A House in Sicily.

By Daphne Phelps

Printed: 1999

Publisher: Virago Press. London

Edition: First edition

Dimensions 15 × 23 × 3 cm

Language: English

Size (cminches): 15 x 23 x 3

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In the original dustsheet. Grey cloth binding with gilt title on the spine.

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Near Mount Etna in Sicily lies Casa Cuseni, a beautiful house built in golden stone – and the home which Daphne Phelps was astonished to find she had inherited in 1947. At the age of 34, war-weary from working as a psychiatric social worker, with barely any Italian, and precious little money, she plunged into a fascinating Sicilian world. Every imaginable problem had to be overcome, not only financial difficulties but local authorities and a house staff who initially felt no loyalty to the new Signorina but who gradually accepted her as a respected member of their small community. To help make ends meet, for many years she ran Casa Cuseni as a pensioner and to her doors came Roald Dahl, Tennessee Williams, Bertrand Russell and Henry Faulkner. But just as important to her life and her story are the Sicilians with whom she shared the love and care of Casa Cuseni: Don Ciccio the local mafia leader, Vincenzio, general manservant who recited while he served the meals, Beppe, a Don Juan who scented his eyebrows and his moustache to attract the local girls; and above all the steadfast cook and housekeeper who lives with Daphne still and to whom this book is dedicated.

Review: I was directed to this book by  Sicily: A Literary Guide for Travellers and bought it for my wife and I to read prior to a trip to Sicily we took last week. The author tells the story of how she came to be left a beautiful house on a hillside overlooking the pretty town of Taormina on the east coast of Sicily. Originally intending to immediately sell it, she soon fell under its spell, became fascinated by post-war Sicilian society, and ended up running it as a guest house whose visitors included Tennessee Williams, Bertrand Russell, Roald Dahl and Henry Faulkner. The account of Russell’s visit is one I remembered from reading  Ronald Clark’s biography  long ago; it contains the memorable scene of the aged and distinguished philosopher sitting on a rock during a riotous midnight fishing expedition off the coast of Taormina and declaring “I’m as drunk as a Lord – but then, I *am* a Lord, so it doesn’t matter”. Phelps tells a good tale, and the insights into the behaviour of her famous guests are interspersed with more homely accounts of her interactions with members of the local community that highlight her kindness and generosity to the poor and disadvantaged. Phelps died in 2005, but her house is still open to visitors; we enjoyed the book so much that we sought it out when we were in Taormina, and found it just as delightful as her story about it.


Daphne Phelps (23 June 1911 – 30 November 2005) was a British writer who spent most of her life in Taormina, Sicily.

Phelps attended St Felix School, Southwold, Suffolk, and trained in psychiatric social work at St Anne’s College, Oxford, and at the London School of Economics. Just after the end of World War II, she inherited Casa Cuseni, an elegant villa with elaborate gardens, designed and built in 1905 by her uncle, the artist Robert Hawthorn Kitson. She intended to sell it and return to her life in England, but instead she ended up moving to Sicily and running the house by taking paying guests. There she entertained numerous writer and artist friends including Bertrand Russell, Henry Faulkner, Roald Dahl and Tennessee Williams. Towards the end of her life she wrote a memoir of the experience, A House in Sicily (1999), published by Virago. Following her death, Casa Cuseni is run as a historic house museum, with a few rooms available by the night.

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