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.
- Lawrence and Brett 1: A Friendship (thedigitalpilgrimage.wordpress.com)
- Lawrence and Brett 2: Changing rooms (thedigitalpilgrimage.wordpress.com)
- Lawrence and Brett 4: Rosalino the Mozo (thedigitalpilgrimage.wordpress.com)
- Lawrence and Brett 5: You can’t go home again (thedigitalpilgrimage.wordpress.com)
- Lawrence and Brett 6: You, Me and Capri (thedigitalpilgrimage.wordpress.com)
- Lawrence and The Plumed Serpent (mexicolore.co.uk)
- The Valley of Oaxaca (catterall.net)
- Mexican Revolution blog (felixsommerfeld.com)
- One year in Oaxaca (underamexicansky.com)