Mentioned in Dispatches

Letters from London and Europe by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, tranlated by J. G. Nichols

Books Literature

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa became famous as the author of a single novel, The Leopard, the story of a noble Sicilian family during the Risorgimento. When it was first published in the late 1950s, the book was criticised by all parts of the Italian establishment: the communists pronounced it reactionary, the Catholics denounced it as anti-clerical and some literary critics considered its style outdated. His admirers believe that the Prince of Lampedusa, although conservative in his views, gave an accurate account of the undoing of Sicilian aristocracy. One wrote: “It would be wrong to identify Giuseppe Tomasi as a snob. More than anything else, he was a passionate observer.” 

Burt Lancaster in The Leopard, the 1963 film of di Lampedusa’s masterpiece 

This is the way Lampedusa comes across in his Letters from London and Europe — indeed, his capacity for observation is so great and his letters so prolific that one wonders if his Italian friends were always fully able to digest his dispatches. 

Lampedusa’s uncle was the Italian Ambassador to Britain between 1922 and 1927, and young Giuseppe visited him in London for the first time in 1925. These trips became regular: for several years, Lampedusa would cross the Channel almost every summer. A connoisseur of English literature, he fell in love with the country that gave the world Shakespeare and Dickens. His London impressions were probably the strongest. Lampedusa quotes Charles Baudelaire’s line, “Luxe, calme et volupté” (“luxury, peace and pleasure”), adding: “This city is perhaps the only one that can evoke the same emotions as nature — indeed it isn’t a city, but a wood in which, together with the most dismal trees, houses have grown too.”

Writing from the Hotel Grand Central in Marylebone, the Monster (as the author was known among his friends) reports on such local wonders as “672 people run over and killed by motor cars in six months, shoes walking from dawn to midnight without a speck of dust on them, 4 million lire taken in one day in a collection for the hospitals, and the policemen”. He is fascinated in equal measure by things big and small. Perhaps disappointed at the state of his native Italy, Lampedusa exclaims at the site of mediaeval churches built after the Conquest: “A great race those Normans! And I wish the Lord had kept us for several centuries under their energetic wisdom!”

English cathedrals impressed him. Enthusing about their architecture, he is quick to add: “That is not to deny that the day when a purple cardinal celebrates a Pontifical Mass with incense and hymns on the high altar of Ely or Lincoln will be a truly great event.” However, this is hardly a political statement — Lampedusa was a deeply private person, and his letters were written merely for his own and his friends’ amusement, rather than to voice his opinions in any public form. In a typically jovial sentence, he admits he is “full of a lofty enthusiasm for Gothic churches and for cheeses, for Catholicism and for typists”.

The latter feature as “graceful creatures” whom Lampedusa is keen to take to the cinema — at least, that is what he banters about in the letters, whose style is quaint and at the same time frivolous, a tribute to the atmosphere of Bellini, the aristocratic club in Palermo to which Lampedusa and many of his friends belonged. The Monster went to the movies often, with or without the typists, enjoying films that had not yet been shown in Italy and noting “more intimate themes, less spectacular and also less puritanical (finally some married ladies are seen with lovers)”. This may have given him some encouragement in his own affairs of the heart: it was on his first visit to London that he met the aristocrat Alessandra Wolff, who became his wife a few years later. At the time of their acquaintance she was married, although separated from her husband. Whether or not the relationship was love at first sight is questionable; Lampedusa himself talks about his various romantic interests in England with old-fashioned chivalry, sometimes teasing his correspondents with passages such as this: “Of his worldly pleasures the Monster will say nothing. He gave a full description of them on a sheet which he then destroyed.” 

It is worth remembering that Anglophilia was far from fashionable in Mussolini’s Italy. Naturally, Lampedusa represented a particular social class, and the England he knew was that of country estates, luxurious hotels and gentlemen’s clubs. Firmly settled in his own milieu, he remained a devoted Anglophile. A passage describing a Pall Mall establishment Lampedusa frequented finishes: “Postulate: a Bellinian is in relation to the English Bellinians as your cat is to your genuine tiger” (these feline metaphors preceded The Leopard by 30 years). The letters contain numerous indications that Lampedusa may have been a conservative by British standards, but by those of his own country he was far from conventional. 

Lampedusa’s open-mindedness had its limits. In a letter from 1928, he informs his friend that he is sharing a London hotel with “a sovereign of an extensive but backward territory on the Ivory Coast”. He found the presence of the African king extremely amusing, peppering his account with what he must have considered subtle jokes: 

“H. M. responds with great benevolence to the Monster’s bows and smiles, exposing an incredible expanse of teeth (also of ivory), perhaps imagining (with Valéry) the future fumé of roast Monster.” 

Lampedusa produced several works of criticism, in which he commented, in particular, on English literature. That it was the subject closest to him is reflected in Letters. In York, the author “realises why England, popularly believed to be preoccupied with selling coal and launching battleships, has produced the most sublime poets of European literature”. He visits Stratford-upon-Avon to find “much peace, much serenity, much light” there and stays in the Shakespeare Hotel where, to his delight, he is given the Falstaff room. 

Whenever Lampedusa turns to literature, his figure changes from an eccentric prince into a perceptive scholar who was, perhaps, born too late or too early — or, at any rate, in the wrong country. We should be grateful for the letters that, having survived and been translated into English, paint a vivid picture of the country Lampedusa would have loved to call his own.