We arrived in Sicily the same way as she had, by train from London and ferry across the Straits of Messina. Daphne Phelps had left from Victoria station ‘in a cold grey drizzle’ early in February 1948, while we had travelled from St Pancras, via Zurich, Rome and Naples, some 65 years later. Steam train from a dank Victoria for her; Eurostar and the Freccia Rossa for us. The ferry crossing the Straits of Messina involved the same methodical ritual: the coaches being shunted slowly on to the boat. It was hot – for her in winter and us in October – and the train followed the twists and turns of the coast, mountains to one side and the blue Mediterranean to the other, with the Italian mainland in a hazy near-distance. Taormina was as beautiful as promised, terracotta roofs, the looming presence of Mount Etna, a sprawling shadow breathing a wispy smoke, a tumultuous landscape of lava scree, sea and trees. I knew that the town stood proud and high above the sea; what I had not foreseen was the village of Castelmola high above it, teetering on an impossible crag.
We sat that first night in the town’s square – the very spot where its population had looked down from the ramparts to the trio of war correspondents slowly clambering up the goat-track to the town in the August of 1943. They had been greeted by an Italian officer with the suitably resounding words, ‘My lords we have waited too long for you’, as if he was auditioning for a part at Stratford. The town evidently hid a past: the hotel where we stayed had been the German HQ during the war; the surrounding area of the town had been a Jewish enclave, the only remains of which were Stars of David cut into a nearby wall. The hotel’s basement had served as cells in the war years before the Allies arrived in that blistering August heat. That first night we sat in the square, with our backs to the sea, listening to a saxophonist playing sleepy jazz, slumped deep in a chair and with his feet resting on a lamppost, the epitome of Latin cool. I had come to Taormina to tread the same paths as my three correspondents, but the town had more to show me.
The next morning we set off to find the house in Sicily, the villa which Daphne Phelps had inherited in 1948: Casa Cuseni whose story she had told in her book A House in Sicily (1999). The house had been her uncle’s and had been left her when he died after the war. Robert Hawthorn Kitson was the only son of a Yorkshire locomotive engineer who had abandoned the damp smoke of Leeds for Sicily’s dry heat in the immediate aftermath of his second severe bout of rheumatic fever; there he was able to pursue his passion for watercolours and build the house which would be regarded as the finest villa in Taormina. It took more than three years to build and old photographs appear to show that the local women did much of the work while the men ‘appear mostly to be measuring walls, managing plumb lines, keeping accounts, or helping to load huge baskets of earth and rubble on to their women’s heads’ – or so Daphne thought. The weather in Taormina was benign: frost was unknown, and snow fell perhaps every forty years or so. Daphne came to Sicily intending to sell the property, but she fell in love with the house and the Sicilian way of life. Her book is a homage to both.
We passed through a gate, climbed some steps and found ourselves in a garden looking out over the Mediterranean, the blue sea visible through trees and a comforting huddle of houses. The garden was formal and stepped, with a terrace set in front of a building of golden stone. Inside we waited in a room, part office, part library. On the wall were two original Picassos and I took a photograph of one of the bookshelves, so evocative of time past was the selection of books: Freya Stark’s The Lycian Shore; Virginia Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary; The Roots of Heaven by Romain Gary. I sat in the chair where, we learned later, Bertrand Russell had written part of the History of Western Philosophy.
Part of the joy of A House in Sicily is the window on a world lost forever: for example, Casa Cuseni had no phone until the mid-1970s; Phelps writes of ‘the days when no Sicilian woman wore trousers’; she describes the time when an embittered woman, bent on revenge, hammered a large nail into Daphne’s favourite tangerine tree in an act she characterised as ‘witchlike’; where women who drove had never been seen before; where haggling over prices was known as the ‘beating of beaks’. The window on the past goes back further: in 1908, a devastating earthquake hit the city of Messina, killing some 80,000 people. Daphne’s uncle Robert helped in the rescue work at Taormina station, ‘where trainloads were arriving of those dead, dying, wounded and being born.’
The house remains a remarkable building: apart from the Picassos, there is a Henry Moore, a mural by Sir Frank Brangwyn, Greek treasures in cupboards, a sofa where Greta Garbo reclined; an ancient wind-up gramophone. The building reflects the people who have passed through the house in the years after Daphne Phelps had elected to stay: they include Dylan Thomas’ widow, Caitlin, who arrived with Wyn Henderson whose ‘intimate friendships had, it seemed, been mainly with the authors of books on my library shelves.’ Wyn and Caitlin Thomas arrived in moonlight, toting a large half-empty bottle of wine in a wicker basket. Bertrand Russell was another friend who figures large in the book: Phelps describes him at the end of an evening commenting on his state of inebriation: ‘This is most disgraceful. I was a teetotaller until I was forty… I’m as drunk as a lord – but it doesn’t matter because I am a lord!’ Daphne was all too aware that Russell was a meek and hen-pecked husband, asking on one occasion if he wanted a separate room from his wife. Russell was delighted: ‘It would be an unmitigated relief,’ he replied, adding that ‘she declaims and I am the public meeting.’
In the villa’s library there is a copy of The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams, another visitor to the Casa Cuseni. He had written at the front of the book: ‘To Daphne Phelps who showed forgiveness of Henry’ and had signed it ‘Tennessee.’ The Henry in question was the American artist Henry Faulkner whose behaviour was often both quirky and challenging – he once arrived at the villa from Perugia with three dogs and six cats in the car. When Roald Dahl came to the villa he was late and unmistakeable: ‘a gigantic figure with a vast straw hat, a cerise shirt and the brightest of scarlet trousers.’ He had mistakenly by-passed the villa and ‘been halfway up’ the road to Castelmola beetling high above them.
The love Daphne felt for the island of Sicily is clear, manifesting itself very soon after her arrival, when she travelled with a meagre post-war tourist allowance of £35. The Straits of Messina might be narrow but there is a world of difference between the island of Sicily and the mainland, referred to by some Sicilians as ‘il continente’. The island’s people fill the book: Beppe who, when his son was born, wrote to Daphne to tell her of the birth, signing off as ‘Your unforgettable slave’; her cook Concetta; the local Mafia boss Don Ciccio who befriends her, offering his protection. He once guaranteed the security of Daphne’s car which she had left unlocked in wild and lonely countryside by the simple expedient of placing his hat on the bonnet. The car remained untouched. Don Ciccio’s hospitality was such that he would not be denied – it was not done to gainsay his offers of food – once Daphne and some English friends were invited to eat with him, despite having already eaten: it challenged all but the most robust of digestions. ‘Eat,’ Daphne whispered to her friends, ‘eat for the honour of England.’
Daphne Phelps died in 2005, just six years after the publication of A House in Sicily. Her life prior to her love affair with Taormina was never less than interesting: she had spent the early part of the war in the United States having sailed there on 19 August 1939 in the Empress of Britain and being unable to return until 1941. The Empress of Britain had been sunk soon after the voyage which took Daphne to America. Coincidentally the first class dining room had been designed by Frank Brangwyn who also painted the mural in the dining room at Casa Cuseni. Daphne visited 42 of the then 48 US states, often travelling by Greyhound bus, and working as a chauffeur, parlour maid, translator and propagandist for the Allied cause. In the second half of the war she worked for the Ministry of Home Security investigating the effects of bombing, before becoming a social worker. Daphne Phelps was a remarkable woman: resourceful, cultured, brave, independent and feisty. She was sociable, warm-hearted and lovable. A House in Sicily reveals her to be a highly capable writer, with a sharp eye, a keen sense of time and place and the ability to shape a narrative. In the final chapter of her book, she describes Mount Etna as ‘a queen and a spitfire’; I like to think that describes Daphne Phelps herself too.
We left Taormina on the slow train to Naples, sharing a carriage with three Sicilians none of whom spoke English. At one point, on the mainland, the train came to a halt for an hour in a tunnel. As the air conditioning hummed and then stopped, I reread the ending of Daphne’s book while the carriage echoed with a loud Italian commentary from my travel companions who, within the time it took to travel a hundred miles, had become the best of friends. Later, north of Naples, I helped one of them, a Sicilian widow, with her cases and she kissed me as she descended to the platform. She had offered us her house to stay in when we were next in Sicily. Leaving the heat of the Italian south I reflected on the drizzle at home and autumn darkness, and on how Daphne Phelps’ good fortune and courage had allowed her to lead a life less travelled. It is nearly a decade since Daphne Phelps died, but the villa remains full of her life, her books and art. The views across the town towards Etna are as beautiful as ever. Searching for the paths that my war correspondents had trodden 70 years before I was moved to uncover this other story of Taormina. It warmed me too that Concetta, Daphne’s long serving cook and friend, had a granddaughter named Daphne.
Richard Knott’s most recent books are: ‘Black Night for Bomber Command’ (Pen & Sword); ‘Flying Boats of the Empire’ (Robert Hale) and ‘The Sketchbook War’ (The History Press). ‘The Trio’, his account of three remarkable war correspondents, will be published in 2015.
‘A House in Sicily’ was published by Virago in 1999.