Chapter 7: Ranch life and the return to Mexico 1924-1925
Work on repairing and rebuilding the ranch went on for five weeks, throughout May and into June; the big three-room cabin had to be repaired, its chimney rebuilt with adobe bricks, and all three cabins restored and re-roofed. Lawrence worked with three Indian laborers and a Mexican carpenter; he made no difference between the amount of heavy or difficult work he expected them to do and what he did himself. When it came to someone having to crawl along inside the main cabin's tin roof on a hot day, with a wet handkerchief over mouth and nose, to clear out the old rats' nests, then he did it. Brett, too, "was amazing for the hard work she would do" (Frieda 1935: 137). Mabel and Tony stayed up at the ranch for some of the time, sleeping in a big tepee up on the hillside, as the Indians did; at night, they would eat together, the Indians would sing, plans for the next day's work would be made. Lawrence did almost no writing, though he does seem to have finished his essay "Pan in America," but "naturally I don't write when I slave building the house" (Letters IV: 45). The old tensions between Lawrence, Frieda and Mabel seem to have continued, with (now) the added complication of Brett; but for a good deal of May there was no time for quarrelling: just the day to day work. They took just a couple of trips away: in the course of a journey back to Taos on horseback, for example, Mabel and Tony took them to the cave at Arroyo Seco which Lawrence would use as the setting for his story "The Woman Who Rode Away" the following month.
But what was Lawrence doing, spending five weeks rebuilding a run-down ranch on which he would (in the end) only spend five months, in the summer of 1924, and five months the following year, and in a country where he would never live more than seven months at a time? Although he was a professional writer, his books never sold in very large numbers, so that he depended upon publishing a great deal - and so on writing a great deal too. The place was punishingly remote and (what is more) could never be inhabited in winter; and, as he told Witter Bynner when the latter was about to visit, "you'll have more or less to camp, help with the chores and all that. You won't be particularly comfortable" (Letters V: 65).
But there was, to begin with, the huge pleasure for Lawrence and Frieda of having their own place at last. Frieda had been pining for a farm, or something equivalent, since Australia in May 1922: and at the back of Lawrence's mind was the memory of his days at the Haggs farm between 1902 and 1908. The ranch (first called Lobo, later Kiowa) was the first place they had ever inhabited where they could really do what they wanted: which they were not beholden to others for, or paying rent for, or looking after for someone else. Lawrence had always strongly resisted owning property (which was why he now insisted that it was Frieda's ranch, not his.) But now they had acquired it, in the most extraordinary of all the places which he and Frieda had visited since 1912. Lawrence threw himself into the work of it; it offered him a new challenge, a wholly new field to explore and master.
And it was the most beautiful, and also the most soul-destroyingly difficult and destructive place, too, where they had ever lived. "One doesn't talk any more about being happy - that is child's talk. But I do like having the big unbroken spaces round me" (Letters V: 47), Lawrence wrote to Catherine Carswell. But he told Murry very early on how "Often, too, it is trying - one has to bear up hard against it." The animal life (rats in particular) could nearly defeat human occupation, gnawing through and eating almost anything left unattended. Furniture had to be slung up to the ceiling on ropes when they went away, for example; rats bounced on the roofs at nights "like hippopotamuses" (St. Mawr 148), black ants swarmed into the kitchen. Everyday life was always hard, with water having to be carried from the spring (they only got the water flowing through pipes the following year), horses which needed to be fed and cared for, wood which had to be chopped; and every evening there was milk and mail (and sometimes butter and eggs) to be ridden for, two miles down to the Del Monte Ranch, where the Hawke family lived and worked, and back just before dark. And always, unremitting hard physical work, even when the main work of restoration was done: "I make shelves and cupboards, and mend fences, bake bread in the Indian oven outside, and catch the horses" (Letters V: 75): Frieda knitted, cooked, made butter and (in 1925) looked after the chickens. There was always wood to be chopped, water to be carried, fences to mend: animals would fall ill: there was "the underlying rat-dirt, the everlasting bristling tussle of the wild life" (St. Mawr 150). The nearest shop for provisions or supplies was half a day's journey away, 17 miles down in Taos.
And yet the place was quite extraordinary. "The landscape lived, and lived as the world of the gods, unsullied and unconcerned. The great circling landscape lived its own life, sumptuous and uncaring," Lawrence would write in St Mawr (St. Mawr 146). They could see down to the desert 1000 feet below, the houses of a Pueblo looking like crystals, and away for 30 miles to where the Rio Grande canyon wound its way; and then beyond that to the distant mountains, "like icebergs showing up from an outer sea." Lawrence wrote to his German mother-in-law how
Here, where one is alone with trees and mountains and chipmunks and desert, one gets something out of the air: something wild and untamed, cruel and proud, beautiful and sometimes evil, that really is America. But not the America of the whites.(Letters V: 63)
Unlike Mexico, which had offered him a human world that was different, the Kiowa ranch gave him a life with nature almost untrammelled: "something savage unbreakable in the spirit of place out here" (Letters V: 47). It was not just beautiful: "it's really a hard country, not a soft flowery country" (Letters V: 114). And that brought out for him, always, a strong sense of what human beings really needed in their lives. "I myself find a good deal of satisfaction living like this in the unbroken country, which still retains its aboriginal quality" (Letters V: 75). It was this very special quality of the ranch which Lawrence celebrated in his short novel St. Mawr, which starts in England, but ends up in a recreation of the ranch itself. He wrote this over the summer, between June and August: it was his second novel of North America. Over and over again we can see how it conveyed something of his own feeling for the place; as when, for example, the fictional "Lou" of the story first sees it.
In an instant, her heart sprang to it. The instant the car stopped, and she saw the two cabins inside the rickety fence, the rather broken corral beyond, and behind all, tall, blue balsam pines, the round hills, the solid uprise of the mountain flank: and getting down, she looked across the purple and gold of the clearing ... "This is the place," she said to herself. (St. Mawr 140)
More than anything else, the Kiowa ranch offered the chance to "live, circumstantially, from day to day, with the hills and the trees" (Letters V: 79). It was the ideal ordinariness of the place, as a context for human lives, which mattered as much as its spectacular views. Human beings could struggle, work, get tired, live simply, do what they wanted: and always in the eye of nature. "It was very beautiful up here. We worked hard, and spent very little money. And we had the place all to ourselves, and our horses the same. It was good to be alone and responsible. But also it is very hard living up against these savage Rockies." (Letters V: 148)
Lawrence had prefaced writing St. Mawr with another north American story which he had perhaps been thinking about during the three weeks since Arroyo Seco, "The Woman Who Rode Away." He wrote this very fast, and showed it to Mabel Luhan down in Taos at the end of June. These were his first two North American fictions: both, strikingly, about the danger, the destructiveness for twentieth century white consciousness, of America; both attempts to suggest that the challenge of another kind of consciousness is what can and should confront modern men and women. "The Woman Who Rode Away" describes a white woman who unthinkingly decides to see Indians, and blindly gives herself up to them; the story conveyed something of what Lawrence must have felt as he saw Mabel marrying herself to Tony, the Pueblo Indian. But whereas Tony was something of an outcast from the Pueblo for what he had done, the woman of Lawrence's story is seized upon as a sacrifice by the Indians; the story reveals just how opposed to white civilization Lawrence felt Indians were, how much they hated it and would do it down if they could. And yet they reminded him of what the white races lack, too; it is a story (like St. Mawr) which is thoroughly ambivalent about the opposition of cultures it reveals.
Being sent a copy of A Passage to India by E. M. Forster in July must have added to his sense of the efforts which other writers, too, were making to confront their European characters with alien worlds: "The day of our white dominance is over, and no new day can come till this of ours has passed into night" (Letters V: 77). But it was now possible to live quietly from day to day - and the writing of St. Mawr flowed through the summer, though "this isn't a good place to write in - one does too many other things" (Letters V: 86). He finally ended it around the middle of August: "it took it out of me," "a corker. It's much better if I'm not popular" (Letters V: 122, 91).
A disturbing moment had come, however, early in August. Lawrence had been remarkably well for months; but the ranch was at 8,600 feet, and around 2nd August, going down with a cold, he began to spit blood. He was actually (as he admitted eighteen months later) suffering a bronchial haemorrhage. To his rage, Frieda had a doctor come up to the ranch to see him; but the doctor declared that it was simply a bit of bronchial trouble, to be dealt with by mustard plasters. This treatment seems to have worked, in the short run; but the attack may also have marked the first real onset of the tuberculosis which would in some ways dominate the last five years of his life.
For the moment he was well enough to be up and about in a few days, to finish St. Mawr and to prepare for a visit with Mabel and Tony (but without Brett) to Santa Fe and thence to Hotevilla to see the Hopi Indians' Snake Dance. His reactions are beautifully set out in the two quite different pieces he wrote about it. One, which thoroughly annoyed Mabel Luhan - "I had not taken him to the Snake Dance to have him describe it in this fashion" (Luhan 1934: 268) - called "Just Back from the Snake Dance - Tired Out," and written four days after the dance, views the whole occasion as a white man's opportunity for a bit of a show: "The south-west is the great playground of the white America" (Letters 1932: 609). The other, "The Hopi Snake Dance", written eight days after the dance, is one of the profoundest of all Lawrence's writings about America. The jeering, satirical and the philosophical sides of his nature could hardly be better illustrated than by these essays.
They only had a month left at the ranch before leaving for the winter: Lawrence had long planned to go back to Mexico to write the final version of his Quetzalcoatl novel. And then, out of the blue, came news from England he had not expected: his father had died, very suddenly, at the age of seventy-eight. "It is better to be gone than lingering on half helpless and half alive," he wrote to his sister Emily, doubtless thinking of the protracted dying of his mother during the autumn of 1910; "But it upsets one, nevertheless: makes a strange break" (Letters V: 124). He wrote more elegiacally in a letter to Murry three weeks later, linking the death with the coming of autumn.
The country here is very lovely at the moment, aspens high on the mountains like a fleece of gold. Ubi ist ille Jason? The scrub oak is dark red, and the wild birds are coming down to the desert. It is time to go south. - Did I tell you my father died on Sept. 10th, the day before my birthday [he was 39]. - The autumn always gets me badly, as it breaks into colours. I want to go south, where there is no autumn, where the cold doesn't crouch over one like a snow-leopard waiting to pounce.(Letters V: 143)
The autumn breaking into colors doubtless also linked in his mind with the autumn of his mother dying, back in 1910.
He wrote just one more highly significant piece, to complete his major writings of this summer: the short story "The Princess," in which a white woman again goes out to explore the American southwest, but in which her peculiar reluctance in the face of experience is brutally challenged. He would not have written it, perhaps, without knowing Brett, though in no sense is the central character a portrait of her: but the essential experience described in it is also his own.
He looked back at the summer as one when he had written relatively little: but it had been extraordinarily creative in many ways, if a little ominous too. He had, however, successfully answered the question he had been asking since 1913: he had found where he wanted to live, at least in the summer. But now it was time to go. On 11th October, Brett, Frieda and he went to Taos; by 23rd October they were in Mexico City.
It is significant that Lawrence felt he wanted to be in Mexico in order to rewrite Quetzalcoatl. He had not felt he had needed to be in Australia to write a new last chapter for Kangaroo or to write any of The Boy in the Bush: he had written Sons and Lovers, The Lost Girl, Aaron's Rod and Mr Noon while out of England. But The Plumed Serpent - as it would now become - was to be instilled with a social atmosphere and with a cast of characters which he had to create especially for the novel, and he clearly wanted day-to-day and first-hand experience of Mexico to do it. But he did not go back to Chapala. He wanted somewhere less touristy, more real, he said (Letters V: 163); and Oaxaca, where the British Consul had a brother - a priest, Edward Rickards (1979-1941) - and which he recommended as "very nice," with "a perfect climate," sounded ideal. After a fortnight in Mexico City, Lawrence, Frieda and Brett travelled south; and after a short while in a hotel, the Lawrences moving in to a wing of Rickards's house, Brett staying in a nearby hotel.
And on 19th November Lawrence started to work on his novel again. He had the experience of the three white women heroines of the three pieces of fiction he had written during the summer to use as a background for the character of Kate Leslie; while the place he was now living in (a far more indigenous place than Chapala had been) felt politically even more unsure than Chapala had been in 1923. He was working on a book about political and religious revolution and change; although he was thoroughly unsure about America as a place to live and work, he recognised the opportunities Mexico would give him for his vision of a new society. He worked almost unremittingly from mid-November to the end of January, with only a break in mid-December to write four pieces about life in Oaxaca which later formed the central part of Mornings in Mexico. The novel proved exhausting to conceive and to write: much of it went against the grain. Just before starting, he felt "a bit sick of the American continent," "put out by the vibration of this rather malevolent continent" (Letters V: 174, 170): early in January, he remarked that "It's so queer here, never free, never quite safe, always a feel of being hemmed in, and shut down. I get sick of it myself: feel I shall bust" (Letters V: 191). Oaxaca turned out almost tropical in climate and vegetation, and in some ways reminiscent of Ceylon: "at this moment the patio is reeking with the scent of some sweet tropical flower. Damn tropical flowers, anyhow" (Letters V: 192). In spite of such feelings, he went on working tremendously hard: "wrote at home and got run down" (Frieda 1935: 140). The novel grew enormously, ending up almost twice as long as Quetzalcoatl: Lawrence noted that "It is good, but scares me a bit, also." (Letters V: 196) He was following through the ambivalent logic of his own feelings suggested in a story like "The Woman Who Rode Away": the sacrifice of the prisoners of Quetzalcoatl is, for example, one of the most unpleasant pieces of writing he ever did, and it would be natural for him to be scared by it. He quoted Macbeth at a friend: "I dare do all that may become a man, said somebody. It's the becoming" (Letters V: 199). To add to the problems, Frieda had finally get fed up with Brett, who "came every day and I thought she was becoming too much part of our lives and I resented it." She told Lawrence, and they quarrelled about it: Lawrence "said I was a jealous fool" (Frieda 1935: 140). But things got more and more tense; finally Lawrence told Brett that she would have to leave. Obediently, she did, going back to the Hawkes' Del Monte Ranch, leaving Lawrence with a final ten days work on the novel still to do.
It cannot have been a coincidence that, when he stopped, he suffered an extraordinary collapse into illness. It was as if the onset had been delayed by the fevered excitement of the writing and his total involvement with it, and through the pressure of the quarrel with Frieda. On 29th January he finished the book. A week later, he was almost dead, with a combination of typhoid, malaria and influenza; his tuberculosis took a great leap forward; and then there was an earthquake. He was moved back into the hotel; and toward the end of February, he and Frieda travelled back to Mexico City, with the plan of sailing from Vera Cruz for Europe, as he had done with Götzsche in 1923. But he suffered a relapse, and was unable to travel further for almost another month. It was during this bout of illness that a doctor said straight out that Lawrence was suffering from tuberculosis, and advised Frieda to take him back to the ranch; he was given a year or two at most to live.
It was during this second bout of illness, too, that he started the unfinished novel The Flying Fish and dictated its first few pages to Frieda (something unique in his writing career: he must very badly have wanted it written). It started with its central figure ill in Mexico: it used material from the 1923 trip with Götzsche: it created, most beautifully, the sense of a "greater day" surrounding the human being. But, too, it was haunted by a sense of return to England. It had been a long time since Lawrence had used the English Midlands in his fiction. But now - like Gethin Day himself - "Now he was sick from the soul outwards, and the common day had cracked for him, and the uncommon day was showing him its immensity, he felt that home was the place" (St. Mawr 210).
But all their plans to return to Europe were blown to atoms by the advice of the doctor to go back to the ranch. In spite of a "lurking hankering for Europe" (Letters V: 229) they put off the journey till the end of the summer. Lawrence gradually recovered a semblance of health during March, and at the end of the month they travelled north again. But they had terrible troubles at the border at El Paso, as the American doctor initially refused Lawrence permission to enter the USA (presumably observing in him the symptoms of tuberculosis). They finally were allowed in, with Lawrence permitted to stay for just six months in the country (Nehls 1959: 150); they struggled up to Santa Fe, where the actress Ida Rauh (1877- 1970) - whom they had got to know in 1924 - took care of them; and early in April, they got back up to the Del Monte ranch, where Brett was waiting for them.
It had not been the return they had been expecting. Lawrence was still desperately weak and ill; but as soon as possible they went up the final two miles to their own Kiowa ranch (this time leaving Brett down at Del Monte); and Lawrence, sleeping much of the time, began to recover his strength. It says a good deal for their belief in the recuperative powers of the place that they should have struggled back up to it; a place such as the ranch was hardly for a convalescent. But for a while they had a young Indian couple, Trinidad and Ruffina, to look after them, and Frieda clearly did more household work than usual, announcing that she was "developping [sic] into a 'chef'" (Letters V: 233).
And, amazingly, Lawrence got well again; and typically celebrated his recovery by starting to write. At last he created the play he had been promising Ida Rauh and tinkering with for months; he wrote David - a play in which modern man develops out of the ruins of the pre-flood consciousness and religious self. He himself - David Herbert - was both David, articulate and intelligent, and Saul, the representative of the older world which he was trying, in work after work now, to recreate or perhaps, with the help of myth and legend, to create as a kind of alternative myth to the version of human progress and development which had so dominated his early thinking.
By early May, the play was done; and life at the ranch continued its old pattern. The differences this year were that they managed to get the running water working, to irrigate the field; and that early in June, they acquired chickens (which Frieda cared for) and a cow, Susan, Lawrence's responsibility. This saved them the daily journeys for milk down to Del Monte, where Brett continued to live and to type for Lawrence; though Lawrence then had to spend an inordinate amount of time chasing his cow, to milk her. They had relatively few visitors, seeing even less of Mabel this year than the last, though Frieda's German nephew Friedel Jaffe (b. 1903) came and stayed for a couple of months, and was able to help with the everyday chores. Ida Rauh came, to hear Lawrence read the whole of David out loud: Lawrence compiled a book of essays, using some old material (including a much revised version of "The Crown" from 1915), which became Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine. Brett typed and came up occasionally: Frieda continued her war against her. And Lawrence was sent the typescript of The Plumed Serpent, but could hardly bear to look at it - "I think of Mexico with a sort of nausea" (Letters V: 254). When he finally went through it and corrected it, he felt about it as he had about The Trespasser and Women in Love: "I hate giving it out to be published. It is different from my other books: and to me, the one that means most to me" (Letters V: 260).
The months meandered away - "We've just sat tight and considered the lily all summer" (Letters V: 291) - the only excitements being the perpetual looking for Susan, and rides in the buggy down to San Cristobal, when Lawrence remembered the remark made by the magazine editor Austin Harrison (1873-1928) in a letter to Lydia Lawrence back in 1910:
"By the time he is forty, he will be riding in his carriage" ... And sitting in my corduroy trousers and blue shirt calling: "Get up Aaron! Ambrose!" then I thought of Austin Harrison's prophecy ... "Get up, Ambrose!" Bump! went the buggy over a rock, and the pine-needles slashed my face! See him driving in his carriage, at forty! - driving it pretty badly too! Put the brake on! (Phoenix II 260-1)
He points the irony beautifully between the kind of prosperous professional writer he might have become - it is natural to think of the novelist Arnold Bennett (1867-1931) - and the outsider and maverick, just about making his living, but writing exactly what he wanted to, which he had actually become. He was actually forty on 11th September 1925, just after they left the ranch: "lovely autumn, pity to go" (Letters V: 296). But the six months allowed to him were up. He and Frieda travelled via Denver to New York, and by 21st September were on the S. S. Resolute bound for Europe.
It was as symbolic a journey as when they had left for Ceylon in 1922. Their American adventure was over. Lawrence had always wanted to come; he had written extensively about it and explored through his writing what it meant to be there, as well as finding an extraordinary place to live. But it took too much out of him: and his illness meant that he would probably never again be able to live there for as long as he would have liked. At forty, he was coming back to Europe: as it turned out, for good. He never saw America again.
© "Biography of D.H. Lawrence" John Worthen, 1997
Next page: Chapter 8: Europe once more: 1925-1928