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.
- Lawrence and Brett 1: A Friendship (thedigitalpilgrimage.wordpress.com)
- Lawrence and Brett 2: Changing rooms (thedigitalpilgrimage.wordpress.com)
- Lawrence and Brett 3: Oaxaca and Phallic radishes (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)