Poet and novelist Arthur Davison Ficke (1883-1945) and his second wife Gladys, an artist, spent the winter of 1934-35 in Chapala. From late November 1934 to late April 1935, they rented a house with fellow poet Witter Bynner and his partner Robert Hunt.
Ficke subsequently penned a novel, Mrs Morton of Mexico, set at the lake and published in 1939 by Reynal & Hitchcock, New York. It is Ficke’s only novel. One of the stories told in the novel, about “The Burro of Chapala”, had been published previously, with an illustration by Eric Lundgren, the December 1937 edition of Esquire.
The novel was illustrated at the heading and end of each chapter with interesting and attractive drawings by Ficke’s wife, Gladys Brown.
Like many novelists, Ficke based many of his characters on real people.
The title character is an octogenarian American expatriate, based in real-life (as Neill James pointed out in Dust on My Heart), on the persona of Mrs. Hunton, originally from Virginia, the matriarch of a family that first settled in Chapala at the start of the twentieth century. Many of the details of Mrs. Morton’s family given in the book tally with what is known of Mrs. Hunton’s own family. Both, for example, are named Elizabeth, and both had husbands that were mining engineers. The descriptions of Mrs. Morton’s home, “Villa Colima”, could easily apply to the former Hunton residence in Chapala, and so on.
The British Vice-Consul, who (in the novel) used to visit Sir John Murdoch twenty-odd years ago, and had family in Devon, could well be a nod to former British Vice-Consul for Norway, Septimus Crowe, who “retired” to Chapala at the end of the nineteenth century, and whose wife had family in Tavistock, Devon.
Ficke does not even bother to disguise “Widow Sanchez” of the Hotel Universal, praised as a “very famous cook”. She is clearly the novelistic twin of La Viuda Sanchez, owner (for many a long year) of a popular restaurant-bar in Chapala.
The extraordinary character Professor Arzici in chapter VII is surely based on the artist Gerardo Murillo, better known as Dr. Atl. They share an interest in “curvilinear perspective” (Atl’s “aerial” landscapes), both experimented with new pigments (Atlcolors are still used today), both loved to paint volcanoes, both were “a combination of scientist and painter” and “eccentric but gifted”, and both went by pseudonyms: while Dr. Atl means Dr. Water, Professor Arzici means, according to the novel, Professor Terrible Mountain of Fire. “Only about eighty years of age”, “ugly as a goat”, “long snow-white beard”, “bald head”, “pipe ” – that’s Atl! (p 171-2)
There may well be real-life equivalents for some of the other characters in this novel, such as the poet and dramatist Señor Enrique Devargas Castellano, or the former politician General “Antonio” Hernando Gonzales. Suggestions welcomed!
Ficke also includes descriptions of lakeside geography, from Chapala west to Ajijic and Jocotepec. One passage that sings comes where Mrs. Morton is sitting in her garden contemplating the lake and wondering why she loves it, “with an intensely personal feeling, just as if it were a very small and private lake of one’s own”:
Perhaps because it had the intense reality of a dream-lake: because it comprised so much mysterious variety of shore, with pointed mountains, harsh cliffs, sloping plains and rounded hills; because of its hidden little villages and its small rocky islands, its wide sea-like expanses and its narrow reedy inlets, its acre-broad drifting masses of water-hyacinths and its square-rigged fishing boats with prows high and sharp as a blackbird’s beak; because of its golden days of sun and its grey days of rain, its blue noonday skies and its black-and-starry- midnight dome.” (167)
. . .
Quiet dark-eyed fishermen sailed over these waters; their returning boats were outlined against the western gold, and at night their nets, hung on poles along the beach, were turned by the moonlight to spider-webs of silver. (168)
Mrs Morton of Mexico was reviewed positively by Kirkus:
“A sentimental story of an 80 year old Englishwoman’s last adventure in Mexico. Having lived some forty years on the shores of Lake Chapala, after the death of her husband, Mrs. Morton cultivates her garden and the friendship of the Mexicans, and intensifies her legendary qualities by hiding a political refugee, buying the tail of a burro, acquiring a holy picture, having her hair bobbed, inspiring a poet, and preventing a mass killing. There are nice touches of the Mexican servants and townspeople, there are some charming scenes, there is a certain authenticity, and the whole is pleasant, intelligent reading.”
Esther Brown, reviewing the book for the El Paso Herald Post, however, was less convinced:
“OF the many ways to write a book about Mexico Arthur Davison Ficke has found a new one. In Mrs Morton of Mexico he combines an interesting character study of an eccentric old Englishwoman with descriptions of people and places in a little town on the edge of Lake Chapala near Guadalajara. For those who prefer fiction set in Mexico to fact about Mexico this book will be welcome. The author has doubtless spent a summer on Lake Chapala and enjoys writing about it. He feels the spell of Mexico and its people but he fails somehow to be very convincing about it. Perhaps it is because his main character is a foreigner in Mexico. On the other hand he just misses making a thorough study of her because he is too concerned about the setting and minor characters in his story. These are stereotyped – the revolting general the inscrutable Indian woman, the Spanish gentleman of the old school and the inevitable artist. The decorations of Gladys Brown at the heading and end of each chapter are very interesting and attractive.” – (El Paso Herald Post, 18 November 1939, p6)
Other twentieth century novels set largely, or entirely, at Lake Chapala include:
- Charles Embree: A Dream of a Throne, the Story of a Mexican Revolt (1900)
- D. H. Lawrence: The Plumed Serpent (1926)
- Ramón Rubín: La canoa perdida: Novela mestiza (1951)
- Ross MacDonald: The Zebra-Striped Hearse (1962)
- Eileen Bassing: Where’s Annie? (1963)
- Barbara Compton: “To The Isthmus” (1964)
- Willard Marsh: Week with No Friday (1965)
Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please email us or use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts.