by Gina Buonaguro
“Comes over one an absolute necessity to move.”
If one quotation could sum up a person’s life, this opening line from the travelogue Sea and Sardinia may best epitomize one of the most scandalous and autobiographical writers of the 20th century: D.H. Lawrence. From the first time he left England in 1912 to his untimely death in France in 1930, Lawrence was almost always on the move, most often crisscrossing Europe and, for a period, wandering the globe. As his career progressed, his travels almost always inspired his literature, and he exhibited an amazing ability to write prolifically and concentrate just about anywhere. Unlike other writers, who may leave their home country only to write about it, Lawrence for most of his life wrote to travel and his travels were his motivation for writing.
Born in 1885 in Eastwood, Nottinghamshire, England, Lawrence had a modest upbringing plagued by delicate health, which eventually blossomed into the full-blown tuberculosis that ultimately killed him. After a stint as a schoolmaster, five of his poems and his first novel, The White Peacock, were published.
Lawrence’s career really took off when he left England for the first time in 1912, to elope to Germany with Frieda Weekley ne von Richthofen, the wife of his former University of Nottingham professor. His sojourn to Italy from Germany inspired the travelogue Twilight in Italy (published in 1916), and it was during this period that he completed work on his first major novel. Sons and Lovers, which delved into the Oedipal relationship between mother and son and really put Lawrence on the literary map, was published in 1913 in England to positive reviews.
But as he both entered fully into a conjugal relationship with his free-thinking and often unfaithful wife (he and Frieda married in 1914 after her divorce was finalized) and explored new literary territory back home, Lawrence began to realize that Victorian England was not the best place to pursue his career. The Rainbow, a kind of prequel to Women in Love, was published in 1915 and banned on obscenity charges. The book’s reputation basically eliminated Lawrence’s ability to earn money by writing.
These events, coupled with an inhospitable climate for consumptives, an unpopular anti-war stance, and a German wife whose cousin was the infamous Red Baron, made England an extremely difficult place for Lawrence to wait out the Great War years. He and Frieda made do by spending time burrowed away in rural Cornwall where Lawrence scribbled out Women in Love. Relieved to be far from the automated environment of urban London, Lawrence seemed to believe that the Cornish town of Zennor could be his permanent home.
However, the Lawrences were forced to leave their beloved and inexpensive seaside cottage and return to central England after Frieda was accused of being a German spy. These wartime experiences left a bitter taste in Lawrence’s mouth, and he felt the only hope for his career was out of the country. Indeed, after his departure, except for short visits, he was never to return there again. As he wrote based on his own experience of sailing from England in The Lost Girl (published in 1920): only England was there, England looked like a grey, dreary-grey coffin sinking in the sea behind, with her dead grey cliffs and the white, worn-out cloth of snow above.
When the war finally ended and travel became feasible, Lawrence and Frieda immediately left for the warmer climes of Italy, stopping in Germany to visit Frieda’s family along the way. They traveled throughout the country, eventually deciding to settle in the English expatriate community of Taormina, Sicily because it, like Cornwall, was where Europe ends: finally. But even this settling did not last long, as Lawrence, considering departing from the continent altogether, headed north again to visit friends and family. By this time, Women in Love had been published in New York, and Lawrence’s reputation and popularity in America was increasing while it continued to decline in England. Returning to Sicily in the fall of 1920, Lawrence leased a villa in Taormina, only to be overcome with an absolute necessity to move. And so to Sardinia he and Frieda went.
The Sardinia trip in early 1921 was a pivotal one in Lawrence’s life, the eventual impetus for a global voyage that inspired him to write some of his most complex works and, arguably, that influenced him to write his most controversial and infamous novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover. While planning his journey, he considered moving there. In the end, the ever capricious Lawrence stayed only one week on the malarial island, which lacked electricity, plumbing, and paved roads.
Upon his return to Sicily, he wrote entirely from memory a personal account of his visit, from his recollection of the hilly landscape and erratic transportation to his impressions of the dark-eyed people in colorful costumes. He faithfully recorded his reminiscences in his signature style, known for its vivid quality, precise diction, and highly developed sense of place. The result was Sea and Sardinia, a charming and readable travelogue that was serialized in The Dial and eventually published in book form in the United States at the end of 1921.
An influential and wealthy American woman named Mabel Dodge Sterne read Sea and Sardinia that year and decided to invite Lawrence to New Mexico, all expenses paid, to become a main feature of the artistic community she was establishing among the natives of Taos. Her letter arrived in November 1921 and Lawrence affirmatively replied that same afternoon. However, his hasty answer was followed by a period of indecision over which route to take to the New World. Though he was excited about the move, Lawrence seemed to have had a superstitious fear about sailing to New York. When another invitation arrived from a friend to join him in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), allowing him instead to sail to the west coast of America, Lawrence jumped at the chance to change his plans, delaying his arrival in New Mexico by nine months.
After a visit to Ceylon, at first entranced by the sultry island and eventually disgusted by its heat and people, Lawrence and Frieda headed to Perth, Australia, to the home of a family they had met at sea. Australia made a deep first impression on Lawrence. Like Ceylon, at first enchantment and then anger at its antipodean otherworldliness settled in his mind: It is too new, you see: too vast. It needs hundreds of years yet before it can live. But despite his mixed feelings, Lawrence was as productive as ever, completing a translation and making connections with a young woman with whom he eventually co-wrote The Boy in the Bush.
Three weeks after their arrival down under, Lawrence and Frieda journeyed by ship to Sydney, during which he hatched a new idea that became Kangaroo, one of his most atmospheric yet under-appreciated novels. While he waited for the next ship to San Francisco in a village near Sydney, Lawrence churned out a draft in his usual swift manner. Inspiration came from everywhere: the local newspaper, the animals found in the surrounding landscape, the little town nearby. Even a dramatic storm, too late to be inserted into the first draft, was ultimately worked into a later version of the manuscript.
After arriving in Taos and moving to a ranch in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, Lawrence was able to continue his breakneck writing pace. As was his usual custom, he became deeply involved with the place in which he lived and found time to write an article on Native Americans for The New York Times while simultaneously editing Kangaroo, penning numerous short stories, and dashing off countless letters.
Though he liked Taos: “The moment I saw the brilliant, proud morning shine high up over the deserts of Santa Fe, something stood still in my soul.” Lawrence talked about moving again only six months later. Frieda wanted to return to England but that was out of the question for Lawrence. Instead, they traveled south to Mexico City, taking in the Aztec ruins along the way, which faithfully proved to inspire two other books, the travelogue Mornings in Mexico and the novel The Plumed Serpent, which he started in Chapala, near Guadalajara.
After a period of travel north and east to New York, where he become separated from Frieda who sailed to England alone, Lawrence again went west, to Buffalo, Chicago, Los Angeles, and back to Guadalajara. He rejoined Frieda in England at the end of 1923, whereupon arrival, he immediately started making plans to return to Taos.
Back in New Mexico, Lawrence again wrote stories, including some of his most important ones like the novella St. Mawr. Even though his health worsened and Frieda suspected tuberculosis, Lawrence still felt the urge to keep moving. He and Frieda returned to Mexico in October 1924, settling down in temperate Oaxaca where he wrote a series of essays on Mexico, finished The Plumed Serpent (published in 1926), and tried to get better. In fact, he got worse, almost died, and was officially diagnosed with tuberculosis. He and Frieda headed back to New Mexico where, despite strict orders to rest, he composed numerous essays. But Lawrence, having no new novel in mind, knew it was time to find fresh inspiration. So in September 1925, he and Frieda returned to Europe, where he would spend the rest of his life.
After a brief stop in England, Lawrence and Frieda went to Germany, then Italy, where he at once started planning a trip in the reverse, returning to England and his birthplace for the last time in August 1926. It was these two trips to England that motivated Lady Chatterley’s Lover, a critique of English class differences as much as about sex. He returned to Italy to write it, at the same time undertaking a grueling trek to Etruscan sites to research his last travel book, Etruscan Places (published posthumously in 1932). He continued to write industriously despite failing health, and he eventually published Lady Chatterley’s Lover privately in Florence. It was, not surprisingly, scandalously received and quickly banned in both England and America.
In 1928, Lawrence visited Switzerland and contemplated returning to New Mexico. The trip instead initiated a period of frenzied travel between Alpine resorts and Mediterranean towns to try to find relief from his disease and, as usual, to stimulate his writing. During his intercontinental crisscrossing, in addition to promoting Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Lawrence wrote copious poems, stories, essays, articles, and letters. But his health continued to decline, and he died on March 2, 1930 in Vence, France. At first he was buried in Vence, but Frieda later had his body exhumed, cremated, and shipped to New Mexico, where his ashes now presumably are interred at their former ranch, now part of the University of New Mexico campus.
And so ended the career of one of modern literature’s most controversial and prolific traveling writers, far from his birthplace and some of the areas where he felt most at home, like Cornwall, New Mexico, and Italy. The news of his untimely death shocked people around the world, including those in places to which he had felt the necessity to move. His wanderlust should not be underestimated. If Lawrence can be considered an autobiographical author, known for liberally inserting into his work details of his relationships with his mother, wife, and friends, then his travels must be considered just as important an element, a dimension of his life that inextricably shaped his writing.
Gina Buonaguro is a freelance writer, editor, and writing teacher based in Canada.
This article was originally published in 2005