In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle goes on his travels to Taormina in Sicily, where D. H. Lawrence lived
One tends to associate D. H. Lawrence with his native Nottinghamshire, although Lawrence left his mark on a great number of places. Helen Corke, for instance, even wrote a book with the unpromising-sounding title D. H. Lawrence: The Croydon Years. One of the places most indelibly associated with D. H. Lawrence is Italy, including the island of Sicily, where Lawrence was resident between 1920 and 1922, following a difficult First World War (during which he was accused of being a German spy; it didn’t help that he’d fled England with Frieda von Richtofen, distant relation of the infamous Red Baron) and, like Keats and other consumptives before him, in an attempt to find a more salubrious climate to lessen the symptoms of his tuberculosis.
Indeed, the Sicilian connection with D. H. Lawrence is little-known, but it is there in what is probably his most famous poem, ‘Snake’, in which Lawrence describes seeing a snake coming to drink at his water-trough:
He lifted his head from his drinking, as cattle do,
And looked at me vaguely, as drinking cattle do,
And flickered his two-forked tongue from his lips, and mused a moment,
And stooped and drank a little more,
Being earth-brown, earth-golden from the burning bowels of the earth
On the day of Sicilian July, with Etna smoking.
The voice of my education said to me
He must be killed,
For in Sicily the black, black snakes are innocent, the gold are venomous.
You can indeed see Etna smoking from the house in Taormina where Lawrence lived during his time on the island.
I was staying in Taormina back in 2018, and went to find Lawrence’s house (pictured right). This was not as easy as I thought it would be. For starters, we were following directions given by another website, which turned out to be, by turns, confusing and erroneous. So on the first attempt we ended up turning back, in the blistering heat, and retreating. The second time, however, a few days later, I resolved to find the house where D. H. Lawrence lived for several years after the end of the First World War. And this time, we made it.
For anyone seeking to make a literary pilgrimage to D. H. Lawrence’s house on Sicily, it’s actually very easy to get to. You just need to know where you’re going. From the town centre, take the Via Cappuccini until you come to a fork in the road, with the Via Dietro Cappuccini on the left and the Via Fontana Vecchia on your right. Take the Via Fontana Vecchia and follow this road until you come to another fork. You will come to a sign marked ‘Via David Herbert Lawrence’. Contrary to what other websites might tell you, you’re on the right track! Turn right and follow the Via David Herbert Lawrence until you come to another fork in the road (this is the last one!). Take the road on the left (the one with the higher elevation) and walk uphill. This is the continuation of the Via David Herbert Lawrence, and the last part of your journey. After you’ve walked for just a few minutes up the hill, you will see a slope up ahead veering off the road to the left, and you will see a white (or cream-coloured) house on your right with a pink stripe. This is D. H. Lawrence’s Sicilian house! There is a plaque and an information board on the front of the house.
There are other Sicilian links with D. H. Lawrence’s work. For one thing, he wrote one of his finest short stories, ‘Sun’, in which a woman luxuriates in the warm glow of the sun, discovering her hidden sexual desires that society has forced her to repress. It’s perhaps the most erotic story about sunbathing ever written, and embodies Lawrence’s interest in physical and sensual ‘truth’ and knowledge over the rational brain. Penguin have published a collection of Lawrence’s Italian writings, including his travel book Sea and Sardinia which he wrote at Taormina: Sea and Sardinia (Penguin Modern Classics), and which contains this description of Sicily:
Cold, fresh wind, a black-blue, translucent, rolling sea on which the wake rose in snapping foam, and Sicily on the left: Monte Pellegrino, a huge, inordinate mass of pinkish rock, hardly crisped with the faintest vegetation, looming up to heaven from the sea. Strangely large in mass and bulk Monte Pellegrino looks: and bare, like a Sahara in heaven: and old-looking. These coasts of Sicily are very imposing, terrific, fortifying the interior. And again one gets the feeling that age has worn them bare: as if old, old civilisations had worn away and exhausted the soil, leaving a terrifying blankness of rock, as at Syracuse in plateaus, and here in a great mass.
You can’t go inside D. H. Lawrence’s house, and there isn’t much to see there that is specifically Lawrence-related. But for the literature fan exploring this part of Sicily, it’s a nice little literary pilgrimage to make to the famous writer’s residence.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.