After presenting a paper at the last Sydney conference organised by the D.H. Lawrence Society of North America, the author found time to trace the iconic author’s footsteps in Thirroul, a seaside town nearby.
“A little front all of grass, with loose hedge on either side, and the sea, the great Pacific there, and rolling in huge white thunderous rollers not forty yards away.” — D.H. Lawrence, Kangaroo, 1923.
The International Conference organised by the D.H. Lawrence Society of North America, held every three years, brings together Lawrence scholars and aficionados throughout the world. I was invited to present a paper at the three-day Sydney conference, in 2011, on Lawrence’s Eastern Experience. As the curtain finally drew over the conference, it was time to savour the sights and sounds associated with Lawrence’s presence in the city and the nearby resort town of Thirroul. The ‘spirit of place’ is integral to Lawrence’s creative vision: Eastwood, Ceylon, Taormina and Taos embrace his poetry, fiction, paintings, letters and travel books.
Thirroul, Australia, is no exception. It is little known to the outside world, including D.H. Lawrence scholars. This seaside town south of Sydney is a destination that the iconic Australian novelist Patrick White wholly approved of. “Enough of the philistine’s culture that politicians value for tourism,” he remarked, while standing up for the preservation of Lawrence’s house at Thirroul. “There are enough visitors who are interested in literary tourism,” he declared.
As I approached Thirroul through the early morning traffic, I was reminded of the question the Lawrence biographer Brenda Maddox, author of Married Man: A Life of D.H. Lawrence, asks, “What would your subject say if he/she were alive today?”
Thirroul takes its native name from the Australian word ‘Thirrural’— ‘valley of the cabbage tree palms’. Original habitat of the Wodi Wodi aborigines, the place attracted, in due course, escaped convicts. As Captain James Cook, the intrepid British sailor and explorer, surveyed the eastern coast of Australia, the ship’s botanist Joseph Banks spotted the clusters of cabbage tree palms that would give fame to the village.
Lawrence and his fictional alter ego Richard Somers of the novel Kangaroo arrived at Sydney in 1922 from Ceylon, on the way to America. To Lawrence, the city’s suburbs comprised “loosed over, small promiscuous bungalows around which lay an aura of rusty tinned cans.” Tired of the monochrome city and its predominantly white civilisation, Lawrence and his wife Frieda moved out to Thirroul with the help of local hosts. The house that lay at the corner of 3, Craig Street, had a presence of its own. Enchantingly named, ‘Wyewurk’, with its Californian-style architecture, is now probably the only surviving one of its kind in the whole of Australia. The small, cosy house with a tiled roof sits on a low cliff edge and overlooks a quiet, private beach.
It is here that Lawrence spent several weeks and wrote the disturbing novel Kangaroo, dealing with the post-World War I Australian politics. Seen primarily through Lawrentian mouthpiece Somers, Kangaroo is the story of a band of army subversives battling the Reds who try to take over the land: Clearly a throwback to Europe of the 1930s that calls to mind Mussolini and Hitler’s rise to power. The Australian novel attempts a fictional experiment with a domineering male leadership that Lawrence would eschew in his later fabular works such as The Man Who Died.
Critics have seen mixed ideological messages in the novel. As the historian Joseph Davies suggests, the narrator is incredibly alive to ‘the spirit of the Australian bush, watching the myriad intrusive white men’. At the same time, with its proto-fascist overtones, the novel describes ‘ugly-faced distorted aborigines’, suggesting Lawrence’s problematic vision of the middle and later period.
For a greater understanding of the immediate experience, one must allow the visual imagery to filter through the prism of the narrative passages. Lawrence’s gaze pans out far, way into the sea in a lyrical mode he alone was capable of: “He liked the sea, the pale sea of green glass that fell in such cold foam, ice-fiery, fish-burning. He went out on to the low flat rocks at low tide, skirting the deep pockholes that were full of brilliantly clear water and delicately-coloured shells and tiny crimson anemones. Strangely sea-scooped sharp sea-bitter rock- floor, all wet and sea-savage.”
As for the house, it had a brooding presence. As Lawrence writes poetically: “The house inside was dark, with its deep veranda, like dark eyelids half–closed…overlooking the huge and rhythmic Pacific.”
For a better appreciation of Thirroul’s Lawrence connection, one must turn to the resources of the D.H. Lawrence Society of Australia, formed in 1994. The Society, over the years, has mounted successful international campaigns involving scholars like Warren Roberts and L.D. Clark for the preservation of Wyewurk. The Wendy Joliffe Papers of D.H. Lawrence in Australia in the Library of New South Wales, and the book: D.H. Lawrence at Thirroul by Joseph Davies, Collins, 1988, as well as the paintings of Lawrence by Garry Sheads, help the visitor trace the author’s footsteps in the region.
The place may have changed. And yet, some aspects remain the same: idyllic and pristine. Lawrence described the scene: “Harriet sat up and began dusting the sand from the coat. Lovat did likewise. Then they rose to be going back to the tram car. There was a motor-car standing on the sand of the road near the gate.”
At Sydney, you may take the tram route as Lawrence did in 1922, along the Pittwater Road via Curl Curl Harbour and the beaches to reach the tram terminus at Narrabeen Lakes. He describes the scene vividly in Kangaroo: “They sat on the tram car and ran for miles along a coast with ragged bush loused over with thousands of small promiscuous bungalows, built of everything from patchwork of kerosene tin up to fine red brick and stucco, like Margate. Not far off, the Pacific boomed.”
D.H. Lawrence left Australia on board the ship ‘Tahiti’ in August 1922. The Thirroul experience of the Australian bush would be a significant prelude to the new reality he would encounter in the Sangre de Christo Mountains of Taos, New Mexico, in the United States.