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The Ghost of D.H. Lawrence


Shortly after I moved into the Fontana Vecchia, a 17th-century villa on the south coast of Sicily, I heard from a friend that I might be sharing my bedroom with a red-haired, red-bearded ghost.

The ghost was first sighted by Howard Agg, a well-know English music critic and writer who was drawn to the villa because of his love for the prose of D.H. Lawrence. He knew immediately that it was Lawrence's apparition. The writer had lived there in the 1920s with his wife, Frieda.

While I am not obsessed with Lawrence as Agg was, I confess that Lady Chaterley's Lover has been one of my favorite novels since I read it in college during the '60s. When my professor told the class that Lawrence's book had been the first novel to be prosecuted under England's Obscene Publications Act, I couldn't read it fast enough. I was struck by the boldness of the writer and his courage to swim against the Victorian tide of hypocrisy. I remember my English professor proclaiming Lawrence as the best writer to come out of England since Shakespeare.

An illustration of D.H. Lawrence by Joseph Simpson. Every effort has been made to obtain permission to use this image as found in the out of print book The Country of My Heart by Bridget Pugh. At the time of his death in 1930, Lawrence left behind an enormous body of work that included some 50 novels, short stories, plays, essays and poems. The two-year period he spent at the villa was among the most productive of his prodigious career. During this time, he wrote The Lost Girl – the only work for which he received an award – plus an array of works that included Aaron's Rod, Studies in Classic American Literature, Education of the People, The Blind Man, Lucky Noon, Sea and Sardinia, Women in Love, Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious, Tortoises, and Fantasia of the Unconscious.

It was not only a period of productivity for Lawrence, but also a time of prosperity. His net worth increased tenfold. He was earning over U.S. $1,975 a year, an enormous sum in those days. Could all this good fortune explain why Lawrence would wish to return to Fontana Vecchia? He expressed his love for the 400-year-old villa many times and he and Frieda might have remained there for the rest of his life were it not for his wandering nature and the turbulent times in Italy.

In Lady Chaterley's Lover, Constance Chatterley (believed to be a thinly disguised Frieda Lawrence by many literary historians) is married to a lame man (representing Lawrence and his chronic respiratory problems). She takes on a lover, the dashing Oliver Mellors. In the opinion of most Taormina residents, the inspiration for Mellors was a mule driver named Peppino D'Allura who worked for a local wine merchant. In her biography of Lawrence, Brenda Maddox reveals that D'Allura came to Fontana Vecchia one day while Lawrence was away. Frieda, naked, greeted the young man at the front door and offered her services. He graciously accepted.

As Howard Agg explored the rooms of Fontana Vecchia, he sought to uncover the innermost of Lawrence's secrets held within its walls. While living in the villa, he befriended the landlord, don Ciccio Cacopardo, who had been a close friend of Lawrence and his wife.

Don Ciccio remembered Lawrence's every word and gesture. He would happily speak about the notable and notorious couple for hours. On more than one occasion, don Ciccio, from his home more than 100 yards away, heard the couple screaming at each other and slamming doors. A woman with an explosive temper, Frieda lost her patience with her husband almost as often as the wind shifted. One morning, in the presence of the mayor of Taormina, whom Lawrence had invited for breakfast, Frieda threw a plate of food at her husband, narrowly missing her target's head and that of the mayor.

Don Ciccio spoke of a Lawrence clearly interested in mundane chores such as housework and cooking. As whimsical as he was impulsive, Lawrence once insisted that don Ciccio remove the awnings on the back of the house so that the Mediterranean sun could bathe the villa in sunlight.

The Garden at Fontana Vecchia as it appears today. Copyright Norman Harrison. Lawrence flew into a rage after don Ciccio expressed his intention to chop down a carob tree growing in the garden behind the house. Don Ciccio argued that the tree's roots threatened to crush the rainwater cistern while Lawrence steadfastly insisted that it would be a barbarous thing to take away a tree that shaded and adorned the landscape. Finally, don Ciccio acquiesced and the carob tree was spared.

 

A short time after moving to Fontana Vecchia, in a letter written to a friend, Lawrence described his new home: I feel at last we are settled down and can breathe....We've got a nice big house, with fine rooms and a handy kitchen, set in a big garden, mostly vegetables, green with almond trees, on a steep slope at some distance above the sea....To the left, the coast of Calabria and the Straits of Messina. It is beautiful, and green and full of flowers....There are a good many English people, but fewer than Capri....and one needn't know them....Etna is a beautiful mountain, far lovelier than Vesuvius....

One day after Lawrence had written a volume of particularly provocative verse, fearing that it might be seized and banned by the censors, he entrusted the manuscript to his landlord. For protecting the manuscript while he was away in America, Lawrence, upon his return gave don Ciccio a large silk handkerchief, which he kept for years.

In a letter to a friend while in the middle of a two-month bout with influenza that almost took his life, Lawrence expressed his thoughts of death and spoke of making a will. In the same letter, he wrote of his fascination with the Etruscans, whose cities of the dead were scattered all over Sicily, and their worship of the afterlife.

The illness may have been his first encounter with the tuberculosis that took his life a few years later. The first X-ray confirming his long-term illness was taken in Mexico City in 1925, three years after he had left Taormina. The doctor in Mexico told Lawrence he would not live another two years.

Inside the villa. Copyright Norman Harrison. In spite of his close relationship with Lawrence, don Ciccio did not realize that his tenant was becoming internationally famous. In fact, he destroyed all the letters the writer sent him after Lawrence and Frieda moved to Taos, New Mexico.

Returning home one night, Agg found his servant Saro in a terrible state of nerves. "I never want to be left alone in that villa again!" she screamed. After he calmed her down, the servant said she had seen a shadow on the wall on the far end of the outside steps of the house. It looked like a person hiding. Agg searched the grounds but he did not see anything and concluded that the woman must have been frightened by her own shadow that had somehow been projected on the outside wall.

Convinced that nothing paranormal had happened, Agg nonetheless sensed from that day on that there was an eerie, indefinable presence in the house. Some weeks passed without incident, then one lonely night an indistinct voice woke Agg in the middle of the night. He was sleeping in the room where Lawrence had slept 40 years before. At the same moment, Agg noticed a light reflected onto the wall next to his bed. It appeared as a rectangular halo, similar to a windowpane, immobile, yet increasing and decreasing in intensity with the rhythm of slow breathing. After about 10 minutes, the light became less intense before it disappeared altogether. The same mysterious light appeared again over the next few nights, always in the same place, always heralded by a distant voice and the mysterious sound of footsteps.

The most intense of these baffling manifestations was yet to come. One night, Agg, who by now slept very lightly and awoke at the slightest sound, became aware that one entire wall of his bedroom, from floor to ceiling, was glowing with a light of indefinable nature and intensity. Agg realized that only a light from outside, entering through the window facing the wall, could create such an anomaly. Perhaps, owing to some exceptional circumstances, a light from a nearby fishing boat was casting the brilliant reflection. Gathering his courage, Agg got up and opened the window to look outside. There were no boats and the sky was as dark as death.

 

A modern photograph of the entrance to Fontana Vecchia. Copyright Norman Harrison.The disquieting experience so disturbed him that the following day Agg re-read all the letters that D.H. Lawrence had written from Fontana Vecchia, searching for a phrase which would justify the impalpable presence of the writer. One passage struck him as particularly revealing: Here the past is so much stronger than the present from which one seems as far as do the immortal spirits who guard the earth from their world. A great indifference overcomes me. I feel that the present is not real…How beautiful it is here, the large window facing towards the eastern sky, overlooking the sea! I like it more than any other place in Italy. I adore Fontana Vecchia.

After Agg told don Ciccio about the bizarre experience, don Ciccio took Agg to see signor Adolfo, a spiritualist. Adolfo listened to Agg's account without surprise. When Agg had finished, Adolfo said solemnly, "Your experiences at Fontana Vecchia are nothing new to me. I already know about these manifestations. There is a presence in the house, there's no doubt about that. The only thing I can say is that it involves a man, a man with a red beard."

Equally convinced was an English friend of Howard Agg who had been a guest at Fontana Vecchia. Soon after returning to England she wrote, "I never told you that the ghost at Fontana Vecchia is that of a man." Her words stunned Agg because he had never spoken to this friend about the apparitions or his meeting with signor Adolfo.

Agg's friend returned to Taormina the following year. As soon as she entered Fontana Vecchia she announced that the restless spirit had left the house. "He's gone, can't you feel it?" she asked. Agg too felt the spirit had departed. For many months there had not been a sign. No noises, footsteps or mysterious lights had reappeared. Once again, the nights were tranquil at Fontana Vecchia.

Since that time there have been no further sightings, but when I awake in the middle of some lonely night, I look and wait…

For those interested in learning more about Fontana Vecchia, visit Norman Harrison's Web page: www.angelfire.com/nh/writings/index.html
or e-mail him at n.harrison@tao.it

Norman Harrison is a freelance writer living and writing in Fontana Vecchia. He has written two novels, Tarnished Wings and The Entity.

When you go:

For more information about Taormina, contact The AAST office at Tel: 39 (0) 942 2 32 43, Fax: 39 (0) 942 2 49 41.

To contact the Italian Government Travel Office, call 212-245-4822 or visit www.italiantourism.com

To learn about D.H. Lawrence in New Mexico, visit www.literarytrips.com

The Garden at Fontana Vecchia as it appears today. Copyright Norman Harrison. Lawrence flew into a rage after don Ciccio expressed his intention to chop down a carob tree growing in the garden behind the house. Don Ciccio argued that the tree's roots threatened to crush the rainwater cistern while Lawrence steadfastly insisted that it would be a barbarous thing to take away a tree that shaded and adorned the landscape. Finally, don Ciccio acquiesced and the carob tree was spared.

A short time after moving to Fontana Vecchia, in a letter written to a friend, Lawrence described his new home: I feel at last we are settled down and can breathe....We've got a nice big house, with fine rooms and a handy kitchen, set in a big garden, mostly vegetables, green with almond trees, on a steep slope at some distance above the sea....To the left, the coast of Calabria and the Straits of Messina. It is beautiful, and green and full of flowers....There are a good many English people, but fewer than Capri....and one needn't know them....Etna is a beautiful mountain, far lovelier than Vesuvius....

One day after Lawrence had written a volume of particularly provocative verse, fearing that it might be seized and banned by the censors, he entrusted the manuscript to his landlord. For protecting the manuscript while he was away in America, Lawrence, upon his return gave don Ciccio a large silk handkerchief, which he kept for years.

In a letter to a friend while in the middle of a two-month bout with influenza that almost took his life, Lawrence expressed his thoughts of death and spoke of making a will. In the same letter, he wrote of his fascination with the Etruscans, whose cities of the dead were scattered all over Sicily, and their worship of the afterlife.

The illness may have been his first encounter with the tuberculosis that took his life a few years later. The first X-ray confirming his long-term illness was taken in Mexico City in 1925, three years after he had left Taormina. The doctor in Mexico told Lawrence he would not live another two years.

Inside the villa. Copyright Norman Harrison. In spite of his close relationship with Lawrence, don Ciccio did not realize that his tenant was becoming internationally famous. In fact, he destroyed all the letters the writer sent him after Lawrence and Frieda moved to Taos, New Mexico.

Returning home one night, Agg found his servant Saro in a terrible state of nerves. "I never want to be left alone in that villa again!" she screamed. After he calmed her down, the servant said she had seen a shadow on the wall on the far end of the outside steps of the house. It looked like a person hiding. Agg searched the grounds but he did not see anything and concluded that the woman must have been frightened by her own shadow that had somehow been projected on the outside wall.

Convinced that nothing paranormal had happened, Agg nonetheless sensed from that day on that there was an eerie, indefinable presence in the house. Some weeks passed without incident, then one lonely night an indistinct voice woke Agg in the middle of the night. He was sleeping in the room where Lawrence had slept 40 years before. At the same moment, Agg noticed a light reflected onto the wall next to his bed. It appeared as a rectangular halo, similar to a windowpane, immobile, yet increasing and decreasing in intensity with the rhythm of slow breathing. After about 10 minutes, the light became less intense before it disappeared altogether. The same mysterious light appeared again over the next few nights, always in the same place, always heralded by a distant voice and the mysterious sound of footsteps.

The most intense of these baffling manifestations was yet to come. One night, Agg, who by now slept very lightly and awoke at the slightest sound, became aware that one entire wall of his bedroom, from floor to ceiling, was glowing with a light of indefinable nature and intensity. Agg realized that only a light from outside, entering through the window facing the wall, could create such an anomaly. Perhaps, owing to some exceptional circumstances, a light from a nearby fishing boat was casting the brilliant reflection. Gathering his courage, Agg got up and opened the window to look outside. There were no boats and the sky was as dark as death.

A modern photograph of the entrance to Fontana Vecchia. Copyright Norman Harrison.The disquieting experience so disturbed him that the following day Agg re-read all the letters that D.H. Lawrence had written from Fontana Vecchia, searching for a phrase which would justify the impalpable presence of the writer. One passage struck him as particularly revealing: Here the past is so much stronger than the present from which one seems as far as do the immortal spirits who guard the earth from their world. A great indifference overcomes me. I feel that the present is not real…How beautiful it is here, the large window facing towards the eastern sky, overlooking the sea! I like it more than any other place in Italy. I adore Fontana Vecchia.

After Agg told don Ciccio about the bizarre experience, don Ciccio took Agg to see signor Adolfo, a spiritualist. Adolfo listened to Agg's account without surprise. When Agg had finished, Adolfo said solemnly, "Your experiences at Fontana Vecchia are nothing new to me. I already know about these manifestations. There is a presence in the house, there's no doubt about that. The only thing I can say is that it involves a man, a man with a red beard."

Equally convinced was an English friend of Howard Agg who had been a guest at Fontana Vecchia. Soon after returning to England she wrote, "I never told you that the ghost at Fontana Vecchia is that of a man." Her words stunned Agg because he had never spoken to this friend about the apparitions or his meeting with signor Adolfo.

Agg's friend returned to Taormina the following year. As soon as she entered Fontana Vecchia she announced that the restless spirit had left the house. "He's gone, can't you feel it?" she asked. Agg too felt the spirit had departed. For many months there had not been a sign. No noises, footsteps or mysterious lights had reappeared. Once again, the nights were tranquil at Fontana Vecchia.

Since that time there have been no further sightings, but when I awake in the middle of some lonely night, I look and wait…

For those interested in learning more about Fontana Vecchia, visit Norman Harrison's Web page: www.angelfire.com/nh/writings/index.html
or e-mail him at
n.harrison@tao.it

Norman Harrison is a freelance writer living and writing in Fontana Vecchia. He has written two novels, Tarnished Wings and The Entity.

When you go:

For more information about Taormina, contact The AAST office at Tel: 39 (0) 942 2 32 43, Fax: 39 (0) 942 2 49 41.

To contact the Italian Government Travel Office, call 212-245-4822 or visit www.italiantourism.com

To learn about D.H. Lawrence in New Mexico, visit www.literarytrips.com