Rural Walking and the Sick Flaneur in D. H. Lawrence’s Twilight in Italy (1916)

31 January 2022

Nicola Dimitriou, University of Sheffield

D. H. Lawrence’s work around nature and, more specifically, on the Alps in Twilight in Italy(1916), has been considered as a means of escapism by Stefania Michelucci, among others. Michelucci has argued that it was Lawrence’s ‘wish to escape from the wasteland of mechanisation and industrialization’.[1] A number of representative examples in Twilight in Italy demonstrate how Lawrence uses his walking in the Italian Alps as a sick, tuberculosis-suffering flâneur to express a political stance; namely, to condemn the society that he thought of as culpable for his disease.

The state and nature of Lawrence’s ‘sick flâneur’, despite the implication of unfettered wandering, is defined primarily by illness. His illness is what set the rural environment and high altitude as necessary criteria for the creation of this sick, rural flâneur. The term ‘flâneur’ is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘a lounger or saunterer’[2] while Charles Baudelaire provided the definition of a ‘wanderer with no purpose, stroller, and lounger’.[3] Michael Grimshaw has defined the rural flâneur as ‘the urban flâneur’s antipodean inverse’ – an ‘antimodern, rural flâneur’.[4] The social context regarding tuberculosis in Lawrence’s time most certainly informed his attitude towards the disease, as he seemed to be aware of ‘restricted months in a sanatorium, perhaps surgery … that did no real good: and never any certainty of cure’.[5] His stance and his decisions throughout his life seem to point to the fact that he was completely ‘unwilling to let that happen to him’.[6] Wandering became for him a constant attempt to become the archetypal idea of the flâneur and escape a disease that he strongly believed had been caused by society’s unhealthy, polluted environment. This is seen when he further explains his belief that the, ‘sick with fatigue and over-exhaustion’, Englishman, who he meets when walking the Alps, is suffering in the machine which ‘had him in its grip.’ Lawrence believes that the Englishman ‘slaved for a year, mechanically, in London, riding in the Tube, working in the office. Then for a fortnight he was let free. So he rushed to Switzerland’.[7] Lawrence insinuates that society, namely the chaos in London, the Tube and the office, is what led to the Englishman’s fatigue, hidden tuberculosis and the need to break free in the natural beauty of the Alps.

Ironically, albeit indirectly, Lawrence chose his time’s most popular tuberculosis treatment, namely heliotherapy, ‘helio’ meaning sun in Greek. This treatment, mentioned in an article in the Manchester Guardian in 1914, stated that ‘it [was] expected that treatment by artificial light in many cases will give better results than the prolonged and expensive treatment by high sunlight’.[8] This artificial treatment represented for Lawrence a way in which societies promoted mechanization, so, when he chose his own light therapy, he chose natural sunlight instead. Lawrence writes, ‘there was London and the industrial countries spreading like a blackness over all the world, horrible, in the end destructive’[9]; tuberculosis, he thought, was caused by the negative influence of Western society on the natural world.

In the beginning of the chapter entitled ‘The Return Journey’, he passes through a village and sees many people walking home from church on a Sunday morning. He reacts negatively to this scene by saying that ‘he hated these elders in black broadcloth’, ‘the feeling of these villages, comfortable, well-to-do, clean, and proper’. The villages and people triggered a reaction in Lawrence who knew that even if he wished, he could not participate in this type of society due to his infirmity. Subsequently, Lawrence’s antipathy comes to the surface through his ‘boot, [which] was chafing two of [his] toes.’ His animosity towards this small community is embodied and is demonstrated through the  feeling of discomfort of his clothes on his body.

In order to avoid the men, he hides ‘under a bush’ and takes pleasure in his ‘homeless’ situation, ‘without place or belonging’. This happiness is a reminder that he enjoyed wandering without ‘belonging’ but it is also Lawrence’s mechanism for survival in a society that set the ill, weak body of people suffering from tuberculosis in centres that ostracised these people, viewing them as surplus to society.

As Ruderman has noted, ‘Lawrence seems to have wanted to avoid the term [(tuberculosis)] because of the stigma’.[10] By keeping his silence, walking in the Alps and moving from one place to another after short intervals, no person would have the time to cross reference the evidence that would suggest Lawrence was suffering from tuberculosis. Indeed, he was providing for himself an unscrutinised and undiagnosed life; the kind of life that is typical of the ideal flâneur.

Twilight in Italy is a prime example of Lawrence as a figure of the rural and sick flâneur, one whose journeys are determined by his health conditions and overall social restrictions. His attitude towards himself, his surroundings and the middle-class Italian villagers all illustrate that he was a sick flâneur who consciously wandered rural Europe’s heights in search of a new lease of health and life. His flâneuring as a sick wanderer became the means to discuss society’s overbearing and totalitarian attitude which Lawrence believed violated his autonomy and had caused his tuberculosis. Ultimately, his flâneuring was a means to attempt an escape from his ailing body, from his disease and the contemporary, sick society.

Image credit: ‘D.H. Lawrence beneath an olive tree at Villa Mirenda, San Polo Mosciano, c. 1926–27’. Manuscripts and Special Collections, The University of Nottingham [online] <> [accessed 24 January 2022]


[1] Stefania Michelucci, ‘L’Espace Perdu: D. H. Lawrence’s Travel Writings’, Studies in Travel Writing, 8 (2004), 35-48 (p. 35).

[2] Search, ‘flâneur’, in Oxford English Dictionary <; [accessed 17 March 2021].

[3] Charles Baudelaire, ‘The Painter of Modern Life [1863]’, in The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, trans. by Jonathan Mayne (London: Phaidon, 1964), p. 9-10.

[4] M. Grimshaw, ‘The Antimodern Manifesto of the Rural Flâneur: When D’Arcy and John Go For a Wander’, Journal of New Zealand Studies, NS13 (2012), 144-153 (p. 144).

[5] ‘Manuscripts and Special Collections, Chapter 9: Last years 1928-1930’, in D. H. Lawrence Resources, Extended Biography, Manuscript and Special Collections.

[6] ‘Manuscripts and Special Collections, Chapter 9: Last years 1928-1930’, in D. H. Lawrence Resources, Extended Biography, Manuscript and Special Collections<>

[7] Lawrence, p. 166.

[8] ‘Electric Light Treatment of Tuberculosis’, The Manchester Guardian, 8 April 1914, p. 16.

[9] Lawrence, p. 66.

[10] Ruderman, p. 73.

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