In 1932 Mabel Dodge Luhan published a memoir of her life with the Lawrence’s in Taos, New Mexico. Published two years after his death, it offered a vital insight into the controversial author who had rubbed everyone up the wrong way and consequently caused great intrigue. The opening chapter includes lots of letters from the Lawrence’s and commentary from Luhan. By all accounts Lawrence comes across as a right pain in the arse – indecisive, guttural, and highly sceptical of the community Luhan had built for herself.
In the preface to Mabel Dodge Luhan’s memoir, Lorenzo in Taos, she warns ‘that I could only tell in these pages how we all were then’. It’s an apology of sorts, recognition that her invitation to Lawrence and Frieda to come experience life in New Mexico ‘does not end happily.’
Luhan invited Lawrence because she wanted him to experience the country before the ugly face of modernity came along and ‘exploited’ and ‘spoiled’ it. She hoped he would be able to record New Mexico ‘in that queer way of his,’ as he had done in Sea and Sardinia. In explaining his vivid skill of capturing ‘the feel and touch and smell of places,’ Luhan observes, ‘perhaps it is because, when he is writing, the experience is more actual to him than when it occurred. He is in the place again, reliving in retrospect more vividly than he was able to do at the time it happened.’ Ouch.
Luhan, a wealthy patron of the arts, was used to getting what she wanted. But just to make sure she sent an Indian necklace to Frieda that carried ‘some Indian magic’ and some Desachey and Osha leaves for Lawrence to lure him over.
Lawrence replied on 5 November 1921, proudly reporting ‘we are very practical, do all our own work, even the washing, cooking, floor-cleaning.’ But this is because he loathes ‘servants creeping around’. Rather than thank Luhan for her kind offer of putting them up, he takes an early prod, enquiring whether he’ll encounter ‘a colony of rather dreadful sub-arty people’.
On reading Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious, Luhan had detected ‘capabilities in him that would enable him to understand the invisible but powerful spirit that hovered over the Taos Valley.’ But getting him over was turning out to be more difficult than she had imagined. Despite accepting her invitation, they were in no hurry. On the 22 January 1922, Frieda wrote to Luhan explaining Lawrence ‘doesn’t feel strong enough’ to face America yet but they had a cunning plan. They would take a detour to Ceylon on their travels as ‘strengthened with Buddha, noisy, rampageous America might be easier to tackle.’ Why not join them?
Luhan knew what they really meant. ‘They were scared. They wanted to see me, take a look,’ effectively try before you buy. ‘People were always warning other people about me,’ she confides, suggesting either her fears were justified or that she had an inflated sense of her own self-importance. But it’s not about her. It’s all about him. And the one thing Lawrence can’t stand is the arty literary crowds whom he describes as ‘smoking, steaming shits.’ So he advises Luhan to ‘spit on every neurotic, and wipe your feet on his face if he tries to drag you down.’ Then he calms down a bit and sends a postcard as he sets sail from Naples, thanking Luhan for being ‘so kind’ but that it is his destiny to venture elsewhere for a bit.
On 10 April, 1922, Luhan receives a letter from Kandy, Ceylon. Needless to say Lawrence is not happy. He complains of ‘the scents that make me feel sick…the nauseous tropical fruits…the little vulgar dens of the temples.’ Charming. And if she thought for one moment the experience had increased his urge to head to Taos, she was wrong. He was now heading to Australia. But he was still excited at the thought of coming to America, expressing these sentiments in his unique fashion. ‘I wish I could come to America without meeting the awful ‘cultured’ Americans with their limited self-righteous ideals and their mechanical love-motion and their bullying, detestable negative creed of liberty and democracy.’ Luhan is clearly a bit frustrated at these ‘silly detours’ and believes that the delay ‘strengthened something in me that he hated’, that being, a strong feminist principle.
When Lawrence writes from Australia on 9 June he’s keen to emphasise that his visit has been as an anonymous traveller and that when he does finally make it to Taos he doesn’t want her to inform ‘anybody we are coming.’ On the 18 July he is finally ready to come to Taos, not because he wants to but because Australia has nothing left to offer him – ‘Have done my novel and have nothing further to do.’ Frieda, on the other hand, has more pragmatic demands, requesting ‘don’t give us too little a place to live in, we are much too quarrelsome…we mustn’t be too much on top of each other or we get on each other’s nerves.’
At this point, Mabel Dodge Luhan must have regretted invited them over. They’ve delayed their arrival date, disclosed they bicker, and Lawrence has been highly critical of the arty community that Luhan has strived to develop, at her own cost, over the years. But there you have it. One year of fannying around and Lawrence is finally ready to fulfil his ‘real desire to approach America from the West.’ Or is he? ‘I thought of stopping off at Yosemite Valley but feel – Oh Damn scenery…’
In the DH Lawrence Memory Theatre we want to address various aspects of Lawrence’s life through artefacts. How could we represent his indecision or his rudeness to Luhan? How could we represent his time in Taos? If you have an idea about this or other artefacts you think should be included, you can submit ideas here.