Vence is a small cathedral town and – a town with a small cathedral. Its eleventh-century church is among the smallest in France. The old town is a vaguely concentric maze of narrow streets protected on one side by monumental gates of Roman origin, and on the other by medieval ramparts. Elegant, urn-shaped fountains play in sheltered squares, of which one served as the Roman’s forum and another housed the town guillotine in Revolutionary times. The old town is now the traveller’s reward for having negotiated the suppuration of hotels and ugly apartment blocks that surround it.
Vence stands almost a thousand feet up in the hills, about ten miles inland: two features that, in January 1930, caused the English novelist and travel and short-story writer David Herbert (D.H.) Lawrence to move there. In Bandol, he had been examined by Dr Moreland, an English chest specialist on holiday in the area, who had told him that he should move to a higher altitude, away from the coast.
Lawrence finally, and belatedly, accepted Dr Morland’s diagnosis: that he had had tuberculosis for many years. As Katherine Mansfield had done 13 years earlier, he left coastal Bandol for the last time.
He had hoped that his ranch in Taos, New Mexico, might better meet the doctor’s requirements, but, apart from his visa problems, the doctor was sure that Lawrence was in no condition for such a long journey.
So he moved into what he called ‘a sort of sanatorium’ in Vence. When he got there he weighed just six stone – 85 pounds – and was close to death. The building had formerly been the home of a local astronomer, and both its name, Ad Astra (‘To the Stars’), and its location – just across the road from the cemetery – now took on a grisly significance. Frieda checked into the nearby Hôtel Nouvel.
It was not really a sanatorium. As Lawrence wrote on a postcard to Aldous Huxley’s wife Maria, it was just ‘an hotel where a nurse takes your temperature and two doctors look after you once a week’. H.G. Wells, who was living near Grasse at the time, came to see him there, as did the Aga Khan. On 27 February, after only two weeks, he wrote to the Huxleys again. This time with a P.S.: ‘This place no good.’
The next day Frieda took him away from the home to a villa she had rented: the Villa Rochermond (later the Villa Aurelia) near the great 2,400-foot cylindrical rock of St-Jeannet.
Optimistically, she took a six-month lease starting on 1 March, and moved her bed into his room because he wanted to be able to see her. He was writing a book review when the Huxleys arrived and he grasped Maria Huxley’s hands and said, ‘Maria, don’t let me die.’
At 9 pm the next day, a doctor came from the ‘sanatorium’ and gave Lawrence morphine for his pain. He said, ‘I am better now’, and fell asleep. He died at 10.15 pm.
Lawrence was buried beside a south-facing wall in the Vence cemetery. In addition to Frieda and Barby, her daughter by her previous marriage, the small group of mourners included the Huxleys and their friend Robert Nichols, an English poet living in Villefranche.
At the time, no one thought that, exactly five years later, another small group would gather in carré 7 of Vence cemetery to witness Lawrence’s exhumation.
In the time between burial and disinterment, Leonard and Virginia Woolf, on their way home from a holiday in Italy, had made a side trip to Vence to visit the grave – and, it being 1933, found him in. In the meantime, Frieda had been comforted by a number of lovers, at least two of whom had shared her with Lawrence while he was still alive.
One was John Middleton Murry, with whom she had had a torrid affair immediately following the death of his wife Katherine Mansfield in 1923. By the time Lawrence died, Murry had acquired another consumptive wife, whom he left with their children in his haste to fulfil his urgent mission to Vence, to fill the void left by Lawrence’s death.
It is uncertain who comforted whom: Frieda at 50 was still alluring enough for him to write later, ‘You don’t know what you did for me in Vence … you recreated me.’
The next to console her was Angelo Ravagli, the Fascist Italian army officer who had served as her occasional extra-curricular lover during her marriage, and was the reason for her late arrival at Port Cros. By 1935, he and Frieda had moved to Taos. He had built a small mausoleum chapel there – a friend called it a ‘station toilet’ – in Lawrence’s memory, and had been charged with exhuming Lawrence’s remains in Vence and shipping them to Taos to complete the shrine.
Deterred by French bureaucracy from exporting a long-dead body, Ravagli had the remains burned and urned in preparation for their 5,000-mile journey. At the docks, in New York, the ashes – just as the live Lawrence had done – suffered immigration difficulties, but they were finally accepted as unlikely to have subversive intent or communist sympathies and permitted to board the train to New Mexico.
The anarchic Lawrence would probably have enjoyed the rest of the story, as researched by biographer Brenda Maddox. Distracted by the enthusiasm of Frieda’s welcome, Ravagli left the urn and its incinerated contents on the train, after which the fate of the ashes becomes confused. Either Ravagli went back to the railway station and collected them, or he was unable to find them at the station and bought another urn, which he filled with similar substance.
The disposal of the ashes has raised even more conspiracy theories. Some, including Maria Huxley, believe that the anti-Ravagli school suspected that he had built the Lawrence mausoleum in Taos with a view to charging admission to tourists, and they planned to thwart him by stealing the ashes and casting them to the desert winds. Frieda, hearing of this plan, tipped them into the mixer that was making the concrete altar stone for the chapel.
Twenty years later, a drunken Ravagli revealed that immediately after the cremation of Lawrence’s body in 1935, afraid of hassles with the French authorities over the export of the remains, he had tipped the original ashes out in Vence and replaced them with cindered wood.
Although this contradicted his earlier, already conflicting, statements, it seems to leave only three possible fates for the true ashes: they are either in Vence, or in a block of concrete in Taos, or in a left luggage office somewhere in New Mexico. And the one true tomb of David Herbert Lawrence is the one in carré 7 in Vence cemetery, over which a plaque reads, ‘David Herbert Lawrence reposed here from March 1930 to March 1935’.
Murry (without mentioning his relationship to Frieda) swore on oath that he had seen a will in which Lawrence bequeathed all the rights of his works to her, and none to his family, and Frieda and Angelo lived on in New Mexico, getting ever richer on the royalties. They married there in 1950, his Italian wife having given her consent for them to marry.
It was convenient that Italian law had not recognized Angelo’s American divorce and marriage, because after Frieda died in New Mexico at the age of 77, Ravagli’s wife was able to accept him back as her legal husband without further ceremony.
Towards the end of the Second World War the artist Matisse moved to Vence, fearful that the south coast would be bombarded by the liberating Allied troops. While there, he designed and decorated the Chapel du Rosaire at the upper end of the town in what is now, appropriately, named the avenue Henri Matisse. The chapel is administrated by the order of the Dominican Sisters, and Matisse reflected the Dominican theme in his frescoes, painting the Stations of the Cross in black on the white ceramic walls in his minimalist style of the time.</p>
He said later:
What I have done in the Chapel is to create a religious space … to give it, solely by the play of colours and lines, the dimensions of infinity.
Among others, a visitor to the chapel on 6 January 1956, was the American poet Sylvia Plath.
She had made the train journey south on New Year’s Eve of 1955 with her lover of the time, Richard Sassoon, and her journal records her anticipation:
Off into the night, with the blackness of a strange land knifing past. In my mind, a map of France, irregularly squarish … and a line of railway tracks, like a zipper, speeding open to the south, to Marseille, to Nice and the Côte d’Azur where perhaps in the realm of absolute fact the sun is shining and the sky is turquoise.
Anyone who has made that train journey will recognize her evocation of the first sight of the Mediterranean:
Then, lifting my head sleepily once, suddenly the moon shining incredibly, on water. Marseille. The Mediterranean. At last, unbelievably, the moon on that sea, that azure sea I dreamed about on maps in the sixth grade.
The Mediterranean. Sleep again, and at last the pink vin rosé light of dawn along the back of the hills in a strange country. Red earth, orange tiled villas in yellow and peach and aqua, and the blast, the blue blast of the sea on the right. The Côte d’Azur. A new country, a new year: spiked with a green explosion of palms, cacti sprouting vegetable octopuses with spiky tentacles, and the red sun rising like the eye of God out of a screaming blue sea.
And, on arrival, her first impressions of Nice:
There is the sea, heaving blue against the roundly pebbled shore, and the white gulls planning and crying in the quiet air, like the breath from a glass of iced champagne. Everywhere little black-clad people walk along the sparkling Sunday morning pavement, sitting in the turquoise-painted deck chairs along the Promenade des Anglais and facing the rising sun: painted bleached blondes pass by in high heels, black slacks, fur coats and sun glasses.
Plath was 23 at the time, on a Fulbright scholarship at Cambridge University. From Place Garibaldi in Nice, she posted a word-packed postcard to her mother in the USA on 7 January:
Yesterday was about the most lovely of my life … How can I describe the beauty of the country? Everything is so small, close, exquisite and fertile. Terraced gardens on steep slopes of rich red earth, orange and lemon trees, olive orchards, tiny pink and peach houses. To Vence – small, on a sun-warmed hill, uncommercial, slow, peaceful. Walked to Matisse cathedral – small, pure, clean-cut. White, with blue tile roof sparkling in the sun – I just knelt in the heart of the sun and the colors of sky, sea, and sun, in the pure white heart of the Chapel.