Words from Sicily: D.H Lawrence and the Sicilian landscape

I’m always being asked about Sicily’s landscape; what is it like?

The truth is Sicily is very mountainous and difficult to negotiate. In its interior, the roads are constantly under repair or filled with detours; a short physical distance can turn into hours of curvey mountaintop back roads and deviations.

While at times I find the landscape undeniably beautiful, lush and enigmatic, especially when covered in mist during a shower of rain. But I ultimately feel daunted by the endless peaks. Mountains are suffocating at times; they dominate the landscape and even those who live with them. While travelling to Sicily in the early 20th-century English writer D. H Lawrence expressed his disdain for the ‘peaky confinement of Sicily’, and quite frankly, I agree with him. 

I’ve been looking back into the works of D H Lawrence. While I studied literature at University, he wasn’t considered very important by my lecturer, so we were expected only to read his novel Sons and Lovers, which I hated, and so forgot about him as I discovered many other writers I liked better.

I read Lady Chatterley’s Lover simply because I was curious about all the controversy. It hasn’t aged well and so I found it to be a little outdated and incredibly cheesy. Still, after reading a biography about Lawrence, I realised it reflected his own experiences after falling in love with a married woman.

German aristocrat Frieda von Richthofen was married to British academic Ernest Weekley, with whom she has three children. She met David Herbert Lawrence, who was a former student of her husband in 1912. They fell in love and travelled to Germany to elope. Following her divorce, she married Lawrence in 1914.

To some extent the controversy of their relationship damaged Lawrence’s literary career and he struggled to be published all his life because of his unconventional point of view and lifestyle.

Frieda and Lawrence spent most of their married life travelling around the world together, in a time where international travel was challenging at best. They travelled Europe, Australia and America until Lawrence died in 1930. Frieda eventually settled to live on ranch in New Mexico.

While not my favourite novelist D.H Lawrence is one of my favourite travel writers. His journals dedicated to Italy include Twilight in Italy (1916), Sea and Sardinia (1921) and Sketches of Etruscan Places (1932). His travel writing is a joy to read, filled with detailed description and observation, all wrapped in Lawrence’s unmistakable mixture of energy, humanity and intellect. Apart from the odd esoteric ramble through ancient history and philosophy, his travel writing is honest. It reflects his interactions with the local people and his unique understanding and sensibility.

D H Lawrence spent a lot of time in Sicily, living in Taormina for two years. The warm climate was good for his bad health, and he also found the history and mythology of the island intriguing.

In his book Sea and Sardinia, he leaves Taormina for Sardinia and surveys the landscape of Sicily at the end of his time there. Lawrence writes:

The landscape is ancient and classic — romantic as if it had known far-off days and fiercer rivers and more verdure. Steep, craggy, wild, the land goes up to its points and precipices, a tangle of heights. But all jammed on top of one another. And in old landscapes, as in old people, the flesh wears away, and the bones become prominent. Rock sticks up fantastically. The jungle of peaks in this old Sicily. 

Reaching Messina from Taormina, where he catches a ship to head towards Sardinia, he narrates the sad tale of a city still recovering from one of the most epic natural disasters in modern history. The earthquake and tsunami of 1908 was still a trauma for Messina, even though it had happened two decades before Lawrence’s visit. His poignant description reflects the palpable trauma of Messina. He writes:

It is raining — dismally, dismally raining. And this is Messina coming. Oh horrible Messina, earthquake-shattered and renewing your youth like a vast mining settlement, with rows and streets and miles of concrete shanties, squalor and a big street with shops and gaps and broken houses still, just behind the tram-lines, and a dreary squalid earthquake-hopeless port in a lovely harbour. People don’t forget and don’t recover. The people of Messina seem to be today what they were nearly twenty years ago, after the earthquake: people who have had a terrible shock, and for whom all life’s institutions are really nothing, neither civilisation nor purposes. The meaning of everything all came down with a smash in that shuddering earthquake, and nothing remains but money and the throes of some sort of sensation. Messina between the volcanoes, Etna and Stromboli, having known the death-agony’s terror. I always dread coming near the awful place, yet I have found the people kind, almost feverishly so, as if they knew the awful need for kindness.

When Lawrence finally arrives in Sardinia, he is struck by how different the landscape is compared to Italy and Sicily. He inevitably falls in love with the openness of the landscape and sees Sardinia as a place that expresses his longing for freedom.

He writes: This is very different from the Italian landscape. Italy is almost always dramatic, and perhaps invariably romantic. There is drama in the plains of Lombardy and romance in the Venetian lagoons, and sheer scenic excitement in nearly all the hilly parts of the peninsula. Perhaps it is the natural floridity of limestone formations. But Italian landscape is really eighteenth-century landscape, to be represented in that romantic-classic manner which makes everything rather marvellous and very topical: aqueducts, and ruins upon sugar-loaf mountains, and craggy ravines and Wilhelm Meister water-falls: all up and down. Sardinia is another thing. Much wider, much more ordinary, not up-and-down at all, but running away into the distance. Unremarkable ridges of moor-like hills running away, perhaps to a bunch of dramatic peaks on the southwest. This gives a sense of space, which is so lacking in Italy. Lovely space about one, and travelling distances — nothing finished, nothing final. It is like liberty itself, after the peaky confinement of Sicily. Room — give me room — give me room for my spirit: and you can have all the toppling crags of romance.