Chapter 6: Round the world and back again: Ceylon, Australia, America, Mexico, Europe, America 1922-1924
The journey to Ceylon - and Ceylon itself - were, however, to play almost no part in Lawrence's subsequent writing. The journey, he and Frieda loved: a letter written in the course of it is amongst his most beautiful, as it describes their passage through Egypt and the Suez canal (Letters IV: 208-12). They made friends with some Australian people on the boat; but, ever the professional writer, Lawrence was still working, even if only at translating a novel - Mastro-Don Gesualdo - by the Italian author Giovanni Verga (1840-1922). Almost as soon as they arrived in Ceylon, they watched the Pera-Hera, when Edward Prince of Wales (1894-1972) visited Kandy and there was - at night - a procession of dancers, chiefs and elephants. This remained marvellously memorable: Lawrence described it in a number of letters, as well as in his poem "Elephant."
But although Kandy was "lovely to look at," they were overwhelmed by "the terrific sun that makes like a bell-jar of heat, like a prison over you" (Letters IV: 214, 227) - and by a continual unease. The Brewsters' bungalow was right on the edge of the forest, and Lawrence unhappily described "the thick, choky feel of tropical forest, and the metallic sense of palms and the horrid noises of the birds and creatures, who hammer and clang and rattle and cackle and explode all the livelong day, and run little machines all the livelong night." They slept badly, what with the noise and the heat: "even at night you sweat if you walk a few yards" (Letters IV: 225, 216). The Brewsters were kind and helpful, but Lawrence remained feeling "not quite sure where I am: sort of look round for myself among all this different world" (Letters IV: 216). He also picked up a stomach bug early on, and remained sick his whole time in Ceylon: this certainly colored and narrowed his responses. "I don't like the silly dark people or their swarming billions or their hideous little Buddha temples, like decked up pigsties - nor anything." He did some more Verga translation, but (apart from the poem) no creative work at all, which was thoroughly unusual for him in a new place. "I don't believe I shall ever work here" (Letters IV: 221, 217), he remarked. Ceylon was thus most certainly not a place in which to stop for long, on an extremely expensive journey which depended in part upon Lawrence earning money as he travelled. After only six weeks, he and Frieda moved on - but still not yet to America. They headed first toward Australia, to take up invitations received from ship-board acquaintances on the journey out to Colombo, but not with any particular expectation: "one may as well move on, once one has started. I feel I dont care what becomes of me" (Letters IV: 220). Having cut loose, loose he would now remain.
They landed in Perth on 4th May 1922 but only stayed in Western Australia a fortnight before taking the next boat on to Sydney. They were a little overwhelmed by the hospitality of their friends, though the place and the atmosphere of a late Australian autumn were a great relief after Ceylon: "Air beautiful and pure and sky fresh, high" (Letters IV: 235). The best thing in Western Australia was the bush, "hoary and unending, no noise, still, and the white trunks of the gum trees all a bit burnt ... somewhat like a dream, a twilight forest that has not yet seen a day" (Letters IV: 238): the contrast with Ceylon's noisy forest could not have been clearer. Lawrence's most significant meeting was with the writer Mollie Skinner (1878-1955): it was her manuscript which, the following year, he would transform into The Boy in the Bush.
But their tickets took them on to Sydney; and, on 18th May, they were off again. Frieda was starting to want to stay somewhere a few months, and Lawrence was prepared to try New South Wales, to see if he liked it and could write there. Sydney itself turned out too expensive, however; they retreated down the coast forty miles to Thirroul, and took a house for a month: "a very nice bungalow with the Pacific in the garden" (Letters IV: 253). They knew no-one, and their neighbors (unlike neighbors in Italy, for example) did not cross- question them, much to Lawrence's relief: "I suppose there have been too many questionable people here in the past" (Letters IV: 263). And, for all Lawrence's forebodings, he started a novel; and found himself able to write at something over 3000 words a day for six weeks, with only one serious lapse in the middle. Ceylon should have been marvellous - but he had written nothing. They had expected little of Australia: but here Lawrence was, writing furiously.
The novel, Kangaroo, was in effect a progress report from a European in the middle of his travels; it took the European problems which had always interested Lawrence (how society can be changed, and who is to rule it: how individuals can both remain themselves and have relationships like marriage) and explored them in a context which allowed Lawrence to make them both usefully diagrammatic., Socialism could be set politically against authoritarianism: love against separateness - and, as in any novel, they could be sustained (and subverted) fictively. The invented figure of Kangaroo himself, the lawyer Ben Cooley, the representative of the idea of love, is far more than a cardboard figure. His appeals to Richard, his emotionalism, his rhetorical power, are the kinds of thing which only a man - and a writer - who had been deeply committed to such things at one stage of his life could now create (and reject). To that extent, Lawrence was once again re-visiting his own past: and rejecting it, at a cost he was all too well aware of. The central character, Richard Lovat Somers, ends up feeling that the past is a mere "decomposed body ... whirling and choking us, language, love and meaning" (Kangaroo 374): a depressing enough conclusion for a writer. Lawrence also used the socialists and fascists he had seen in Italy and the ideas of socialism which he had brought forward from his youth in Eastwood; he set them in the haunting, new/old world of Australia, where every issue seemed clearer. The marriage of Richard and Harriett is even less of a loving partnership than the marriage of Tanny and Lilly in Aaron's Rod had been; the marriage exists in continual flux, between the possibilities of love, of lordship, of companionship.
Through Kangaroo goes the small figure of Richard Lovat Somers, pulled in all directions, but finally - for all the claims of the past, with all its old ideas of rootedness in love, in marriage and with mankind - coming down on the side of lonely individualism, even within marriage: and asserting a belief in the non-human world as a crucial context for human beings' sense of themselves. Australia offered a superb context for this way of thinking: "The soft, blue, humanless sky of Australia, the pale, white unwritten atmosphere of Australia. Tabula rasa. The world a new leaf ... without a mark, without a record" (Kangaroo 372). Lawrence had found "a great fascination in Australia. But for the remains of a fighting conscience, I would stay" (Letters IV: 275).
He seems to have done very little in Australia apart from think, look and write; but the novel was a real achievement, and remains one of the crucial twentieth century perceptions of the country. As soon as he realized he could finish it, however, he and Frieda booked their tickets for leaving; and Lawrence posted his manuscript ahead to his American agent Mountsier, as soon as he had finished it. On 11th August 1922, Frieda's forty-third birthday, they sailed for San Francisco: the moment for going to America could no longer be put off, even though Lawrence had so managed things that at least he would not be arriving in the North American industrial heartland.
They stopped briefly in New Zealand on the way, as well as at a number of the Pacific islands, and on 4th September 1922 landed in San Francisco - which Lawrence found noisy and expensive. They took the train to Santa Fe and then on to Lamy junction, where Mabel Sterne met them, took them by car to Taos, and installed them in a new adobe house.
And now Lawrence could genuinely experience the America he had been thinking of for so long. Everyone was extremely kind, he found - in Santa Fe he met the poet Witter Bynner (1881-1968) and the journalist Willard Johnson (1897-1968): in Taos they met two Danish painters, Kai Götzsche (b. 1886) and Knud Merrild (1894-1954) whom they liked very much. Tony Luhan (d. 1963), Mabel Sterne's Indian lover, was a more difficult person to get on with; but Mabel herself exerted every effort to give her new guests an interesting time. And, more than anything else, the place was marvellously, compellingly beautiful. Lawrence celebrated it famously in an essay on New Mexico he wrote six years later: "I think New Mexico was the greatest experience from the outside world that I have ever had ... the moment I saw the brilliant, proud morning shine high up over the deserts of Santa Fe, something stood still in my soul, and I started to attend": he wrote how the person who lives there "above the great proud world of desert will know, almost unbearably how beautiful it is, how clear and unquestioned is the might of the day" (Phoenix 142-3). A new world it was, where (too) he experienced for the first time an old-world religion in the Red Indians both in Taos and in reservations and dances in Arizona, where Mabel took her guests only three days after they reached Taos.
Lawrence was also at last able to do some sustained work: he added a new last chapter to Kangaroo and revised the whole novel, as well as writing some poems and some essays and journalism about New Mexico. Most significantly, however, he turned again to his old essays on American Literature and started to give them a thorough-going revision, in a new, hard-hitting style which he seems to have considered peculiarly North American. They were his first work for America: a sign of his new relationship with it. The England where he had first created them seemed very far away, though he was poignantly reminded of it with the death of his old Eastwood friend Sallie Hopkin; he wrote a touching and loving letter to Hopkin when he heard the news.
Sallie had a fine adventurous life of the spirit, a fine adventurous life. And it's the adventure counts, not the success ... the rest of the journey she goes with us like a passenger now, instead of a straining traveller ... There will be another grave in that cemetery now, down Church Street. It makes me feel I am growing old. Never mind, one must strike camp, and pack up the things, and go on. With love, that belongs to the old life ... England seems full of graves to me. (Letters IV: 327)
And he wrote a poem, "Spirits Summoned West," starting from the last phrase of the letter, which explicitly linked the death of his mother with the death of Sallie Hopkin.
Life with Mabel and in Taos had its disadvantages however: the Eden of the high American desert contained the usual snakes. Having invited Lawrence to New Mexico, Mabel wanted him to write for her, to advise her on her own novel, to show him off, to talk to her for hours, to fit in with her plans and imaginings. "I don't think I can bear to be here very long," Lawrence confessed to his agent after six weeks: "too much on Mabel Sterne's ground, she arranges one too much as if one were a retainer or protégé of hers." They solved the problem by moving out of Taos, up to a ranch on nearby Lobo mountain where they could be "really free, far more than here" (Letters IV: 330, 333). Here, with the two Danish painters as companions (very necessary on a ranch 8000 feet up in winter), they lived till the spring. And Lawrence was able to work hard again: he finished the revision of the American essays, giving them the proud declaration "Lobo" at the end, he revised some of his Verga translations, and he wrote a number of poems, bringing them together and revising them for the volume he would publish as Birds, Beasts and Flowers later in 1923. His American publisher Seltzer and his agent Mountsier both came to visit in December; Mountsier stayed on in Taos, but his relations with Lawrence became progressively more strained. Mountsier had not liked Aaron's Rod and had also objected to Kangaroo; Lawrence was finding him awkward as an agent, particularly in his relations with Seltzer, upon whom Lawrence was depending more and more for his publication (and income) in North America. He finally broke with Mountsier in February 1923, and put his American business (like his English) in the hands of the Curtis Brown agency.
With the spring, toward the end of his first six months in America, Lawrence decided to go down to Mexico; he had been wondering about writing a novel in America, but nothing (apart from an abortive effort to help with Mabel's novel) had so far suggested itself. The American novel would have to become a Mexican novel. Lawrence and Frieda travelled down to Mexico in March and there met Bynner and Johnson, whom they had suggested might make the trip too. After a month based in Mexico City, visiting outlying places, the party moved to Chapala: Lawrence had prospected for a place for them all to live, and had telegraphed back "Chapala paradise. Take evening train ... " (Letters IV: 435). And here, beside the lake, he was once more able to write a novel, as he had written Sons and Lovers beside the Lago di Garda, The Sisters beside the sea in Fiascherino, Women in Love high above the ocean in Cornwall, The Lost Girl and Mr Noon overlooking the sea in Taormina and Kangaroo beside the sea in Australia. The habit of living and writing somewhere above, looking out and over, was one he retained all his life (Worthen 1991: 460). The novel he now wrote he called Quetzalcoatl and formed the first version of The Plumed Serpent: "It interests me, means more to me than any other novel of mine. This is my real novel of America" (Letters IV: 457). It was a real fantasy novel, in which an English woman visiting Mexico experiences, at first hand, a religious revolution there, in which a new structure of society is created: one based on a revival of old Mexican religion, a structure of non-human belief which finally evades and supersedes the Christian context. The novel thus attempted to answer the despairs about the individual and society into which Kangaroo had led him: it was characteristic of Lawrence's writing that one novel should address the problems the previous novel had thrown up. But he also knew that what he was writing was only a first draft; for the first time since 1914, the novel he was writing would have to be radically recast before he would want to publish it. He could now, however, afford this luxury; Seltzer was bringing out a string of books and (for the first time since 1914) making him a good income. He could thus afford the luxury of prolonged revision and re-thinking.
He finished the novel - or at last reached a suitable resting point - in Chapala at the end of June; and he and Frieda re-entered the USA and travelled slowly up to New York, where Seltzer had offered to find them somewhere to live (and where Lawrence could work - mostly on his proofs) before they went back to Europe. Although they both wanted to return to the ranch in Taos, in the long run, they were not keen on spending another winter at altitude; Frieda had been away from her German family for nearly two years, and wanted to go back; her son Monty and daughter Elsa were both now twenty-one and could make up their own minds about seeing their mother. Middleton Murry was also starting a new magazine (the Adelphi) in England, and wanted Lawrence's contributions and help.
But, a fortnight before the boat left, Lawrence refused to sail; he and Frieda seem to have had a massive and wounding quarrel, and effectively separated, with Frieda going to London (and thence to Germany) and Lawrence returning to travel through America, across to Chicago and thence to the West Coast, and finally back down to Mexico. He seems to have accused Frieda of wanting to go back (in every sense): of "chasing ... those Weekley children" (something he felt "I can't stomach"); while he himself, when it came to it, could not bear the thought of "England and home and my people" - or even of the Fontana Vecchia, which he had loved so much. He felt caught between "the old world which I loved" (but now used the past tense about) and the new world, "which means nothing to me"; the situation of Richard Lovat Somers had become very real to him, and simply returning to Europe was not going to change that.
There followed a few fairly miserable months of travel for Lawrence, some of it once again in the company of the Danish painters: he felt at one point "as if I should wander over the brink of existence" (Letters IV: 507). He was, in fact, to begin with expecting Frieda to come back at any time. But she didn't. What he succeeded in writing (and also turning into the next stage of his thinking about relationships) was a completely new version of Molly Skinner's Australian novel: he gradually turned it into The Boy in the Bush and developed the idea of a hero refusing ties and obligations but going his own way, doing what he wants. Jack marries but feels that, if he wants two wives, he should have them: he also believes that his wife "knows she can't get past me. Therefore, in one corner of her, she hates me, like a scorpion lurking" (Boy in Bush 334). And Jack also fantasizes about turning into a kind of patriarch, with wives and cattle and land. Molly Skinner was astonished (and hurt) to see what Lawrence had made of her book; but it was what he currently wanted to write and to work his thinking through.
He ended up in Mexico in November with Kai G”tzsche, finishing the novel, and with a sense that his marriage was probably at an end; he wrote to Frieda making an offer of "a regular arrangement for you to have an income, if you wish" (Letters IV: 529). But Frieda kept asking him to go back, as did other friends: and it was not as if his experience of the months spent travelling on his own had been very satisfying. On 21st November, after almost exactly three months on his own, he went back: "I don't want much to go to England - but I suppose it is the next move in the battle which never ends and in which I never win" (Letters IV: 541). He was committed to struggle, in writing and in living: made both a point of principle. But in this case he was prepared to see if he and Frieda were able to journey on together. He could not simply give up all ties to the old life. G”tzsche and he sailed from Vera Cruz: in his unfinished novel The Flying Fish, Lawrence recreated the voyage and his experience of watching flying fish and porpoises from the bows - and it was again the mesmerizing power of the non-human world he watched in the speeding, playful fish:
"This is sheer joy - and men have lost it, or never accomplished it. The cleverest sportsmen in the world are owls beside these fish. And the togetherness of love is nothing to the spinning unison of dolphins playing under-sea. It would be wonderful to know joy as these fish know it. The life of the deep waters is ahead of us, it contains sheer togetherness and sheer joy. We have never got there - " (St. Mawr 221-2)
England could hardly have been more of a contrast. His first reaction, after four years away, was to "loathe London - hate England - feel like an animal in a trap. It all seems so dead and dark and buried" (Letters IV: 542). He went down with a cold and retreated to bed: "I don't belong over here any more. It's like being among the dead of one's previous existence" (Letters IV: 545). He wrote some essays for Murry's Adelphi (including the caustic "On Coming Home," which proved too caustic for Murry) and visited his Midlands family for a few days over New Year; but as soon as he could decently manage it, he laid plans for going back to the ranch for the summer. But, this time, it was with a strong sense of saying goodbye to England for ever; and he would have liked to keep certain people with him, if he were giving up England. Now had come the moment for him to appeal to people to do what he had fantasized about for ten years, but now had found a place for. He proposed getting a group of people to live together, dedicated to earning little and living sensibly; above all they would live away from the industrial world he hated so much. Accordingly, at a dinner arranged for many of his London friends at the Café Royal - Catherine Carswell and her husband Donald (1882-1940), Mary Cannan (1867-1950), Murry, Koteliansky, and the painters Dorothy Brett and Mark Gertler - he publicly asked which of them would come to New Mexico. Various excuses were made and various reasons given; only Dorothy Brett absolutely committed herself to coming. Murry, in spite of his frequent professions of friendship and love, said that he would come, clearly meaning not to. He had, however, recently ended an affair with Dorothy Brett (which Lawrence did not know about), and Frieda had - before Lawrence returned to England - invited Murry to become her lover: both strong reasons inhibiting him from making up such a foursome. He would also be getting married again the following May. Koteliansky made a speech of love and devotion to Lawrence, breaking glasses to celebrate every sentence end; but he would not leave the London which was now his home. What Lawrence drank made him violently sick over the table-cloth; the evening turned out a disaster, and its outcome - Brett coming back to the ranch with them - perhaps unexpected. But Brett, always willing to give her devotion as she had given it to Murry, and would now give it to Lawrence, was a surprizingly independent person who would paint, and could also type, and would (Lawrence hoped) not only give Frieda some company but might act as a buffer in the marriage relationship. Her deafness (she used an ear trumpet they called "Toby") might not be altogether a disadvantage. They would have to find out.
In the New Year, Lawrence and Frieda stayed in London, Lawrence writing journalism and starting some stories - Murry would figure comically in a number of them, such as "Jimmy and the Desperate Woman," "The Last Laugh" and "The Border Line" - before they went to Germany to see Frieda's mother. They also spent some time in Paris, where Lawrence wrote his extraordinarily prescient "Letter from Germany" about the breakdown of the old values and the rise of a new commitment to destruction, with "queer gangs of Young Socialists": a country "Whirling to the ghost of the old Middle Ages of Europe" (Phoenix 109-10). Back briefly in London to collect Dorothy Brett and her painting things, the three of them set sail for America on 5th March 1924.
After months of silence which had started to worry Lawrence, Thomas Seltzer met them in New York and was as friendly as ever; but there was no disguising the fact that his business was in serious trouble. (It would in fact shortly collapse, taking with it the bulk of Lawrence's American earnings; but that was still a few months away.) After a fortnight of snow and sun, they took the train south, to have a second attempt at living in Mabel's orbit in Taos - the balance of relationships changed, anyway, by the presence of Brett. Lawrence set to work, this time on his essays "Indians and Entertainment" and "The Dance of the Sprouting Corn": both of them attempts to say what it was about Indian culture which was so important, both of them ways of thinking through what he would want in the end to say in his novel.
But this time, after only a few days of relative harmony, Mabel - now Mabel Luhan, having married Tony the previous year - presented Frieda with a ranch on Lobo about two miles further up from the Del Monte ranch where they had lived with the Danes: and they started making plans to go back up to it. Lawrence, hating the obligation of a gift, insisted in giving Mabel something in return, and wrote to Europe for the original manuscript of Sons and Lovers, which he in turn presented to her: a gift whose value certainly outweighed what he and Frieda had received. After having some preliminary work on the buildings done, on 5th May they moved up to the three-cabin ranch for the summer, Lawrence and Frieda sharing one cabin and Brett taking a smaller one nearby.
This would be Lawrence's most creative and fulfilled summer for some while: it is worth taking some time to look at his life on the ranch, in the first half of the next chapter, and to examine how his fiction emerged out of the isolation of his life there.
© "Biography of D.H. Lawrence" John Worthen, 1997
Next page: Chapter 7: Ranch life and the return to Mexico 1924-1925