Our previous five blogs explored Lawrence’s time in New Mexico from the perspective of Mabel Dodge Luhan. Now it’s time to turn our attention to a very different memoir: Brett and Lawrence: A Friendship. The title pretty much sums up Brett’s feelings, though their friendship could have developed into something more but for acute shyness and clumsiness on both sides.
‘Friendship is as binding
As the Marriage Vow –
As important – as Eternal –‘
Born in1883, Dorothy Brett was the third of four siblings. Her grandfather was Queen Victoria’s Master of the Rolls as well as Lord Chief Justice of the Court of Appeals. Her French grandmother had a more challenging start to life, discovered as an abandoned baby on the battlefield at Waterloo, she was adopted by Colonel Gurwood, the personal assistant of Wellington. To complicate matters further, her great grandmother was rumoured to have been the mistress of Napoleon. On her maternal side, writes John Manchester in his prologue to Brett’s memoir, her Belgium grandfather was none other than Van de Weyer, who had helped put Leopold I on the throne, while her maternal grandmother was the daughter of a rich Boston banker. By all accounts she had a completely different social upbringing to Lawrence, yet the two would become very close friends. This is all lovingly shared in Brett’s memoir that is narrated directly to Lawrence, written two years (check) after his death.
The first time Brett met Lawrence was in 1915. They were invited to a gathering at the home of British artist Mark Gertler (1891-1939) in the Vale of Heath, London. Gertler, one of five children to Polish-Jewish immigrants, was a British painter specialising in figure subjects, portraits and still-life. From a young age it was clear that he had a unique talent for drawing but his path to success would be hampered by financial difficulties. Due to his family’s poverty, Gertler was forced to drop out of Regent Street Polytechnic in 1906 and take up employment. In 1908 he successfully applied for a scholarship from the Jewish Education Aid Society (JEAS) and enrolled at the Slade School of Art, London where he would become a contemporary of the likes of Paul Nash and Stanley Spencer. It was at Slade that he met Brett, who studied there from 1910 to 1916, introducing her to artistic and literary circles that included the Bloomsbury Group.
Brett’s description of Gertler ‘with his thick, dark, curly hair, cut like a Florentine boy, the delicate, clear-cut features, the long grey eyes, he was as beautiful as a Botticelli angel or a wild creature of some Keltic myth’ is beautifully evocative. John Manchester credits this due to her artistic background – ‘Brett writes as a painter – she sees it all before her inner eye as though it were happening right now’. Gertler would succumb to the same disease that also took the life of Katherine Mansfield and Lawrence. He would also be immortalised in fiction as the sculptor Herr Loerke in Lawrence’s Women in Love (1920), Gombauld in Huxley’s Crome Yellow (1921) and his early life would inspire Gilbert Cannan’s novel Mendel (1916).
During their first encounter, Lawrence sat upright with his hands tucked under his thighs. He had an immediate impact on Brett ‘gently coaxing me out of my shyness’ as they sat around a fire in Gertler’s front room. She would have appreciated his attentiveness as her deafness was particularly problematic in crowds. In a letter to Bertrand Russell in 1918, Brett reveals her frustration at being surrounded by an arty community at Garsington Manor but being unable to join in: ‘Can you imagine what it means to see life revolving round you – see people talking and laughing, quite meaninglessly! Like looking through a shop window or a restaurant window. It is all so hideous I sometimes wonder how I can go on. I think if it were not for my painting I would end it all.’
When she discovered Lawrence was shortly off to Europe, Brett threw a party at her studio in Earl’s Court Road. It was attended by the usual suspects: Gertler, Kotiliansky, Murry, Mansfield and her friend Estelle Rice, Carrington, and Frieda. But it was ruined by a group of gate crashers and so another, more intimate gathering, was arranged two days later. In quieter surroundings they were able to play charades, with Lawrence ‘trotting round the room riding an imaginary bicycle, ringing the bell.’ She wouldn’t see him again until 1923.
In 1923 Brett had moved to Queen Anne House, Pond Street, Hampstead. The critic Middleton Murry, whose partner Katherine Mansfield had died in January, lived next door. Frieda arrived in the UK first, though she wasn’t entirely sure whether Lawrence would follow her from New Mexico. But he does, arriving six weeks later, and just in time for Christmas. He is immediately affronted by the smallness of Brett’s home, yet astonished she has a Rolls Royce parked outside. Pumped up from his savage pilgrimage across the globe, he immediately announces ‘Brett, I am not a man…I am MAN’ and immediately invites her to join him in Taormina or New Mexico. The same invitation is extended to the rest of their inner circle in the infamous dinner party that left Lawrence with a two day hangover. Only Brett would take him up on the offer.
When Lawrence wasn’t insulting Brett about her humble dwellings, the two made flowers together out of clay and then painted them. Being creative enabled them to bond, which was far more preferable than being asked innumerable questions by people, which bored Lawrence. One evening, while Frieda sat knitting and sowing, Lawrence and Brett made a plasticine tree and an Adam and Eve. Murry contributed a snake. Lawrence took devilish pleasure in the ‘scandalised faces’ of his friends as they peered at his naked Adam ‘so with ironical glee you snip off his indecency, and then mourn for him his loss.’
Brett was immediately attracted by Lawrence’s ‘soft Midland voice’ yet notes his use of ‘thee’ and ‘tha’ – usually attributed to the Yorkshire dialect. She observes the way his mouth pulls down at one corner – ‘the ever ready, amused jeer is on your lips’. But it is his kindness that lures her to him, the way he probes ‘delicately into my life and ideas and feelings, sensitive to my sensitiveness.’ But he is less sensitive in his criticisms of her chosen profession, insisting paintings are dead and that there is no life in still lives. Knud Merrild, in his memoir A Poet and Two Painters, would recall similarly condescending conversations. Yet Lawrence, a man of wonderful contradictions, would find solace in art during his latter years, and, inevitably, his paintings would cause as much controversy as his novels. But for Brett, art had a more pragmatic function. It helped fund her trip to New Mexico.
The friends spent Christmas Day together, but only on condition that they ate goose. Lawrence had had enough of turkey. Always attentive with every task he undertook, he stuffed the goose with sage and onions, laying strips of bacon across the chest. To appease his growing homesickness for New Mexico, they take a trip to The Stand to see The Covered Wagon. During the performance Lawrence hums the song that’s the keynote to the story: ‘Oh, oh, Susanna, don’t you sigh for me, for I’m waiting here in Oregon with my banjo on my knee.’ Brett lovingly adapts these lyrics years later to ‘Oh, oh, Lorenzo, don’t you sigh for me, for I’m waiting here in Kiowa with your Timsy on my knee.’ Timsy being his cat.
When it’s time to finally leave, Lawrence is excited to be sailing on The Aquitania, as he’s never been on such a large ship before. Brett is equally excited, as she has only ever been on a Channel boat. Her servant, who knows her well, mourns Brett’s departure, rightly predicting she will never return, despite Brett’s assurance she’ll only be gone for six months. Her servant was right. Brett would only return back to England for two weeks in 1924. Once on the ship, Frieda retreats to her cabin, leaving Brett and Lawrence to excitedly wander the decks. Adventure and exploration will be a defining trait of their friendship across the Pond. As the two stand on deck watching England fade away, Lawrence remarks ‘I am always a bit sad at leaving England, and yet I am always glad to be gone.’
In the DH Lawrence Memory Theatre we want to address various aspects of Lawrence’s life through artefacts. How can we capture his love of charades? His voyage on the Aquitania? Or those small gatherings of arty folk in Hampstead? 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.