I believe that I have Florence Trevelyan’s odd and lasting legacy to thank for my renewed interest in creative writing. We visited Taormina in 2012, a rare holiday, where we discovered the public gardens that she left to posterity. A plain, rather forbidding woman, she made her life in Sicily after a Grand Tour of Europe in her mid-twenties. Although she lived a full life of salons, entertained by visiting artistes of the likes of Oscar Wilde, Guidano Gozzano and the photographer von Gloeden, for some years in Taormina, she became a recluse after her only child was stillborn. She apparently found some joy in her gardens, where she had faux-aged follies built, and she created a nature reserve between these terraced spaces and Isola Bella.
Much of her life story has been embroidered upon by some of her descendants, but there’s no doubt that with her husband, the doctor and mayor Salvatore Cacciola, she was a powerful benefactrice, gardener and nature lover. What was fascinating to us, what energised our holiday, was the discovery of her bust fronting the gardens, the space she called Hallington Siculo, and the realisation that she hailed from Hallington Hall, neighbour to Wallington, the family seat of the Trevelyans in Northumberland. How had this woman carved out a new life for herself in the waning years of the 19th century, until she died just at the end of the Edwardian era?
We began researching her life, as revealed in the Trevelyan archives at the University of Newcastle, and managed to debunk, personally, many of the embroidered fantasies that had been built around her presence in Sicily. Originally stimulated by these stories, I had dreamed of writing a film script of a life of royal dalliances, but reality was rather more prosaic. Although her life somehow didn’t feel as filmic any longer, it was still remarkable, but that project eventually didn’t have the legs to carry it further.
Other projects arose, of course, and new ones are still rising to the foreground, these days. There’s continued joy in that, but I won’t quickly forget the excitement we had as, caffeine-stimulated, I raced through the night keying in the Italian text to an internet-based translator from the little Taormina Segreta book, written by a great-great nephew, to reveal the exciting (later ersatz) information about the doughty Florence in English. Her story has stayed with me, and I often muse about her life. Just now I’m on my second attempt to write a poem for Poetry on the Lake, which seems to have significant Italian cultural support, on the general theme of ‘Serendipity,’ which will involve some aspect of how she stretched across the century to touch us.
I guess excitement joys may find themselves dashed to the ground, sometimes, but the joys of creating something new and possibly revealing are much more consistent than these bright fireworks, these flashes in the pan whose brightness fades on closer inspection. In the meantime, much respect to the real Florence, whose life has been a kind of beacon to those of us who have to persevere to find our own way to live with ourselves.