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.
Cheap rural retreats such as George Orwell’s remote home in the Scottish Hebrides are a staple in the lives of creative people. (Image: public domain.)
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….
With inspiration such as this to be had, what better recommendation for lonely unconventional living could there be?
13 thoughts on “Lifestyles of Writers and Other Creative People”
Yeah, that would be great–living in the country in a centuries old manor house just writing. Too bad its not going to happen for me. Oh well. I guess I’ll just have to plug away in my suburban neighborhood grabbing quiet times when the kids and wife aren’t home and just dream about the countryside.
Lucky Rilke, eh?
Rilke was a polished and sophisticated man who managed to pass himself off as someone with vague aristocratic ancestry. His poetry was superb, however, and he attracted patrons as his reputation grew. In those days (pre-WWII), European aristocrats and business tycoons were eager to associate themselves with artists in order to show off their good taste and refinement. Rilke needed money and a place to stay, so the arrangements were mutually beneficial. He was indeed lucky when the princess and her husband took him under their wing.
So, Dan, you’re mired in the ‘burbs and hemmed in with responsibilities are you? Welcome to the club! I’m afraid it’s a big one so it’s not very exclusive. I spent sixteen years living the “free” life in a forest shack, but had to come back to Mundania when my father developed Alzheimer’s and my mother couldn’t manage on her own any more. Famous creators very often get to be famous creators because they skip the kids and shun responsibility like the plague. They’re famous for being creative, not for being good citizens and decent human beings.
Yeah, that’s probably true. Kinda sad, isn’t it?
I love this post, Thomas. I’ve often dreamed of heading off to the wilds and just writing, but simple economic necessity has compromised that dream somewhat … I content myself with living in the semi-country, living as reclusively as I can, and devoting as little time as possible to my paid job.
I remember that when I lived in Wales I went to visit Dylan Thomas’s writing shed in Laugharne. It’s still there, overlooking the sea, much as it was when Thomas himself made use of it. Apparently his wife used to lock him in when he was going through one of his lazy periods!
Thanks for reminding me of Rilke too … I’ve always loved his poetry, but haven’t reread any for a long time. I’ll have to rummage through the bookshelves and see what I can find!
The freedom we enjoy in the West allows individuals to make choices that are not always in the best interests of society. Until about the sixties, the benefits far outweighed the costs, but in recent decades, that has changed. So many people are opting to skip the kids or live off the social safety net that entire nations face catastrophe. We see financial ruin in Europe while most Western nations have birthrates so low there is no way they are going to survive in their present form.
Thanks for dropping by, Mari. The idea of living in the country or the wilderness often appeals to writers. We tend to combine romantic notions about life with the ability to keep ourselves busy no matter where we live. With so many books in the world and so much to write about, there is never any danger of boredom. In fact, as my post points out, the quiet life affords us greater opportunities for self-realization than does living in the mainstream. This is why we tend to chafe when we are not able to break free.
Your life strategy is an excellent compromise, one used by many writers not yet able to live off their “pens.” I have gone from the wilds to the ordinariness of a small-town suburb, yet I am not dismayed. The lessons learned in the forested foothills stand me in good stead. One can read books anywhere and I have already worked through the long process of developing work strategies, style, and preferred subjects. There are no deer outside the back door, no cougars and bears lurking in the woods, no coyotes howling at the moon, and my water now comes from a tap, but there are compensations. Restaurants where one can enjoy a quiet meal are only blocks away. Buying groceries is no longer a two-hour chore. Heavy snows and trees felled during windstorms no longer trap me for days, and so on.
I like your Dylan Thomas anecdote. I must read a biography. One wonders how many lines he had to produce before his wife would let him out. If they were no good, did he get an extended sentence? His popularity lives on, even in small town Canada. A couple of years ago, a local high school staged Under Milk Wood with considerable success. As for Rilke: well, he is always worth another read.