D. H. Lawrence was the only man who disliked Capri, an island famous for beauty and hedonism since the days of the depraved Roman Emperor Tiberius. Lawrence made three visits: two months from December 23,1919 to February 26,1920; five days from April 15 to 19,1920; two weeks from February 27 to March 10, 1926. His visits were always halts en route: while travelling south to Taormina, Sicily, or north from Taormina to visit his wife Frieda’s mother in Baden-Baden, Germany.
Lawrence’s lifelong motto was “When in doubt, move,” expressed in the impulsive-compulsive first sentence of his travel book Sea and Sardinia (1921), “Comes over one an absolute necessity to move.” When he seemed to be running out of places to see, he echoed “the uttermost part of the earth” in Acts 1:8 and had the urge to visit the most remote places on earth: the Himalayas, Siberia, the South Seas and even Greenland. He exclaimed, “I wish I were going to Thibet—or Kamschatka—or Tahiti—to the Ultima ultima ultima Thule. I feel sometimes, I shall go mad, because there is nowhere to go, no ‘new’ world.”
Lawrence’s letters about Capri emphasise his emotional response to the island. His mood shifts from expectation and pleasure to disappointment and anger, as if he were recording the volatile temperature of a feverish patient. Constantly searching for a country and climate that would reveal a new mode of consciousness, an original way to think and create, he was torn between Picinisco in the cold Abruzzi mountains, Florence, Amalfi and Ravello in the Bay of Naples, Capri, Taormina—and the ultimate goal of America. He feared that if he ever found a perfect place—beautiful, unspoiled, healthy, inspiring, and cheap—he would have to settle down. But he didn’t want a permanent locale, only a place a little less flawed than all the other places he had seen.
On his first visit, Lawrence and his camp-follower Frieda settled comfortably into the grandly named Palazzo Ferraro, above the caffé that was the center of social life in the town: “We have a little apartment here, right over Morgano’s, on the neck of Capri, looking to the sea and Naples on the right, the sea and space on the left: the duomo the apple of our eye—gall-apple. The place is sympathetic, for a time. But it seems to me like a stepping-stone from which one steps off, towards elsewhere: not an abiding place.”
His response was typically ambivalent. The view was spectacular, but his Eden had a gall-apple produced by wasps, inedible and used to make dyes. The just-occupied flat was already temporary, a launching pad to his next unknown destination. “Abiding place” was an ironic allusion to the 19th-century hymn “Abide With Me.”
A week later he again praised his flat on the wasp-waisted island, but with a hint of displeasure. The Piranesi staircase was sinister, the so-called cathedral was a whitewashed oddity: “We have got an apartment—two beautiful rooms and a kitchen we share—150 francs a month—at the top of this old palazzo, which has a staircase like a prison, not a palace. It is extremely beautiful—just on the very neck of the little town, on the very neck of the island: we can touch the queer bubbly Duomo, almost, from our balcony: all the island goes beneath us: and then away on the right, the sea, Ischia in the distance, the bay of Naples: on the left the wide open Mediterranean.”
He also personified the sun as if it were a real man hastening to his fiery destiny: “the weather is wondrous fine—brilliant, hot sun, brilliant, beautiful. I watched him go down red into the sea. How quickly he hurries round the edge of the horizon, as if he had an appointment away below.”
But still, still, there was a thorn in the flesh, an unsatisfied yearning, a vague fear, a sense of being trapped rather than stimulated by Roman history, which almost made him weep: “I get a strange nostalgia for I know not what. I stand on my roof and evoke so many gods, and look at the four corners of the winds, and begin to feel even a bit frightened, as if I’d got to the middle and did not quite know how to get out. The past is simply immense here, and not yet dead. I feel like bursting into tears.” Friends in wintry England envied his apparently carefree life on the paradisal island—where the sun shone, rocks glimmered and sea waved—and found it difficult to understand what he was complaining about.
Lawrence found some potentially promising friends on Capri. Francis Brett Young, a medical doctor and minor novelist, had fought against the Germans in East Africa and recorded his experiences in Marching to Tanga (1917). But Lawrence complained that Young bored and wearied him and, ignoring his own tendency to pronunciamentos, likened him to “a fretful and dictatorial infant: always uttering final and ex cathedra judgments in the tone of a petulant little boy.”
The elegant, talented and witty actress Mary Cannan was better value. Her first husband was impotent, her second became insane. She’d been married for thirteen years to the popular playwright James Barrie, who still gave her a generous, guilt-ridden allowance. The novelist Gilbert Cannan had a severe mental breakdown in 1916 and she divorced him two years later.
The main attraction was Compton Mackenzie, a mediocre but wealthy novelist who owned three villas on the island. Lawrence called him “a man one can trust and like”—with the inevitable provisos: “He seems quite rich, and does himself well, and makes a sort of aesthetic figure…walking in a pale blue suit to match his eyes, and a large women’s brown velour hat to match his hair.” Though Lawrence was poor he socialised with the rich, resented the success of the inferior writer and satirised Mackenzie’s materialism and patronising manner in “The Man Who Loved Islands” (1927). Mackenzie retaliated, after Lawrence’s death, with waspish revelations about Frieda’s puritanical knickers, which contrasted to his own silky style: “ ‘But why won’t Lorenzo let me have lace on my underclothes, Mackenzie?’ she once asked. ‘Look at what he makes me wear.’ And pulling up her skirt above her knees she displayed the austere calico drawers on which Lawrence insisted.” No one could ever call Lawrence stylish. He said there were “lots of other people if we cared to know them,” but Capri was “overcosmopolitanised.” He knew Italian well enough to translate two novels by Giovanni Verga, and preferred the Italians to the foreigners who seemed to overwhelm them.
After only a week on the blessed isle Lawrence was both sick in and sick of Capri. He declared that this built-up rocky island ruined by foreign homes “is a gossipy, villa-stricken, two-humped chunk of limestone. . . . Truly, humanly it is a bit impossible—for long.” In five famous words he condensed the place to an agitated mish-mash of second-rate writers and nasty quarrels, a “stewpot of semi-literary cats,” and added, “I can’t stand this island. I shall have to risk expense and everything, and clear out.” It was high time to launch off the ephemeral stepping-stone.
From Taormina on March 8, ambivalent and capricious as ever, Lawrence wrote a strangely apologetic letter to Mackenzie: “I hope you won’t scorn us too much for moving to Taormina. It was chiefly, I think, the arid sort of dryness of the Capri rock: a dry, dry bone. But I don’t know—I feel a bit of a stranger here—feel the darkness again. There is no darkness in Capri.”
Capri was bright but too dry and seemed to affect his lungs; Taormina was too dark. He had English friends in Capri; was an outsider with no one to talk to in Taormina. He also made some cryptic comparisons. Capri was an “unhatched” infertile egg. Capri, like Lawrence himself, was floating and lost at sea, “all the time like a ship which is going to arrive somewhere [but where?], and doesn’t.” After only a week in Taormina, he confessed that he felt homesick for Capri.
On his third visit in 1926, he stayed with Earl and Achsah Brewster, expatriate American painters and Buddhists, in their villa Quattro Venti (Four Winds). Lawrence told his sister in the darkest Midlands, “I saw most of the old people in Capri, all very nice to me indeed, but the place not half so jolly as it used to be—going dead.”
Lawrence’s aristocratic and annoying painter and predator friend Dorothy Brett had also settled on the island. Frieda didn’t want to see Brett, her emotional rival, and remained in Spotorno on the Italian Riviera to meet her two grown daughters, whom she’d abandoned in 1912 to elope with Lawrence. He wrote that Brett “can’t stand Capri any more: and I can’t stand it when she clings too tight.” But having Lawrence all to herself on this rare occasion she clung tighter than ever. The unattractive Brett claimed that in Ravello in March 1920, after a “hopeless, horrible failure” to have sex with Lawrence, he told her “your boobs are all wrong”. He presumably meant that her breasts were asymmetrical: one was higher or larger than the other. He’d praised Frieda’s breasts in his early poem “Gloire de Dijon.”
Capri appeared tangentially in two of Lawrence’s works in the early 1920s. In his Introduction to Maurice Magnus’ Memoirs of the Foreign Legion (1924), he leaves Capri at dawn to accompany Magnus to the Benedictine monastery at Montecassino, and repeats the “bubbly roof” and sinister staircase in his letters: “The electric light in the piazza lit up the face of the campanile. And we were then a stone’s throw away, high in the Palazzo Ferraro, opposite the bubbly roof of the little duomo. . . . I went down the smelly dark stone stairs of the old palazzo.”
More significantly Lawrence, who in Aaron’s Rod (1922) had satirised Norman Douglas and his decadent circle in Florence, was amused and impressed by “The Gentleman from San Francisco” (1915) by the Russian author Ivan Bunin, who would win the Nobel Prize in 1933. The satirical story confirmed Lawrence’s hostile feelings, and he wrote S. S. Koteliansky, his Russian friend in London, “Have read the ‘Gent.’—and in spite of its lugubriousness, grin with joy. . . . It is screamingly good on Naples and Capri: so comically like the reality. . . . I find the story extremely good as a presentation of the unpleasant side of the picture. It is extraordinarily it.” Koteliansky provided a literal translation, Lawrence turned it into stylish prose, and Leonard and Virginia Woolf published it at their Hogarth Press in 1922.
Neither the nameless gentleman nor his home town of San Francisco, which two decades had been devastated by the 1906 earthquake, are specifically American. On the rough sea voyage from Naples, the gentleman is horrified by a filthy fishing settlement. Visible from the ship but hidden from the town, “he saw under a rocky-cliff curtain of the coast a heap of such miserable stone hovels, all musty and mouldy, stuck on top of one another by the very water, among the boats, and the rags of all sorts, tin cans and brown fishing-nets, and remembering that this was the very Italy he had come to enjoy, he was seized with despair.”
The squalid hovels provide a striking contrast to the luxurious ship, hotel and obsequious servants, but the elegant façades are unreal. An exquisite and charming young couple who danced with great skill on the transatlantic voyage, had actually “been engaged by the steamship company to play at love for a good salary.” Similarly, a colourfuold boat man (serendipitously named Lorenzo in the original Russian) “received a salary from the little town, from the commune which found it profitable to pay him to stand about and make a picturesque figure.”
The hotel manager suddenly changes from servile to rude after the sudden death of the once-pampered gentleman. When his wife asks if his body can be taken to his suite until the boat sails to the mainland in the morning, the manager shows no sympathy and refuses her request. He tells her that if he allowed it the gossip would spread all over town and no one would ever take the suite again. Used to getting her own way, she insists and he replies with mock politeness: “If madame does not like the ways of the hotel, he dare not detain her.” Bunin satirises the hotel rather than the town, and shows how the wealthy tourists who corrupt the locals are treated when alive and mistreated when dead.
In letters of 1922 Lawrence expressed his unusual voyager’s credo: “Travel seems to me a splendid lesson in disillusion—chiefly that. . . . One suffers getting adjusted, but that is part of the adventure. . . . I love trying things and discovering how I hate them.” He had no home in England, always kept moving until he died and couldn’t move himself any more. But he continued to move even after death, when his ashes were transferred from France and reburied in New Mexico.
Jeffrey Meyers has published D. H. Lawrence and the Experience of Italy (1982), H. Lawrence and Tradition (1985), The Legacy of D. H. Lawrence (1987) and H. Lawrence: A Biography (1990).
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