Travels with a Donkey, Robert Louis Stevenson
Robert Louis Stevenson’s well-loved travel tale is threaded with longing for the love of a woman he was not sure he would ever meet again.
Edith Wharton’s house Ste Claire du Vieux Chateaux in Hyères had a long, wide view of the Mediterranean, the dotted Isles of Gold (the Porquerolles) with the Maritime Alps in the distance. She describes it in this poem.
Roofed in with creaking pines we lie
And see the waters burn and whiten,
The wild seas race the racing sky,
The tossing landscape gloom and lighten.
With emerald streak and silver blotch
The white wind paints the purple sea.
- Edith Wharton, ‘Mistral in the Maquis’
When she discovered the intriguing house in Hyères in 1919, Edith Wharton was fifty-seven years of age. The great novelist, traveller, house designer and gardener knew at once it was perfect and with boundless creative energy, she set about creating a winter and spring retreat. Until she died, she spent six months of every year here, writing prolifically, entertaining lavishly and tending a spectacular Mediterranean garden.
She had just experienced a ferociously difficult war in Paris. In those bleak years she used her superlative organisational skills as a wartime administrator assisting refugees, the injured and unemployed. For this work, France awarded Edith the Legion of Honour and Belgium a Chevalier of the Order of Leopold.
Having left America for Paris in 1910, she revelled in a world that welcomed intellectual women, enjoying a close circle of cultured friends. In 1913 she divorced her husband Teddy, a move that still attracted a degree of ostracism. But Edith was now a wealthy writer at the top of her game; the shy, rather awkward young woman from the cream of New York society was long gone.
Not for a moment bewildered by the sudden onset of peace, Edith sallied forth, free to carve out a life of creativity and independence. Feeling that Paris was becoming choked with traffic and tourists, she searched for a new place to live and settled on a grand ruin, Pavillon Colombe, a few miles to the north of Paris in the quiet village of Saint-Brice. She immediately began planning major renovations and while these were in progress, she headed for the south of France.
Wharton stayed at the Hotel du Parc in Hyères, twelve miles east of Toulon. She knew the area well and for many years had coveted houses in this most southerly town of the Var.
Hyères has two towns, a new one by the sea, and the old town three miles inland that clusters up the side of a rock, the Casteou, on the site of ancient Greek and Roman settlements. In the nineteenth century the old town had been the sparkling destination for those seeking a winter retreat. Giant hotels, palm lined avenues and a casino had sprung up to cater for this new interest. Protected from the mistral by wooded hills, its warm dry winters also attracted convalescents from various ailments, such as tuberculosis. Leo Tolstoy came here with his dying brother and on the advice of his doctor; so too did Robert Louis Stevenson, who worked on his proofs for Treasure Island and stayed for a year.
But by the time Edith arrived at the turn of the century the grand hotels built for the ‘winter tourists’ had grown old and tourists were heading for more fashionable haunts on the Riviera. While Edith’s avant garde acquaintance Jean Cocteau preferred Villefranche, Hyères was quiet, and a little staid. This suited her, and she saw it as a perfect writer’s refuge.
Her companion on this trip was the handsome Robert Norton, recently released from the British Admiralty, a talented watercolourist. The southern sun, the blue sea, the mimosa were welcome after the dark and relentless years of war, as she wrote to a friend from the Hotel du Parc:
It has taken days & days of healing silence, & warmth & long walks, to get the poison out of my bones. But now I’m getting as lively as a cricket, & go bustling up & down mountains like an English old maid.
Seriously, you can’t think what Provence has been this last month. Never have I seen it so warm, so golden, so windless & full of flowers.
They explored the area with its miles of sandy beaches, salt marshes and golden islands, becoming aware of a curious property for let high on a hill above the old town. Ste Claire du Vieux Chateau is a house built into the walls of a medieval castle on the site of a 17th century convent for nuns. It had lain empty for many years but Edith could see its potential. She rented it on a long lease in April 1919, buying it eight years later. ‘I am thrilled to the spine’, she wrote.
So, just months after the armistice, Edith began designing two beautiful homes and gardens ready to divide her life between Hyères and Saint-Brice. Both homes were thrillingly remote from her American past and both cost a fortune to renovate.
Every domestic detail has become a kind of Matterhorn, over which one has to be roped and hooked & hoisted, with every chance of perishing in an avalanche or down a precipice on the way…
Ste Claire was to be a place for luxury, rest and hard work. She described it in a letter to Mary Cadwalader Jones:
The little house is delicious, so friendly & comfortable, & full of sun & air, but what overwhelms us all – though we thought we knew it – is the endless beauty of the view, or rather the views, for we look south, east & west, “miles & miles,” & our quiet coloured end of evening presents us with a full moon standing over the tower of the great Romanesque church just below the house, & a sunset silhouetting the “Iles d’Or” in black on a sea of silver.
It is good to grow old – as well as to die – “in beauty”.
Ste Claire du Vieux Chateau had a touch of fantasy about it: a long, two story stone building with crenellated towers at either end, with three arcades leading to a wide stone flagged terrace. The big south-facing French windows overlooked the terrace with its view across the red rooftops of the old town of Hyères and its rich agricultural plains, extending to the sea beyond.
With her innate talent for garden design Wharton embarked on a horticultural adventure, with vegetation that was completely new to her. From a tangled wilderness she created a magnificent hillside Mediterranean garden, full of nooks and sheltered enclosures. Its sloping terraces were connected by paths, stone walls and arches of cyprus and it was densely planted with roses and exotics, succulents and bougainvillea. She planted ‘all the stock in trade of a Riviera Garden’: heliotropes, anthemises, tradescantia, plumbago, arums and geraniums. There were native wildflowers of acanthus, fennel and valerian. Prickly pears were ‘the pride of the place’ and stood beneath pepper, orange and eucalyptus trees. She would range around her domain with her gardener in earnest consultation, ensuring her plans were followed to the hilt.
Each morning in the chateau, Edith would sit up in bed to write against a propped-up board, occasionally gazing out the window at the Mediterranean. Even when she had guests, she stuck to this routine and would not launch into social life until eleven o’clock.
From her fifty-eighth to sixty-fifth year (1920-1927) Edith produced five novels, four novellas, a collection of short stories, two travel books, a series of essays on the writing of fiction and a small volume of poems. Rutger Jewett, her editor at Appleton told her, ‘You are a wonder. Do you marvel that I bow low before such energy?’ Her output during this period brought in considerable income which was greatly needed for the running of these homes.
Much of her work received mixed reviews, leaving Edith puzzled.
As my work reaches its close, I feel so sure that it is either nothing, or far more than they know. And I wonder, a little desolately, which?
The Age of Innocence (1920) achieved wide acclaim during this period and is regarded as one of her most powerful novels. Like her others, it critiques her own social milieu, centring on a life she had known and abandoned: the stuffy nineteenth century drawing rooms of New York ‘aristocracy’. She wrote about marrying up and social climbing, showing the various ways people became entrapped and suffocated by the rigid conventions of America’s so called ‘gilded age’. In 1921 she was the first woman to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for literature for this novel.
Writing The Age of Innocence early in her time at Ste Claire provided Edith with an escape from the rawness of the deaths of her two close friends, Henry James and the English novelist Howard Sturgis. These losses were immense. James’s praise about her work, although sparing, was the only praise that counted to Edith. She had been his disciple but once she emerged as a writer on her own merits, he was a source of richly abundant laughter for her, as well as inspiration. With Sturgis she could be completely herself. He understood her without judgment. Wharton was now heading for sixty and members of her all-important inner circle were starting to disappear, taking with them a shared past that could never be recovered.
In important respects, Edith’s experience mirrored that of the writer Katherine Mansfield who, raw with grief from the death of her brother, had settled in Bandol four years earlier, just a little south of Hyères. Katherine had used her time by the sea to draw on childhood memories from her exiled country of birth for one of her masterpieces, ‘Prelude’. Both women were conflicted about the countries they had left behind. They never met but Edith was well aware of the genius of the younger woman. In January 1923 she wrote to their mutual friend William Gerhardie a letter of sympathy after Katherine’s death:
What stupid waste Nature seems to revel in! I ache with misery whenever I see a sensitive plate smashed – there are so few, alas, & the insensitive many are so tough and lasting. It’s a pity.
Do tell me, some day, a little about her.
Since leaving for Paris in 1910, Edith felt her former world in America was perishing and she was bewildered by the new. ‘The mere description of N.Y. life as practiced by the “youngs” makes me long for my lazy terraces, with a jug of Evian’, she wrote to a friend.
Time and distance made her increasingly attached to the New York scene of the 1880s that she had so freely criticised in her youth, but she was never completely enamoured with it. In a letter she poked fun at a friend who had prematurely abandoned her winter abroad to rush home and play host to people she did not like, but felt
she ought to be there to provide them with vegetarian food & rooms facing south – which no one else would. After all, what fun it must be to be a Bostonian! It’s the only surviving habitat of the moral imperative.
Her distaste for the old American world is evident in The Age of Innocence. Newland Archer, handsome and aristocratic, is a somewhat self-satisfied member of New York and Newport society. Engaged to a pretty but unimaginative woman, he is set for a predictable future. But his world crashes around him when he meets a stranger, the unhappily married Countess Ellen Olenska, who enchants him. She represents all the risk and excitement his life lacks and Archer is caught between the demands and customs of his social standing and his desire for personal fulfilment.
Wharton was always conscious of the costs of kowtowing to societal demands: the loss of aliveness that results from taking no risks on one’s own terms. She had thwarted family expectations to conform, stay put, be polite and reproduce, opting instead for freedom and independence. But she sometimes failed to accept that this choice also incurs certain costs.
Over the years, and for the most part, the winters and early spring days in Hyères passed harmoniously. ‘Do make haste’, she wrote to her friend Gaillard Lapsley,
I hear of cataclysms of all sorts at the other end of the Riviera, but here it is hushed & warm & radiant every day, & the garden is in a state of exuberance.
Her letters report the constant comings and goings of guests, many on their way to or from Provence. Aldous Huxley regularly motored down in his Bugatti from his home in nearby Sanary-sur-Mer, on the western side of Toulon and the writer Sinclair Lewis visited occasionally. While staying at the Hotel du Parc, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald made a brief visit but, finding Hyères dreary and overrun with English pensioners, fled to Saint-Raphael.
Edith had a talent for cultivating men and women who enjoyed each other’s company. Talk and ideas flowed freely between them, although visitors usually warned each other about her zealous tidiness. The curator Kenneth Clark (writer and presenter of the BBC series Civilisation) claimed her books snapped back to their spots on the shelves via elastic cords and as soon as one rose from a chair, staff would leap into action to plump the cushions. But Clark and his wife Jane were enormously fond of Edith and asked her to be godmother to their son. They became thoughtful and highly valued friends in the last decade of her life.
Edith was the only female member of what she described as an ‘inner circle’ of distinguished intellectuals, writers, art critics and connoisseurs (including Henry James). Most were gay or sexually ambiguous. Their friendships were particularly close after the First World War, and they often met in pairs or threes at each other’s houses. They shared similar tastes in the arts and considered themselves the last bastion of civilised life.
Many were enormously helpful to Edith, encouraging her writing and boosting her confidence. But she was not always an equal member of the group. Gaillard Lapsley, one of her ‘circle’, was widely known as a misogynist, who went to great lengths to stop women attending his Cambridge lectures. After her death he became Edith’s literary editor. Despite knowing that she had fallen out with a former close friend, the novelist, editor and critic Percy Lubbock, he placed Edith’s reputation in his hands, asking him to provide a commentary on a loose selection of writings by friends about her character. The result, Portrait of Edith Wharton (1947) was vindictive. Lubbock, who claimed to have ‘adored’ Edith, suggests that her talent paled next to the genius of Henry James. He shied from relating the lengthy apprenticeship Edith had recounted in her memoir A Backward Glance (1934) and omitted any critical evaluation of her work, choosing to keep the memoir personal. He gave the impression that she was a second-rate, self-important snob and thanks to his efforts, interest in her work rapidly declined.
Edith’s reputation was salvaged by her biographer, R.W.B Lewis. The bias of Lubbock had led him to expect an ‘aloof and fashionable’ woman, ‘abrasive in her outward relationships and puritanically repressed within’. Instead, he discovered a woman with boundless energy, who took major creative risks and forged strong, intimate friendships. In his Edith Wharton: A Biography (1975) he showcased a writer of formidable intelligence, dedicated to her craft; a major figure of American literary history. He observed that her writings
…find their larger human implications out of a vast imaginative report on one segment of American social history and on Americans glimpsed… amid the international community…
Edith’s vibrant voice shines through in her many letters to friends. Barely a day went by when Edith did not write at least half a dozen. They are gossipy, conversational, commiserating, literary, impish and occasionally lyrical and they belie the public image that Lubbock promoted of an austere, self-contained person. R.W.B. Lewis who edited these letters with his wife Nancy points out that they reveal a woman
…extraordinarily open to experience, immediately responsive to the here-and-now of life. She lived so close to the quick of things, was so urgently caught up in them, that sometimes, reading her letters, one feels that the prose is about to break through the page.
Wharton was generous with her time and did not stint in her praise and encouragement of others when she liked their work. A new writer, Mrs Gerard Goschen, whose pen name was Vivienne de Watterville, experienced this at first hand:
There is for me an unforgettable spring day when the sun streamed in through the window with yellow ragged tulips leaping up to meet it. Looking out I could see the waves whipped across the dark blue bay in the distance before the mistral; but in that room at Sainte-Claire all was still, and I can yet hear Edith’s voice saying as she picked up my book and turned to my husband: “But she’s a born writer!” In that moment the clouds of self-distrust vanished away.
Two years later, Edith went through Goschen’s proofs page by page, providing comments, amendments and suggestions. And when the work was published she took great trouble to have it reviewed in America and England, sending plenty of copies to her friends.
Edith was fond of picnics, saying she could always find the perfect spot, with a view and just the right amount of light and shade. Once comfortably settled, large strapped hampers were whipped out and Edith would unpack and distribute endless varieties of food to her guests.
In her mid-sixties, after months of planning, she chartered a 360-ton steam yacht, the Osprey, and for ten weeks cruised the Aegean. She and close friends set out from the port of Hyères ‘the same from which Saint Louis, King of France, sailed forth on his last crusade,’ to roam in ‘unbroken bliss’ from one Greek island to another, ‘from glory to glory’.
No words can express Delphi, nor tell you the beauty of the approach by the bay of Itea, with the snowy Acrocoraunian mountains in our rear, across the gulf, & ahead of us, over frowning Delphi, Parnassus all white with snow. – The day there was one long loveliness – including, embracing, the veal-&-ham pie which our very accomplished cook packed in the luncheon-basket, & we consumed under hoar olives just below the Castalian Fount…
This trip was one of the highlights of her life. She continued to travel widely, to Northern Italy, Holland, Scotland, Rome, and regularly to London. She was always on the lookout for new ideas for her gardens.
Edith discussed her reading in letters. ‘Have you tackled Proust? I’m greatly disappointed – Alas! Alas!’, she wrote to one friend. And to Sinclair Lewis about his latest novel, ‘I don’t think “Babbitt” as good a novel, in the all round sense as “Main Street”’…But then there is much more life & glow & abundance in the new book; you must have felt a stronger hold on it, & a richer flow.’ She called Anita Loos’ Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1925) ‘the great American novel’, writing that ‘the literary committee of Ste. Claire (Robert Norton, Gaillard Lapsley and Edith) unhesitatingly pronounce [it] the greatest novel since Manon Lescaut’. Chekhov she enjoyed, and the poetry of A.E. Housman, but she cast Joyce’s Ulysses aside, ‘It’s a turgid welter of pornography (the ruder schoolboy kind) & unformed & unimportant drivel.’ She was similarly dismissive of T.S. Eliot. Her objection to all this ‘new stuff’ was not because she was getting old, she said, but because their theories came at the expense of the works themselves.
There were poetry evenings and musical evenings at Sainte-Claire, for it was here that she developed a taste for music, which had never played much of a role in her life before. She acquired a gramophone and built a large collection of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Wagner recordings.
‘It’s only at Hyères that I own myself’, she wrote to a friend, its ‘heat, light and water’ providing her with ‘a delicious dessert’. Such were these days in winter and spring by the sea: full of good times and happiness, and touched by sadness, the essential shadow.
Edith grew old in this house and in 1935 suffered a stroke that marked the beginning of her end. On old age she had much to say in her memoir A Backward Glance:
Years ago I said to myself: “There’s no such thing as old age; there is only sorrow.”
I have learned with the passing of time that this, though true, is not the whole truth. The other producer of old age is habit: the deathly process of doing the same thing in the same way at the same hour day after day, first from carelessness, then from inclination, at last from cowardice or inertia. Luckily the inconsequent life is not the only alternative; for caprice is as ruinous as routine. Habit is necessary; it is the habit of having habits, of turning a trail into a rut, that must be incessantly fought against if one is to remain alive.
In spite of illness, in spite even of the arch-enemy sorrow, one can remain alive long past the usual date of disintegration if one is unafraid of change, insatiable in intellectual curiosity, interested in big things, and happy in small ways. In the course of sorting and setting down of my memories I have learned that these advantages are usually independent of one’s merits, and that I probably owe my happy old age to the ancestor who accidentally endowed me with these qualities.
Despite disparaging his former friend and her contributions to literature, this observation of Lubbock’s rings true:
Edith was never shy of happiness, when it came – she took it with a sincerity that was frank and wholesome.
Beethoven Sonata no. 8. Op. 13 (Pathetique), Barenboim.
Wharton was particularly drawn to Beethoven, writing to Sara Norton:
My object is still to hear Beethoven, & more Beethoven, in whatever way & of whatever kind I can…
His grand, sweeping, dynamic works seem to suit her personality. We know she listened to his sonatas on those musical evenings in Hyères and I’m sure she had his ‘Pathetique’ in her collection.
Just below Edith’s garden sits the Swiss style Chalet ‘La Solitude’, in which Robert Louis Stevenson lived between 1883 – 1884, (although it looks nothing like it once did). Stevenson described it to his mother as healthy, cheerful’, surrounded by ‘wonderful fair wood music’. Despite suffering frequent bouts of illness he was productive here. He corrected proofs of Treasure Island (1883), and worked on Prince Otto (1885), The Black Arrow (1888), and A Child’s Garden of Verses (1885), and famously said: ‘I was only happy once: that was at Hyères’.
Like so many towns near the coast, Hyères has had its share of modern urbanisation but the sprawl has been contained. Its spacious gardens and wide avenues lined with palm trees hint at its more opulent past when the likes of Victor Hugo and Queen Victoria came visiting. Life travels at a slower pace here; boys kick soccer balls in the back streets and the people of Hyères can go about their business largely undisturbed by the tourist hordes that mass a little farther up the coast in Cannes and St Tropez.
The old medieval town with its collection of narrow streets lead up towards a large, circular plaza, Place Massillon. We stopped for a salad with chèvre and olive tapenade and tried some local Rosé before heading farther up the hill to Edith Wharton’s garden (the house cannot be visited).
Ted Jones in his literary guide to the Riviera mentions that the gardens are beautifully tended but things seem to have gone to seed since then. There were big clumps of lantana and dried up fountains full of weeds and I couldn’t help thinking that Edith with her strong streak of perfectionism would be turning in her grave. Yet the bones of the garden are still in place with its terraces and stone walls. The series of archways and paths leading up to the medieval tower on top of the hill, at every turn afford spectacular views of town, mountain and sea. Apart from small clusters of school groups there was just the occasional tourists to enjoy all of this.
The photographs of the sea were taken close to the Giens Peninsula of Hyères, on a stretch of coast near the little Var town of Le Lavandou. From here there is a view of two of the golden islands, Le Levant and Port-Cros. The third island in the trio, Le Porquerolles, can be seen directly off the coast of Hyères. It is possible to catch ferries out to all these islands. Perhaps Edith had one of her famous picnics here.
Much of her work can be read on Project Gutenberg.
A BBC documentary about Wharton’s life.
Edith Wharton’s biographer Hermione Lee writes about travelling in her footsteps.
Details about visiting the garden at Ste Claire.
The trailer for Martin Scorsese’s 1993 adaptation of The Age of Innocence, starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Daniel Day-Lewis.
A piece about Robert Louis Stevenson at Hyères.
Tourism details for Hyères.
Goodman, Susan, ‘Portraits of Wharton’ in Edith Wharton in Context, Laura Latray (Ed). University Press, 2012
Jones, Ted. The French Riviera: A Literary Guide for Travellers, Tauris Parke, 2004
Lee, Hermione. Edith Wharton, Chatto & Windus, 2007
Lesage, Claudine. Edith Wharton in France, The Mount Press, 2018
Lubbock, Percy. Portrait of Edith Wharton, D. Appleton-Century Company, Inc, 1947
Wharton, Edith. A Backward Glance, Simon & Schuster, 1989
Wharton, Edith, The Letters of Edith Wharton Lewis R.W.B, and N. (eds), Simon & Schuster, 1988