Manuscripts and Special Collections

Chapter 9: Last years 1928-1930

Part I

"Here I am, forty-two, with rather bad health: and a wife who is by no means the soul of patience ... a stray individual with not much health and not much money" (Letters VI: 419). Thus Lawrence characterized himself and Frieda in June 1928 to an American acquaintance threatening a visit. The only thing that would actually change for the better was the money. While his formal English publication was down to a trickle - his only prose books in the last three years had been David in 1926, Mornings in Mexico in 1927 and The Woman Who Rode Away in 1928, hardly enough to make his living - Lady Chatterley's Lover would earn him more than he had ever made in his life. It would also make him a household name, and he found that popular newspapers and magazines were now happy to commission topical articles from him. He rather enjoyed writing these, finding that he could write them out in a single morning, and earn more from them than a long and serious story would ever bring in. As a result, although the novel was (much to his annoyance) widely pirated, his last two years were to an extent cushioned by his ability to work as much or as little as he chose, to live in hotels as often as he liked, where he liked, and to pay for medical treatment.

But, in early June 1928, he still did not know how successful the novel would be. For the summer, his only plan was to go somewhere reasonably cheap, cool and at altitude, where he believed he would feel better (as at the ranch): for the first time, the places where he and Frieda would live were being dictated almost entirely by his state of health. There were problems, none the less. One hotel in Switzerland turned him out "because I coughed. They said they didn't have anybody who coughed" (Letters VI: 428). They ended up in the village of Gsteig by Gstaad, and took a small chalet, "quite high up, 4000 ft. and more - the upper world, rather lovely - has a bit of the Greater Day atmosphere" (Letters VI: 452), he told the Brewsters, to whom he had read The Flying Fish. But Lawrence was condemned to the chalet and the area immediately around it because the extreme steepness of the nearby hills made walking practically impossible for him. He nevertheless spent three months there, believing it was doing him good. He was doing quite a lot of painting - and was actually starting to think of exhibiting his paintings; but he was also writing essays, reviews, a short story ("The Blue Moccasins"). and doing his best via a voluminous correspondence to ensure that copies of Lady Chatterley's Lover got distributed safely, in spite of increasing action against the book by bookshops, the police and the customs.

At the end of August, his sister Emily and niece Margaret (b. 1909) came to stay; the first time he had seen any of his family since his 1926 trip to England. For once, the visit seems to have caused hardly any tensions between him and Frieda - but Frieda would not have found Emily as possessive as Ada had been, and Lawrence himself was forcibly struck by the distance which had opened up between him and his family. He felt how far they were "from my active life ... And I have to hide Lady C. like a skeleton in my cupboard" (Letters VI: 533). After spending the summer in Switzerland, he and Frieda went to stay in Baden- Baden for ten days, and while there they finally decided to give up the Villa Mirenda. Although they had enjoyed living there, it had only been a flat, with annoying neighbors downstairs: they wanted more space for themselves, and Florence was distant from the friends whom they now depended on a great deal; in particular Earl and Achsah Brewster, and Maria and Aldous Huxley. The Mirenda was also linked in Lawrence's mind with the last of his dreadful haemorrhages. Frieda went back to see to the packing up of their things, and also seems to have taken the chance to spend some time with Angelo Ravagli: Lawrence ended up in Toulon, waiting for her to accompany him across to the island of Port Cros, where Richard Aldington, his mistress Arabella Yorke (b. 1892) and - as it would turn out - his new mistress Brigit Patmore had invited them to stay, in a borrowed house at the top of the island; another place with the most extraordinary view. Once again, when they got there, although Lawrence liked the place, and liked the people, his health meant that he could not do very much: could not accompany the others when they went out or went swimming, for example. And Frieda had come back from Italy with a cold, which (of course) he instantly caught. He spent a good deal of time in bed in the mornings, writing; he was starting to compose clusters of the new, short satirical poems which he called "Pensées" and which would become the collection Pansies: "he was intensely happy and proud of the Pansies; he would read out the newest ones with delight" (Nehls 1959: 274), and he was also doing a new translation from the Italian, of the Renaissance writer Lasca's The Story of Dr Manente.

Part II

His chronic health, in one sense, dominated him during the last eighteen months of his life - and yet, all the same, it would be wrong to make too much of it. He lived, so far as he could, as if illness was simply a necessary but relatively unimportant part of his existence.

I feel so strongly as if my illness weren't really me - I feel perfectly well and all right, in myself. Yet there is this beastly torturing chest superimposed on me, and it's as if there was a demon lived there, triumphing, and extraneous to me. (Letters VII: 546)

This was his attitude partly because he believed strongly in not being ill: he had advised his Eastwood friend and exact contemporary Gertrude Cooper (1885-1942), just after she had been admitted to a sanatorium in 1926, "The great thing is to have the courage of life. Have the courage to live, and live well" (Letters V: 545). His pride and independence hated the subjection of illness: "He did so hate admitting he was ill," (Nehls 1959: 206) noted a visitor to Florence when Lawrence had to take a rest in the middle of the day. But it was also because being ill had always been a particular problem in his relationship with Frieda. People often said she was a bad nurse (the Huxleys were especially shocked during his last illness in 1930), and in a conventional sense that was true. Yet it was also the case that she could in the most extraordinary way revive and arouse him when he was really ill and depressed; more than one person noticed her talent for this (Hilton 1993: 53-4), and she consciously exercised it: "I roused him into the determination to accept the challenge of my virility, he was not going to succumb" (Crotch 1975: 7). The real trouble was, as she herself knew, that "When Lorenzo feels ill, it infuriates him to have me well" (Bynner 1951: 61). Her radiant vitality could easily become a kind of living reproach to him: in the winter of 1929-30, he told her daughter Barby how "Your mother is repelled by the death in me" (Nehls 1959: 428). He regularly made a point, in his letters, of noting when Frieda (for a change) was ill, and his periods of illness always tended to increase the tension between them. It had been after his influenza attack in the spring of 1919 that Lawrence had written one of his nastiest denunciations of her:

I am not going to be left to Frieda's tender mercies until I am well again. She really is a devil - and I feel as if I would part from her for ever ... For it is true, I have been bullied by her long enough. I really could leave her now, without a pang, I believe ... If this illness hasn't been a lesson to her, it has to me. (Letters III: 337)

His illness always gave her a kind of effortless upper hand over him - and that he could not bear. This was certainly one of the reasons for his refusal to admit to serious illness during his last years, or (in a normal sense) to be a patient. There was clearly some complicity with Frieda in this: Frieda, towards the end of her life, for example actually remarked that "I never heard him complain about his health" (Frieda 1971: 11). He went on working and writing when in bed, "propped up ... with many pillows, knees bent up with a writing pad on the uplifted legs, allowing him to write" (Hilton 1993: 53). His friends all collaborated in the fiction of his not really being ill; Brigit Patmore recalled how, at Port Cros in the autumn of 1928, "it was against the rules to suggest that anything was wrong" (Nehls 1959: 255). There was also a great deal of courage in his behaviour, as he nursed his ailing body: "he knew so well what was good for him, what he needed, by an unfailing instinct, or he would have died many years ago ..." (Frieda 1935: 271).

And yet there can easily be another point of view on the matter. There exists an agonized letter from Aldous Huxley about what he saw as Lawrence's total irresponsibility in refusing to face up to the fact of his tuberculosis, or to consult a proper doctor (Letters VII: 9). Yet Huxley was perhaps too sanguine about the possibilities of treatment. We know that at least one specialist doctor who examined Lawrence, Hans Carossa, believed as early as 1927 that "no medical treatment can really save him" (Nehls 1959: 160): and Frieda's sister, Else Jaffe, a highly intelligent woman, believed that "he and my sister had come to a rational way of dealing with his illness - everyone must live and die according to his own precept" (Nehls 1959: 426). Lawrence had known extremely well, from childhood on, what happened to the diagnosed tubercular patient who submitted to treatment: restricted months in a sanatorium, perhaps surgery (Gertrude Cooper had had a lung removed in 1926) that did no real good: and never any certainty of cure: perhaps just of a slower decline. Lawrence was not going to let that happen to him: he intended to work as he wanted and to lead his own life, terribly diminished though that eventually came to be. "Somewhere I am not ill," he wrote wistfully in December 1929 (Letters VII: 595). He knew the crucial role played by the attitude and feelings of the ill person, and insisted that his illness was as much chagrin as anything else - "The body has a strange will of its own, and nurses its own chagrin" (Letters VII: 623). And at times he still lived vividly: his writing of Lady Chatterley's Lover in the winter of 1927-28 was almost miraculous. But even if he could no longer be nursed back to health, staying self-responsible and his own person, in an active relationship with Frieda, was far more important to Lawrence than putting himself into the hands of doctors. Noli me tangere, indeed.

Part III

After Port Cros, it seemed sensible for the Lawrences to stay on the Mediterranean coast for the winter, where they could think about where they really wanted to live - a question to which there was really no answer, so long as Lawrence was ill. Frieda would actually have liked to go back to the ranch but, for Lawrence, travelling there and probably having to come back after six months was really not a possibility. All the same, "it seems like losing one's youth and glamour of freedom, to part with Lobo" (Letters VII: 288): they didn't want to give it up completely. It turned out that Bandol was small, warm and attractive; the hotel Beau- Rivage was nice, the food good, Lawrence felt able to work at his Pansies and at the newspaper articles that were currently providing him with a decent small income, and - as usual - because his health was not actually any worse, they stayed. Having expected to spend a fortnight there, they stayed the next five months.

Lawrence had no major project on his hands except for the still-unfinished Etruscan book, which Secker wanted as his next "Lawrence book" for autumn 1929; one possibility was to go back to Italy to finish it. But friends came to Bandol to stay; Rhys Davies (1903- 78), the young Welsh writer, came; even Lawrence's sister Ada came, without (this time) any kind of row or repercussions. The weeks went by, "it's sunny here all the time, and quiet and very pleasant: the people are all very nice: why should one hurry away to something worse! ... When it comes to the point of going to Florence, I find I don't want to go." (Letters VII: 41) The money from Lady Chatterley's Lover meant that he did not have to bother about a new book, even if Secker wanted one. The only problem was that - as usual - Frieda wanted a place of her own: while staying in a hotel she had, unlike Lawrence, nothing to do. They had had the idea of trying Spain for a couple of years now, and decided to go to Majorca in the spring; but before that, Lawrence wanted to go to Paris, to arrange for the re- publication of Lady Chatterley's Lover there in a cheap edition, to under-cut the pirates. He could stay with the Huxleys, who were currently living nearby, which made the whole enterprise easier; and Frieda joined him there. Having made the arrangements for the book's publication, he and Frieda set off for Majorca, where they would spend two generally happy months.

For Majorca was "a bit reminiscent of Sicily, but not nearly so beautiful as Taormina, just much quieter, the quietest place I've ever known, seems rather boring, but I like it and it certainly is good for my health" (Letters VII: 253-4). He wasn't sure he could work much while there; but the success of the unexpurgated Lady Chatterley's Lover had probably already given him the idea for his next project; an unexpurgated edition of his volume of poems Pansies, which Secker would be bringing out in the normal way that summer (but with a number of poems missing). The fact that, back in January, a copy of the typescript had been seized by the police in London made him still more determined to put the whole book before the public. A London publisher and friend, Charles Lahr (1885-1971), would take care of the unexpurgated Pansies. Lawrence also wrote the second of his articles about censorship, "Pornography and Obscenity" (he had written a brief introduction on the subject for the Paris Lady Chatterley's Lover earlier in the year), and he continued to write poems along the lines of the Pansies collection. But probably the main excitement of life was the edition of his paintings which was currently being photographed - the volume to be published around the time of an exhibition of the paintings put on in London in the summer.

He and Frieda left Majorca just as it was getting hot, in mid-June, Frieda to travel to England to see the paintings exhibition, Lawrence to stay first with the Huxleys in Italy and then with Orioli in Florence where (once again) he was rather ill. While Frieda was in London, however, the Warren gallery (where Lawrence's paintings were exhibited) was raided by the police, and thirteen pictures - all those showing pubic hair, or traces of it - removed; a case was heard at Bow Street Magistrates court as to why they should not be destroyed. By promising that they would not again be exhibited in England, the gallery was able to prevent their destruction,. But the episode left Lawrence feeling newly outraged; he wrote a whole new series of poems (to be called Nettles - stinging plants, this time) about it: "Virginal, pure policemen came / and hid their faces for very shame" (Comp Poems 579). Frieda came back to Italy when she heard how ill Lawrence was; but after a few days they both went to Baden-Baden for the seventy-seventh birthday of Frieda's mother.

Lawrence's previous visits to Baden-Baden had been happy ones; but, this time, his increasing debility and illness led to new tensions. He found the Baroness unbearable, the climate bad for him, the place horrible, the holiday-makers dreadful; and a stay at the Kurhaus Plättig (at a higher altitude) no better: "though it's supposed to be good for me, I really hate it" (Letters VII: 393). "I am neither writing nor painting, but letting the clock go round" (Letters VII: 395). A return down to Baden-Baden made things better; but he was happy to leave. They had very much liked being back in Bavaria in the autumn of 1927, and Lawrence had felt well there; they had accepted an invitation from the German doctor-writer Max Mohr (1891-1944) to stay in Rottach-am-Tegernsee, up among the mountains, from the end of August. But here, unfortunately, Lawrence felt that the altitude was wrong for him, and the medical advice he took while there did him no good at all: one doctor told him that "in a few weeks, with diet and a bit of breathing, I ought to be well" (Letters VII: 466), and another prescribed him arsenic and phosphorous. The Lawrences decided to go back south again, probably to Italy: "I feel I am really fed up with moving about, and would be glad to have a place of my own" (Letters VII: 473-4). He could not forget having been relatively well at Bandol the previous winter; whereas previously in his life he had been reluctant to revisit places once he had left them and had always preferred to travel on to a new place, they returned to Bandol and after a few days at the old hotel rented a villa, and so - especially to Frieda's relief - were in their own place for the first time for more than a year.

Part IV

Lawrence had not written much for months except some more Pansies and Nettles (and would in fact write no more fiction, in spite of hoping to do so); but although he continued to write poems - the bulk of his Last Poems date from this second period in Bandol, and he prepared Nettles for publication - in Bandol he also began to write concentratedly once again, doing another couple of articles, and turning his first introduction to the French Lady Chatterley's Lover into the essay "A Propos of Lady Chatterley's Lover." Most significant of all, he began reading for what would be his last book, Apocalypse. The artist and astrologer Frederick Carter (1883-1967) - whom he had first met early in 1924 - had written a book about primitive religious symbolism, and Lawrence, having promised only an introduction for Carter's book, found it turning into a work in its own right; he wrote Carter a separate introduction, and followed his own work through to its conclusion. It took him from late October to the end of December, and began with a renewal of his old excitement at a vision of the "pre-Christian heavens," of the old world which he had sketched in his Etruscan essays. What he wanted to do was make this "old, pagan vision" something which modern man would recognize as lacking in his own experience; Lawrence's would be a book offering modern man a kind of psychic recovery of his connections with the old world:

my individualism is really an illusion. I am a part of the great whole, and I can never escape. But I can deny my connections, break them, and become a fragment. Then I am wretched.

What we want is to destroy our false, inorganic connections ... and re-establish the living organic connections, with the cosmos, the sun and the earth, with mankind and nation and family. Start with the sun, and the rest will slowly, slowly happen.(Apocalypse 149)

He wrote this beside the sea, in the sun of Bandol, where he could still go for short walks; he watched the first new flowers coming out, early in December. But he was spending an increasing amount of time in bed; and the English tuberculosis specialist Andrew Morland (1896-1957) - who had been asked by Gertler and Koteliansky to go and see Lawrence - advised him to go into a sanatorium. Failing that, Morland insisted that he give up work of all kinds for two months, and see nobody; simply lie and rest.

This, Lawrence tried: and felt worse than ever. "The weather is sunny, the almond trees are all in blossom, but I am not allowed any more to go out and see them" (Letters VII: 633). Not being allowed to work was perhaps the most difficult - and the most damaging - part of the treatment, though it seems that he did in fact keep working at some things: Achsah Brewster saw him at the start of February "propped up in bed, galley sheets piled thick about him, correcting proofs of his Nettles" (Nehls 1959: 429). But he was not getting any better. In despair, he agreed to try a sanatorium. On 6th February 1930 he was admitted into one with the ominous name Ad Astra, in Vence: and that, it turned out, was the beginning of the end.

Part V

Mollie Skinner's brother Jack (one of the inspirations for The Boy in the Bush) had died at the age of forty-four in 1925. When he heard about the death - a few months after learning of his own tuberculosis - Lawrence wrote Mollie a note of sympathy:

And after all, he lived his life, and had his mates wherever he went. What more does a man want. So many old bourgeois people live on and on, and can't die, because they have never been in life at all. Death's not sad, when one has lived. (Letters V: 292-3)

A poem like "Nothing to Save" in Last Poems suggests a little of what it was like for Lawrence during the last months of his life, feeling almost given up to illness and death - and yet, somewhere, still miraculously alive. That was what living meant, to him:

There is nothing to save, now all is lost, but a tiny core of stillness in the heart like the eye of a violet.

(Comp Poems 658)


He could not bear the kind of living in the fear of death and struggling for health he believed he had observed in Frieda's mother the previous year in Baden-Baden, when he had exclaimed "May god preserve me from ever sinking so low. I never felt so cruelly humiliated" (Letters VII: 398). He could not bear to humiliate himself: he would live every moment he could. A friend commented: "he kept his work and his life free from morbidity, from any sort of unhealthy resentment. He never accepted defeat. He proved to be fort comme la mort, strong as death - or even strong as life. He lived and died as a real man." (Nehls 1959: 161) We can, for example, observe him offering marvellously compassionate advice only a month before his own death to Caresse Crosby, following her husband's dreadful joint suicide with a mistress: "Oh yes, don't you try to recover yourself too soon - it is much better to be a little blind and stunned for a time longer, and not make efforts to see or to feel. Work is the best, and a certain numbness, a merciful numbness. It was too dreadful a blow - and it was wrong." (Letters VII: 634)

Finally, he had tried to follow his own extraordinary advice, given to Mabel Luhan in January 1930: "Lie still and gradually let your body come to its own life, free at last of your own will" (Letters VII: 625). But he was too ill for that to happen again, as it had happened at the ranch in the spring of 1925. At the Ad Astra he continued to lose weight, and for the first time in the whole wretched illness grew deeply unhappy. His response was characteristic. He would move on, as he had always moved on. He discharged himself from the sanatorium; he would live (or die) on his own terms, where he chose, in yet another rented house. Frieda found the Villa Robermond in Vence, and a nurse; on Saturday 1st March he was taken by taxi to the new house. On the Sunday, as usual he "got up, washed and brushed his teeth" (Nehls 1959: 435); he had lunch, he sat up in bed and read a biography of Columbus. But in the afternoon, he began to suffer dreadfully and admitted that he needed morphia. A doctor was found who gave it to him; but he died that evening, in the company of Frieda, Barby, and Maria Huxley. Frieda's account of these last weeks and days is, quite simply, the most moving thing she ever wrote, and it would not do to emulate it: I simply quote its ending.

Then we buried him, very simply, like a bird we put him away, a few of us who loved him. We put flowers into his grave and all I said was: "Good-bye, Lorenzo," as his friends and I put lots and lots of mimosa on his coffin. Then he was covered over with earth while the sun came out on to his small grave in the little cemetery of Vence which looks over the Mediterranean that he cared for so much.(Frieda 1935: 276)

© "Biography of D.H. Lawrence" John Worthen, 1997


Next page: Chapter 10: Versions of Lawrence: 1885-1993


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