D.H. Lawrence’s final journey, from the sun to the stars
At the beginning of 1930, English novelist D. H. Lawrence was living with his German wife, Frieda, at Villa Beau Soleil, a rented house in Bandol. Weighing barely 45 kilos, he had been seriously ill with tuberculosis for several years – a disease which in that same year caused the death of some 60,000 people in France and 50,000 in Britain. Deeply concerned about his state of health, friends in England contacted a pulmonary disease specialist, Dr Andrew Morland, to ask him to examine Lawrence during a holiday he had planned in the South of France in January and to convince the writer to seek medical treatment as a matter of urgency.
When Morland examined Lawrence on January 20th, he straightaway realised that if he was to stand any chance of recovering, he needed to undergo emergency treatment in a sanatorium. He had been informed that Lawrence was hostile to doctors and medical science in general and knew that he would only agree to enter a clinic if the regime was not too strict. He therefore recommended a sanatorium-cum-hotel called Ad Astra just outside Vence, some 20 kilometres inland from Nice.
Lawrence delayed making a decision for several days, but realising his health was continuing to deteriorate, he finally agreed to accept Morland’s advice. On February 6th, 1930, he left Bandol to surrender to the Ad Astra. A taxi took the poet, Frieda and Earl Brewster, an American friend, to the railway station in Toulon and after what was an interminably long and exhausting journey for the Lady Chatterley’s Lover author, they finally arrived in Antibes where they were picked up in a car by a young English friend, Blair Hughes-Stanton, and driven the rest of the way to Vence. When they reached the Ad Astra, Lawrence was so weak that he had to be carried into the sanatorium and helped up to his room on the second floor.
At first, he felt relatively well in his new surroundings. He had a large balcony and was able to admire the Mediterranean five miles away at Cagnes and the coastline as far as the Cap d’Antibes. He considered the air in Vence – situated some 350 metres above sea level – more salutary compared to Bandol, and wrote several letters to family and friends to say he was pleased with the move and felt better. To Lawrence, the Ad Astra seemed more like a hotel than a sanatorium, the only real difference being that there were two doctors who examined him once a week and took X-rays of his lungs, and a nurse who checked his temperature morning and evening.
By the third week, however, there was a radical change in his attitude to the institution. Seeing little or no improvement in his overall condition and conscious that he was still losing weight, Lawrence bitterly turned against the Ad Astra. His one thought now was to discharge himself. In several letters to friends such as British author and later psychedelic pioneer Aldous Huxley, and his wife Maria, he wrote, “I’m miserable here,” and “this place no good,” and he begged Frieda to find a house in Vence to move to – not an easy task as few people at that time wanted to rent a house to someone with tuberculosis for fear of contagion.
During Lawrence’s last week at the Ad Astra, he received a number of visitors, including H.G. Wells (who later unsympathetically dismissed his illness as “merely hysteria”), the Aga Khan and his wife, the Huxleys – who were aghast to see the sudden deterioration in his physical condition – and the American sculptor, Jo Davidson, whose clay bust of Lawrence just four days before he died shows only too clearly his terribly emaciated appearance.
On March 1st, St David’s Day, Frieda called a taxi and Lawrence was taken to the house she had succeeded in renting in the hills to the west of the town, the Villa Robermond. Lawrence collapsed onto the bed on which he was later to die. The following morning, he read a few pages of a book about Christopher Columbus, but after lunch he began to suffer terrible pains from what was probably an attack of pleurisy, and in desperation asked for morphine. Huxley managed to persuade Dr Madinier at the Ad Astra to come and administer the drug to his ex-patient, and the exhausted Lawrence lapsed into semi-consciousness.
Later in the evening, he began to have hallucinations, imagining he could see his own body lying on a table on the other side of the room. He called out to Frieda, saying he didn’t know where he was and asking her to hold him. To Maria Huxley he cried: “Maria, Maria, don’t let me die!” The end came at about 10 o’clock in the evening of March 2nd. Lawrence was only 44, but in spite of the debilitating tuberculosis he had suffered from for so many years, he bequeathed to posterity a magnificent literary oeuvre of novels, poems, short stories, travel books, plays, articles and letters which unquestionably make him one of the greatest English writers of the 20th century.
A plaque to his memory was unveiled at the former site of the Ad Astra sanatorium, now the Clinique des Cadrans Solaires, on December 15th, 2015, underlining the importance of the links between Lawrence and the town of Vence.