I love D.H. Lawrence for his letters and for living such an exciting life and so I’ve started a series on YouTube called Locating Lawrence. Each month I post a visual essay that documents his life, one century on. I hope that in doing this, it will draw viewers to the original source so they too can enjoy his witty putdowns, his restlessness, and his fastidious obsession with the cost of living. The following is based on his correspondence for June 1922, where he’s revelling at living on a continent where he knows nobody and nobody knows him….
It’s June 1922. Adolf Hitler begins serving a prison sentence for assault. Judy Garland is born. And Leopold Bloom wanders around Dublin for the day in a book that many readers will never finish. Meanwhile, Lawrence is in Australia.
He kicks off June with a letter to Mabel Dodge Sterne, informing her that he’s started a new novel and can’t visit until it’s finished. He estimates the end of August. He’s fed up with his current predicament and craves a change of scenery: ‘I do hope I shall get from your Indians something that this wearily external white world can’t give’ .
He’s living in Thirroul, New South Wales, which has a pit nearby. Consequently, ‘it is rather like the Midlands, the life very familiar and rough’ . Frieda ‘is very happy with her house’ and enjoying the rare pleasure of being settled. Albeit temporarily. As always, he politely reassures his dear Schwiegermutter that they’ll be back in Europe soon: ‘I tell you again, the world is round, and brings the rolling stone home again. And I must go till I find something that brings me peace. ’ By peace he means somewhere he is able to knock out a couple of books, as he was able to do the previous year in Ebersteinburg where he wrote Aaron’s Rod and Fantasia of the Unconscious .
Lawrence is enamoured with the cost of meat in Thirroul, eagerly informing: ‘Two good sheep’s tongues, 60 pfennigs – and a great piece of beef, enough for twelve people, two marks’ However, everything else is ‘exorbitantly expensive’ . With only £31 to live off, he gives his literary agent Robert Mountsier a comprehensive breakdown of his living costs and requests a loan of at least £160 for when they set off to America as he can’t travel second class as ‘these boats are so small there is practically no deck accommodation’. All of which means he needs to get Kangaroo finished as soon as he can.
Lawrence is insistent that nobody is informed of his plans to visit America and revels in the splendid isolation of Australia. ‘We live mostly with the sea – not much with the land – and not at all with people…we don’t know a soul on this side of the continent…for the first time in my life I feel how lovely it is to know nobody in the whole country…One nice thing about these countries is that nobody asks questions. I suppose there have been too many questionable people here in the past.
Lawrence is highly critical of democracy throughout his letters in Australia. And ‘the more I see of democracy the more I dislike it. It just brings everything down to the mere vulgar level of wages and prices, electric lights and water closets and nothing else’ He identifies a frenetic aspect to the culture where people ‘are always vaguely and meaninglessly on the go’ in ‘smart boots’, ‘silk stockings’ – don’t get Lawrence started on stockings - and ‘motor cars’ . Although it’s easy to dismiss Lawrence as a killjoy, things are always more complex and nuanced. ‘That’s what life in a new country does to you: it makes you so material, so outward, that your real inner life and your inner self dies out, and you clatter round like so many mechanical animals’. Lawrence doesn’t need anyone or anything as ‘the sea is extraordinary good company’ .
Despite these reservations, he’s intrigued by the place. The landscape reminds him of a Puvis de Chavannes (1824 – 98) painting as it is ‘so apparently monotonous, yet when you look into it, such subtly different distances, in layers, and such exquisite forms – trees, flat hills, - strange, standing as it were at the back of the vision.’ Much has been written about the duality of Lawrence’s personality and so it’s no surprise that he should feel so conflicted about his current abode. ‘Often I hate it like poison,’ he writes to Catherine Carswell, ‘then again it fascinates me, and the spell of its indifference gets me. I can’t quite explain it: as if one resolved back almost to the plant kingdom, before souls, spirits and minds were grown at all: only quite a live, energetic body with a weird face.’
Living in such a vast open country which ‘tempts one to disappear’ both the Lawrences are aware that cabin fever awaits them in New Mexico. In a joint letter to Mabel Dodge Sterne, Frieda warns ‘don’t give us too little a place to live in, we are much too quarrelsome – it’s quite fatal’ whereas Lawrence, channeling Basil Fawlty, advises ‘we both like to keep sufficiently clear of one another’.
Oh Mabel, what have you let yourself in for?