High-level creativity takes time, lots of it. It also needs peace and quiet. To secure the requisite time and tranquility, creators of all kinds have traditionally turned away from mainstream lifestyles and embraced less conventional ways of life. The taste among intelligent middle-class English writers for living quietly – and inexpensively – in the unsophisticated countryside is the stuff of literary legend. The goal is always the same: liberate as much time as possible for the creative work while ensuring congenial conditions for getting it done.
D. H. Lawrence provides an extreme example. He and his German wife Frieda lived an itinerant life, always on the lookout for cheap, usually rural, accommodations. Before being driven from England by the controversy surrounding his work, the couple lived in Berkshire, Derbyshire, and finally Cornwall where they got into a deal of trouble. During World War I, they were denied passports and expelled from a lonely seaside cottage after accusations surfaced that the couple were spying for Germany and signalling to submarines! This is not as paranoid as it sounds. Frieda’s maiden name was von Richthofen. The Red Baron was a cousin. After England, the Lawrences lived in Australia, Sicily, Ceylon, the United States, Mexico, and the South of France. Lawrence used the exotic assortment of inexpensive locales to enrich his steady output of stories and novels.
When George Orwell needed to concentrate on writing his book Wigan Pier, he took the lease on a compact sixteenth-century cottage called the “Stores” in the tiny village of Wallington, Hertfordshire thirty-five miles north of London. Still in its original state, the ancient cottage had almost no modern facilities. He researched, worked on, and finished his book, but also spent hours toiling in the garden and keeping a large menagerie of barnyard animals. During the last three years of his life, Orwell spent a great deal of time living in a remote house called “Barnhill,” on the island of Jura in the Scottish Hebrides. The island’s residents knew him by his real name, Eric Blair. It was at Barnhill during 1947-48 that Orwell finished Nineteen Eighty-Four. He was gravely ill with tuberculosis at the time.
Angus Wilson, one of the post-war writers known as Britain’s “angry young men,” maintained a tiny flat in London and a secluded cottage in Suffolk where he did most of his writing. The primitive cottage was accessible only by walking across a farmer’s fields. He also took extended holidays in North Africa always preferring to stay where he could obtain an inspiring sea view. Fans of the stories surrounding Germany’s “enigma” code may be interested to know that during World War II, Wilson worked at the secret code-breaking establishment, Bletchley Park, deciphering Italian naval codes.
Journalist and children’s author Arthur Ransome, who wrote the famous Swallows and Amazons books, always thought country life was best for writers. He lived in the Lake District while writing the classic series, then moved to East Anglia where he wrote the novels set on the Norfolk Broads. Ransome and his Russian wife Evgenia always chose homes in out of the way places, even when Ransome was ill and confined to a wheelchair. The work-promoting lifestyle came before all considerations of convenience or practicality. Like D. H. Lawrence, Ransome used the romantic places where he lived as settings for his novels.
However, it not just the English who think country living puts one on the road to creative success. Austrian-born philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein had his famous “hut” (actually a custom-built wooden cottage) perched above a picturesque fjord in Norway. Contrary to popular belief, he did not do a lot of work there. He had much more success while boarding with the local postmaster and his family down on the fjord’s edge. In any event, the village was tiny and remote, so peace and quiet was never in short supply.
Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke spent the last years of his life in a rustic stone tower, the Chateau de Muzot, near Veyras, Switzerland. With a drop-in housekeeper-cook laid on by his generous patron, he was free to finish “The Duino Elegies” and “Sonnets to Orpheus,” two of his greatest works. Earlier, he had wintered in remote Duino Castle on the Adriatic. The fortress belonged to Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis. Coddled by the castle staff, yet often alone in the vast place (the royals were not there), he heard the opening lines of the Elegies in the wind as he walked the wintry Adriatic’s rocky shore.
Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the Angelic
Orders? And even if one were to suddenly
take me to its heart, I would vanish into its
stronger existence. For beauty is nothing but
the beginning of terror, that we are still able to bear,
and we revere it so, because it calmly disdains
to destroy us. Every Angel is terror.
And so I hold myself back and swallow the cry
of a darkened sobbing….
What better recommendation for lonely unconventional living could there be?