Mar 072016
 

Barbara Joan Keppel-Compton (1902-1999), also later known as Barbara Keppel-Compton Witt, and Barbara Moravec, used the name Barbara Compton for her novel To The Isthmus (1964), partially set at Lake Chapala in the 1940s. The novel is largely autobiographical, and events and characters are only thinly disguised. (We look more closely at the novel’s links to Ajijic in a separate post).

Who, exactly, was the author? Keppel-Compton was born in Southampton, U.K., the middle of five children of John Herbert Keppel-Compton (1869-1940), a medical doctor, and his wife Anne Sylvester Webb. Prior to 1940, the family had also lived in Hampshire, Surrey, London, Bexhill-on-Sea, and Woodhall Spa in Lincolnshire.

The Keppel-Compton’s youngest child, Ursula Mary Keppel-Compton (1907-1997) became better known as Ursula Niebuhr. After studying at Oxford, and being awarded double firsts in history and theology, she became the first woman to win a fellowship to the Union Theological Seminary in New York. Within a year, she married Reinhold Niebuhr, one of her former teachers, in 1931 in Winchester, UK. The couple made their home in New York City where Ursula completed her studies and went on to found the Department of Religion at Barnard College in New York City. She remained head of the department until her retirement in 1965.

As we shall see, Barbara Keppel-Compton was to join her sister in New York in the middle of the second world war.

Much of what we know about Barbara Keppel-Compton comes from the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University, which includes the The Barbara Compton Collection of manuscripts, correspondence, and other material. Additional details can be gleaned from a close reading of To The Isthmus.

Barbara Compton (photo from back cover of To The Isthmus)

Barbara Compton (photo from back cover of To The Isthmus)

It is apparent that Barbara spent some time, as a relatively young woman, in both Prague (1924-1927) and Africa (1928-1929). She spoke several languages, including German and Czech.

Keppel-Compton was co-translator of two works by German psychologist Fritz Kuenkel: Jugend-Charakterkunde (“What it Means to Grow Up”), with Hulda Niebuhr (older sister of Reinhold Niebuhr) in 1936, and Charakter, Wachstum und Erziehung (“Character, Growth, Education”) with Basil Druitt in 1938.

During the mid-1930s, Keppel-Compton was living with her parents in Surrey, and then London (1938-1939).

In September 1937, two years prior to the start of the second world war, Keppel Compton met German clinical psychologist Gerhard E. Witt, described in her novel as rather tall, in his late 40s with silver-grey hair. After a hesitant start, their relationship became intense, and they spent two weeks together in Paris one September. At the outbreak of war, fearful of his future in London, Witt moved to the U.S. and took a position at Union Theological Seminary, the same institution where Barbara’s sister Ursula had studied.

The following year, Barbara wanted to join him but was denied permission to leave the country. (Posters at the time announced that no one between the ages of 16 and 60 was allowed to leave the country). In December 1941, Witt asked her to marry him and she was finally able to travel to the U.S. as his fiancee.

They married and lived together for a while, but soon discovered that even if they couldn’t exactly live apart, they couldn’t live together all the time either, so they took separate apartments in Manhattan.

In 1945 (or 1946?), they made plans to visit Mexico but Witt persuaded his wife to go on ahead to Ajijic, to a small inn a German friend in New York had told him about, where he would drive down to join her and travel together back to California and then across to New York. Barbara did indeed travel to Ajijic and stayed at the Posada Heuer, a simple establishment run by a German brother and sister on the lakeshore. By the time it was obvious that Witt had no intention of joining her, she had met and was falling under the spell of Richard Moravec.

Witt died in 1946. Following his death, Barbara and Richard Moravec (whom she later married) edited Witt’s book Active Psychology and the Welfare and Progress of Man: Notes on the Establishment of a Non-medical Practical Psychology, Written 1941-1946 (published in 1947). A reviewer in the Journal of Consulting Psychology described it as “the posthumously published notes of a brilliant psychotherapist”. The Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center also has manuscripts relating to Witt’s poetry, 28 sketches and a list of 324 of his paintings.

Barbara Keppel-Compton married Richard Zdenko Moravec, a chemical engineer and film-maker, in Albemarle, Virginia, in 1951. The couple worked together on at least two motion pictures: The Story of A Volcano, about Paricutin Volcano (1952) and With Malice Toward None (1955). By 1955 the Moravecs were living in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Barbara Moravec spent her final years in Surrey, England.

Sadly, and notwithstanding the claim on its inside back cover that it is “her first novel to be published in America”, To The Isthmus appears to be the first and only novel she ever published anywhere. Interestingly, though, the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center includes drafts of two more novels, one untitled and one with the title Margaret Townshend. The archive also has several short stories by Keppel-Compton, as well as a play, and poems.

If any reader is close enough to Boston University to take a look at these unpublished novels, we would love to learn more about them.

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.

Jan 112016
 

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 Esmeralda boat trip, 1923

The Esmeralda boat trip, July 1923. Photo credit: Willard Johnson.

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 whey 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’ presence, and to conflate two separate islands, the Isla de Mexcala (Mezcala Island) and Isla de los Alacranes (Scorpion Island).

Sources:

  • 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.

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