- Peter Byrne
Expat Inlaws and Outlaws
Aggiornamento: 2 giu 2022
Native English-speaking expatriates in Italy have a rich history all their own. It counts a good number of creative talents, eccentrics, oddballs, saints and sinners.
High among the virtuous is Margaret Fuller (1810-1850) pioneer American feminist and so much of an intellectual that she was the first woman allowed to use the Harvard Library. Fuller married Giovanni Ossoli, a soldier who fought for the Roman Republic of 1849 while she chronicled its history and nursed its wounded.
Jessie White (1832-1906), like Fuller, had been caught up in the wave of enthusiasm in Britain and America for the unification of Italy. White, was hailed as England’s first female journalist. She was also the first woman to apply for entry to a British medical school and the first to be refused. She married Alberto Mario, a member of Garibaldi’s staff and followed his military actions, succouring the wounded. Once Italy had been unified she spent the rest of her long life writing about its heroes and investigating its social ills.
There must be an adage, in some language or other, that says, ‘The devil writes the best books’. If not, there should be. Both Margaret Fuller and Jessie White wrote painstaking prose, reams of it. But one wouldn’t want to be alone with it on that famous desert island.
However, there were writers of remarkable English among the expats. Our search is for outstanding prose and so we pass over the Brownings, Robert and Elizabeth Barrett, the royal couple of expatriation and romance.
Their excellence was in poetry. Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861), does, however, interest us here as a woman on the run.
One expat writer of note was the artist and master of nonsense, Edward Lear (1812-1888), long a resident of San Remo. His diaries and travel books have a bashful charm.
From ‘Journal of a Landscape Painter in Corsica’:
“Fresh red mullet, lobster (or rather crawfish), good fowl, and other dishes more numerous than necessary, were ample proof that the good people of the house were in earnest last night when they promised better fare; and now that the rooms are less noisy and crowded, I look upon the inn as a very tolerable place of sojourn. The Widow Carreghi, like Fatima of Sarténé, is also anxious to improve her house, though with decidedly conservative opinions as to some of its shortcomings, for, to her inquiry, ‘Come credete che posso far meglio nostra povera casa?—What do you think can be done to improve our poor house?’ I suggest a cleaning of the remarkably dirty entrance and stairs by way of commencement. But to this the Widow Carreghi gives a flat negative in the most positive manner, ‘Signore, qui non è mai uso di polir le scale; le scale non si pulisce mai!—Here, sir, it is never the custom to clean stairs; stairs are never cleaned, never!’ So I was silent.”
Another writer, Frederick Rolfe (1860-1913) had a bolder imagination that touched on wider issues. In 1889, London-born Rolfe was thrown out of the Scots College in Rome where he had been studying for the priesthood. The Duchess Cesarini Sforze took pity on him and in an informal adoption gave him his pen-name, Baron Corvo.
As Baron Corvo, Rolfe would for the rest of his life use his pen in self-defence for crimes he often had never been accused of. In his ‘Hadrian the Seventh’ he projected himself into George Arthur Rose, a poor and oppressed writer who manages to get elected pope. Graham Greene called it “a novel of genius”. After a tumultuous time back in Britain, full of debt, fraud and vicious controversy, Rolfe in 1908 returned to Italy and settled in Venice. His doings lifted the eyebrows of a city that after the century of Giacomo Casanova (1725-1798) thought it had seen it all. A sigh of civic relief could be heard when Rolfe was buried on the island of San Michele in 1913.
Rolfe had ponced about the canals. standing tall in his own sandolò, or traditional rowboat. He spent homeless nights sleeping on its flat bottom. Having mastered gondoliering he boasted of bedding the younger members of the confraternity. As a passionate photographer, he immortalised their beauty in what passed at the time for pornography. Venetians hid their amusement while the British colony found tasteless his want of discretion. But showboating was the point of Rolfe. That’s one reason he wrote. He made sure he was noticed at the funeral of Lady Layard by cursing her in a diatribe as her corpse lay in its casket.
From ‘The Desire and the Search for Everything’:
"The youth of Venice has a physique as splendid as anywhere else. In a city where everyone swims from the cradle and where almost everyone over five years old has been rowing (in balance and pushing more than pulling) for twenty or thirty generations [… ], it is possible to see (and without looking for them) the penetrating, quick and cold eyes, the noble and firm necks, the opulent shoulders, the galliard arms, the absolutely splendid breasts, the flexibly muscular trunks inserted in the (and springs from) well compact hips, the long, slender legs, wrapped by nerves, the big, agile, sensitive feet, of that immortal youth to which once Ellade gave diadems".
Rolfe’s prose was poetic in the symbolist manner, ornate and straining for the heights with a sprinkling of neologisms. However, to be the best writer of English among the expats calls for a style that still holds up when fashions change. The old-school but durable writing of Norman Douglas (1868-1952) better fits the bill.
Douglas was born in Austria and came from an international and aristocratic family. Its base was in Scotland where Douglas was brought up. He entered the British diplomatic service in 1894, serving in St. Petersburg. His career ended after two years because of his involvement with a young Russian. Familiar with the Italian south from an earlier visit, he bought a Villa at Posillipo in 1897. A divorce followed and he moved to Capri where he would be part of the well-heeled international expatriate community. It was a playground for misfits at home who fancied themselves neopagans abroad. Douglas tells us all about them in his novel ‘South Wind’. The book had immense success although Douglas earned little from it.
From ‘South Wind’:
“Viewed from the clammy deck on this bright morning, the island of Nepenthe resembled a cloud. It was a silvery speck upon that limitless expanse of blue sea and sky. A south wind breathed over the Mediterranean waters, drawing up their moisture which lay couched in thick mists abut its flanks and uplands. The comely outlines were barely suggested through a veil of fog. An air of irreality hung about the place. Could this be an island? A veritable island of rocks and vineyards and houses—this pallid apparition? It looked like some snowy sea-bird resting upon the waves; a sea-bird or a cloud; one of those lonely clouds that stray from their fellows and drift about in wayward fashion at the bidding of every breeze”.
Douglas was less a novelist than a writer about places that he took care to fit into an historical frame. He kept the tradition of the pedestrian tour alive, tramping about southern Italy, whimsical and worldly. His ‘Old Calabria’ (1917) is typical of his best work. Calabria is used to denote the south from the Gargano Peninsula to Aspromonte.
From ‘Old Calabria’:
“Searching in the biography for some other interesting traits of Saint Joseph of Copertino, I find, in marked contrast to his heaven-soaring virtues, a humility of the profoundest kind. Even as a full-grown man he retained the exhilarating, childlike nature of the pure in heart. ‘La Mamma mia’—thus he would speak, in playful-saintly fashion, of the Mother of God—‘La Mamma mia is capricious. When I bring Her flowers, She tells me She does not want them; when I bring Her candles, She also does not want them; and when I ask Her what She wants, She says, “I want the heart, for I feed only on hearts.” What wonder if the “mere pronouncement of the name of Maria often sufficed to raise him from the ground into the air”? Nevertheless, the arch-fiend was wont to creep into his cell at night and to beat and torture him; and the monks of the convent were terrified when they heard the hideous din of echoing blows and jangling chains. ‘We were only having a little game,’ he would then say. This is refreshingly boyish. He once induced a flock of sheep to enter the chapel, and while he recited to them the litany, it was observed with amazement that ‘they responded at the proper place to his verses—he saying Sancta Maria, and they answering, after their manner, Bah!’”
The reader under his rich, ripe spell forgets that the Douglas was dodging a dark cloud. He flit back and forth to London until 1916 when the police sought to arrest him for pederasty. He had to lie low in Capri. Unreformed and still at it in 1937, he was forced to flee his home in Florence for the South of France. WWII kept him disgruntled in London, 1942-1946, where neopaganism had not caught on. He returned to Capri where he died at eighty-three in 1952. His near-last words were, “For God’s sake, dearie, preserve me from those fucking nuns”.
It would be hard to draw a general truth about expats from the doings of these famous figures. Apart from their urge to plant themselves in foreign soil, their reasons for pulling up roots are too varied. In some cases their motives seem a mystery, even to themselves.
Take Margaret Fuller. Educated like no other American woman of the day, her accomplishments were unparalleled. “The best-read person in New England”, she was the first woman editor and wrote the book that marks the beginning of American feminism. Yet she yearned to go abroad. We can speculate that it was for more than to become the first female American war correspondent. From the reaction in America after her early death—a hurry to forget her—we can guess at how much the overcoming of obstacles had cost her. Her wish to commit to a cause brought her to Rome. Her affair with Ossoli connected her to Italy. But the death of both as they fled to America made Fuller something of an aborted expat. Had she lived, given her combative personality, in all probability she would have continued her fight for feminism at home. She would have remained an American intellectual.
Jessie White, on the other hand, born in England, became a thoroughly Italian intellectual, wrote in Italian and mixed with all classes of the country. Once involved with Garibaldi’s undertaking, it was her attachment to ordinary Italians that kept her for a lifetime in Italy. Like Fuller she had an education of a quality that wasn’t typical of her time and place. She was rebuffed as a woman from British medical schools but didn’t fight afterward for exclusively feminist goals. She became a propagandist among the British for Mazzini and Garibaldi and ultimately for Italian social reform.
What connects Fuller and White to Elizabeth Barrett Browning was a passion for the unification of Italy. Mazzini’s exile in London and his charisma lent his republican project a romantic aura. It led Fuller to Rome in 1848 and White to a role in Garibaldi’s campaigns that would become a commitment to the new state. Barrett Browning had come to Italy for her health and to escape her tyrannous father. She would remain full of sympathy for the country of her imagination while less intimate with its people.
The curious thing is that all three women sought fulfilment in Italy though each issued from a milieu at home that offered more freedom to women than Italy. This would suggest that the motives for expatriation are not simple to lay out.
The three male writers mentioned were uneasy at home because their sexuality didn’t conform to the conventional norm. But, again, the reasons for their moving abroad and manner of living there differed considerably among them. Edward Lear had to escape the English climate for the sake of his health. As a professional artist he needed exotic landscapes to depict. He was a discreet homosexual behind the facade of a natural-born bachelor. Frederick Rolfe seemed to need trouble to nourish himself. This would lead to an accumulation of scandal that eventual led to flight. His love for life in Venice kept his behaviour just within the law till his death. Norman Douglas had none of Rolfe’s self-destructiveness. It was others he preyed upon. He was immensely talented and astute, a survivor. By Third Millennium standards, of course, he would be classified as a child rapist.
Finally, there are no easy truths about expatriates. Their motives can be narrowed down and simplified to make their personal story plausible. But even as they stick a label on themselves, they know it hardly says more than that they have ended up far from where they started. If they write prose, the reason they do so in their own way is just as difficult to fathom. Fuller, White, Lear, Rolfe, and Douglas would surely throw the question why back in our face with a ‘Read our books and you tell us”.