“I’ve just been for a walk on my small boulevard and looking down below at the houses all bright in the sun and housewives washing their linen in great tubs of glittering water and flinging it over the orange trees to dry. Perhaps all human activity is beautiful in the sunlight.” -Katherine Mansfield, in a letter to her husband, John Middleton Murray
“I was only happy once; that was at Hyères.” -Robert Louis Stevenson
“Take her away, into the sun, the doctor said.” The opening line of Sun, a short tale by British novelist and poet DH Lawrence, which was published in 1925’s The Princess and Other Stories, sums up one of that eminent author’s most cherished themes. You could call it the Mediterranean myth of renewal – the promise of simple restorative pleasures: a gentle climate, a dazzling blue sea and villa life surrounded by a lemon-scented garden.
Although Lawrence and his wife, Frieda, travelled extensively throughout Italy, the writer spent his final years on the tranquil, palm-fringed Côte d’Azur, in search of a new Eden. Like many of the celebrated expatriate writers who took refuge on the Riviera between 1915 and the 1930s, to Lawrence the area must have provided an idyllic escape from chilly northern skies, urban rhythms and wartime strife.
Yet, it was not entirely by coincidence that one group of Anglo-Saxon writers – Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, Aldous Huxley and Cyril Connolly – ended up as near neighbours in a string of small coastal towns, including Menton, Hyères, Sanary-sur-mer, Bandol, La Ciotat and Cassis. They’d all started as a group of friends in England, and already shared an interwoven history of love, quarrels and estrangement, which continued to develop as the years went by.
However, for ailing writers such as Robert Louis Stevenson, Katherine Mansfield and Lawrence, the Riviera promised more than sheer inspiration and a change of lifestyle. As early as the 1860s, the area’s mild winters attracted a steady stream of wealthy consumptives from northern Europe. The word was out: British doctor, James Henry Bennet published Winter and Spring on the Shores of the Mediterranean in 1861, claiming that Menton – snugly protected by wind and several degrees warmer – was indeed the perfect sanatorium city. Following Dr Bennet’s suggestion, in 1863 Robert Louis Stevenson first travelled to Nice and Menton with his family, as a frail 12-year-old with a recurrent cough.
Stevenson’s biographers have speculated that those happy memories may have prompted the Scottish writer – who was responsible for the likes of Treasure Island, Kidnapped and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – to return to the Côte d’Azur 20 years later, with his Californian wife, Fanny Osbourne. Hoping to improve his deteriorating pulmonary consumptive condition, Stevenson initially rented a château in Marseille, which turned out to be a sordid disaster. When Fanny found a dead body dumped on their doorstep, the couple packed up and decamped to Hyères, 85 kilometres down the coast. At the time, like Menton, this sleepy, palm-lined city was slowly becoming a hotspot for British aristos seeking ‘winter cures’, and later it was frequented by the likes of Queen Victoria.
The couple soon found their dream house and rented a tiny pseudo-Swiss chalet, La Solitude, perched on a cliff with a sweeping vista of the shimmering sea and the Îles d’Or. The house, which still stands today, on the present Rue Victor-Basch, was a kind of architectural folly, inspired by Chinese pagodas and Turkish mosques, which was first exhibited at the Paris Exhibition of 1878, then shipped to Hyères and rebuilt. Stevenson spent 16 blissful and productive months at La Solitude, mostly in the large, sun-dappled jardin, where he wrote A Child’s Garden of Verses.
“This spot, our garden, and our view, are sub-celestial,” wrote Stevenson. “I live in a most sweet corner of the universe, sea and fine hills before me, and a rich variegated plain: and at my back, a craggy hill, loaded with vast feudal ruins.”
The couple’s idyll ended when Fanny learned of an outbreak of cholera near Toulon and Stevenson fell gravely ill while visiting friends in Nice. They were forced to go back to England for medical treatment and later moved to Samoa, where Stevenson died, aged just 44.
When New Zealand-born writer Katherine Mansfield fled London and first journeyed to the south of France in 1915, it was partly to escape her grief. She’d just lost her dearly loved brother, Leslie Beauchamp, who was killed fighting on the Western Front in France. Her fragile health – a thwarted pregnancy, gonorrhoea and rheumatic fever – only added to Mansfield’s intense desire to settle in a warm climate, one with a landscape that reminded her of childhood years in Wellington.
Mansfield passed through Cassis – where Virginia Woolf often stayed a decade later, to visit her sister Vanessa and husband, Clive Belle – but decided to head to Bandol, a tiny port village, where she installed herself at the seafront Hôtel Beau Rivage, in a room on the top floor, second from the right, overlooking the sea. Mansfield’s haven still stands and currently operates as the Résidence Hôtelière Beau Rivage, offering weekly rental of three-star studio apartments.
By January 2, 1916, Mansfield had rented the tiny romantic Villa Pauline, boasting clifftop views and “an almond tree that tapped at the window of the salle à manger”. She stayed until April 1916, taking long walks by the port and writing what’s considered to be some of her best work, including Prelude. During this period, her lover, the literary magazine editor John Middleton Murray, often came down to visit. Mansfield’s chaotic love life would be too complex to summarise here, but she eventually wedded Middletown Murray in 1918, once the divorce with George Bowden, her estranged husband from a loveless marriage, had been finalised. Later on, Mansfield noted in her journals that those carefree months in Bandol had been the happiest moments of her life.
Once back in England, in 1917, Mansfield became ill with pleurisy and dreamed about returning to sunny Bandol. When she recovered, her doctor advised a trip south, but the writer was unprepared for the hardships of the journey and the grim wartime changes that had altered the mood of her beloved Mediterranean town. Alone and in poor health, Mansfield immediately attempted to return to England but was held up in Paris, which was under heavy bombardment.
Disillusioned, Mansfield eventually made her way back to London, and in 1920, when her pleurisy had deteriorated into tuberculosis, decided to return to France with her care-taking companion, Ida Baker – this time to Menton. She moved into a small two-storey villa, the Isola Bella, which is set atop a hill in the neighbourhood of Garavan, just next to the Italian border, and is known for its exceptional gardens.
It was “the first real home of my own I’ve ever loved”, she enthused, in a letter to Middleton Murray, who visited sporadically. The sea and garden, filled with mimosa and tangerine trees, was the inspiration for her best novellas (Miss Brill, The Daughters of the Late Colonel), but this feverishly productive time ended abruptly when her health took a turn for the worse. She left for Switzerland and then went to Avon, to the Gurdjieff Institute for the Harmonious Development of the Mind, a monastery near Fontainebleau, where she died on January 9, 1923 at the age of 34. Just before her death, she had written in her journal: “I simply pine for the S. of France.”
Today, Isola Bella, visible from the platform of the Gare de Menton-Garavan, is owned by the city of Menton. In collaboration with the Katherine Mansfield Society, the villa is used as a New Zealand writer’s guest residence.
The story of DH Lawrence’s wanderings in the south of France began five years after the death of Katherine Mansfield, a close friend – in a way, he was retracing her steps. In October 1928, the writer and his friend, Richard Aldington, rented an old stone fortress on the nearly deserted island of Port Cros, across from Hyères. At the time, Lawrence’s wife, Frieda, was having an affair with an Italian officer, Angelo Ravagli, which would have important consequences in the tragicomic saga that took place after the author’s death.
Finding that the Riviera’s climate suited him, Lawrence returned to Bandol the following winter, checking into the Hôtel Beau Rivage, where Mansfield had stayed earlier. Still in search of a publisher for his controversial novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover, he and Frieda decided to rent the villa Beau Soleil. Emaciated and exhausted, Lawrence, who was in denial about his long-neglected tuberculosis, soon realised that the damp sea breezes had only made his condition worse. He longed to return to Taos, New Mexico but was too weak – instead his doctor dispatched him to a higher altitude, to the wooded hills of Vence, in the Alpes-Maritimes département.
After a brief stay in a local sanatorium named Ad Astra, Lawrence demanded to be released but, sadly, died several days later at their newly-leased home, the Villa Rochermond near Vence, on March 2, 1930. Frieda and Lawrence’s close friends, Maria and Aldous Huxley, were present at his deathbed.
Lawrence was first buried in carré 7 of the old Vence cemetery, but his remains were exhumed and cremated five years later, a ceremony which was witnessed by a small group of friends. When Frieda – who was consoled by a series of lovers, including Middleton Murray – decided to transport Lawrence’s ashes with the intention of building a shrine in Taos, what happened next still isn’t exactly clear.
Various versions of the story of Lawrence’s ashes exist: one was that Frieda’s lover, Angelo Ravagli, who was in charge of transporting the urn, distractedly left it on a train and, instead, filled another receptacle with chips of burnt wood. Another version claims that Ravagli feared immigration hassles and, one night, drunkenly confessed that he’d dumped the original contents of the urn into the sea between Marseille and Villefranche, while sailing on a ship en route to New York.
Meanwhile, the Huxleys, appalled at the idea that Frieda might charge tourists money to visit the shrine, planned to steal the ashes and cast them to the desert winds. Frieda, who learned of their intentions, made it known that she would put the ashes in the concrete mixer immediately upon their arrival in Taos. It is still a mystery where the ashes may have actually been scattered, but the Taos shrine – since renamed a ‘memorial’ – still stands on the Lawrence Ranch, a site that’s only recently been reopened to the public.
After Lawrence’s funeral, the Huxleys went to Bandol and stayed, as their friends had done, at the Hôtel Beau Rivage. However, it wasn’t long before they bought a house in Sanary-sur-Mer, a tiny fishing port down the coast near Toulon, named the Villa Huley.
“Here, all is exquisitely lovely. Sun, roses, fruit, warmth. We bathe and bask,” Huxley wrote to his sister-in-law. The couple settled there for the next seven years. Living simply but well – Maria zipped around in a red Bugatti – Huxley wrote the visionary Brave New World and Eyeless in Gaza at the Villa Huley.
The ascent of fascism and anti-Semitism during the 1930s gave rise to a new era of expatriate writers and, strangely enough, the tiny, tranquil enclave of Sanary-sur-Mer suddenly became a refuge for a host of intellectuals, who ranged from Cyril Connolly, the British critic and novelist, to German author Thomas Mann and his son.
As Aldous Huxley’s friend and biographer, the novelist Sybille Bedford, recounted during a 1993 interview with the Paris Review, there were “so many people of wildly different ways of life there at the same time”, all with varied languages, incomes and tastes, that “Sooner or later everybody met, this was the point: Sanary was no city – one newspaper kiosk, one post office, one paint-shop, two chemists, three cafés.”
Needless to say, the Riviera’s expatriate literary scene of the 1920s and 1930s didn’t begin and end in the Var département. Further east, down the coast, in the then-poky fishing village of Antibes, a group of American writers were forming a tight clique and inviting their New York friends to come and experience their own hedonistic version of ‘the good life’ – stay tuned for part two…
From France Today magazine