DH Lawrence in Italy by Richard Owen

4 out of 5 stars

A copy of this was provided free of charge from the publisher in return for an honest review.

In November 1925, David and Frieda Lawrence arrived on the Italian Rivera. They had escaped the cold and drab English winter and were hoping for the sun. They had arrived by train in the town of Spotorno. He was leaning out the window of the carriage taking in the sight of the sparkling sea when he saw Rina Secker on the platform. She was the wife of his publisher, Martin and she was taking them to Villa Bernarda. It was located just under the castle and had views of the Mediterranean its own vines which provided red and white wine for them. It was the beginning of his love affair with the country.

Over the next six months though everything would change for them both. Lawrence was not particularly healthy and living here was to offer his some respite from the industrial place that England had become. It would also be a place where he would become fiercely productive and as Frieda put it ‘a writing machine’ . He grew to love and loathe Italy in equal measure though but liked the way that the people did things by feel and not by some mechanical coldness as in the UK.

Frieda believed in free love and David wanted stability and family life. Frieda would become attracted to their landlord, a dashing Italian army officer from the Bersaglieri Regiment and embarked on an affair with him. She was born Emma Maria Frieda Johanna von Richthofen and was a distant relation of the Red Baron. She was pretty in her youth and had a succession of lovers. She married Ernest Weekly, a Professor at Nottingham, and had three children with him. She was to meet Lawrence after her husband invited him for lunch. Before long they were having an affair and when her husband found out, he ended the marriage and forbade access to her three children. She and David were married a little while after.

The stay in Spotorno was the first of many places that they stayed in the country. They spent a little time in Florence before heading to the town of Abruzzo high above Rome in the mountains. It wasn’t ideal so they took up Compton Mackenzie’s offer of accommodation on the island of Capri. Then he spent some time in Sicily looking at some of the Greek temples. He wasn’t that impressed with the island to begin with, but it grew on him and they decided to settle there in the town on Taormina. The villa is still there and they even named the dusty road to it, after him.

All of these details of where and when they stayed, who they mixed and the various marital problems that they had, have been teased out of the unpublished letters and diaries of Rina Secker. It makes for a fascinating series of stories and Owen shows how each of the factors that were causing friction and heartache actually helped him in his novel writing. Not being in England sharpened Lawrence’s literary sense and he became a better writer because of his distance from England as well as drawing on some of the people that he knew in Italy that became characters in his books.

Lawrence reminded me a little of writers like Patrick Leigh Fermor and Laurence Durrell, in the sense that some of their English characteristics were distilled and concentrated in the Mediterranean sun and this was very visible in their works. I have known about Lady Chatterley’s Lover for decades and it is best known for the scandal that it caused at the time, I must confess I have never read any of his novels! Though having now read this fascinating book about him, I do quite fancy reading his book Sea and Sardinia to see what he thought of that beautiful island.

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4 Comments

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Like you I’ve not read Lawrence because I suspect he might annoy me to death! I think I might prefer any non-fiction if I’m honest, and I do have a fascinating sounding book which is sort of about him on the TBR – Out of Sheer Rage by Geoff Dyer. He’s probably a person that for me it’s better to read about than actually read! 😉

    • Paul

      I will look that one up. I have only read one Geoff Dyer, White Sands and that was quite strange

  2. Liz Dexter

    I’ve read a few of his as I had to at university, but wasn’t hugely keen. This sounds really interesting, though!

    • Paul

      His fiction has never really appealed to me. He sounds a fascinating character, this is only a snapshot of his life though

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