In July 1923, a few days before the British author D. H. Lawrence and his wife Frieda left Chapala, they arranged an extended four-day boat trip around the lake with friends including Idella Purnell and her father, Dr. George Purnell.
The group that assembled at the pier in Chapala to board the Esmeralda on 4 July 1923 comprised:
- D. H. Lawrence
- Frieda Lawrence
- Witter Bynner
- Willard (“Spud”) Johnson
- Dr. George E. Purnell
- Idella Purnell
- The boat Captain, from Tuxcueca
- Two unnamed Mexican crew
- Daniel, the Lawrences’ gardener and night watchman
Idella Purnell later recalled how “we took off amid the applause of the population of Chapala, a large part of which was on the beach.” (quoted in Bynner, 169)
Unfortunately, the trip did not prove to be without its challenges. The boat ran into very bad weather overnight, causing several of the group to suffer from motion sickness, before the Esmeralda finally limped to shore on the south side of the lake near Tuxcueca.
Bynner was particularly ill, so Idella accompanied him back to Chapala on the regular (and larger) lake steamer. While friends escorted Bynner to a hospital in Guadalajara, for an operation to resolve an infected fistula, Idella remained in Chapala to greet the remaining members of the party when they finally made it back to port a few days later, having spent a second night near Tizapan el Alto and a third night near La Palma. On 9 July, the Lawrences left Chapala for Guadalajara en route to the U.S.
The trip on the Esmeralda would not quickly be forgotten. In The Plumed Serpent, Lawrence not only describes how the boat was pitched about by storms on “the chalk-white lake” but also succinctly depicts the boat’s departure:
“Barelegged sailors began to pole the ship from the shore. They leaned heavily on the poles, and walked along the rims of the vessel. Slowly she began to move upon the waters, in the shallows. Slowly, she was leaving the shore, and the throng.
Two other sailors swiftly began to hoist the huge, square white sail. Quickly, yet heavily it rose in the air, and took the wind. It had the great sign of Quetzalcoatl, the circling blue snake and the blue eagle upon a yellow field, at the centre, like a great eye.” – (The Plumed Serpent, chapter XVIII)
Bynner, in Journey with Genius, includes far too many details of his own malaise, but also quotes this passage from one of Idella Purnell’s later letters, recalling the morning after the storm:
“The next thing I knew my father was excitedly summoning us all to come and see a water snake. I couldn’t see why a water snake was of any interest, now why we had to be awakened so early to see one; there was only a faint gray light under our shelter. But obediently we all went on top of the hatch. The water snake was a waterspout, a black funnel reaching from the lake to the sky, or rather a chimney, with an elbow in it about half way up. The lake was now gray and angry, a thin rain spattered down, and it was cold. My seasickness was upon me again.” (quoted in Journey with Genius, 171)
Lawrence’s wife Frieda, in her memoirs, Not I, But the Wind…, had her own recollections of the trip
“We went into a huge old Noah’s Ark of a boat, called “Esmeralda”, on the Lake of Chapala, with two other friends and Spud. Three Mexicans looked after the boat. They had guitars and sang their melancholy or fierce songs at the end of the boat. In the evening we slowly drifted along the large lake, that was more like a white sea, and, one day, we had no more to eat. So we landed on the island of the scorpions, still crowned by a Mexican empty prison, and only fit for scorpions. There Lawrence bought a live goat, but when we had seen our Mexican boatmen practically tearing the poor beast to pieces, our appetites vanished and we did not want to eat any more.” – (Not I, But the Wind…, 140-141)
The various minor discrepancies in the diverse accounts of this boat trip are easily forgivable, given the discomforts suffered during the expedition, and the relatively short time that the writers were in the area. For example, in her description, Frieda appears to overlook Bynner’s presence, and to conflate two separate islands, the Isla de Mexcala (Mezcala Island) and Isla de los Alacranes (Scorpion Island).
- D. H. Lawrence. 1926. The Plumed Serpent.
- Frieda Lawrence (Frieda von Richthofen). 1934. Not I, But the Wind… (New York: Viking Press)
- Harry T. Moore and Warren Roberts. 1966. D. H. Lawrence and his world. (London: Thames & Hudson)
- Witter Bynner. 1951. Journey with Genius (New York: John Day)
Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.
Tony Burton’s books include “Lake Chapala: A Postcard History” (2022), “Foreign Footprints in Ajijic” (2022), “If Walls Could Talk: Chapala’s historic buildings and their former occupants” (2020), (available in translation as “Si Las Paredes Hablaran”), “Mexican Kaleidoscope” (2016), and “Lake Chapala Through the Ages” (2008).