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A few British and American writers in Toulon and the Var department in the 1920s and 1930s

Gérard Garcia
p. 13-23


La Côte d’Azur s’étend de Marseille à la frontière italienne et a traditionnellement attiré bon nombre d’écrivains britanniques et américains, qui se sont surtout concentrés à et autour de Nice, Cannes, Menton, Antibes, Vence, c’est-à-dire vers l’est de la côte. Cependant, on ne devrait pas négliger Toulon et le Var qui ont accueilli plus d’un auteur brillant, plus particulièrement les stations balnéaires voisines comme Hyères et Le Lavandou à l’est de Toulon, et Sanary et Bandol à l’ouest. Immanquablement, Toulon, étant une plus grande ville et une base navale, était, et est encore, une étape pour les voyageurs qui longeaient la côte, et un passage obligé pour les gens du voisinage qui devaient faire des courses, aller chez le médecin, comme c’était le cas pour Aldous Huxley, fréquenter les maisons closes comme Evelyn Waugh ou une fumerie d’opium comme Cocteau ou bien d’autres. Joseph Conrad, Edith Wharton, Paul Bourget à l’est, Katherine Mansfield , D.H. Lawrence, Huxley à l’ouest, et tant d’autres, Ford Madox Ford non des moindres, ont fréquenté la région de Toulon où ils ont trouvé inspiration, beauté et chaleur. On ressent cela dans leurs œuvres, dans leurs accomplissements personnels, et je suis convaincu que leur confrontation avec l’atmosphère locale et les paysages a contribué à leur art et à leur production littéraire.

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To give a rapid and general survey of the literary atmosphere in the Var at the time when Ford Madox Ford stayed in Toulon, that is, in the 1920s and 30s, I will evoke a few chosen British and American writers who visited us or stayed here in those days. Then other orators, versed in Ford’s life and work - which I am not - will narrow the subject down to Ford himself, his experience of life in Provence and to what extent it may have influenced his literary production.

Yet I must first say a few words about the southernmost part of Provence which lies along the coast between Marseilles and the Italian border, universally known as The French Riviera, or the Côte d’Azur. The visitor who coined the name Côte d’Azur in 1887 was Stephen Liégeard, a politician and writer from Dijon who was enchanted by the landscapes and climate. Dijon by the way is in the Côte d’Or, hence the Côte d’Azur. Originally the British can be credited for the discovery then the popularity of the area. The Grand tour, which was undertaken from the early 17th century by young and rich aristocrats with a view to getting acquainted with the culture and people of the Continent, traditionally took them through Paris, Berlin, Geneva, Turin and Florence. The most adventurous travellers pushed on as far as Naples. And back to England along the same route. As a result, South-East France was ignored until 1767 when Tobias Smollett published his Travels through France and Italy. From then on, the French Riviera attracted more and more visitors, first to such places as Nice, Cannes, Menton, Grasse, then further west in the 19th century to Saint-Tropez, Le Lavandou and Hyères. This advance was of course made easier by the development of the railways in that area. As to the resorts west of Toulon, Saint-Cyr, Sanary, Bandol, they became really popular only as from the 1920s.

Let us now examine a selection of English-speaking writers who stayed for a period in the Var, and to that end I will simply follow the same east-to-west wave which is more or less in line with the chronological order.

Our first stop will be the Giens peninsula, which is close to the city of Hyères. Actually, it is part of the city of Hyères. In April 1921, Joseph Conrad and his wife, Jessie, stopped at Hyères on their way back from Corsica. That trip to Corsica had been a sort of pilgrimage to the tomb of his fellow merchant seaman, mentor and smuggling partner of yore, Dominique Cervoni. And his visit to Giens was also motivated by nostalgia, as this is the place where Jóseph Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski had had a teenage romance with Thérèse Chodzka some forty-five years before. He was hardly seventeen then, and this had been his first contact with the Mediterranean which he fell in love with and which he sang enthusiastically a few years later in The Mirror of the Sea (1907), inspired by Joachim du Bellay, as follows :

  • 1 Joseph Conrad, The Mirror of the Sea. London: Methuen & Co., 1907, p. 16.

Happy he who, like Ulysses, has made an adventurous voyage; and there is no such sea for adventurous voyages as the Mediterranean— the inland sea which the ancients looked upon as so vast and so full of wonders. And, indeed, it was terrible and wonderful; for it is we alone who, swayed by the audacity of our minds and the tremors of our hearts, are the sole artisans of all the wonder and romance of the world.1

  • 2 Ibid., p. 16.

And, a little further down :“The charm of the Mediterranean dwells in the unforgettable flavour of my early days, and to this hour this sea, upon which the Romans alone ruled without dispute, has kept for me the fascination of youthful romance.”2

His fascination for the Mediterranean was stronger than his love for Thérèse whom he left ashore as he sailed away on the Mont Blanc. Forlorn Thérèse was to commit suicide a year later. This might be the reason why he returned to Giens in 1921, a trip which inspired his last novel The Rover, in which the hero, Jean Peyrol, is a retired seaman who finds refuge on the Giens peninsula. He wrote :

  • 3 Joseph Conrad, The Rover, Chapter One, p. 153.

The blue level of the Mediterranean, the charmer and the deceiver of audacious men, kept the secret of its fascination, […] hugged to its calm breast the victims of all the wars, calamities and tempests of its history, under the marvellous purity of the sunset sky. A few rosy clouds floated high up over the Esterel range. The breath of the evening breeze came to cool the heated rocks of Escampobar, and the mulberry tree, the only big tree on the head of the peninsula, standing like a sentinel at the gate of the yard, sighed faintly in a shudder of its leaves.3

  • 4 Ian Watt, introduction to Nostromo, p. 7.

Besides the Mediterranean, his short and sad love story with Thérèse Chodzka provided him with a recurrent theme in some of his works, that is, the lover abandoned by a sailor. Mentioning Antonia, the heroine of his novel Nostromo, Conrad declared : “I used my first love as a model.”4

Hyères had been a tourist haunt in the 19th century and had attracted many a British writer looking for a healthy climate to cure his consumption, the traditional disease of the Romantics, Robert Louis Stevenson not least of them. Queen Victoria too stayed at Hyères in the 1890s. But one of the most influential characters who lived there may have been the American author Edith Wharton, who gained fame with her novels The House of Mirth, Ethan Frome, The Age of Innocence, among others. In 1907 she settled in Paris where she rubbed shoulders with quite a number of renowned French men of letters, such as Paul Bourget, Anna de Noailles, André Gide et Jean Cocteau, but also Henry Adams and Henry James. Paul Bourget owned an estate called « Le Plantier de Costebelle », in the vicinity of Hyères. He invited her in 1919, and that is how she came to discover the city and rented a house there known as « Le Castel Sainte-Claire » which she eventually bought in 1921. Incidentally, it was located hardly a few hundred yards away from the chalet « La Solitude » in which Stevenson had spent 16 months in 1883-1884. She had an open house and Le Castel rapidly became a remarkable center of literature and cultural exchange as her Paris friends came to visit her there.

Interestingly, she is the one who guided Conrad on his excursion to the Giens peninsula in 1921 as is attested by a photograph with Paul Bourget. The American novelist and short-story writer Henry James was a frequent visitor to Edith Wharton’s. Sinclair Lewis stayed at Le Castel in 1925, and Louis Bromfield in 1934. In the thirties, Aldous Huxley and his wife Maria often drove along the coast from Sanary in their mythical red Bugatti to visit their friend Edith. But we will say more about them a little later. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald also dropped in on Edith Wharton in 1924 as they stayed at the Grimm’s Park Hotel in Hyères. Scott also took advantage of his stay at the Park Hotel to proof-read large chunks of the manuscript of The Great Gatsby.

Not very far from Edith Wharton’s Castel Sainte Claire, Villa Noailles was another cultural centre worthy of notice. Commissioned by the wealthy Charles and Marie-Laure de Noailles, it was designed and built from 1923 to 1933 by young architect Robert Mallet-Stevens and was one of the first examples of modern style also known as Bauhaus. They hired a host of remarkable artists for the decoration. Edith Wharton watched suspiciously as this architectural extravagance was taking shape. She nicknamed the couple « the cubists » but eventually befriended Charles and spent whole evenings joking and laughing with him. Patrons of the arts, Charles and Marie-Laure de Noailles hosted avant-garde artists such as Giacometti, Cocteau, Picasso, Dali, Poulenc, Auric. In 1929, American director Man Ray used the villa as the setting for his film Les Mystères du château du dé, and the following year Charles de Noailles financed and produced Luis Bunuel’s L’Age d’or.

  • 5 Rudyard Kipling, Souvenirs of France, p. 8.
  • 6 Ibid., p. 8.
  • 7 Thomas Pinney (ed.), The Letters of Rudyard Kipling, p. 66.

Rudyard Kipling discovered France in 1878, when he was taken to the Paris International Exhibition by his father who was in charge of Indian exhibits. In his own words, “It set my life-long love for France”.5 He added : “I returned to England and my School with a knowledge that there existed a land across the water, where everything was different, and delightful, where one walked among marvels, and all food tasted extremely well”.6 He then became a regular visitor to France, and in 1921, he and his family spent the winter in Hyères for a change from Cannes. They put up at the Hôtels de Costebelle, the very same hotels where Queen Victoria had stayed thirty years before. Kipling loved the view from his hotel room. He wrote : “Our rooms open on to an old brick paved terrace which looks slam at the sea and the peninsula where they make salt (Presqu’île de Giens) and the long blue island of Porquerolles”.7 When he visited Hyères again in 1930, he stayed at the Britannic Hotel (today Hôtel Châteaubriand). Although he was a sincere Francophile, Kipling usually stuck to hotels and restaurants managed the English way by English owners. In his book entitled The French Riviera, a Literary Guide for Travellers, Ted Jones wonders whether Kipling, wandering through the streets of Hyères, might have recognized Stevenson’s chalet La Solitude. It so happens that this Swiss chalet had been exhibited at the 1878 Paris International exhibition that the young Kipling had visited, before it was bought and shipped to Hyères. Why not, after all?

In October 1928, D.H. Lawrence came to visit his friend and future biographer Richard Aldington who rented an old fortress on the island of Port-Cros, whereas the neighbouring island of Porquerolles hosted Roger Martin du Gard and André Gide. Lawrence liked the view from La Vigie, that was the name of the fortress. He wrote :

  • 8 James T. Boulton (ed.), The Letters of D.H. Lawrence, volume VI, p. 599.

We are on top of the island and look down on green pine-tops, down to the blue sea, and the other islands and the mainland. Since I came I haven’t been down to the sea again – and Frieda has bathed only once (this was late October !). But it is very pretty. And at night the lights flash at Toulon and Hyères and Lavandou. But I don’t really like islands. I would never stay long on one.8

And stay long he didn’t, as he and his wife Frieda left the island shortly after, and came back the following winter, but this time stayed in Bandol, a few miles west of Toulon. And I believe we may now speak of “a concatenation”, as the first regular resident to Bandol was Katherine Mansfield. She came from Paris in early December 1915 intending to cure what she thought to be a malign rheumatic fever, as well as her deep sorrow following the death of her beloved brother Leslie. She first put up at the Hôtel Beau Rivage which still stands by the sea front, then rented a villa, La Pauline, overlooking the bay with her companion John Middleton Murry. To her the landscape and climate were reminiscent of her young years in her native New Zealand and most certainly boosted her literary career. She started writing a novel, The Aloe, which will be published only in 1930, but a shortened version entitled Prelude was issued in 1918 by the Hogarth Press which was run by Leonard and Virginia Woolf, who by the way would stay in nearby Cassis between 1925 and 1929. Prelude is considered to be her first achievement in her career as a past master in the short-story.

She left Bandol in April 1916, but returned in January 1918 with her lover Ida Baker, wrote a short-story ironically entitled Je ne parle pas français, a s she did speak good French. She left again in March never to return to Bandol. It is said that she carried away in her luggage some figs, nougat, chocolate, carnations and saffron…

Back in 1913, she had met D. H. Lawrence and when he married his Frieda in 1914, Katherine and Murry were their witnesses. In 1916 the two couples rented adjoining bungalows in Cornwall, and of course Katharine had told the Lawrences in great detail about her stays in Bandol. In November 1928, Katharine had been dead for five years and Lawrence was trying to find a place with a suitable climate for his health problems. He naturally thought of Bandol after his short stay at Richard Aldington’s on Port Cros. He also wished to distance himself from Great Britain where his last novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover had created a scandal. The Lawrences put up at the Hôtel Beau Rivage, the very same hotel where Katherine Mansfield had stayed thirteen years before, and later rented a villa, Le Beau Soleil. They stayed in Bandol on and off until 1930. He liked the place and the climate and enjoyed good conditions to write. His collection of poems, Pansies, was composed there as well as his last literary production, Apocalypse, in which he expresses a severe criticism of Christianity and of western civilisation while also asserting his hope in man. But this was also a painful period for Lawrence who was seriously ill with tuberculosis but insistingly refused to acknowledge the fact and to accept treatment. What with the ban on his poems and on Lady Chatterley’s Lover, his fight against piracy, his frustration at the confiscation of thirteen of his paintings at a London exhibition on grounds of indecency, his health condition was certainly worsened by those annoyances which undermined his morale. When he finally accepted to move to a sort of sanatorium in the city of Vence – near Nice –, ominously called Ad Astra (“To the Stars”), it was obviously too late. His last visitors were H. G. Wells, the Aga Khan, and Aldous and Maria Huxley. He passed away on March 2, 1930.

Lawrence and Huxley were close friends, had been members of the Bloomsbury group in their young days, and Aldous and his wife Maria had spent a few days in Bandol at the Lawrences’ in January 1929. They had fallen for this charming piece of the Côte d’Azur. So, after the burial in Vence, they drove down to Bandol with a mind to buying a permanent residence there. Naturally, they first stayed at the Hôtel Beau Rivage, like Mansfield and Lawrence, then bought a house in Sanary with a view on Bandol. It became known as the Villa Huley, the mason having dropped the ‘x’ of Huxley, and Aldous refused to correct the name (he found that too funny). He and Maria were to spend several months per year in their Sanarian residence until 1937 when they left France for California. This was a prolific period for Aldous. In hardly four months he completed Brave New World published in 1932, then Eyeless in Gaza, short-stories and essays among which Music at Night, Texts and Pretexts, The Olive Tree and other essays. Many years later he claimed he had written Brave New World originally to tease H. G. Wells, to the great displeasure of the latter.

Brave New World was partly based on his knowledge of biology which he had studied at college and which was a family tradition, too, and also on his first-hand experience of communism, unbridled capitalism and fascism which he had acquired by travelling to Russia, the States and Italy. He found inspiration in Sanary, yet also managed to have a social life and some entertainment. He fully enjoyed the local facilities, practised swimming, rowing, hiking, painting, and took advantage of the quiet Mediterranean summer nights.

  • 9 Aldous Huxley, letter to Ottoline Morrell, in Nicholas Murray, Aldous Huxley, an English Intellectu (...)
  • 10 Sybille Bedford, Aldous Huxley: A Biography. Volume I, 1894-1939, pp. 275-276.

After Hitler came to power in 1933, German and Austrian refugees, most of them Jews, flooded mainly to Paris, then to the south of France and in particular to Sanary and Bandol, as the cost of living was cheaper there than in Paris, and the climate warmer. They were an impressive congregation of intellectuals, writers and artists. Thomas Mann, Lion Feuchtwanger, Franz Werfel, to name but a few. The small city was consequently dubbed “The capital of German literature in exile” by Ludwig Marcuse. But Aldous Huxley did not take much to the German refugees. He found them a little too bombastic and self-important: “Swarms of literary Germans infest the countryside like locusts”,9 he wrote to a friend. “A dismal crew, already showing the disastrous effects of exile” he said, as quoted by Sybil Bedford in her exhaustive biography of Aldous Huxley.10 In any event, those refugees largely contributed to the intellectual and artistic life in the Var and to German literature from 1933 to 1940.

It would be unfair not to mention Sybil Bedford who was living at her mother’s and stepfather’s not very far from Villa Huley. She was 18 or 19 and had read and loved Aldous Huxley’s Antic Hay and Point Counter Point. When she met Aldous in the flesh in 1930, she was really impressed, but she very quickly became a close friend of the Huxley couple and considered Aldous to be her mentor in literature. She did not produce much, but, apart from her biography of Aldous, she described life in Bandol and Sanary in Jigsaw and Quicksands, A Memoir. I cannot resist the pleasure of quoting an extract from Quicksands:

  • 11 Sybille Bedford, Quicksands, A Memoir, pp. 245-246.

Now: as I shut my eyes, or when I keep them open, I see it, compact and panoramic, as a spectator might take in a theatre set – the water front with boats and quays and coils of rope, the crouching menders of nets, the unceasing clank of some parties de boules, and beyond it the backdrop, la place lieu of markets and encounters, the façade, a row of mairie, church and bars tabacs, see it as my mother saw it that first morning from the balcony of the hôtel de la Tour. […]Beyond, by one or another of the narrow rutted roads, one is in a back-country of archaic beauty rising toward the foothills of the Provençal Alps – empty country of harsh earth, sun-baked and fruitful, barely scarred by a scattering of low ageless stone-built human habitations, thyme-scented, terraced with olive, narcissi, wines. Sanary. As it was.11

And as it still is, more or less. A fine little town whose charm has been preserved till today.

  • 12 James T. Boulton (ed.), The Selected Letters of D. H. Lawrence, p. 412.

Yet, the trouble was that it was poorly supplied with public services, like other little cities in the Var, except Hyères. So most people chose to take a bus, a train or drive to Toulon when they needed banking services, health care or some specific goods. For example, Sybil Bedford was constantly looking for a chemist who would agree to deliver the excessive doses of morphine prescribed to her sick mother by her Sanary doctor. She often drove to Toulon or even further east. By the way, Toulon, as a military port, had a sulphurous reputation then for its opium dens – Jean Cocteau was a regular visitor – and its brothels – Evelyn Waugh came from as far as Villefranche to enjoy the pleasures of the flesh here. Actually, very few notable British writers or artists stayed in the city of Toulon for a long period at that time. Apart from Ford Madox Ford, they all seem to have just passed through. D. H. Lawrence mentions it as follows : “So we left for Toulon, gay Toulon, with its ships and sailors and shops, real sailors’ shops with boxes adorned with shells, ships made of shells, long knives from Corsica, on which was written: ‘Che la mia ferita sia mortale’ (May my stabbing be deadly!)”.12 That was during his stay at Richard Aldington’s at Port-Cros in October 1928. And also, relating a day out in town with the Huxleys, in 1929:

  • 13 Harry T. Moore, The Collected Letters of D. H. Lawrence, volume II, p. 93.

Yesterday we went to Toulon in the bus – a port, all sailors and cats, and queer people – not unattractive : and this afternoon we went out on the sea in a motor boat, the four of us – a blue sea, bright sun, but a cold little tiny wind – and I had no idea the mountains behind us were so deep in snow, a long low range of white.13

Of course, that snow-capped mountain was the Mont Faron and it was January 11th!

In addition to the fruitful contacts and exchanges between the authors mentioned above, the local climate, landscapes, people and their way of life can also be considered to have been a source of inspiration. The three ‘s’, sea, sun and serenity provided a favourable environment for literary creation as can be illustrated by this short poem by Katherine Mansfield entitled “Sanary”:

Her little hot room looked over the bay
Through a stiff palisade of glinting palms,
And there she would lie in the heat of the day,
Her dark head resting upon her arms,
So quiet, so still, she did not seem
To think, to feel, or even to dream.

The shimmering, blinding web of sea
Hung from the sky, and the spider sun
With busy frightening cruelty
Crawled over the sky and spun and spun.
She could see it still when she shut her eyes,
And the little boats caught in the web like flies.

  • 14 Katherine Mansfield, “Sanary’, in Poems, p. 46.

Down below at this idle hour
Nobody walked in the dusty street
A scent of dying mimosa flower
Lay on the air, but sweet—too sweet.14

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Bedford, Sybille, Aldous Huxley: A Biography. Volume 1, 1894-1939. London: Chatto & Windus, 1973.

Bedford, Sybille, Quicksands, A Memoir. London: Penguin Books, 2006.

Boulton, James T. (ed.), The Selected Letters of D. H. Lawrence. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
——, The Letters of D.H. Lawrence, volume VI. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Conrad, Joseph, Almayer’s Folly and The Rover (ed. John Lester). London: Wordsworth Classics, 2011.

Conrad, Joseph, The Mirror of the Sea. London: Methuen & Co., 1907.

Conrad, Joseph, Nostromo (ed. Ian Watt). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Jones, Ted, The French Riviera: A Literary Guide for Travellers. London: Tauris Parke, 2020.

Kipling, Rudyard, Souvenirs of France. London: Macmillan, 1933.

Mansfield, Katherine, Poems. London: Constable & Co., 1923.

Moore, Harry T., The Collected Letters of D. H. Lawrence, volume II. London: Heinemann, 1962.

Murray, Nicholas, Aldous Huxley, an English Intellectual. London: Time Warner Books, 2003.

Pinney, Thomas (ed.), The Letters of Rudyard Kipling, 1920-1930. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2004.

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1 Joseph Conrad, The Mirror of the Sea. London: Methuen & Co., 1907, p. 16.

2 Ibid., p. 16.

3 Joseph Conrad, The Rover, Chapter One, p. 153.

4 Ian Watt, introduction to Nostromo, p. 7.

5 Rudyard Kipling, Souvenirs of France, p. 8.

6 Ibid., p. 8.

7 Thomas Pinney (ed.), The Letters of Rudyard Kipling, p. 66.

8 James T. Boulton (ed.), The Letters of D.H. Lawrence, volume VI, p. 599.

9 Aldous Huxley, letter to Ottoline Morrell, in Nicholas Murray, Aldous Huxley, an English Intellectual, p. 122.

10 Sybille Bedford, Aldous Huxley: A Biography. Volume I, 1894-1939, pp. 275-276.

11 Sybille Bedford, Quicksands, A Memoir, pp. 245-246.

12 James T. Boulton (ed.), The Selected Letters of D. H. Lawrence, p. 412.

13 Harry T. Moore, The Collected Letters of D. H. Lawrence, volume II, p. 93.

14 Katherine Mansfield, “Sanary’, in Poems, p. 46.

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Gérard Garcia

Lycée Dumont d’Urville, Toulon / Académie du Var

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