frieda hates her Brett is astonished. She had no idea it was this personal. When Lawrence asks ‘What do you suppose all our quarrels are about?’ Brett calmly replies ‘but you are famous all over the world for your quarrels! How could I know it was me?’ touché!
Before she leaves, Brett, obliging as ever, does a bit more typing for Lawrence. He doesn’t like her heading back on her own, but she is courageous and independent. Before leaving, Frieda writes Brett a letter and we discover the real reason for her hatred. ‘In it she accuses us, Lawrence and myself, of being like a curate and a spinster; she resents the fact that we do not make love to each other. She says the friendship between man and woman makes only half of the curve. Well, maybe.’ And just in case she was tempted to take advantage, Frieda warns it wouldn’t work as she has the body of an ‘asparagus stick’ and Lawrence likes a more womanly figure!
Frieda was an incredibly liberal minded woman who lived through sexual impulse. Repressing desire was unimaginable to her frame of reference. But Brett was a very different beast and so was bewildered to be criticised for being the dutiful guest. More perplexing was ‘the correct behaviour in a triangle’. Lawrence and Brett did eventually try to get it on but it all went horribly wrong; the details of which were revealed after her death and added to the forward of her memoir. But for now it was time for her to take a momentary break from their company, leaving Lawrence to work on The Plumed Serpent.
In the DH Lawrence Memory Theatre we want to address various aspects of Lawrence’s life through artefacts. How can we capture his time spent travelling through Mexico? Do we have room for phallic radishes or a gun to quell Lawrence’s rage? And what’s the best way to represent ‘the correct behaviour in a triangle’? In 2019 we will be building our Memory Theatre and retracing Lawrence’s savage pilgrimage both physically and digitally. If you have an idea for an artefact, get involved and submit ideas here.
In March 1924, Lawrence gave New Mexico another go. This time he returned with the deaf painter Dorothy Brett. In our second blog, drawn from Brett’s memoir Lawrence and Brett: A Friendship, we see the friends working tirelessly to renovative cabins in order to create Rananim.
When Dorothy Brett accompanied Lawrence and the QB to New Mexico, there was a lot of hard graft ahead of them in order to transform dilapidated cabins into liveable homes. The biggest cabin stank as it was full of cow dung and required more than a quick tidying up. Rotten props had to be removed and new ones erected in order to stop the structure from collapsing. This is why Geoff Dyer in Out of Sheer Rage describes Lawrence as ‘perhaps the first great DIYer in English literature’.
During these renovations, everyone had a role during the long and hot days. While Lawrence was working with the Indians, ‘Frieda cooks, lies on her bed smoking, cooks again’. One of the worst jobs was cleaning the roof but Lawrence never shirked his responsibilities. ‘With a handkerchief bound round your mouth, you have been sweeping the rat-dirt and nests out with a small dustpan and brush. You come crawling out, looking white and tired…Nothing will prevent you from doing the same hard work that the Indians do, however dirty and disagreeable. You have to share the worst with the best, even the dirt and heat in the roof. You will not ask the Indians to do anything that you are not willing to do yourself. And you insist on giving them plenty to eat.’
Brett’s role during these early days was to chop up the wood Lawrence had felled for kindling and to collect water from the spring. Mabel and Tony Luhan go to and fro to Taos in the car, returning with ‘pots and pans and comforts’ and more labourers when required. Everyone had a role. In the evening the friends relax by singing old Scotch and English ballads and then invite Candido and the other Indians to join them on realising their crooning was making them feel lonely.
Although Lawrence enjoyed the renovation work, he was equally happy to play ‘mother’. When Candido badly damaged his finger, Brett observes him ‘gently, and with deft, careful fingers, you wash the wound and lay the boiling poultice on the finger. Candido draws back with a cry; you blow on the poultice, lifting it off his finger. Slowly you lower it again.’ During the evening Lawrence renewed the poultice three times, instructing Candido to return the next day for a new one. Another example of his caring side came when Lawrence noticed that their neighbours Rachel and Bill Hawk weren’t back from a trip and he ‘became anxious for the cows’. He herded them in and milked them, returning each day to repeat the process until the Hawk’s returned. As it turned out their car had broken down and so they were thankful for Lawrence’s foresight, though more shocked that he knew how to milk cows.
Although Lawrence was determined to live self-sufficiently, occasionally he was defeated. On one occasion he tried to make mats out of rope and wire for two stone seats and sat ‘fumbling and struggling, swearing, as you twist the stiff wire round the obstinate rope’. He completed one mat but never bothered to do the second one.
But of course all of this community building and bonding was temporary. One evening as they are sat around a fire Brett notices Mabel’s eyes are ‘flaring’, Frieda’s eyes are ‘darting about’ and Lawrence is ‘silent’. Her deafness means that she is unable to pick up on exactly what’s triggering the mood, but soon finds out it’s her when Lawrence scalds her for showing no respect to him or Frieda. ‘Your voice is rising higher and higher. I take hold of your wrist, lightly between my finger and thumb, and say very quietly: ‘No, Lawrence, that isn’t so.’ You stop, hesitate; then Frieda pops out of your bedroom and goads you on, shouting at both of us. You begin again, but I still hold your wrist in that light hold, repeating quietly that it is not so. Your anger dies down; you stop suddenly and give me a queer look – it is over.’
Brett gets a very unfair showing in Mabel Dodge Luhan’s memoir, mainly because Luhan saw Brett as a competitor for Lawrence’s affections. She victimised Brett for her deafness, claiming ‘it was not a jolly, sociable ear trumpet that longed to be a part of everything else. I soon saw that it was an eavesdropper. It was a spy upon any influence near Lorenzo.’ But the reality is her deafness created a barrier that meant she was unable to join in group conversations and suddenly found herself under attack. By my interpretation, Brett is a gentle and kind spirit who is scapegoated by the group. This is evident throughout her memoir, though she never explicitly uses this for sympathy. But the reason they became such close friends, as far as I can see, is that her calm demeanour helped to offset Lawrence’s sporadic rages. Like any successful relationship, their differences complimented each other.
One way that Lawrence helped cope with his rages was by chopping wood. ‘You have no idea how soothing to it is to the nerves’ he explained to Brett. ‘When I am in a temper, I like to run out into these quiet woods and chop down a tree; it quiets the nerves. Even chopping wood helps; you’ve no idea, Brett, how much it helps. That’s why I like doing it.’ As Brett joined him on such trips, this increased the jealousy among the women. This wasn’t helped when Frieda accompanied them one day and Lawrence asked her to sit on the wood while he and Brett worked the double saw, ‘as you are the heaviest’.
Brett would be continually punished for her friendship with Lawrence by the other women in his life. Frieda would eventually limit her visits to the cabin to three times a week whereas Mabel Dodge Luhan would completely exclude Brett by not inviting her to the Hopi Snake Dance, which meant a fortnight on her own. These sporadic bouts of spitefulness must have hurt, yet Brett retains a dignified tone throughout her memoir with none of the sniping that imbues Mabel Dodge Luhan’s account. When Brett does take a pop at Luhan she does it very subtly, describing her flirtatious ways as ‘lying lazily in our chairs…ties a bright cherry coloured ribbon round her hair. Then she lies back and twirls a bit of hair between her fingers’. When Luhan heads off to Taos it’s because ‘her restless energy has little outlet in the quiet life of the Ranch.’
Despite enjoying building a new home together, Frieda naturally pined for her children which antagonised Lawrence. Their arguments would lead to Frieda being nicknamed ‘Angry Winter’ by the Indians. Lawrence, for the record, was ‘Red Fox’. Brett recalls one incident where she and Frieda were disturbed by ‘considerable scuffling’ coming from the chicken house. When they looked out the window, Lawrence emerged with a squawking hen held upside down by her legs. She is swiftly taken to the woodpile and her head is adroitly chopped off. ‘You leave the hen twitching headless on the ground and come in. ‘Damn her,’ you say, ‘She was brooding again; after all the trouble I took hanging her for days up in that box to cool her underneath, she still brooded. So I’ve chopped off her head. Serves her right, too!’ Although Brett does not elude any symbolism to the event, it certainly reads as a curt warning to Frieda.
With most of the work done Lawrence now had more time to write, heading into the woods ‘in the quiet, still morning, with your copybook under your arm and your fountain pen…sometimes one can glimpse you through the trees, sitting leaning up against the trunk of a pine tree in your blue shirt, white corduroy pants and big, pointed straw hat’. It would appear that Lawrence was only able to write if he had other distractions to occupy him. Kai Götzsche could testify to this, having spent the backend of 1923 on a futile trip with Lawrence across Old Mexico. Writing to Knud Merrild on 22 October 1923 he observes: ‘He needs, in a high degree, something else to think about, and something else to do besides his writings. I am absolutely sure that he would feel happier and live more happily if he could go out for a few hours a day, and have some work to do, milk a cow or plough a field. As he lives now, he only writes a little in the morning and the rest of the day he just hangs around on a bench or drifts over to the market place, hands in pocket, perhaps buying some candy, fruit, or something. If he could only have access to a kitchen, so he could make our food, that would occupy him for a couple of hours.’
In New Mexico, Brett had the smallest cabin of the three friends. But she doesn’t complain about her humble abode: ‘My house has no room at all, except for a bed, the smallest stove imaginable, a table in the window, and a chair squeezed between the table and the bed. It is sunny and warm, but very leaky.’ Brett enjoyed painting the incredible landscape from her cabin, and Lawrence, when he wasn’t offering criticism of her technique, would come and borrow turpentine which he painted onto the horses to help keep off flies. The effect was calamitous, with the horses ‘kicking and rolling and pawing up earth with their front hoofs to try and stop the stinging’. In the future they used salted lard instead.
Although Lawrence loved to get his hands dirty, all of this DIY took its toll on his health. Brett recalls him always spitting, and when he once spat red blood she pretended not to see. This was traumatic for Brett as she had previously witnessed Katherine Mansfield burst a blood vessel while talking to her. Mansfield died of extrapulmonary tuberculosis earlier in the year, on 9 January 1923. Experience had taught Brett not to confront Lawrence, a man always in denial about his health, about such matters. This was left to Frieda, who persuaded him to rest in bed. But when she called for a doctor it put Lawrence in a rage ‘with a violence that is overpowering’. ‘How dare you’ he screamed, before launching an iron egg ring at Frieda’s head.
Brett opted for gentler distractions as a means of helping Lawrence cope with his illness, catching a hummingbird fluttering on her windowsill and presenting it to him. ‘I hurry over to your house and take it to you. ‘What is it?’ you ask. ‘Be careful,’ I reply, ‘and don’t let it fly away. Hold out your hands.’ I place the bird carefully in them, and you sit there holding it. A look of amazement, followed by another of almost religious ecstasy comes into your face as the tiny fluff of feathers sits in your hand, the long beak tapering and sharp, the gorgeous metal splendour of the green and blue throat shimmering. Suddenly, with a laugh, you toss it into the air.’
Brett is incredibly perceptive, observing and rationalising Lawrence’s behaviour throughout her memoir to paint a powerful picture of this complex and contradictory man. For example, while riding in single file down the old Questa road to San Cristobal Canyon she wonders why Lawrence is always looking at the ground while she looks up at the trees and the sky ‘and then it suddenly dawns on me: you are looking for flowers – and flowers there are among all the tangled undergrowth’. Their journey takes them along the white and red rocks of Red River to Columbine Lake, which would inform the drama of Lawrence’s short story The Princess.
Lawrence and Brett enjoyed a very close friendship in New Mexico. They enjoyed long horseback rides together, worked well as a team fixing up the cabins, and she was a dab hand at shooting and fishing, thereby providing supper when needed. I’m convinced that her deafness was pivotal to their close friendship, as it enabled them to simply be without the hindrance of words. But Lawrence couldn’t sit still for long and inevitably it didn’t take long before he had the urge to move on.
In order to do this he needed to unsettle himself from the good life he had worked so hard to create. Paranoia and bitter resentment that everyone was out to get him worked well as catalysts for change. As Brett observes: ‘You are bitter, jeering at everyone, turning every thought, every action of all your friends, past and present, to ridicule. Nobody is honest, nobody is anything but a coward, a traitor, utterly false and despicable. Why? God knows…the urge to move, to travel, is on you once more.’
In the DH Lawrence Memory Theatre we want to address various aspects of Lawrence’s life through artefacts. How can we capture his DIY skills? Those long horse rides into the San Cristobal Canyon? His friendship with Dorothy Brett? In 2019 we will be building our Memory Theatre and retracing Lawrence’s savage pilgrimage both physically and digitally. If you have an idea for an artefact, get involved and submit ideas here.
Our previous five blogs explored Lawrence’s time in New Mexico from the perspective of Mabel Dodge Luhan. Now it’s time to turn our attention to a very different memoir: Brett and Lawrence: A Friendship. The title pretty much sums up Brett’s feelings, though their friendship could have developed into something more but for acute shyness and clumsiness on both sides.
‘Friendship is as binding
As the Marriage Vow –
As important – as Eternal –‘
Born in1883, Dorothy Brett was the third of four siblings. Her grandfather was Queen Victoria’s Master of the Rolls as well as Lord Chief Justice of the Court of Appeals. Her French grandmother had a more challenging start to life, discovered as an abandoned baby on the battlefield at Waterloo, she was adopted by Colonel Gurwood, the personal assistant of Wellington. To complicate matters further, her great grandmother was rumoured to have been the mistress of Napoleon. On her maternal side, writes John Manchester in his prologue to Brett’s memoir, her Belgium grandfather was none other than Van de Weyer, who had helped put Leopold I on the throne, while her maternal grandmother was the daughter of a rich Boston banker. By all accounts she had a completely different social upbringing to Lawrence, yet the two would become very close friends. This is all lovingly shared in Brett’s memoir that is narrated directly to Lawrence, written two years (check) after his death.
The first time Brett met Lawrence was in 1915. They were invited to a gathering at the home of British artist Mark Gertler (1891-1939) in the Vale of Heath, London. Gertler, one of five children to Polish-Jewish immigrants, was a British painter specialising in figure subjects, portraits and still-life. From a young age it was clear that he had a unique talent for drawing but his path to success would be hampered by financial difficulties. Due to his family’s poverty, Gertler was forced to drop out of Regent Street Polytechnic in 1906 and take up employment. In 1908 he successfully applied for a scholarship from the Jewish Education Aid Society (JEAS) and enrolled at the Slade School of Art, London where he would become a contemporary of the likes of Paul Nash and Stanley Spencer. It was at Slade that he met Brett, who studied there from 1910 to 1916, introducing her to artistic and literary circles that included the Bloomsbury Group.
Brett’s description of Gertler ‘with his thick, dark, curly hair, cut like a Florentine boy, the delicate, clear-cut features, the long grey eyes, he was as beautiful as a Botticelli angel or a wild creature of some Keltic myth’ is beautifully evocative. John Manchester credits this due to her artistic background – ‘Brett writes as a painter – she sees it all before her inner eye as though it were happening right now’. Gertler would succumb to the same disease that also took the life of Katherine Mansfield and Lawrence. He would also be immortalised in fiction as the sculptor Herr Loerke in Lawrence’s Women in Love (1920), Gombauld in Huxley’s Crome Yellow (1921) and his early life would inspire Gilbert Cannan’s novel Mendel (1916).
During their first encounter, Lawrence sat upright with his hands tucked under his thighs. He had an immediate impact on Brett ‘gently coaxing me out of my shyness’ as they sat around a fire in Gertler’s front room. She would have appreciated his attentiveness as her deafness was particularly problematic in crowds. In a letter to Bertrand Russell in 1918, Brett reveals her frustration at being surrounded by an arty community at Garsington Manor but being unable to join in: ‘Can you imagine what it means to see life revolving round you – see people talking and laughing, quite meaninglessly! Like looking through a shop window or a restaurant window. It is all so hideous I sometimes wonder how I can go on. I think if it were not for my painting I would end it all.’
When she discovered Lawrence was shortly off to Europe, Brett threw a party at her studio in Earl’s Court Road. It was attended by the usual suspects: Gertler, Kotiliansky, Murry, Mansfield and her friend Estelle Rice, Carrington, and Frieda. But it was ruined by a group of gate crashers and so another, more intimate gathering, was arranged two days later. In quieter surroundings they were able to play charades, with Lawrence ‘trotting round the room riding an imaginary bicycle, ringing the bell.’ She wouldn’t see him again until 1923.
In 1923 Brett had moved to Queen Anne House, Pond Street, Hampstead. The critic Middleton Murry, whose partner Katherine Mansfield had died in January, lived next door. Frieda arrived in the UK first, though she wasn’t entirely sure whether Lawrence would follow her from New Mexico. But he does, arriving six weeks later, and just in time for Christmas. He is immediately affronted by the smallness of Brett’s home, yet astonished she has a Rolls Royce parked outside. Pumped up from his savage pilgrimage across the globe, he immediately announces ‘Brett, I am not a man…I am MAN’ and immediately invites her to join him in Taormina or New Mexico. The same invitation is extended to the rest of their inner circle in the infamous dinner party that left Lawrence with a two day hangover. Only Brett would take him up on the offer.
When Lawrence wasn’t insulting Brett about her humble dwellings, the two made flowers together out of clay and then painted them. Being creative enabled them to bond, which was far more preferable than being asked innumerable questions by people, which bored Lawrence. One evening, while Frieda sat knitting and sowing, Lawrence and Brett made a plasticine tree and an Adam and Eve. Murry contributed a snake. Lawrence took devilish pleasure in the ‘scandalised faces’ of his friends as they peered at his naked Adam ‘so with ironical glee you snip off his indecency, and then mourn for him his loss.’
Brett was immediately attracted by Lawrence’s ‘soft Midland voice’ yet notes his use of ‘thee’ and ‘tha’ – usually attributed to the Yorkshire dialect. She observes the way his mouth pulls down at one corner – ‘the ever ready, amused jeer is on your lips’. But it is his kindness that lures her to him, the way he probes ‘delicately into my life and ideas and feelings, sensitive to my sensitiveness.’ But he is less sensitive in his criticisms of her chosen profession, insisting paintings are dead and that there is no life in still lives. Knud Merrild, in his memoir A Poet and Two Painters, would recall similarly condescending conversations. Yet Lawrence, a man of wonderful contradictions, would find solace in art during his latter years, and, inevitably, his paintings would cause as much controversy as his novels. But for Brett, art had a more pragmatic function. It helped fund her trip to New Mexico.
The friends spent Christmas Day together, but only on condition that they ate goose. Lawrence had had enough of turkey. Always attentive with every task he undertook, he stuffed the goose with sage and onions, laying strips of bacon across the chest. To appease his growing homesickness for New Mexico, they take a trip to The Stand to see The Covered Wagon. During the performance Lawrence hums the song that’s the keynote to the story: ‘Oh, oh, Susanna, don’t you sigh for me, for I’m waiting here in Oregon with my banjo on my knee.’ Brett lovingly adapts these lyrics years later to ‘Oh, oh, Lorenzo, don’t you sigh for me, for I’m waiting here in Kiowa with your Timsy on my knee.’ Timsy being his cat.
When it’s time to finally leave, Lawrence is excited to be sailing on The Aquitania, as he’s never been on such a large ship before. Brett is equally excited, as she has only ever been on a Channel boat. Her servant, who knows her well, mourns Brett’s departure, rightly predicting she will never return, despite Brett’s assurance she’ll only be gone for six months. Her servant was right. Brett would only return back to England for two weeks in 1924. Once on the ship, Frieda retreats to her cabin, leaving Brett and Lawrence to excitedly wander the decks. Adventure and exploration will be a defining trait of their friendship across the Pond. As the two stand on deck watching England fade away, Lawrence remarks ‘I am always a bit sad at leaving England, and yet I am always glad to be gone.’
In the DH Lawrence Memory Theatre we want to address various aspects of Lawrence’s life through artefacts. How can we capture his love of charades? His voyage on the Aquitania? Or those small gatherings of arty folk in Hampstead? In 2019 we will be building our Memory Theatre and retracing Lawrence’s savage pilgrimage both physically and digitally. If you have an idea for an artefact, get involved and submit ideas here.
When Lawrence returned to Taos to give it another go, Tony and Mabel Dodge Luhan (MDL) had also recently returned from their first long absence from home. It was the opportunity for a fresh start, or so went the plan. This time Lawrence and the QB had returned with a new guest, Dorothy Brett (10 November 1883 – 27 August 1977). ‘The Brett,’ as she was known, was a former student of the Slade School of Art and of aristocratic ancestry. Partially deaf, she had a brass ear trumpet stuck to her ear, rotating it to listen into conversations. ‘It was not a jolly, sociable ear trumpet that longed to be a part of everything else,’ complained MDL, ‘I soon saw that it was an eavesdropper. It was a spy upon any influence near Lorenzo.’ Oh dear, he we go again…
Brett is dismissed by MDL, rather unfairly, as some kind of commodity who is passed around the literati to satiate their various needs. First, she was Katherine Mansfield’s close confident, then the brief love interest of Middleton Murry, and now Lawrence’s typist. But she was a lot more to Lawrence than mere typist which probably explains MDLs lack of compassion towards her hearing aid. Brett was a threat; another obstacle thwarting the flow between her and Lawrence.
The Lawrence’s moved into a two storey house across the alfalfa from MDL. Brett had a studio a few doors away. Brett’s accommodation was tiny, but she was content to sit and paint the Truchas Peaks which lie on the divide between the Rio Grande and the Pecos River. MDL couldn’t accept that this shy, quiet artist was content perfecting her craft, instead she accuses Brett of ‘watching every move of Lorenzo to and fro between our houses.’
MDL picks fault with Brett at every opportunity in her memoir. She is keen to point out that although Brett’s father, Viscount Esher, had kept a racing stable; he never let his daughters ride. Whereas, of course, MDL had her own horses. But any hopes she had of long treks out into the mountains with Lawrence on her own are soon scuppered when Lawrence, who revelled in imparting knowledge, taught Brett to ride. They would end up taking long rides together. Given Brett’s deafness, a lot of these horse rides were taken in silence. In her memoir, Lawrence and Brett: A Friendship, she suggests that Lawrence enjoyed the peace and tranquillity of simply trotting along and being at one with his immediate environment, rather than being harassed for his affections by MDL.
To her credit, MDL tries every trick in the book to get close to Lawrence – which makes for unintentionally hilarious reading when it goes sour. One of the most bizarre examples of this is a haircutting incident. Lawrence didn’t want to trudge down to Taos to get his locks chopped, so they decided to do it in-house. MDL, dramatic and desperate as ever, writes: ‘I longed to have him shear me.’ But Lawrence wouldn’t shear anyone, instead Brett, courteous as ever, steps in. Not being a professional hairdresser she accidentally cuts MDL’s ear in the process, which ramps up the paranoia to new heights: ‘She hated me, she was deaf, and she tried to mutilate my ear.’
Brett paints a slightly different version of events in her memoir, recalling that Lawrence – a man not accustomed for his patience – becoming irritated at having to sit still, barking ‘haven’t you finished yet?’ A bowl is placed over his head and ‘I snip and snip as I have seen barbers do, but somehow it is not quite so easy as it looks.’ Needless to say Lawrence is not impressed: ‘For heaven’s sake. Get a man to cut my hair. You’ve given me a debutante bob.’ When it’s MDL’s turn she complains that Brett is pulling her and that it hurts. When she cuts her ear by mistake, Brett recalls a calmer MDL saying ‘It’s all right, Brett; it’s nothing. It’s almost healed and doesn’t matter.’
The latest cabin that MDL provided for the Lawrences required a lot of work. Brett was more than happy to get her hands dirty, passing Lawrence nails as he tacked down the roof. For her troubles she was nicknamed the ‘handmaiden’. Frieda became suspicious of Brett’s intentions, later limiting her home visits to three times a week. At this point Frieda’s relationship with MDL starts to improve, due to their shared distrust of this enthusiastic new guest.
MDL had strong ideas for how the cabin (the former home of Mrs. Sprage) should look and hoped Lawrence would paint the pink house green to blend in with the environment. Instead he painted it cream so that it stood out even more. Then he added a green snake wrapped around the stem of a sunflower. On either side he added a large black butterfly, a white dove, a dark brown bullfrog, and a rooster, followed by the Phoenix rising out of the flames. It was an eyesore that caused scandal with the neighbours. Tony Luhan wouldn’t go near it.
In her memoir, Dorothy Brett recalls Lawrence ‘committing an outrage on the toilet door’ and was under the impression that the reason the design caused so much offence was because of the addition of an Adam and Eve that they painted brown. But this wasn’t the problem. It was the amount of fun they were having together. As Brett recalls, ‘that seems to be the last straw of Mabel’s forbearance…She darts furious glances at us: we giggle and chop and paint. We are, as usual, absorbed, excited and terrifically amused, as doing these silly things amuse us.’
Although MDL was clearly a very difficult woman to be around, you have to admire her perseverance. She, like Lawrence, had an agenda, and was equally stubborn and forceful in trying to realise it. She had given Lawrence the space that he demanded but this affected the ‘psychic flow’ of their relationship, rendering her into a more pragmatic role: ‘Dear Mabel, We need whitewash…turquoise paint, brushes, a packet of tin tacks, a pound of putty, hinges for cupboards and screws. These things whenever anything is coming up, on wheels.’
Understandably, the self-proclaimed ‘Queen of the Indians’ required a more meaningful relationship with her latest project and so heeded Lawrence’s advice at not living life through her head and began building him a great chair. The chair was wide, deep and heavy. ‘I carved it a little and cut up a fine old blanket to upholster it, with shining brass nails. It was intended to become Lawrence’s very own chair. I fancied him always sitting in it and always writing in it…one of those dedicated pieces of furniture that would slowly become associated with him.’ When finished, she hoisted it up on a wagon, ‘where it loomed and swayed like the seat of honour in a triumphal procession.’ Lawrence took an immediate dislike to it, called it ‘the iron maiden,’ and had it send back down the hill.
No matter how hard she tried, MDL ended up annoying Lawrence, largely because she took his advice too literally. In his memoir, A Poet and Two Painters, Knud Merrild recalls a similar incident whereby MDL knitted Lawrence a scarf that comprised 45 different bands of colour. Yes, she had made something with her hands, but the scarf was imbued with symbolic meaning. ‘Look at it’ Lawrence fumed. ‘What a conglomeration of colours! Very bad taste, with no sense of proportion. What an atrocity! Now if she had just knitted a scarf in a few, simple colours, with some feeling in it, it could have been nice. But what does she do? She makes it with her head…the colours, even the proportions, are supposed to have a meaning. It is me and her and Taos!’ Merrild would go on to observe ‘She must be awfully dumb if she doesn’t know that she is annoying Lawrence; or else she is so blindly in love that she can’t see it. And to do it just for the sake of bullying would be too stupid.’
After the Kiowa Ranch was completed, it soon became clear that the idea of communal living wasn’t going to work – no matter how far the distance between the inhabitants. Whenever MDL turned up to say hello she was greeted with a grimace. The tension was exacerbated when Tony shot a porcupine close to Lawrence’s home. MDL claims that this incident would inspire Lawrence’s essay Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine, with him taking credit for the killing. But Knud Merrild confirmed that he taught Lawrence to shoot and he did once shoot a porcupine. Given that his memoir was published 6 years after MDLs, it’s easy to see why MDL may have taken credit for the incident.
Unhappy with running errands for Lawrence, MDL sent up her own errand boy, Clarence, to deliver messages on her behalf. The two men quickly struck up a friendship, enjoying long horseback rides into the desert together. MDL describes Clarence as immediately falling under Lawrence’s spell and that he longed to be ‘victimised’ by Lawrence! Whereas Dorothy Brett notes that Clarence ‘has the impertinence to make googoo eyes at you. You make no sign of having noticed.’ But the bromance didn’t last very long and Clarence soon discovered, via Frieda, that Lawrence wanted to ‘destroy’ MDL. All of this backstabbing, fighting, gossiping, and an almost sado-masochistic desire to get close to a person – who clearly wouldn’t let anyone in – is interspersed with poems and mystic philosophies, all of which helps paint a curious picture of the absolute bonkers life of Bohemians in 1920s New Mexico.
Clearly MDL craved a more ‘spiritual’ relationship with Lawrence and was thwarted at every opportunity. But perhaps the most difficult thing for her to accept was that instead of recording the life of the Pueblo Indians in New Mexico, Lawrence gave everything to Old Mexico. She argues that in The Plumed Serpent ‘he has put the facts of his Taos experience of Indians and drums and dancing, but of actual Indian life there is very little told’. Meanwhile, Mornings in Mexico includes the three essays ‘The Corn Dance,’ ‘Indians and Entertainment,’ and ‘The Snake Dance’. Given she had tried so hard to woo Lawrence to Taos, and that her reasons for doing this were in earnest, the rejection hurt even more. MDL would also inspire the short story The Woman Who Rode Away, in which a naive white woman is sacrificed to an ancient God. It was a damning critique of her own life story, yet she seems more concerned that it’s not set in New Mexico, given she had taken Lawrence to see the ancient cave the story refers to. She argues that the reason he turned from New to Old Mexico in his writing was because ‘he belonged to those centuries of civilisation that come between the bright, true golden age of pure delight and the brilliant age of gold; between these two ‘soulless’ periods when men wandered pitifully wondering what was the matter with the world and with themselves that they should so unaccountably suffer.’
When Lawrence and the QB finally headed back to Europe, it would be the last time that MDL saw them in person. Their relationship would now be left to letters, many of which are published in her memoir. In one letter, Lawrence passes advice on MDL’s own writing, advising her to better disguise the real people she refers to in her script as ‘other people can be utterly remorseless, if they think you’ve given them away.’ And boy did Lawrence give people away in his own books! His depiction of Jessie Chambers as Miriam in Sons and Lovers destroyed their relationship forever. Her brother David Chambers recalls “Lawrence was ruthless. He would make use of anybody. My sister felt that Lawrence had betrayed himself. She felt that he had allowed the animal side of his nature to come to the top.”
Lawrence’s advice to MDL on getting published bitterly reinforced his own experiences: ‘Don’t leave your MSS. to anyone. They’ll all edit them to emasculation. Rouse up and publish them yourself…and don’t have introductions. Don’t be introduced and discussed before you’re there. Don’t have anybody write an introduction. Don’t ask for credentials and letters of recommendation. Publish your things blank straight as they are…have it reviewed in about three good newspapers, and no more. As little publicity as possible…For once put your ego aside. After all, there’s enough of your ego in the book, without having to write your name large on the title page’.
In one letter, after moaning about the weather in Florence, he requested any copyright photographs she might have of Indians for Mornings in Mexico, promising ‘I’ll dedicate the book to you, if you like; to Mabel Dodge Luhan, who called me to Taos’. Lawrence then offset this with some curt advice about her home and land, which he mocked as ‘Mabeltown’: ‘I believe that’s your ambition – to have an earthly kingdom, and rule it. But my dear, it’s an illusion like any other.’
But Lawrence being Lawrence, it’s not long before Europe is getting on his nerves and he’s umming and ahhing about returning to Taos as ‘a change of continent would do me good’ but it all depends on ‘my damned bronchitis’. As always, he’s in denial about his health, claiming ‘it’s partly psychological, of course.’ He is keen to hold onto the ranch, perhaps symbolically, because it gives him some kind of roots. The letters that fill the end of her memoir span his time in Florence, Switzerland, Baden Baden, and finally Bandol, France on 21 Jan 1930, where he seems to have finally mellowed and acknowledged he was equally at fault in their turbulent relationship: ‘if we can manage it, and I can come to New Mexico, then we can begin a new life, with real tenderness in it. Every form of bullying is bad’. He died on 2 March 1930.
In the DH Lawrence Memory Theatre we want to address various aspects of Lawrence’s life through artefacts. Do we have room for an ear trumpet to represent ‘The Brett’ or a scarf for Mabel Dodge Luhan? How can we convey the jealousy, paranoia and infatuation aroused during his time in Taos? If you have an idea for an artefact, please submit ideas here.
When things didn’t work out well for Lawrence in ‘Mabeltown’ he accepted her offer of alternative accommodation higher up in the Del Monte mountains. In her memoir, Lorenzo in Taos, Mabel Dodge Luhan (MDL) claims that Frieda stayed in regular contact by post, primarily requesting that she send cables to her children on her behalf. Frieda would also ask ‘the Danes’ to post letters on her behalf when they joined them for the winter of 1922 (more of them in a future post). Lawrence lacked compassion for Frieda’s maternal instincts, and so MDLs support would have been valued.
MDL invited John Collier, Commissioner of Indian Affairs during the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt, to Taos in the hope that he would do what Lawrence had not – write about the Pueblo Indians. Collier did a better job than Lawrence in terms of direct political engagement, by organising a council meeting on 5 November, 1922, at Santo Domingo Pueblo, to explain how the Bursum Bill would impact on their rights. New Mexico senator Holm Olaf Bursum had proposed a bill in Congress that helped legitimize land claims of ‘non-Indians’ who’d resided for some time on Pueblo lands. An excerpt of testimony in Congress on behalf of the All Indian Pueblos Council stated:
“Now we discover that the Senate has passed a bill, called the Bursum Bill, which will complete our destruction, and that Congress and the American people have been told that we, the Indians, have asked for this legislation. This, we say, is not true. We have never asked for this legislation. We were never given a chance of having anything to say or do about this bill. We have studied the bill over and found that this bill will deprive us of our happy life by taking away our lands and water and will destroy our Pueblo government and our customs which we have enjoyed for hundreds of years, and through which we have been able to be self-supporting and happy down to this day.”
The question of the Indians being usurped from their land led to MDL being visited by the Department of the Interior and her home cited as the ‘centre of disturbance’. When Lawrence heard about this he was characteristically sceptical of the involvement of Collier and his ilk. On 8 Nov, 1923, Lawrence wrote: ‘He will destroy them. It is his saviour’s will to set the claws of his own White egotistic benevolent volition into them. Somewhere, the Indians know that you and Collier would, with your salvationist but poisonous white consciousness, destroy them….I tell you, leave the Indians to their own dark destiny. And leave yourself to the same.’
Although there are clearly many problems with the ‘white man’s burden’ and representing other cultures instead of allowing them to represent themselves, clearly Collier had good intentions and his intervention would prove to be important. But as MDL acutely observes of Lawrence’s character ‘he was so full of suspicion, it had to be directed somewhere or he couldn’t have contained himself’.
The Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, which became known as the Indian New Deal, dramatically changed the federal government’s Indian policy. Although John Collier was largely responsible for the new policy and viewed Indians with great sympathy, not all Native Americans shared his optimism. Tony Luhan, a strong advocate of John Collier, dictated a letter of support to his wife who typed it up. He wanted to persuade other Indians that Collier was their friend and that the reorganization act would bring positive change.
While all of these conversations were starting to emerge in 1922, Lawrence had befriended two stray Danish artists who MDL described as ‘simple, unremarkable characters,’ the suggestion being that she was a complex remarkable creature. She was plainly jealous that he would prefer to head off into the mountains and spend time with them rather than her. Thus, they are barely mentioned in her memoir – despite having a profound effect on Lawrence. Lawrence craved a more simple existence and this meant being as far away from MDL and the arty folk of Taos as possible. They began to correspond by letters, though understandably MDL resented being reduced to a runner of errands to enable Lawrence to live the good life. She wanted something more substantial, craving ‘the daily, rhythmical interchange of power and life with them’
MDL was not a woman used to rejection and so vented her frustration through idle gossip. ‘I turned my tongue loose. I told funny stories about him and emphasized all the weak things in him. He was terribly easy to caricature.’ But she soon discovered he had a wagging tongue of his own and had been belittling her, claiming she tried to make him fall in love with her and that she had attempted to seduce him up on her roof.
Despite the distance between them, Lawrence kept tabs on everything MDL was up to and vice versa. It was a truly odd relationship, best captured by a bizarre event in 1923. After a blazing row, Frieda had headed to New York to sail to England without her husband. Lawrence used the temporary freedom to visit Buffalo, where he met up with Bessie Wilkinson who took him to Lewinston on the Niagara River to visit MDL’s mother who he claimed he wanted to know. Was he doing this to gain information on his nemesis or was he simply curious? But in the present, the visit gave MDL the opportunity to write to him, thereby breaking her vow of silence.
One recurring theme in memoirs of Lawrence during this period is his wild mood swings. One minute he’s putting in the knife, the next he’s fixing the wound. Distance from his subject tended to foster a more positive appreciation of people and places and was the driving force behind his ability to keep moving from place to place. By 23 October, 1923, he writes ‘we rode over the mountains from Tepic and down the barranca and to Mazatlán, and I thought very much of how you and Tony taught F. and me to ride…for that and many things like that, believe me, I am grateful.’ And from Guadalajara on 8 Nov 1923, he reasoned ‘life made you what you are: I understood so much when I was in Buffalo and saw your mother’.
When Lawrence eventually made it to England he immediately wrote to MDL about how awful it was. On 17 December 1923 he complained of being ‘in bed with a bad cold’ which Luhan surmises was inevitable as ‘like most people, when he did not like what he was doing, he became ill.’ He then starts to dissect England with typical scorn, ‘I simply detest it. I shan’t stay long’ and began planning his return back to America by March the following year. But despite his antipathy to his home he recognised that ‘England is a tomb to me…I don’t belong here anymore. It’s like being among the dead of one’s previous existence.’ He even does MDL a favour, submitting one of her stories to Middleton Murry to see if he’d like to publish it in the Adelphi. But Murry rejected the piece.
MDL was completely aware of the pain Frieda felt in not being close to her children and had supported her through this by sending letters on her behalf. Yet she conveniently forgets this, complaining ‘if she at least carried him to places that were healthier for him to live in, it would not have been so bad.’ The trips to London had a purpose for Lawrence as well. He may have written that it was ‘like a dog returning to his vomit’ but they were necessary as he was able to catch up with editors and agents. MDL’s complete adulation of Lawrence means she obscures these facts in her retelling of their adventure. She correctly observes ‘he was never more close to me than in those times when Frieda drew him far away.’ But this applies to anyone and anything he is far away from. It wasn’t necessarily due to a quality of hers.
The trip to London resulted in the infamous dinner party where Lawrence gathered together his closest friends and invited them all to come back to New Mexico with him and set up a community together. Only one person would take up the offer, Dorothy Brett. If MDL had found it difficult to get past Frieda to Lawrence it would become almost impossible with another obstacle added to the equation. And what an obstacle The Brett would turn out to be…
In the DH Lawrence Memory Theatre we want to address various aspects of Lawrence’s life through artefacts. How could we represent his time spent in Taos, his scepticism, his scathing damnation of people and places? If you have an idea about this or other artefacts you think should be included, you can submit ideas here.
Born in 1879, Mabel Dodge Luhan (MDL) had a difficult childhood. Her controlling wealthy parents were incapable of affection meaning her childhood was lived ‘in a rigid unlovely inescapable pattern.’ Art offered her the emotional connection missing from family life and would lead to her finding escapism as a patron of the arts in Taos, New Mexico. It was here that she hoped to build a colony that would offer an alternative to the mechanical modernism of Western society. Lawrence arrived in September, 1922 but their relationship would turn sour due to a clash of personalities.
Her memoir of their time together is absolutely bonkers; a mixture of psychic discord and infatuation, laced with snipping comments. Take this early description of Lawrence. She makes it quite clear that he’s not her type, yet throughout her memoir she pines for his attention. ‘(He) is tall, but so slightly built and so stooped that he gives the impression of a small man. His head seems too heavy for his slim body and hangs forward. The whole expression is of extreme fragility…He has very large, wide-apart grey eyes, a long, slender face with a chin that is out of proportion long, a defect that is concealed by the aforesaid beard. His upper lip protrudes from his dainty decoration of the beard in a violent red that makes his beard look pink. In the midst of all this, is a very podgy, almost vulgar, certainly undistinguished nose.’
Lawrence’s slenderness is in stark contrast to Frieda’s solidity, something MDL is keen to point out again and again in their opening encounter (as recorded in our previous blog). But after sending Lawrence out to see an Apache Fiesta with her ever so considerate husband Tony, she has the opportunity to spend a bit of time with Frieda. She observes she is better company when Lawrence isn’t around, ‘as is the case with all wives’.
But MDL isn’t interested in bonding with the earthy Frieda – who prefers fags to fonts – she only has eyes for Lawrence. Hoping that he will pen a novel about her journey from New York to New Mexico, she invites him over to her place but makes the mistake of not getting dressed. Lawrence, despite his reputation as a smutty author, was, by all accounts, a bit of a prude. Her casual attire no doubt made him feel uncomfortable, an unnecessary sexual pressure. In Dorothy Brett’s memoir, she notes how ‘you do not care to be touched, to be pawed. Necking makes you furious. Your sex is not to be played with, nor to be belittled by playfulness. It is serious, a danger to be respected as the tiger is respected, hidden in the jungle.’
It’s not surprising, then, that he immediately reported back to Frieda who from that point onwards insisted they work in their house while she was around. This was immensely frustrating for all involved and denied MDL ‘the opportunity to get at him and give him what I thought he needed’. The lack of privacy meant she was unable to ‘unload my accumulation of power’ on him. And so begins the struggle for possession of Lorenzo that will inevitably end up in tears for all involved, as well as bruises for Frieda.
When Lawrence turns down MDL’s psychic advances, the claws come out. She accuses him of power games, and vacillating between the two women. When siding with Frieda he would ‘sling mud at the whole inner cosmos, and at Taos, the Indians, the mystic life of the mountain’ and when with MDL he would ‘talk just wonderfully, with far reaching implications, of the power of consciousness, the growth of the soul’. She reiterates once more that she wanted Lawrence for his mind rather than his body as ‘he’s not physically attractive to women. I don’t think women want to touch him.’ But rather than being an honest appraisal of her feelings, it reads more like an attack on Frieda for desiring him. Or, perhaps, the bitterness of a woman scorned.
Throughout their time together, MDL never once saw Lawrence just sit. Meditation wasn’t his thing. On his protracted trip over to New Mexico he stopped off at Ceylon. After getting bad guts he took his frustration out on the Buddha statues, complaining “Oh I wish he would stand up!” He was certainly restless, although MDL observes that it was more than restlessness, he was pernickety, and a bit of a pain in the arse.
MDL was the daughter of Charles Ganson, a wealthy banker from Buffalo, New York. Her upbringing was in stark contrast to that of Lawrence’s in the mining community of Eastwood. It was no wonder he was restless. Leisure wasn’t a luxury of the working classes. ‘(He) really had very little sense of leisure. After the housework was done, he usually crept into a hedge or some quiet corner and wrote something, sitting on the ground with his knees drawn up.’ The problem was, he wasn’t writing about her.
All of this housework enabled Lawrence to instruct others on the virtues of cleanliness. ‘You don’t know your floor until you have scrubbed it on your hands and knees.’ This wasn’t an option for MDL as she had miles of floors. It would take her all day to clean, time better spent on more useful pursuits, such as connecting with the cosmos. She had servants to do the chores for her. Needless to say Lawrence disapproved, believing servants removed contact with life. He would apply the same criticism to cars that sped past through the living world, though he didn’t mind a lift when it suited him.
MDL describes her body as being square and therefore she tried to mask her solidity through loose fitting clothes that hung off the shoulder. Lawrence didn’t approve of this either, believing the female form should be celebrated rather than concealed, proclaiming ‘the kind of clothes my mother wore were the most-lovely pattern any woman could have’.
Despite their clashes over housework and clothing, there were many happy occasions too. MDL taught Lawrence to ride horses which he would be eternally grateful for. He seemed to pick it up really quickly, despite ‘riding as though the saddle hurt’. It meant that they could go on long rides together. But even this backfired when Lawrence taught Dorothy Brett to ride and ended up preferring her company on long journeys, presumably because they often rode in silence on account of her deafness.
When MDL decided to give marriage a fourth shot, she married Native American Indian Tony Luhan in 1923. He persuaded her to buy a 12-acre (49,000 m2) property which included a ranch up on Lobo Mountain which Lawrence would fictionalise in the novella St. Mawr. The ranch was a present to her son John who was engaged to marry Alice Corbin. Despite her feminist principles, MDL asked Lawrence to give him a bit of advice. John reported he was advised ‘Never to let Alice know my thoughts. To be gentle with her when she was gentle but if she opposed my will, to beat her’. Despite this ‘useful’ advice, the two inevitably soon fell out.
It wasn’t long before Lawrence had had enough of ‘Mabeltown’ and so he and Frieda rented a separate cottage further up on Del Monte Ranch. MDL hoped that corresponding via letters may give her the intimacy with Lawrence that they’d been unable to achieve in person, but again she was wrong. These were shared with Frieda, ‘just to make everything square and open’.
Lorenzo in Taos is a fascinating social document that captures an earnest attempt to forge alternative ways of living in between the Great Wars. Some observations make you cringe and wince and are unintentionally hilarious. But there are some prescient observations too that shed light on life with a notoriously difficult writer.
‘Of course he was often gay. I don’t want you to think that in those first years he was cross or morose all the time. He was all right so long as things went his way. That is, if nothing happened to slight him. He simply couldn’t bear to have anyone question his power, his rightness, or even his appearance. I think his uncertainty, about himself, a vague feeling of inferiority, made him touchy.’
In the DH Lawrence Memory Theatre we want to address various aspects of Lawrence’s life through artefacts. How could we represent the tension between Lawrence, Frieda and Mabel Dodge Luhan? If you have an idea about this or other artefacts you think should be included, you can submit ideas here.
‘Lawrence! – this is the best that has been done yet – And yet if you knew what lies untouched behind these externals, unreached by the illuminating vision of a simple soul yet! Oh come!’ Inscription inside a copy of The Land of Poco Tiempo (1893) by Charles Fletcher Lummis that Mabel sent to Lawrence to entice him to Taos.
In the world of electronic media, communication is pretty easy. You type out a text, press send, and voila. But back in the 1920s things were a bit more complex. After trying the traditional route of sending a letter, Mabel Dodge Luhan (MDL), a wealthy American patron of the arts, went for a more unconventional way of luring DH Lawrence to her home in Taos, New Mexico. She willed him to come. ‘I drew myself all in to the core of my being where there is a live, plangent force lying passive…I leaped through space, joining myself to the central core of Lawrence, where he was in India, in Australia…I became the action that brought him across the sea.’
MDL was convinced that Lawrence would be able to help the Pueblo Indians by documenting their lives. Although he was keen to visit, he didn’t share her sense of urgency. Undeterred, MDL asked her husband Tony to help her. Tony Luhan was a Native American Indian who had wooed MDL by setting up a tepee in front of her house, drumming each night until she eventually succumbed to his advances. If they combined magical powers, surely Lawrence would get his arse in gear and fulfil his destiny. Tony was reluctant to use his magic at first, arguing ‘the Indians believe that utterance is loss and that the closed and unrevealed holds power’ but this wasn’t the time for passivity and so MDL, sounding a bit like a business executive, ‘overruled him’.
When Lawrence and the QB finally turned up, Tony and MDL picked them up from Lamy station, 20 miles beyond Santa Fey. The charcoal kilns were burning pinon-wood, filling the air with a smell of incense. But MDL’s descriptions of their initial encounter are far from tranquil. The claws are out immediately. Frieda is described as having ‘a mouth like a gunman’ and Lawrence ‘ran with short, quick steps at her side…his slim fragility beside Frieda’s solidity.’ He is described as ‘scurrying’ to her side, and that he ‘twitches’ as he hides ‘behind her big body’. Given she had previously bragged about controlling her own husband she doesn’t seem to enjoy other women controlling their own.
Lawrence was ‘agitated, fussy, distraught, and giggling with nervous grimaces’ whereas Frieda ‘immediately saw Tony and me sexually, visualising our relationship.’ MDL is quite perceptive here, recognising Lawrence was uncomfortable with Frieda’s overt sensuality and that he was ‘through with that’. She observes ‘Frieda was complete, but limited. Lawrence, tied to her, was incomplete and limited. Like a lively lamb tied to a solid stake.’ Ouch. Full of hubris and an unhealthy infatuation with Lawrence, MDL believes she has the transformative power ‘that succeeds primary sex…the womb behind the womb’. She can be Lawrence’s emotional and intellectual confident.
As the four set off together in the car, the tensions begin to mount. This is made worst when the car brakes. Tony knows nothing about cars, but has a look under the bonnet – perhaps willing it to work. Frieda tells Lawrence to man up and get out and fix it but instead he starts ranting about these ‘nasty, unintelligent, unreliable things’ – that being the cars, rather than women. However, in Knud Merrild’s memoir A Poet and Two Painters (1938), he recalls Lawrence eagerly jumping out of their beloved but unrealiable car ‘Lizzie’ to help fix it as ‘he couldn’t bear not to be master of the situation.’
Fortuitously, Tony manages to get the car started without the aid of a drum or magic and they head to Sante Fe. But the drama isn’t over yet. The hotels are all booked up. But Witter Bynner and Spud Johnson are ‘always up’, and they host them for the night.
The next day there was a horrendous storm. The hail ‘battering upon the top of the car like cannon balls, cracking open on the ground like splitting shells.’ Unsurprisingly, MDL finds cosmic resonance in the weather, attributing it to her new guest. Although the storm did not last long, it managed to destroy all of the crops resulting in practically no harvests taken in all that year.
When Lawrence and Frieda finally arrived at MDLs, they had food in her dimly lit home and Lawrence, appreciative as ever, commented ‘It’s like one of those nasty little temples in India!’ When talk moved to their boat journey over, Lawrence shared his horror at having to share the deck with a group of Hollywood people. ‘Lawrence made us see that ship; the long slow passage through the blue sea, the reckless, sensational crowd on board, and his own watching angry, righteous, puritanical presence among them.’
And so begins a bizarre, loving, hateful, jealous, bitchy psychodrama that would be played out over campfires, charades, horseback rides and numerous letters up in the Lobo Mountains.
Source: Mabel Dodge Luhan (1932) Lorenzo in Taos (chapter 2). See previous blog on Luhan and Lawrence here.
In the DH Lawrence Memory Theatre we want to address various aspects of Lawrence’s life through artefacts. How could we represent Lawrence’s time in Taos or Mabel Dodge Luhan’s quirky personality? If you have an idea about this or other artefacts you think should be included, you can submit ideas here.