Come write with me…
The idea of the writer’s retreat – an idyllic or interesting location in which to tuck oneself away and write a best-seller – is rather tempting, isn’t it? It’s no surprise, therefore, that various successful authors have sought their own perfect paradise in the sun.
That said, it wasn’t always about chasing la dolce vita. In Victorian and Edwardian times, for example, tuberculosis was rampant and a major cause of weakened constitutions and early deaths. Moving to warmer climates was good for both the body and spirit – and often based on doctors’ orders.
Let’s take a look at the places chosen by 8 wonderful authors for their writers’ retreats.
Sylvia Plath (1932-1963)
Long before Benidorm was invaded by the partying hordes, it was a sleepy Catalan fishing village. Boston-born poet Sylvia Plath spent a couple of months there in 1956 with her new husband, British poet Ted Hughes. The honeymooners were looking for somewhere quiet to relax and write. Amazing as it sounds to us today, they found Benidorm to be their perfect writer’s retreat.
Sylvia struggled with depression through most of her adult life. But these months in Spain were among her happiest ever. Deeply in love and delighted to be travelling and enjoying new experiences, she shared her impressions of Benidorm in letters home to her mother in Massachusetts:
“As soon as I saw the tiny village… after an hour of driving through the red sand desert hills, dusty olive orchards and scrub grass that is so typical around here, and saw the blaze of blue sea, clean curve of beach, immaculate white houses and streets, like a small sparkling dream town, I felt instinctively with Ted that this was our place”.Letters home, July 14, 1956.
I wonder how many of today’s revellers in Benidorm would recognise this description of its humble beginnings!
It’s clear from Sylvia’s letters that money was tight. So the couple lived simply, shopping for fresh produce at the markets and cooking at home. They spent long periods of their summer days writing, then heading off for a swim in the sea. After dinner they could be found “walking through the moonlit almond groves toward the still purple mountains where we can see the Mediterranean sparkling silver far below.”
Works written in Benidorm
Sylvia’s happiness led her to produce considerable creative output during her stay in Benidorm. These works included sketches of the town and coast, journal entries, poetry and short stories including The net menders, Fiesta melons, The beggars and Departure. She wrote that her sketches were “the best I’ve done in my life.”
Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923)
Menton is a pretty town in the French Riviera, lapped by the Mediterranean Sea and close to the borders with Monaco and Italy. Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp – the writer Katherine Mansfield – moved there in 1920, at the invitation of her cousin Connie who owned a property in the town. Katherine stayed at a small villa on the property, called Villa Isola Bella. The Riviera, although starting to become popular, had yet to develop into the fashionable and glitzy place that it is today.
Unlike Benidorm, which has made comparatively little of its links with Sylvia Plath, Menton is very proud of its association with New Zealand’s most famous expat writer. There’s a street named after her, and a commemorative plaque outside her former home.
Having suffered from tuberculosis, Katherine was in need of a ‘free and sunny place’. Like Sylvia, she wanted somewhere to tuck herself away and write – and was determined to discipline herself to do it every day. Also like Sylvia, she was to find that this time abroad in the sun would turn out to be one of the happiest of her extraordinary life. Just as Sylvia wrote home excitedly about her Benidorm haven, Katherine wrote:
Yes, I think you’d find the South of France was good country. I could be content to stay here for years. In fact I love it as I’ve never loved any place but my home. The life, too, is so easy. There is no division between one’s work and one’s external existence—both are of a piece. And you know what that means.Letter to her brother-in-law, September 1920
Works written in Menton
Although the Villa Isola Bella was somewhat dilapidated, Katherine loved it and ended up staying for a year. She found Menton, “a pretty little city, somewhat unreal, where everything is set by sunlight”. Whilst there, she wrote The singing lesson, The young girl, The lady’s maid, The life of Ma Parker and other stories including The daughters of the late Colonel, which she later described as the only one of her stories that satisfied her to any extent!
Today, the Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowship enables a New Zealand writer to enjoy up to a year’s residency in Menton, with financial assistance. The Fellow can work in a designated room at Villa Isola Bella if they wish. A number of well-known writers have benefitted and gone on to achieve great success, including Witi Ihimaera, Lloyd Jones, Kate Camp and Jenny Bornholdt.
Robert Graves (1895-1985)
I used to live a few streets away from the rather elegant Wimbledon house in which Robert Graves was born. Some years later I came upon another home of his, in the equally desirable village of Deia, in Mallorca. Clearly he was a man with an enviable lifestyle, I thought to myself.
During that trip to Mallorca I was staying in the home of an artist whose mother had known Robert. While browsing her many bookshelves one day, I came across a biography of him, written by his son William. It was a fascinating read, pulling no punches. Like many writers, Robert was a complex character, a flawed genius prone to falling in love – with both sexes. It was no surprise to learn that he originally ran away to Deia with his lover, American poet Laura Riding, leaving his estranged wife and children behind.
The outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 led the couple to leave Mallorca. Robert returned in 1946 with his subsequent partner Beryl, whom he later married, and their 3 children. He remained there until his death in 1985 and is buried in the local churchyard.
Today, Deia is known as an upmarket destination for the wealthy and famous. Other writers, such as Anais Nin, have since discovered it – as well as celebrities and movie stars.
However, Deia was far less glamorous when the Graves family first moved there. Being a remote agricultural village tucked in the mountains, with few services and amenities, conditions were rather more primitive than today. William’s book speaks of the family home being very cold in winter and lacking the kind of modern comforts we now take for granted.
Nevertheless, Robert seemed to find in this village what many British writers were seeking in those times: a fresh start after the horrors of war, an escape from the constraints of conservative Edwardian society and the freedom to be himself.
The house was acquired by the Fundació Robert Graves and opened to the public as a museum in 2006.
Works written in Deia
Robert wrote some of his best-known works in Deia, including I, Claudius; Goodbye to all that and a biography of T.E. Lawrence.
Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961)
Ernest Hemingway’s journalistic assignments took him all around the world. He first tasted island life in Key West, Florida in the 1930s, where he and his then wife Pauline purchased a home. The lifestyle suited him well, and may have set a pattern for his later choices.
In 1940 he and his new wife Martha bought Finca Vigía, a house they had initially rented, in a seaside suburb of Havana, Cuba. This was to be his home for the next 20 years. Despite the deteriorating political situation there, Hemingway loved his lifestyle and soon became a well-known local character in Havana. His favourite pursuits were hunting, fishing aboard his boat, Pilar – and breeding cats.
Hemingway’s marriage to Martha broke up during his time away as a war correspondent in Europe. He returned to Cuba in 1946 with his new wife Mary, an American journalist whom he had met in London. They remained there until Fidel Castro came to power in 1958 and confiscated all private property.
Works written in Havana
In between his ongoing journalism assignments overseas, Hemingway worked on various titles during the Havana years, such as The old man and the sea, which would later gain him Nobel and Pulitzer prizes, and For whom the bell tolls.
The Cuban government restored Finca Vigía and opened it to the public as a museum in 2007.
Elizabeth von Arnim (1866-1941)
Mougins, a pretty village near Cannes in the south of France, has been home to many artists and attracted famous visitors over the years. These include Pablo Picasso, André Villers, Yves St Laurent, Coco Chanel, Elizabeth Taylor and Winston Churchill. With so many A-list luminaries attached to the town’s fame, its links with Australian-born writer Mary Annette Beauchamp – known later by the pen name Elizabeth von Arnim – have been largely forgotten.
Elizabeth spent most of her formative years in England, where her family moved when she was 3 years old. During her colourful adult life, she resided in various countries including Germany and Switzerland. Like her cousin Katherine Mansfield, she was a rebel and feminist – and a great traveller.
‘Escape’ is a common theme in Elizabeth’s literary works, whether from an unfulfilling marriage, the demands of motherhood or the dullness of everyday life. The enchanted April, her novel about an unlikely group of female strangers holidaying together in an Italian castle, was made into a feature film in 1991. My husband and I loved the movie so much that we decided on Portofino, where it was filmed, for our honeymoon! You can read about it in my post Enchanted June – a magical honeymoon in Liguria.
In 1930, Elizabeth was advised to relocate to a temperate climate to alleviate her health problems. By this time her children were grown-up and she was separated from her second husband, eminent politician Earl Francis Russell.
She fell in love with an old pink farmhouse near Mougins, located on land belonging to her friend Bridget Guinness, who was from the Irish brewing family. Elizabeth bought the house, engaged an architect and set about renovating it while staying with Bridget. (Point of interest: Bridget’s villa was later bought by Picasso).
Elizabeth named her new home Mas des roses and relocated her many possessions there, including her dogs and her vast library, from her previous base in Switzerland. She was soon entertaining family and friends – the latter including writers E.M. Forster, Hugh Walpole and her former lover H.G. Wells – and cultivating the gardens, where she had her own separate writer’s retreat house.
Elizabeth lived at Mas des Roses for 9 years, until the outbreak of war forced her to retreat to America, where 3 of her children were living. Sadly, her health worsened and she died the following year without ever returning to Mougins. Her French estate was eventually sold by her family and some of her library collections were donated to the University of Toulouse.
Works written in Mougins
During her years in France, Elizabeth wrote The jasmine farm; the autobiographical All the dogs of my life and Mr Skeffington, her final novel. In 1940, Time magazine listed Mr Skeffington in their ‘Books of the year’ list alongside Hemingway’s For whom the bell tolls. Mr Skeffington was made into a film in 1944 starring Bette Davis.
In 2016, the International Elizabeth von Arnim Society arranged for a new rose to be named after the author, to commemorate the 150th anniversary of her birth. A keen gardener and life-long adorer of roses, no doubt she would have appreciated the tribute. Generally, however, Elizabeth preferred anonymity and almost certainly would not mind the fact that there is precious little commemoration of her life and works visible today, even though she was very successful and generated considerable wealth from her writing.
James Joyce (1882-1941)
The southern Italian town of Trieste is deeply proud of its association with the Irish writer, who took up a teaching job at the Berlitz school in 1904. In 2004, the municipal authorities celebrated the centenary of his arrival by erecting a statue of him on the Ponterosso bridge, close to one of the apartments in which James and his partner Nora lived.
The couple occupied 8 different addresses during their 10 years in Trieste, which was then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Their social network included members of some of the city’s wealthiest families, members of whom were James’s pupils. His friends also included local writers and intellectuals. They regularly patronised the Caffè Stella Polare and the Caffè Pirona which still exist today.
Evidence suggests that the Joyces often struggled financially, due to James’s lack of long-term paid work and their difficulties in persuading publishers to accept his sometimes controversial literary works. This often led them to lean on friends and family for support, including James’s brother Stanislaus who also came to teach at the Berlitz school.
Works written in Trieste
In between his intermittent teaching jobs and writing for the local press, James wrote some of his most acclaimed works in Trieste. These include Dubliners, Portrait of the artist as a young man and early versions of Ulysses. His fortunes were just beginning to improve when the First World War broke out, leading the family to relocate to Zurich in 1915.
Although the Joyces returned to Trieste – annexed to Italy at the end of the war – in 1919, they found it to be a very different place. The changes were not to their liking and they moved to Paris the following year.
Today, you can visit the small but fascinating Museo Joyce which organizes various literary and cultural events all year. The museum has also mapped out various city walks and itineraries to enable Joyce fans to spot his former homes and favourite places.
Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1895)
Samoa is a Polynesian tropical island country in the Pacific Ocean, known for its beautiful white sand beaches fringed with palm trees. It’s much-loved by Australians and New Zealanders in particular, as a winter sun holiday destination.
Back in the 19th century, Edinburgh-born Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson (1850-1895) – known to family and friends as Louis – lived variously in California, Switzerland, Scotland, England and New York before discovering the Pacific Islands on a 3-year sailing tour with his family.
Louis dropped anchor off Samoa in 1889 and stayed there for 6 weeks. Being something of a bohemian character, the island’s culture appealed to him. Having suffered ongoing health problems following a bout of tuberculosis, the temperate climate also suited him well.
After a brief stay in Australia, Louis returned to Samoa and purchased land in the village of Vailima, a few miles south of the capital Apia. He then set about building a grand home for himself, his American-born wife Fanny, his mother Margaret and Fanny’s two children.
Island politics were somewhat volatile at the time, thanks to the competitive attempts of Germany, Britain and the US to gain influence in Samoa – aided by internal factions which supported one or the other. Tensions often simmered and occasionally, boiled over into fighting. Louis became deeply interested in island affairs and was highly critical of the antics of the so-called ‘Great Powers’, both verbally and in some of his writings.
The Stevensons’ grand new villa had 5 bedrooms, a library, fireplaces (said to be the only ones in Samoa), a Great Hall for balls and major social occasions, and elegant furniture sourced from their home countries and elsewhere. Despite their relative wealth, they regarded themselves and their many servants as a family, which gained them respect and appreciation. Locals gave each family member a nickname; Louis was ‘Tusitala’ or ‘teller of tales’.
The Stevensons lived in Samoa until Louis’s death in 1895 from a cerebral haemorrhage. He was buried at the top of Mount Vaea, overlooking the sea, in accordance with his wishes.
The family home, Villa Vailima, served various purposes in subsequent decades and the estate eventually fell into disrepair. Following a restoration by the RLS Museum Preservation Foundation, the house opened to the public as a museum in 1994. The land on which it is built is now a national reserve and is home to the Vailima Botanical Gardens. You can hike up to Louis’s grave along the trail known as The road of loving hearts.’
Works written on Samoa
Works inspired by Louis’s Pacific Island life include In the South Seas; A footnote to history; The Beach of Falesá; The Ebb-Tide; The Wrecker and The Bottle Imp. The latter, although completely fictitious, was said to have convinced some local Samoans that Louis and Fanny possessed spiritual powers!
Louis also penned some further Scottish works including Catriona, a sequel to his earlier novel Kidnapped. Unfinished works include The weir of Hermiston and St Ives.
Agatha Christie (1890-1976)
Coastal South Devon is known as ‘The English Riviera’ because of its sunshine and pretty towns and villages. The River Dart is overlooked by a number of these, such as historic Dartmouth, Kingswear, Dittisham, Totnes and Buckfastleigh.
Devon-born ‘Queen of Crime’ Agatha Christie, daughter of an Irish mother and an American father, spent several of her early years in Paris and Cairo. As an adult she travelled extensively, completing the fashionable ‘Grand Tour’ of Europe with her first husband Archie Christie. After the Second World War she accompanied her second husband Max Mallowan, an archaelogist, on his annual travels to undertake digs in the Middle East. These travels contributed significantly to her novels.
Despite having homes in London and Oxfordshire, Agatha always loved her native county and was a regular visitor to her parents’ home in Torquay. In 1939, she and Max decided to purchase a holiday home, Greenway, overlooking the River Dart near the village of Dalmpton. Agatha regarded the elegant 18th century house as “the loveliest place in the world”. It was her writer’s retreat and inspiration for three of her novels.
During the Second World War, Agatha and Max based themselves in London for their war work. Greenway was requisitioned by the US Coastguard and was also used to house evacuees. Once the war was over, the house was restored and the family could resume their normal lives.
Greenway was a place for the Mallowan family to get away from it all and relax – and more often than not, to celebrate the publication of Agatha’s latest book. Set high above the river bank, it was surrounded by lush gardens and beautiful countryside. A path led through the trees down to the riverside pool house and boat house. On the opposite bank was the pretty village of Dittisham.
Works written at Greenway
Ordeal by innocence, Five little pigs and Dead man’s folly were inspired by Greenway. It’s likely that Agatha’s many other outputs over the years were at least partially written there. The house served as a filming location for a TV adaptation of Dead man’s folly in 2013.
Today, Greenway belongs to The National Trust, which carried out a £5 million restoration project in the 2000s. You can travel there by boat or steam train from Kingswear and take a tour of the house, enjoy a game of croquet on the lawn and sit in Agatha’s favourite chair in the pool house. Various themed events take place throughout the year.
I can’t help but admire these writers, all of them intrepid travellers, for their courage and determination in the face of difficult conditions. The situations they faced could not be more different from what we travellers enjoy today. In particular, the challenges of war and its impact on mental and physical health must have been considerable. Their indomitable spirit is inspirational.
They were also unconventional free spirits, determined to be themselves in the face of societal pressure to conform – which I love. One of Elizabeth von Armin’s characters states that ‘there is nothing so absolutely bracing for the soul as the frequent turning of one’s back on duties.’ I can’t think of a more elegant way to say “f*** it” than that!
Where would your perfect writer’s retreat be, if you could choose anywhere in the world? Let me know in the comments. I think I would follow Katherine and Elizabeth to the French Riviera. If this post has inspired you to think about heading away to write, BookRetreats have some great writers’ retreats on offer around the world.
If you enjoyed this post, you might like my other posts on writers and travel writing:
- Book review: Four classic British travel books on Spain
- A visit to Katherine Mansfield House – birthplace of a writer and rebel
- Book review: Penelope Green chases la dolce vita in Italy
- Book review: Slow trains around Spain by Tom Chesshyre
- Book review: The good girl’s guide to getting lost by Rachel Friedman
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