The Warm South: How the Mediterranean Shaped the British Imagination by Robert Holland - review by Frances Wilson

Frances Wilson

A Place in the Sun

The Warm South: How the Mediterranean Shaped the British Imagination


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‘O for a beaker full of the warm South’, wrote Keats in ‘Ode to a Nightingale’. Pale, spectre thin and coughing up blood, Keats left London in September 1820 for Italy, where five months later he died, his lungs two shrivelled balloons. It’s hard to understand how a set of dank, cramped rooms by the Spanish Steps was believed to be better for consumption than the wide open skies of Hampstead Heath, but such was the myth of the Mediterranean. He knew nothing about Italy, wrote nothing about Italy and saw little beyond his bed curtains, but the spirit of Romanticism has always been more alive at Keats’s grave in Rome’s Protestant Cemetery than on Keats Grove in NW3, where he wrote his best work and courted Fanny Brawne.

When Oscar Wilde, on his 1877 Italian tour, visited Keats’s grave, he threw himself to the ground in front of it. Would he have shown such passion had the poet breathed his last on Wimbledon Common? For northern Europeans, as Robert Holland puts it, death in the Mediterranean had a certain ‘frisson’. Nevertheless, he points out, the marshy spot where Byron died in Missolonghi has not become a site of pilgrimage. And nor, come to think of it, has Vence, where D H Lawrence died from consumption in 1930. Lawrentians flock instead to New Mexico, where his ashes are apparently mixed with cement on an adobe hut. Death in Greece or the South of France lacks the glamour of death in Venice, Rome, Florence, San Remo or anywhere else in Italy.

For poets, Holland suggests, to end your days in Italy was a guarantee of sanctification. Members of this club include Elizabeth Barrett Browning (Florence, 1861), Robert Browning (Venice, 1889), Edward Lear (San Remo, 1888) and of course Shelley, who was drowned in a sudden storm in the Bay of Spezia in 1822 and was thereafter transformed from atheist outlaw, poking his finger at the Establishment, into Matthew Arnold’s ‘ineffectual angel, beating in the void his luminous wings in vain’. The myth of Shelley, says Holland, has nothing to do with the man, his work or his feelings for Italy (Shelley’s ‘alternative’ life in Pisa boiled down to playing snooker and riding about town on his horse) and everything to do with the burning of his corpse on the beach at Viareggio. It is with this ‘totemic moment in the history of the Anglo-Mediterranean cultural encounter’, described by Edward Trelawny in Recollections of the Last Days of Shelley and Byron and depicted in Louis Edouard Fournier’s painting The Funeral of Shelley (1889), that Holland’s grand tour begins.

The colour, carnival and general otherness of the Mediterranean, argues Holland, have made it ‘a laboratory for ideological, political and cultural struggles within Britain’, which means that The Warm South is equally about the cold north and our response to being European. Holland’s focus is firmly on the British side of the encounter: what sort of country was being left behind by those who went in search of paradise, and what was being brought back by way of a new sensibility?

Ending with reflections on the Brexit vote, Holland begins with the 18th-century rediscovery of Graeco-Roman culture. In between, he penetrates the deep south, accompanied by Byron (whose Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and Don Juan fed British fantasies of Mediterranean amorality), Disraeli, Edward Bulwer Lytton, John Ruskin, George Eliot, Edward Lear, Robert Browning, E M Forster, Henry James, D H Lawrence, the Bloomsberries, Ernest Hemingway, Gerald Brennan, Robert Graves, Elizabeth David (who brought Italian cooking to postwar England), Kenneth Clark and Peter Mayle, author of A Year in Provence (1989), the publication of which was another totemic moment in the Anglo-Mediterranean encounter. Welcome to Chiantishire: instead of bringing the Mediterranean back to Blighty, we now started to take Britishness to the Med.

Two striking things emerge from The Warm South: the first is how necessary sun, antiquities and a good exchange rate once were for those who wrote for a living; the second is how little Malta matters to the English imagination. Holland makes much of the first point (Wordsworth, he says, was alone in finding sublimity on his own shores) and nothing at all of the second. Few people, however, found inspiration on Malta, which shows how colonisation deadens the mind. D H Lawrence loathed the ‘beastly island’ with its barking dogs and bacon and egg breakfasts, while Byron, who stopped off for a few days in 1811, couldn’t leave fast enough.

And now, O Malta! since thou’st got us,
Thou little military hothouse!
I’ll not offend with words uncivil,
And wish thee rudely at the Devil,
But only stare from out my casement,
And ask, for what is such a place meant?

Holland’s Mediterranean principally comprises Italy, although he also makes forays into Greece and Franco’s Spain. His focus is on artists as well as writers: Turner, John Singer Sargent, Augustus John, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Roger Fry. There is even a mention of Walter Sickert, who gave one of his canvases two interchangeable titles: Summer in Naples and Dawn, Camden Town. For Britons, Italy could be Janus-faced, sun-dappled loggias masking sinister Catholic traditions. Gothic novels like Ann Radcliffe’s The Italian and Matthew Lewis’s The Monk are rooted in our fear of popery; E M Forster, Holland reminds us, hints at the violent undertow of Florentine life in the murder witnessed by Lucy Honeychurch in the Piazza della Signoria.

Holland’s second stop, after pausing to watch Shelley burn, is the palazzo in Portici of the diplomat and antiquarian Sir William Hamilton, at which Goethe and Tischbein stopped in 1787. Sir William collected curiosities, the most prized of which was his mistress (later wife) Emma Hart, who entertained tourists with a dumb show of emotional extremes known as ‘Attitudes’. If the Mediterranean was a theatre of sensibility, then Emma was the best ticket in town. Goethe was transfixed by her performance of ‘standing, kneeling, sitting, reclining’, during which she appeared, in rapid succession, ‘grave or sad, playful, triumphant, reflective, alluring, menacing, anxious’. Holland, hurrying us along, remarks that Emma’s celebrity in Europe ‘has never lost its sheen’. Except that Emma’s celebrity in Europe had lost its sheen by the end of the 18th century, when the cult of sensibility had itself become antique. When she exported her act to Twickenham, the audience giggled: what was sublime in Naples was ridiculous in Surrey.

The recent Emma Hamilton exhibition in the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich included a re-creation of her attitudes, which left viewers – myself included – similarly embarrassed. Removed from the sunny palazzo and Sir William’s patronage, all this standing, kneeling, sitting and reclining came across as frantic and sterile, confirming Holland’s theory that the Mediterranean allowed for a form of expression denied in Albion. Emma’s attitudes are one of the weirder by-products of the ‘Anglo-Mediterranean cultural encounter’, and it is therefore a shame that Holland gives them so little attention. He says nothing, for example, about Goethe’s comparison of Emma’s performance to a ‘waking dream’, despite the fact that the term returns us to Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ (‘Was it a vision, or a waking dream?’) and encapsulates what Holland later describes as ‘the pathology of the Mediterranean in the British cultural makeup’. This pathology, he explains, involved a fusing of ‘beauty and disillusion, yearning and the constantly receding dream of fulfilment’ – precisely, in fact, what Emma’s attitudes embodied. Holland focuses instead on Sir William Hamilton’s passion for volcanoes and suggests that the ‘sudden eruptions’ that typify Romantic consciousness had their roots in Hamilton’s observations of Vesuvius.

Holland paints a large canvas with broad brushstrokes, paying little attention to detail. There are, in addition, a number of lacunae in his narrative: he says nothing about the sexual availability of Mediterranean boys, or how many non-poetic tuberculosis sufferers migrated there, gasping for air. I would also have liked something on the breed of early 20th-century travel writer inspired by the Mediterranean. Robert Byron is briefly mentioned, but Norman Douglas, who epitomised the louche culture of Capri, Naples, Florence and Calabria between 1897 and his death in 1952, gets no mention at all.

More sightseeing excursion than deep excavation, The Warm South is like being rushed along by a guide with a tight schedule, a firm agenda and a dislike of too many smart-arse questions.

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