In these monthly videos we are locating D.H. Lawrence 100 years ago via his letters. He is currently in Chapala putting the finishing touches to the first draft of what will become The Plumed Serpent...
‘On the hot afternoons one must have something to read[i]’ and so Idella Purnell is given a reading list to source that includes Soeur Philomene (1890) by the Goncourt brothers. Edmund and Jules Goncourt were unique siblings in terms of literary history in that they wrote all their books together and did not spend more than a day apart in their adult lives, until Jules’s death in 1870.
One thing Lawrence doesn’t want to read in his current home of Chapala is John Middleton Murry’s Adelphi magazine which he dismisses as ‘weak, apologetic’ and with ‘nothing to justify its existence.’ Ouch.
‘Mexico is still much more fun’ than America because it is ‘much wilder’. This is evident by the ‘twenty soldiers’ who ‘guard’ the village meaning that Lawrence is unable to ‘walk outside the village for fear of being robbed or carried off by bandits[ii]’. He informs Knud Merrild that ‘with your revolver, gun and knife’ he would be ‘just right here[iii]’.
Lawrence is determined to ‘get this novel off my chest’ before returning to Blighty and hopes to have a ‘first rough draft by the end of the month[iv]’. He considers calling it ‘Quetzalcoatl’ after the nature God quetzal – a rattlesnake covered in green feathers – but ever conscious of sales is concerned ‘will people be afraid to ask for a book with that name[v]’.
Adele Seltzer offers to send over some ‘tinned things’ to tide them over but there’s no need as ‘we have bought chickens that lay eggs and then we eat the chickens[vii]’ As he is doing well, Lawrence turns down repayment from S.S. Koteliansky as ‘at present’ we ‘have enough[viii]’. Best save that for when they invariably fall on hard times again.
He looks out for his friends in other ways too. He advises Frederick Carter, who has sent over a manuscript for what will later become The Dragon of the Alchemists, that ‘short pieces of the book’ could appeal to ‘magazines in New York’ and he can ‘arrange that if (he) wished[ix]’. Whereas he acts as a recruitment agent for Spud Johnson, pitching him as a possible ‘man clerk’ to Thomas Seltzer as ‘he’s very reliable and does good work[x]’.
He ‘intends to leave[xi]’ Mexico and is ‘definitely leaving[xii]’by his next letter, but we’ve been here many times before with literature’s greatest ditherer. Wise to such antics, Catherine Carswell offers up a floor in her Hampstead home should he need it at some point.
Lawrence claims he doesn’t ‘really want to go back to Europe’ but has been forced to because ‘Frieda wants to see her mother[xiii]’ He would much prefer to go ‘round the world again, and try to do a novel in India or China[xiv]’ But the real problem with his current unrest is servitude; without physical work he has no purpose. ‘If we see a place we really like, we will have it and plant bananas – I am already very tired of not doing my own work[xv]’.
The winter of 1922 with the Danish artists Kai Gøtzsche and Knud Merrild was perhaps the closest Lawrence had got to Rananim and so they remain at the forefront of his plans. Therefore, a ‘little farm’ is thrown into the equation and if he can procure one, perhaps ‘you will both come down and help us manage it.[xvi]’ As for their own plans to travel and see the world, there’s no need. Lawrence has done so himself and advises, ‘the ‘world’ has no life to offer. Seeing things doesn’t amount to much’ instead ‘we have to be a few men with honour and fearlessness, and make a life together. There is nothing else, believe me.[xvii]’
This is based on The Cambridge Edition of The Letters of D.H. Lawrence: Vol IV 1921-4.
[i] Letter to Idella Purnell (L2835)
[ii] Letter to Knud Merrild (L2836)
[iii] Letter to Knud Merrild (L2836)
[iv] Letter to Catherine Carswell (L2837)
[v] Letter to Thomas Seltzer (L2843)
[vi] Letter to Thomas Seltzer (L2843)
[vii] Letter to Adele Seltzer (L2841)
[viii] Letter to S.S. Koteliansky (L2840)
[ix] Letter to Frederick Carter (L2842)
[x] Letter to Thomas Seltzer (L2843)
[xi] Letter to Curtis Brown (L2838)
[xii] Letter to Thomas Seltzer (L2839)
[xiii] Letter to Thomas Seltzer (L2843)
[xiv] Letter to Thomas Seltzer (L2843)
[xv] Letter to Kai Gøtzsche and Knud Merrild (L2845)
[xvi] Letter to Kai Gøtzsche and Knud Merrild (L2845)
[xvii] Letter to Knud Merrild (L2849)