I would have completely forgotten about Daphne Phelps’ book, “A House in Sicily” if it wasn’t for the mouse. We were doing some spring cleaning (a tip- don’t leave it for five years, things can get out of hand) when I found that a mouse had whiled away an afternoon by chewing away at the edges of a newspaper cutting which I’d roughly inserted into the book. Fortunately, the book itself was unharmed.
“A House in Sicily” is about Casa Cuseni, the Arts and Crafts house and garden created by Robert Kitson in Taormina, Sicily, which Daphne Phelps had inherited and looked after for 50 years. The garden is one of several outstanding gardens in Italy created by English men (and women) and is worthy to be mentioned alongside Thomas Hanbury’s ‘La Mortola’, Lady Walton’s ‘La Mortella’ and Ellen Willmott’s ‘La Boccanegra’, but stands out amongst them in that its name isn’t redolent of death or darkness.
My plans to look at the garden when I visited Taormina a few years ago were unfortunately thwarted by the girl at the Tourist Information Centre, where I’d gone to ask for directions. She looked positively alarmed when I mentioned Casa Cuseni. “You won’t get in”, she said, “And if you try to the owner will shout abuse at you”. The owner in question was Daphne Phelps, the author of the book. She was now elderly, and retired, but for most of her life had run Casa Cuseni as an upmarket guest house. Her instructions to the TiC to deter any potential visitors with threats of abuse was no doubt the result of a lifetime spent in hospitality. I know how she feels. She died the following year, and it was her obituary which I had carelessly inserted into her book and which the mice had chewed at.