A year and a century ago, DH Lawrence and Frieda, his university professor’s wife, walked across the Alps from north to south. They had already “eloped” to Germany together. Their journey into Italy was a sign they were taking their new relationship seriously. She was asking her husband for a divorce. He was trying to make money by writing their experiences into the essays that became Twilight in Italy. He had already written his first version of Sons and Lovers and, once they arrived at Gargnano at the end of their crossing, he wrote the final version, of which this is the centenary year.

A few months ago, I had my first experience of filming, for a Culture Show special, DH Lawrence: A Journey Without Shame. For five days Geoff Dyer, author of Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi (2009) and Out of Sheer Rage: In the Shadow of DH Lawrence (1997), a BBC crew of five, and I retraced the couple’s Alpine journey, starting in the Bavarian village of Beuerberg, crossing the Pfitscherjoch, and ending in Gargnano.

I quickly realised what a strange thing filming is. There are three distinct modes to be in. First there’s filming mode. This is heightened reality, showbiz, with every inflection of tone, choice of word, stroke of make-up – reproduced in high fidelity on big screens, little screens, smart screens by students, businessmen, paupers, in Nottingham, Cape Town, Minsk (I was hazy about the distribution rights of the programme but was hoping big) – preserved to be seen until a technical revolution leaves archives behind, or there is a collapse of civilisation and interest in DH Lawrence, or the sun explodes and destroys the earth. As a presenter, you’re playing the part of Lawrence acolyte – for everyone for ever. You’re every film actor you’ve ever seen.

The second mode contradicts the first: it is mortal, deflationary, reality, in which you have a body and cock-ups happen. In that mode you’re hungover because the Moroccan waiter in your Tyrolean hotel the night before insisted on pouring numberless shots of Maghrebi liqueur, and your hair is in your face because you don’t have hairclips, and your feet are wet because you’re in suede walking boots and it it’s raining even though it’s summer (“Nothing so awful as Alps when it rains,” wrote Lawrence in 1921). You’re trying to sound wise and look good for eternity but the hazards of living – especially when travelling, and especially in the Alps – are sabotaging you at every turn.

The third mode is Lawrence – the raison d’être. What he wrote, and the way he lived, were so extraordinary that a century later a couple of fans and a film crew are schlepping themselves, pilgrim-like, along the route he and his lover took. His is the real eternality, the real glamour, and the showbiz. So, through the self-consciousness and the hangover, there is Lawrence to grasp for, to try to say something new and true about. This mode, and the first one, worked well together. Lawrence lived constantly in, what is by the standards of most people, a state of heightened reality. The presence of a huge camera and its implications of immortality helped to heighten my own consciousness, in ways that made me more open to Lawrence – his responses to mountains, flowers, Frieda, the idea of God – than ever. And then came the reality, ever bumpily intrusive.

An example: the morning after the Maghrebi liqueur, we were taking a train from one tiny place in Austria to the mountain resort of Mayrhofen (Hohenhausen in Women in Love). Lawrence and Frieda didn’t, after all, tramp all the way to Tuscany but took trains when they felt like it and Lawrence calculated that their tiny budget could stretch to it.

The conductor on our train was kind to our undertaking, and let us have the front carriage to ourselves. Geoff and I sat facing each other and were filmed in profile. Our topic was Lawrence’s sense of humour. “Go on,” said Rupert Edwards, the director, “have a conversation about Lawrence’s humour.” Several things became pressingly clear. First, though I and several others of our party needed the toilet, there was no toilet on the train. Second, and much worse, though I and several others of our party desperately needed some water, there was no water on the train either. Under these circumstances one has to swallow one’s viscous saliva and carry on.

Now Lawrence’s humour is something that, contrary to many of his fans and critics past and present, I strongly believe in the existence of. He was a great satirist, mimic, constructor of comic scenes, reveller in facetiousness, and self-parodist. He could be genially crude, as in “The Little Wowser”, a poem about the human penis, which opens:

There is a little wowser,

John Thomas by name,

And for every bloomin’, mortal thing

That little blighter’s to blame.

In “How Beastly the Bourgeois Is”, on the other hand, he grits his teeth and wields sarcasm like a battleaxe:

How beastly the bourgeois is

especially the male of the species –

Presentable, eminently presentable –

Shall I make you a present of him?

I’d been much looking forward to the chance to say to the world: “Look! Lawrence is not the solemn scourge of the superficial, puritanical priest of love, or humourless harrier of the halfhearted that you thought he was! See how funny he is …” And then I would give examples, and the businessman in his Minsk hotel room would stop fastening his tie to laugh out loud, and download Fantasia of the Unconscious to his iPad.

Lawrence with Frieda in Mexico in 1923
Lawrence with Frieda in Mexico in 1923

But there was the lack of water, and need of the toilet, and the repetition that comes with filming. Geoff told an anecdote at which we both laughed. By the fifth take we were struggling. My own attempt was a shambles. I decided to describe the wedding breakfast of Will and Anna Brangwen in The Rainbow, as an example of Lawrence’s humour at its most genial. The stepfather of the bride and his brothers are getting drunk and ribald. They toast the virginal couple: “Night an’ day, an’ may they enjoy it”, “Hammer an’ tongs, and may they enjoy it”. Then the stepfather finds himself inspired by a theory about angels, and decides to make a speech of it. His theory is knocked down by several hecklers, before one woman recalls an “angel” – dandelion seed – which got stuck up her nose when she was a child. This moves the discussion on to those things that get stuck up children’s noses. “Tom Brangwen’s mood of inspiration began to pass away. He forgot all about it, and was soon roaring and shouting with the rest.” Through my viscous saliva, I tried to explain this. Neither Geoff nor any of the crew laughed. After several attempts, Rupert came in: “I’m sorry, I don’t actually see much humour in that.”

Later that day, on the far side of a heavy lunchtime meal of Spätzle, which blessedly nudged my hangover slightly away from the forefront of my mind, a different kind of hardship emerged. This I was unprepared for. I’d strongly and wrongly assumed that filming involved no significant physical discomfort whatsoever. The day before, we had filmed in a tiny chapel, perhaps the one described by Lawrence in his essay “A Hay-Hut Among the Mountains”, which we reached by driving from Beuerberg. We parked in front of the chapel, then Geoff and I were sent down a forest track until we disappeared round the first bend. Finally, assuming the aspect of walkers who had been climbing uphill for most of a day, we re-emerged round the bend in the path, and trudged the final 50 metres to the chapel, thumbs in rucksack-straps. That, I assumed, was what it was all like. Lawrence and Frieda had done the real work and sleeping in hay huts. We got to sleep in hotels and got driven about between meaningful locations. On the next day, after the train ride, the meaningful location was the Pfitscherjoch, the pass over which Lawrence and Frieda climbed into Italy. The only way to get there, we were told, was to climb about 10km up the glacial valley from the highest guest house. Despite the Spätzle, I was cold – ridiculously so. I had long before given up the attempt to look simultaneously feminine and Alpine-appropriate, as Frieda had had to do before me. Now I was muffled up like the Michelin man with everything the crew could lend me. Geoff and I walked, miked up. It was a chance to get to know each other, so we discussed illegal drugs, black-horse relatives, and so on – until my walkie-talkie came to life. “Could you keep it on topic?” asked Rupert, from a quarter of a mile away.

As the path got steeper and harder, the crew carrying the equipment took on the aspect of cross-bearers. The camera was heavy but its tripod was even more so. Eventually, we reached the top, which Gerald Crich, who dies near here in Women in Love, never does. It was stunning. In such places lots of Lawrence’s characters have ecstasies. This is Mr Noon, protagonist of his unfinished novel of 1921: “For Gilbert, it was one of the perfect things of all his life, that peak [ …] he wanted only one thing – to look across [ …] at that marvellous god-proud aloof pyramid of a peak, flashing its snow-stripes like some snow-beast [ …] He felt a pure, immortal satisfaction – a perfected aloneness.”

In Women in Love, Gudrun Brangwen also reaches a point of “strange rapture” in “the navel of the world”, as she “settled down like a crystal in the navel of snow, and was gone”. In Lawrence’s essay “The Return Journey”, he explains the attraction of the stretch between the Furka Pass and the Gotthard Pass: “I was free, in this heavy, ice-cold air, this upper world, alone. London, far away below, beyond, England, Germany, France [ …] I was jumping in my soul with delight. Should one ever go down to the lower world?”

Standing on the Pfitscherjoch, looking around at the sublimity and down on gorgeous Italy, Rupert encouraged me to have such a moment: “Go on! React to the mountains! Give us a sense of where we are!” I tried to remember some quotations from Lawrence. “Lawrence”, I said, waving my arms in a simulation of ecstasy, “described mountains better than any other novelist I know. He had great descriptions for them” – and here I wrestled with my hangover to recall some of them – “he calls them ‘sky-slopes’ which let you ‘walk up the sky’, ‘great thighs’ among which people crawl like ‘dwarfs’, as ‘white-fanged’ ‘striped sky panthers circling round a great camp.’”

“Give her some coffee,” broke in Will Edwards, the cameraman, “she looks freezing.” I realised with a start that although Will was a good 10 metres away, his camera could see my facial muscles in their precise positions of seizure.

I was given coffee, someone wrapped an item of clothing round my legs out of shot, and I tried again, my words whipped by the obscenely cold wind: “Thighs! Panthers! ‘Tigers!” “Let’s take that again, Catherine.” On, and on, the landscape and I colder and less sublime by the minute. We trudged back to the Spätzle restaurant – probable model for the Gasthaus in Women in Love – in silence.

The Pfitscherjoch was bloody cold but at least it wasn’t dangerous. That was the Jaufenpass, the next day. The point of visiting the Jaufenpass was this: at a certain point in their journey, Lawrence and Frieda were joined by two young male friends. One day Lawrence went botanising among the Alpine flowers with one of them, while Frieda took the other to a hut and “had” him. Days later, she selected as her moment to tell Lawrence about this when the two of them were dangerously high up and lost, on the Jaufenpass, at night. For Mr Noon, who goes through an identical incident, “Night, loneliness, danger, all merged.” I, being a woman, was to explain this incident to Geoff, on a path that was barely distinguishable from the steep scree slope on which it ran. My mind flickered across the BBC’s life insurance policies as Geoff and I picked our way slowly along the path, doing repeated takes before settling down on sharp stones to chat about Frieda’s fling.

Once off the pass, we bundled into the cars in which we sat for several air-conditioned hours, making for the “land dark with orange trees and cypress”. And when we stepped out at Gargnano, it struck us like a wall: heat, humidity, and, finally, summer. No wonder Lawrence and Frieda had stayed there. It is unreally lovely. The Villa Igea, where they spent the winter, stands just one block from Lake Garda, which they could see from their first-floor bedroom. In that room, for the first time on the trip, I had a powerful shiver of historic presence. In this room, Lawrence and Frieda had good sex and bad sex and argued about their budget and ate figs and wrote and read letters about Frieda’s divorce and talked about Sons and Lovers, set in a place so many geographic and spiritual miles from where it was completed. We sat outside a café on the lake, a limoncello and espresso in front of each of us for atmosphere, and freely talked Lawrence. Geoff was unendingly funny, on and off camera. Even the jokes he had to repeat stayed witty. I was dressed differently: I’d lost the misjudged Alpine skirt, the regrettable cropped trousers and wet walking boots, and had pulled out the dress I’d brought for the occasion. This was for my own comfort but also in honour of Frieda, who, coming down off the Alps in her floppy straw hat and battered green Burberry coat, cried with vexation to see the fine ladies strolling on a Sunday afternoon in Riva with their Austrian officers – she, after all, being an aristocrat herself.

Under Gargnano’s sun, the three modes of being that I’d struggled to hold together during the trip, came together. My body didn’t disappear but it gave only pleasant sensations, and ones that were conducive to thinking and speaking about Lawrence under the aspect of eternity. Why wouldn’t you be intensely alive to flowers and figs and people in a place like that? My only trouble was my sense that I’d made a bit of a mess of this, my first attempt at presenting, and let down Lawrence, who is almost unbearably good. By the end of that day in Gargnano I didn’t want to come down off the mountain which had been the experience of filming. I felt as if I wanted to spend the rest of my life making a film about Lawrence – that that is what life would be, lived most fully. But the filming was really just a metaphor. In order to live, every day, with the sense that everything you do matters – will be remembered, is part of a great reality – you can do worse than to read the works of DH Lawrence.


Dr Catherine Brown is senior lecturer in English literature at the New College of the Humanities


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