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Amanda Hodges | Freelance Journalist » D. H. Lawrence in Italy – from The Italian Magazine
17 February 2010 by Published in: Features Tags:, No comments yet

Writer D. H. Lawrence found his most creative inspiration in Italy. Amanda Hodges looks back at his time in the country

In 1912 twenty-six-year-old David Herbert Lawrence met Frieda Weekley, the wife of his university professor and the two rapidly formed an intense romantic attachment that led them to leave England for Europe.

“One must love Italy, if one has lived there. It is so non-moral. It leaves the soul so free. Over Germany and England like grey skies lie the gloom of dark moral judgement. Italy does not judge.”
D. H. Lawrence

By the time they arrived in Gargnano, Lake Garda, in September 1912 Lawrence was in high spirits, invigorated by his beautiful surroundings and by his new love. Frieda, six years his senior and from an aristocratic background, was ‘the one possible woman for me, for I must have opposition- something to fight,’ and this early declaration marked the tone of their relationship for it would prove an enduring but tempestuous union.

The seven months Lawrence spent here were particularly productive. It was a time when everything: language, culture, food and customs were all intoxicatingly new, Lawrence even adopting the name Lorenzo. His creed would evolve into the pithy motto ‘when in doubt, move’, a restless individual fired by the need for new horizons and fresh stimulus. Alfred Brangwen in The Rainbow expresses Lawrence’s own feelings. ‘There seemed to be no root to his life, no place.. to get satisfied. He dreamed of going abroad. He wanted change, deep vital change of living.’ It was what Katharine Mansfield, friend and fellow writer, would describe as Lawrence’s ‘passionate eagerness for life,’ his pale face and beard illuminated by intensely perceptive blue eyes that all noticed.

Travel seems to have been a necessary stimulus for writing. ‘We travel, perhaps, with a secret and absurd hope of setting foot on the Hesperides, of running our boat up a little creek and landing in the Garden of Eden.’ In travel memoir, Sea and Sardinia, the opening sentence – ‘comes over one an absolute necessity to move’ encapsulates his philosophy, a compulsive need to seek somewhere freshly invigorating. At the Villa Igea in Gargnano, he began his first travel book Twilight In Italy, a meditation on the culture and society of rural Italy. To a friend he wrote ‘Gargnano is a rather tumble-downish place on the lake. You can only get there by steamer because of the steep mountainy hills at the back.’

When travelling Lawrence preferred simplicity (a virtue given straitened circumstances) and the book chronicles the conflict between the sensual and the Christian life. At Gargnano Lawrence also wrote the play The Daughter-in-Law and, most importantly, finished the novel Sons and Lovers. A heavily autobiographical work ‘one sheds sicknesses in books’ Lawrence opined, ‘repeats and presents again one’s emotions, to be master of them.’ Frieda’s knowledge of Freud’s ideas influenced this final stage of composition. The love poems entitled Look! We Have Come Through! were also begun during these months, their optimistic title celebrating a bond forged through adversity.

After a brief trip to England Lawrence and Frieda came back in 1913, gravitating towards Fiascherino near La Spezia on the Ligurian coast, staying until their marriage of June 1914. Fiascherino was an isolated village where the couple took three rooms and a kitchen for 50 shillings a month. Lawrence felt he could live more authentically in Italy, far away from modern industrialisation; a natural and spontaneous existence. Intensely disliking the idea of ownership Lawrence always rented, preferring to live in rural obscurity rather than in any urban metropolis.

The war years were difficult ones for the couple in England, unable to return to Europe until 1919. Eschewing the familiar territory of Northern Italy they opted instead for Taormina at the foot of Mount Etna in Sicily. They’d initially explored Sardinia then Capri, taking a flat looking out across the Bay of Naples. Its mild climate, natural beauty and scandalous reputation had drawn many artists but Lawrence preferred the Sicily’s allure, just 100 miles north of Africa, its position giving him the welcome illusion of being perched on the edge of the world.

Taormina was a gracious old town. ‘We have a lovely villa [Fontana Vecchia] on the green slope high above the sea, looking east with the hills and snowy, shallow crest of Calabria on the left,’ he informed a friend. Here he completed the novel The Lost Girl which brought the James Tait Black prize, his only literary honour. Leaving in 1922 Lawrence revealed the place’s potent appeal. ‘We saw our Etna, like a white queen or witch standing in the sky: so magically beautiful..She said ‘come back here’- I said no but wept inside with pain- pain of parting.’ And, in later years, despite inconsistency, he would concede ‘my heart still turns most readily to Italy..My spirit always wants to go south.’

Lawrence experienced disillusionment with postwar Italy, noticing its rising inflation, unemployment and resulting riots and it wasn’t until the mid 1920s that the couple returned. ‘There is something forever cheerful and happy about the Mediterranean: I feel at home beside it,’ Lawrence declared. Despite his preference for the South, in late 1925 they settled in Spotorno as Frieda, long painfully separated from her children, wanted a more accessible destination for visits. Here Lawrence wrote The Virgin and the Gipsy which drew from the life of the Weekley family and was published posthumously at his behest.

Spotorno offered only brief respite and then another move close to Florence, to what Lawrence called ‘absolutely unspoiled country with Tuscan farms on little green hills and pine woods fringing the ridges.’ The Villa Mirenda at Scandicci was a white-stone abode situated in idyllic countryside with glorious views overlooking olive trees and local vineyards. It would become their last Italian home. Here in the woods Lawrence would often sit, pad on knee propped up against a tree, an affection for nature reflected by Connie in his infamous new novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover

The book espoused Lawrence’s most heartfelt ideas, ones perfectly suited to have come to fruition in a country where passion lies at the heart of its identity. ‘My great religion is a belief in the blood, the flesh, as being wiser than the intellect..What our blood feels and believes and says is always true.’ Its explicit sexual content scandalised many but Lawrence felt misunderstood, never intending to be deliberately salacious. Mellors, the book’s gamekeeper, says ‘it’s touch we’re afraid of. We’re only half conscious..We have got to come alive and be aware.’ Lawrence rewrote this novel several times and decided to produce it privately at a Florentine printers in 1928. Swiftly the book created a considerable furore, bringing Lawrence both greater fortune and more critical hostility from abroad than he’d ever known.

Declining health led him away from Italy in 1928 on a quest to find somewhere else revivifying. He’d long had incipient tuberculosis but the beneficial Mediterranean climate plus tremendous zest had kept him active far longer than any had anticipated. ‘For the last two years he was like a flame burning on in miraculous disregard of the fact there was no more fuel’, friend Aldous Huxley felt. It’s an apt metaphor given that Lawrence’s own emblem was of a phoenix rising from the flames, a man who defied convention and cherished life and one who found in Italy a land that constantly fuelled his rich imagination.


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