Back, Back, Down the Old Ways of Time: D. H. Lawrence in Italy

“My great religion is a belief in the blood, the flesh, as being wiser than the intellect,” wrote D. H. Lawrence, hot in the grip of the spiritual renovation Italy works on so many visitors, especially artists; “That is why I like to live in Italy. The people are so unconscious. They only feel and want: they don’t know. We know too much. No, we only think we know such a lot.” Lawrence lived on the shores of Lake Garda from September 1912 to April 1913, then again from 1919 to 1922, mostly in Taormina, Sicily, and then a third time in the Florence area, from 1925 to 1929. In Italy he finished Sons and Lovers, started The Rainbow, and wrote Women in Love, Twilight in Italy, Sea and Sardinia, Etruscan Places, The Lost Girl, Revelation, and a book of poems. In July 1928, Lady Chatterley’s Lover was printed privately in Florence in a first edition of 1,000 copies.

And yet, he hadn’t foreseen it. In early April 1912, Lawrence was teaching at an English private school and sought the advice of one of his former professors about obtaining a position of lecturer of English at a German university. Ernest Weekley, who taught at Freiburg University, invited Lawrence to lunch at his home in Nottingham. Helping with the hosting duties that day was Weekley’s wife and the mother of his three children, Frieda Von Richthofen (a distant cousin to the famous “Red Baron”).

She and Lawrence fell quickly in love and began an affair. By early May Lawrence had convinced her to abandon her family, leave England, and run away with him.

They went to Germany, where Frieda visited her parents in Metz, and by May 24, the two had settled in Munich. While Frieda missed her children, she apparently missed Lawrence more, and they decided to stick together and live at Icking in southern Bavaria, in a chalet apartment lent to them by Max Weber’s brother. On August 5, they left Germany, walking through Austria to Italy, arriving on the shores of Lake Garda, at Riva del Garda, on September 7,1912. From Riva they moved down the western side of the lake to Gargagno (later famous as the residence of Benito Mussolini, who stayed at the Villa Feltrinelli from 1943-45). First they stayed temporarily in a local hotel on the lake’s shores, moving then to a small villa, Villa Igea. Almost immediately, he began to feel the renewal he would later write about in Sea and Sardinia: “to go to Italy and to penetrate into Italy is like a most fascinating act of self-discovery – back, back down the old ways of time…Italy has given me back I know not what of myself, but a very, very great deal. She has found for me so much that was lost: like a restored Osiris.”

In the autumn of 1913 (after a brief return to England, where the couple met and befriended publisher and literary critic John Middleton Murry and his wife, writer Katherine Mansfield), the couple set up home in Fiaschiarino, a small fishing village in the Gulf of La Spezia on the Ligurian eastern Riviera, not far from Lerici, where in the 1820s the poet Shelley had lived and died. In May 1914, Professor Weekley obtained a divorce from Frieda, the two lovers returned to London, and were married on July 13, 1914. During his time back in England Lawrence met and worked with such figures as T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and philosopher, editor, and feminist Dora Marsden.

He also started to have problems with the authorities. World War I had begun, and Lawrence’s literary anti-militarism, German wife, and charges of obscenity for his novel The Rainbow (prompting its suppression in England) caused both political and financial problems so severe that in March 1916 Lawrence decided to move to the small village of Zennor in Cornwall and lease a small isolated cottage for five pounds a year. Lawrence convinced Murry and Mansfield to move nearby. Mansfield hated it there, and soon she and Murry left.

In 1916-17, with the war devouring thousands of young men in the trenches of France, Lawrence and Frieda became the object of police suspicion and were investigated for spying on Germany’s behalf. The local people had denounced them to the authorities, saying that Freida was signaling secret messages to German submarines using the laundry placed to dry on a clothesline facing the sea! Their cottage was searched, and the authorities tried to induct the sickly Lawrence into the armed forces. Finally, on October 11, 1917, the Lawrences were ordered to leave their Cornwall home within three days under the terms of the Defence of the Realm Act. They were given no explanation for the order.

Unable to get passports to go abroad, the couple then moved to a string of villages where they could afford the rent until in 1919, the war over, they were issued travel documents and left for abroad. From then on, apart from two short visits to England, Lawrence remained abroad and lived in Italy, Sri Lanka, Australia, the United States, Mexico, and France.

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