Locating Lawrence: June 1922

It’s June 1922. Adolf Hitler begins serving a prison sentence for assault. Judy Garland is born. And Leopold Bloom wanders around Dublin for the day in a book that many readers will never finish. Meanwhile, Lawrence is in Australia.  

He kicks off June with a letter to Mabel Dodge Sterne, informing her that he’s started a new novel and can’t visit until it’s finished. He estimates the end of August. He’s fed up with his current predicament and craves a change of scenery: ‘I do hope I shall get from your Indians something that this wearily external white world can’t give’[i].

He’s living in Thirroul, New South Wales, which has a pit nearby. Consequently, ‘it is rather like the Midlands, the life very familiar and rough’[ii]. Frieda ‘is very happy with her house’[iii] and enjoying the rare pleasure of being settled. Albeit temporarily. As always, he politely reassures his dear Schwiegermutter that they’ll be back in Europe soon: ‘I tell you again, the world is round, and brings the rolling stone home again. And I must go till I find something that brings me peace.[iv]’ By peace he means somewhere he is able to knock out a couple of books, as he was able to do the previous year in Ebersteinburg where he wrote Aaron’s Rod and Fantasia of the Unconscious[v].

‘Wyewurk’ in Thirroul, NSW.

Lawrence is enamored with the cost of meat in Thirroul, eagerly informing: ‘Two good sheep’s tongues, 60 pfennigs – and a great piece of beef, enough for twelve people, two marks’[vi] However, everything else is ‘exorbitantly expensive’[vii]. With only £31 to live off, he gives his literary agent Robert Mountsier a comprehensive breakdown of his living costs and requests a loan of at least £160 for when they set off to America as he can’t travel second class as ‘these boats are so small there is practically no deck accommodation’. All of which means he needs to get Kangaroo[viii] finished as soon as he can.

Lawrence is insistent that nobody is informed of his plans to visit America[ix]  and revels in the splendid isolation of Australia. ‘We live mostly with the sea – not much with the land – and not at all with people…we don’t know a soul on this side of the continent…for the first time in my life I feel how lovely it is to know nobody in the whole country…One nice thing about these countries is that nobody asks questions. I suppose there have been too many questionable people here in the past.[x]

Lawrence is highly critical of democracy throughout his letters in Australia. And ‘the more I see of democracy the more I dislike it. It just brings everything down to the mere vulgar level of wages and prices, electric lights and water closets and nothing else’.[xi] He identifies a frenetic aspect to the culture where people ‘are always vaguely and meaninglessly on the go’ in ‘smart boots’, ‘silk stockings’ – don’t get Lawrence started on stockings – and ‘motor cars’[xii]. Although it’s easy to dismiss Lawrence as a killjoy, things are always more complex and nuanced. ‘That’s what life in a new country does to you: it makes you so material, so outward, that your real inner life and your inner self dies out, and you clatter round like so many mechanical animals’.[xiii] Lawrence doesn’t need anyone or anything as ‘the sea is extraordinary good company’[xiv].

Despite these reservations, he’s intrigued by the place. The landscape reminds him of a Puvis de Chavannes (1824 – 98) painting as it is ‘so apparently monotonous, yet when you look into it, such subtly different distances, in layers, and such exquisite forms – trees, flat hills, – strange, standing as it were at the back of the vision.’[xv] Much has been written about the duality of Lawrence’s personality and so it’s no surprise that he should feel so conflicted about his current abode. ‘Often I hate it like poison,’ he writes to Catherine Carswell, ‘then again it fascinates me, and the spell of its indifference gets me. I can’t quite explain it: as if one resolved back almost to the plant kingdom, before souls, spirits and minds were grown at all: only quite a live, energetic body with a weird face.’[xvi]

Living in such a vast open country which ‘tempts one to disappear’[xvii] both the Lawrence’s are aware that cabin fever awaits them in New Mexico. In a joint letter to Mabel Dodge Sterne, Frieda warns ‘don’t give us too little a place to live in, we are much too quarrelsome – it’s quite fatal’ whereas Lawrence, channeling Basil Fawlty, advises ‘we both like to keep sufficiently clear of one another’.[xviii]

Oh Mabel, what have you let yourself in for?

References


[i] Letter to Mabel Dodge Sterne, 3 June 1922.

[ii] Letter to S.S. Koteliansky, 5 June 1922.

[iii] Letter to Earl Brewster, 5 June. Italicisation of her is my emphasis.  

[iv] Letter to Baroness Anna von Richthofen, 9 June 1922.

[v] Letter to Baroness Anna von Richthofen, 9 June 1922.

[vi] Letter to Baroness Anna von Richthofen, 9 June 1922.

[vii] Letter to Else Jaffe, 13 June 1922.

[viii] Letter to Thoms Seltzer, 11 June 1922.

[ix] Letter to Thomas Seltzer, 11 June 1922.

[x] Letter to Else Jaffe, 13 June 1922.

[xi] Letter to Else Jaffe, 13 June 1922.

[xii] Letter to Else Jaffe, 13 June 1922.

[xiii] Letter to Else Jaffe, 13 June 1922

[xiv] Letter to Earl Brewster, 13 June 1922.

[xv] Letter to Earl Brewster, 13 June 1922.

[xvi] Letter to Catherine Carswell, 22 June 1922.

[xvii] Letter to Robert Mountsier, 21 June 1922.

[xviii] Letter to Mabel Dodge Sterne, 21 June 1921.

Locating D.H. Lawrence: May 1922

On 4 May 1922, Lawrence and Frieda disembarked from the Orsova in Western Australia. They stayed briefly in the east of Perth with Mollie Skinner for whom Lawrence would later collaborate on The Boy in the Bush (1924). A few weeks later they would head to Western Australia on the Malwa. Would Lawrence find happiness in Australia? Hmm.  

His initial observation of Darlington, in a letter to Robert Mountsier, is that of a ‘queer godforsaken place: not so much new as non-existent’[i]. This is followed with the obligatory doubt of how long he will stay and a warning that he may need to cable for more money. At the time he was writing from the Savoy Hotel, Perth which he claims is the most expensive hotel he’s ever stayed in, and he will thus be leaving the next day. Despite money worries, he remains determined: ‘I’ll see this damned world, if only to know I don’t want to see any more of it. – Au revoir[ii].’

Mabel Dodge Sterne (nee Luhan)

Mabel Dodge Sterne is informed they’ll be in Taos ‘easily by August’[iii] but this is unlikely given he has a whole new continent to explore.   

On 15 May, Lawrence writes to his dear Schwiegermutter to inform that Frieda is ‘so disappointed’ as she’d hoped to find ‘much greater space and jollier people’[iv]in Oz. Lawrence’s descriptions of the bush are of an eerie liminal space. It is ‘hoary and unending, no noise, still, and the white trunks of the gum trees all a bit burnt: a forest, a preforest: not a primeval forest: somewhat like a dream, a twilight forest that has not yet seen a day. It is too new, you see: too vast. It needs hundreds of years yet before it can live’. He goes on to describe it as a ‘fourth dimension,’ ‘nervous, neurotic’ inhabited by ghosts[v].

He is slightly more appreciative when he writes to Jan Juta a few days later on 20 May: ‘Australia has a marvellous sky and air and blue clarity and a hoary sort of land beneath it, like a Sleeping Princess on whom the dust of ages has settled. Wonder if she’ll ever get up.[vi]

It’s not somewhere he can imagine settling, unless he ever gave up ‘the literary sponge,’ and could ‘live in the bush for next to nothing’ and with ‘a great free land’ to boot[vii]

Although Lawrence ‘hated’ a great deal of his time in Ceylon – his previous location – on reflection he’s grateful for the experience and determined to visit the South Sea Isles or go around the world again and this time visit Africa, the Himalayas, China and Japan.  ‘I love trying things and discovering how I hate them,’ he tells Earl Brewster.[viii]    

Thomas Seltzer was keen for Lawrence to explore more widely and suggested India as a possible location for another Sea and Sardinia type publication with Jan Juta. But Lawrence ‘didn’t feel like it’[ix]. Amy Lowell had informed Lawrence that Seltzer was ‘getting a name as a merely erotic publisher’[x] and so venturing into travelogues may help offset this.

We learn in a letter to Koteliansky on 20 May that Frieda may not share Lawrence’s addiction to momentum: ‘Frieda wants to have a little house and stay a few months. She is tired of moving on. But I like it. I like the feeling of rolling on.’[xi]

And roll on they do, to Thirroul, 50 miles or so south of Sydney, where he takes a little house on the edge of the Pacific, ‘the weirdest place you ever saw’[xii]. Here, ‘the heavy waves break with a great roar all the time…the sky is dark, and it makes me think of Cornwall’[xiii]. Fortunately, it doesn’t cost much to live there, ‘food is quite cheap’ and ‘good meat is only fivepence or sixpence a pound’[xiv].

Soon the novelty starts to wear off. ‘I like Australia less and less. The hateful newness, the democratic conceit, every man a little pope of perfection[xv]’ he informs Robert Mountsier on 25 May. All of which would make good material for a novel

References


[i] Letter to Robert Mountsier, 4-7 May 1922.

[ii] Letter to Robert Mountsier, 4-7 May 1922.

[iii] Letter to Mabel Dodge Sterne, 4-7 May 1922.

[iv] Letter to Baroness Anna von Richthofen, 15 May 1922.

[v] Letter to Baroness Anna von Richthofen, 15 May 1922.

[vi] Letter to Jan Juta, 20 May 1922.

[vii] Letter to Robert Mountsier, 26-30 May 1922.

[viii] Letter to Earl Brewster, 15 May 1922.

[ix] Letter to Jan Juta, 20 May 1922.

[x] Letter to Robert Mountsier, 26-30 May 1922.

[xi] Letter to Koteliansky, 20 May 1922.

[xii] Letter to Robert Mountsier, 28 May 1922.

[xiii] Letter to Baroness Anna von Richthofen, 30 May 1922.

[xiv] Letter to Baroness Anna von Richthofen, 30 May 1922.

[xv] Letter to Robert Mountsier, 25 May 1922.

Shelfie: Alison Moore ‘Missing’

What role does D.H. Lawrence play in the life of a literary translator in Alison Moore’s novel about loss, memory and ghosts…

Following a family tragedy, Jessie Noon moved from the Fens to the Midlands and currently lives on the Scottish Borders with a cat, dog and – so she believes – a ghost. To compel matters, she hasn’t seen her son for years and is receiving mysterious messages stating, ‘I’m on my way home’. Perhaps her fortunes will change when she strikes up a relationship with Robert, a local outreach worker.

As a literary translator, Jessie is in a position of responsibility, consumed with finding the right words to ensure clear communication. She understands how structures and syntax create meaning. But her own life is harder to categorise and define – particularly when seemingly solid structures around her begin to disintegrate and crack. We learn that a child has gone missing, a boy is in a coma, and then there’s the unborn baby…

There are both implicit and explicit references to D.H. Lawrence in this short novel. Moore gives a nod to Lawrence when she used the line, ‘the wind muttered at the window and the trees shook off the last of their leaves’ which is taken from Lawrence’s poem ‘At the Window’. The most obvious reference, though, is having the main protagonist Jesse reading her third biography of Lawrence, despite knowing she will have to endure him die all over again. She informs us that Lawrence is always ‘poised between worlds’ – new and old, rural v industry and that characters from his books are always ‘torn between staying and leaving, torn between this world, this life, and another.’

Jesse Noon is also caught between places and stuck in a kind of emotional limbo given her personal circumstances. The novel is full of transient descriptions such as childhood memories of ‘crossing the invisible border between France and Germany’ and how writers are hidden behind agents and editors. We later discover that her husband Will, who walked out on her a year ago, left a goodbye message written in steam on the bathroom mirror, that would eventually disappear, like him. This is very different to a handwritten note which would give solidity to the facts and allow her to ponder the words. A recurring theme in Moore’s novel is being present yet absent.

Moore uses the biography of Lawrence as a narrative device to mirror events in Jesse Noon’s life. For example, when her husband leaves her, it’s at the point she’s reading about Lawrence eloping with Frieda. When she later has an affair with Robert she observes, ‘He had no curtains, just wooden blinds. He had no cushions. She supposed that the hard, bare surfaces were easier to keep clean’. She feels guilty because she has left her dog on its own and it needs feeding and so returns home. Later she reads her Lawrence biography: ‘She read a chapter, in which Lawrence mistreated a dog, and Jessie loved the book for its kindness, for how it tried to understand and forgive Lawrence for his flaws’.

There are implicit references to Lawrence as well. Moore is a writer of meticulous detail, much of which simmers below the surface, and so I don’t believe these are coincidental. She is too good a writer to leave anything to chance. Let’s start with Noon, the surname of the main protagonist. Is this a nod to Mr Noon, Lawrence’s unfinished novel published posthumously and if so, how does this add extra layers of meaning? Firstly, choosing to refer to an ‘unfinished’ novel fits with the uncanny and unresolved issues raised in Missing. Secondly, there are ethical questions around publishing ‘unfinished’ work. Finally, there is the issue of critics interpreting this work and imposing their own meaning on to it. Lawrence biographer Benda Maddox argues Mr Noon is a ‘factually accurate and barely fictionalized account of Lawrence and Frieda’s early sexual relations’. All of these ambiguities reinforce various themes raised in Moore’s novel, which is why I believe the title is a deliberate nod to Lawrence’s 1934 novel.    

Jesse Noon is a translator, as was Lawrence. Lawrence had a superb command of language. He could speak German, French, Spanish and Italian and translated the works of Giovanni Verga. He even attempted Russian but found it too difficult and so had to collaborate with S.S. Koteliansky. Moore has made her main protagonist a translator not to echo Lawrence’s life but because of what the profession implies. Translation involves interpretation and communication (and miscommunication).

We learn that Jessie has three versions of The Outsider, each with a different translation of the opening line. Even something as solid and tangible as a book has a degree of uncertainty about it. Likewise, Ulysses was meddled with years after James Joyce’s death. There are multiple versions of books. Nothing is ever final. This allows Moore to make the sinister observation that ‘she would once have said death, death was final, but she was no longer sure about that’.

The opening to Missing sees Jesse attend a Halloween party dressed as someone who had died of TB – the disease that eventually took Lawrence’s life in 1930. It is such an odd choice of fancy dress, particularly given that TB is no longer the threat it once was, is this another intertextual reference?    

Jessie grew up in the suburbs and longed to live in either the centre of London or on a farm, some kind of extreme, but she finds herself living in neither, still somewhere between. Lawrence lived a nomadic life and always seemed happiest when he was in a boat, neither here nor there, enjoying liminal space on his way to the next adventure.

Moore is clearly either a fan of Lawrence or knowledgeable about him as he is also mentioned in her 2016 novel He Wants. She is a nuanced author who ensures every sentence counts and so the implicit references, no matter how tangential, are worth considering. Readers are the ultimate interpreters – we bring our own history to the text and this, to some degree, informs how we perceive those squiggly patterns of ink on a page. The author provides structures and signposts to push us in a very particular direction so that we don’t get lost in ourselves.