Essays (2) “Writers and Self-Exile: J B Priestley on Voluntary Exile”

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by Jim Potts.

When I think of exiled writers, my mind turns to names like Ovid, Victor Hugo and Yannis Ritsos.

When I recall writers who chose to live in voluntary exile or self-exile, either on a temporary or more permanent basis, I think of Byron, Mark Twain, Lafcadio Hearn, D. H. Lawrence, Robert Graves, James Joyce, Lawrence Durrell, Josef Škvorecký and Milan Kundera.

Some writers dislike these terms. Wole Soyinka refused to be categorised as a writer- in-exile. He was “away from home on a political sabbatical” (Guardian, 13 July, 2002). https://www.theguardian.com/books/2002/jul/13/poetry.wolesoyinka

“Of course I knew I had gone into exile. I had, however, closed my mind: I simply set up barriers against the acceptance of the condition of exile. Going into exile was one thing, I argued, arriving there was another. Who was to tell me that I had arrived?”

Whether or not they accept the term or the condition, there are many different reasons why writers have chosen forms, or periods, of self-exile, whether they settle in one place or keep moving from place to place without putting down roots. Some of them are recruited for jobs abroad or merely like living, working or retiring in another country. Lawrence Durrell wanted to escape from Bournemouth and “Pudding Island”, even though, for many years, he might have described his own predilection as “islomania” – a love of Mediterranean islands and of life in cheaper, sunnier climes. Robert Graves (from 1929 until his death) and Alan Sillitoe chose Majorca/Mallorca (Sillitoe from 1953 to 1958). D. H. Lawrence went to Sicily and Sardinia, George Johnson and Charmian Clift to Kalymnos and Hydra. None of them could fairly be described as “lotus-eaters” (in spite of the title of Charmian Clift’s ‘Peel Me a Lotus’). All of them sought inspiration in a healthy, stimulating and affordable environment which would allow them time to write. Graves was still suffering the psychological after-effects of WWI when he settled on Majorca in 1929. When D. H. Lawrence left England for Italy at the end of 1919, he found himself on Capri,   “a gossipy, villa-stricken, two-humped chunk of limestone, a microcosm that does heaven much credit, but mankind none at all.” 

E. M. Forster travelled to Italy in 1901. It freed up his creativity and, in addition to some short stories, his two Italian novels must have reflected the British taste for Italian locations and settings in fiction, even though the superior attitudes of English tourists are challenged or satirised in his fiction (Aneta Lipska, Othering the Mediterranean in E. M. Forster’s Italian Novels: A Levinsian Perspective, 2016). https://rivistapolitics.files.wordpress.com/2016/07/06_politics_5_lipska.pdf

The reasons for the long period of ‘self-exile’ of W. H. Auden in the USA were different from those of others I mention. He emigrated (although some suggest that he fled) from England in 1939. In later life he settled in Austria. Emigration, with the long-term commitment to a new country and nationality that it often implies, cannot be equated with self-exile, although the motives might be similar for some. Joseph Conrad left Poland to become a sailor when he was sixteen, another reason again.

After many travels, and in his ‘third exile’, Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904), son of an Irish father and Greek mother from Cerigo (Kythera), married a Japanese woman. He settled in Japan and became accepted as Japanese, to all intents and purposes. Lafcadio was baptised in the Greek Orthodox Church of Aghia Paraskevi, Lefkas. His parents had married there in 1849 (his father had joined the British Army as a surgeon in 1842). His mother, Rosa (1823-1882), who had left Dublin and abandoned her children in 1856 after the annulment of the marriage (when Lafcadio was six), returned to Greece, where she remarried and had more children. She died in the Corfu Psychiatric Hospital. In his story, A Ghost, Lafcadio writes:

“Perhaps the man who never wanders away from the place of his birth may pass all his life without knowing ghosts; but the nomad is more than likely to make their acquaintance. I refer to the civilized nomad, whose wanderings are not prompted by hope of gain, nor determined by pleasure, but simply compelled by certain necessities of his being,—the man whose inner secret nature is totally at variance with the stable conditions of a society to which he belongs only by accident. However intellectually trained, he must always remain the slave of singular impulses which have no rational source, and which will often amaze him no less by their mastering power than by their continuous savage opposition to his every material interest…. These may, perhaps, be traced back to some ancestral habit,—be explained by self-evident hereditary tendencies. Or perhaps they may not,—in which event the victim can only surmise himself the Imago of some pre-existent larval aspiration—the full development of desires long dormant in a chain of more limited lives…” (from A Ghost, 1889).

Lafcadio Hearn is in a category of his own; the term ‘self-exile’ seems inappropriate in his case.

I come now to the crux of this paper, and a brief consideration of J. B. Priestley’s essay A Voluntary Exile (J. B. Priestley, Open House, A Book of Essays: London, Heinemann, 1927).

Some quotations from Priestley’s essay:

“It is not the going abroad, for a glance or two at an alien life, but the living abroad that works the mischief. The real exile, with a hunger in his heart, may write more beautifully than ever he did at home, seeing the life that he has lost as an old man sometimes sees his youth, something far away and glamorous yet wonderfully clear. Literature can be well served even by nostalgia, for passionate desire and dream are there…. The voluntary exile, unless he should be one of those very exceptional persons who find their own souls only in a foreign land, is in an absurd position. He is merely a tourist who is lingering on”.

“I mistrust this practice, now so general among literary people, of voluntary exile….Some of these exiles…we can very well spare, reserving our sympathy for the Parisian quarter or Italian village horribly destined to receive them…Is there any one more boring and futile than your cosmopolitan aesthete?”

It is not clear which writer or writers Priestley had in mind (his fictional character is called Runnerman).

Priestley’s essay seems to anticipate the 1950’s views of stay-at-home poets like Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin and their suspicions about “abroad” and British writers choosing to live abroad (following the “Personal Landscape” writers who were based in Egypt during the war years):



“Nobody wants any more poems on the grander themes for a few years, but at the same time nobody wants any more poems about philosophers or paintings or novelists or art galleries or mythology or foreign cities or other poems. At least I hope nobody wants them” (Kingsley Amis, preface to his contribution to D.J. Enright’s 1955 Poets of the 1950s).

There is much of interest in Amis’s attitudes, his travel anxieties, lack of linguistic ability and “lifelong antipathy to abroad” in the chapter “Abroad” in The Life of Kingsley Amis by Zachary Leader (Jonathan Cape, 2006). Leader quotes Anthony Hartley’s suggestion that writers like Amis and Larkin were also making a virtue out of necessity.


“Throughout his life, England was Larkin’s emotional territory to an eccentric degree. The poet distrusted travel abroad and professed ignorance of foreign literature, including most modern American poetry”- poetryfoundation.org/poets/philip-larkin


“Throughout his adult life Larkin had what can reasonably be described as an irrational, deep-set fear of foreign places. Andrew Motion, in his biography Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life, documents Larkin’s dread at having to visit Germany to collect the Shakespeare Prize. It was holidays in Germany as a child of the ’thirties that had, according to the poet, ‘sowed the seed of my hatred of abroad’, a seed that germinated abundantly in Larkin’s adulthood. Whether this ‘hatred of abroad’ was more accurately a hatred of going abroad, or near scatter-gun xenophobia, is a matter of debate; certainly, however, one country received the brunt of Larkin’s opprobrium: the United States of America” – https://www.ablemuse.com/v8/essay/rory-waterman/philip-larkin-literary-americans


Even Dylan Thomas expressed similar views, in a letter (c. December, 1938) to Lawrence Durrell, who’d invited him to visit Corfu in 1939:


“I think England is the very place for a fluent and fiery writer. The highest hymns of the sun are written in the dark. I like the grey country. A bucket of Greek sun would drown in one colour the crowds of colours I like trying to mix for myself out a grey flat insular mud. If I went to the sun I’d just sit in the sun; that would be very pleasant but I’m not doing it…” (The Life of Dylan Thomas, Constantine Fitzgibbon, J. M. Dent and Sons, London, 1965).

The full letter is quoted here: https://poetrydispatch.wordpress.com/2010/05/17/henry-miller-lawrence-durrell-dylan-thomas-how-way-leads-to-way/


“Durrell seems to stand for a good many things which the Movement poets (and critics since) have been determined to disapprove. An inveterate denizen of ‘abroad’, and especially of the Mediterranean littoral, raffish, touched by surrealism, but unable to take it very seriously, technically rather loose and careless: it adds up to a formidable indictment. Durrell proceeded to add insult to injury by becoming a best-selling novelist” – Edward Lucie-Smith, British Poetry Since 1945 (quoted by Jonathan Bolton, Personal Landscapes, 1997).


Bolton discusses Lucie-Smith’s criticism:

“The charge of ‘abroadness’, of not being one of us, is decidedly parochial…Needless to say, things do happen outside of Britain that cannot be witnessed from the window of a third-floor bedsit in the Provinces”.


To conclude this brief survey of the topic, I made a note of the strong words that Robert Crampton wrote in The Times, 21 January, 2020, on the subject of Prince Harry leaving for Canada. Are there echoes of the views of Priestley?


“I always sympathise with anyone who has to live away from this country, for family or work reasons.  (As for those who leave voluntarily, because they just prefer somewhere else, I can never entirely forgive what I regard as treachery, albeit in a mild form) …Leaving these shores will be a huge emotional wrench. Or it will become so after a year or two. Exiles are rarely happy after a while”.

Who can tell? Everyone has a different reason, be it economical, a personal relationship or marriage, a search for adventure, intellectual curiosity, political or climatic discontentment, running away from a scandal or compromised reputation, a change of scene, health, a search for inspiration or the ‘discovery of self’. Those are some. I am sure others can offer further examples.

In terms of what J. B. Priestley said about writers, the challenge for us may be to decide who is or was merely a tourist ‘lingering on’ and which amongst them found their souls in foreign places.

Priestley was proud to call himself “a grumbler”. Should we reserve our sympathy for those who are kind enough to receive us and to put up with our bad-mouthing Anglo views and ways? It seems that the Chinese are amongst the host-nations which may no longer be quite so tolerant of resident foreign writers. Self-exile can soon become real exile.

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