The English Library, Tenerife
by Ruth Hall
I thought I would share with members a fascinating find made on a recent holiday to Tenerife, as it was Lawrence who indirectly led me there. I had been wondering why he never considered any of ‘The Fortunate Isles’ as a possible place to live. From the 19th century The Canaries had been well-known as a destination for those seeking a health cure, and I couldn’t believe he didn’t know about this. As ‘Mrs. Stone’ in her 1893 book ‘Tenerife and its Six Satellites’ says: ‘The Canarian Archipelago rejoices in the most magnificent climate in the world, and Orotava (Puerto de la Cruz) is the most excellent of the excellent’. She also, elsewhere, calls it ‘the healthiest place on the globe’. Moreover, NASA has declared these islands ‘A window to the Universe’ with an assured place as one of the top three places on earth to stargaze. I can only think DHL might have thought it too bourgeois for his taste, as another book on health resorts of The Canaries from a similar era remarks: ‘change of climate, even at its cheapest, is an expensive prescription’. It can’t, either, have been its lack of literary or artistic cachet – Lawrence famously tried Capri, a favourite haunt of artists of the day, and found it: ‘The uttermost uttermost limit for spiteful scandal’. By comparison, he would have found North Tenerife an unspoiled idyll – and if the weather in one place didn’t quite suit he could practically walk to a different one, Tenerife being extraordinary in its variety of micro-climates. It was while looking on the internet for The English Hospital (a nickname as it turned out for The Bellevue Hospital in Puerto de la Cruz, on account of the high number of English patients there) that I came across a quaint-sounding place (and another good reason for Lawrence to have settled here) called The English Library…
On their website (www.theenglishlibrary.es) it is described as: ‘….the cornerstone of a substantial community of English-speaking residents and visitors for well over a hundred years’ and has been called, in a 1949 account (and by others),: ’nothing less than the most important English Library situated in a foreign country.’ My own visit (or two) last December didn’t disappoint. The library, a short bus ride from the centre of ‘Puerto’, is situated in a leafy suburb quite close to the Botanical Gardens and a number of other parks and attractive, well-established hotels. Access is via the front garden gate, not unlike the Breach House….and very unlike it at the same time (more of that later). The present library has been on this site since 1903, gifted, bestowed and set up by generous expats and well-to-do English people who had settled in Tenerife. It became, along with a newly-built Anglican church, the hub for the English in Tenerife and provided a service for the growing number of health tourists to the island. On my first visit I was shown around the substantial colonial-type building lined with 1,000’s of books, quite as large as any county library you are likely to see in England. I was shown the original bookcases and informed that any new ones had to be made in exactly the same style. I noted 20 Lawrence titles among their large ‘classics’ selection – and here, where it’s perhaps possible to create your own version of Englishness without being hindered by the irksome realities, there were notably many more classical books than you might see at home. The verandah had recently been converted into yet more bookshelf space, though the well-kept gardens remain more than adequate (resplendent with Canarian Pines, exotic flora, and the ubiquitous Monarch butterflies) for teas, coffees and (when I was there just before Christmas) wine to be served. And bananas for sale as well as remaindered books! The library has always been run by volunteers, and although this may only be possible by a sort of elitism, nevertheless the absence of money creates a very relaxed and collective atmosphere. If there is a ‘head honcho’ it would be Ken Fisher, their President, who I was lucky enough to meet on my second visit and who was kindness itself in talking to me for a good hour, even though it became apparent I had walked into their Christmas drinks party – at 11 a.m! By the end of it, Mr. Fisher declared his awakened and renewed interest in our friend Lawrence (being an East Midlander by birth coincidentally) and suggested we have an ‘outreach’ branch of the D H Lawrence Society right there – if only in spirit. I’ll drink to that…
Here I must mention the excellent and comprehensive centenary publication, which gives a thorough history and flavour of the Library from its inception to modern times – a lot of the information coming from the scrupulously-kept minutes preserved over the years. For any Society members there is a copy of this at The Breach House, where I hope it will serve as inspiration for the up and coming ‘browsing’ library in progress there. Meanwhile, here’s a few light-hearted examples of what to expect:
‘Mr. Walter N. Reid was appointed ‘censor’ and although it may seem strange to us today, it was deemed necessary at this time. However when Mr. Reid resigned, in 1911, the appointment was discontinued.’ I would be interested to know whether Lawrence’s work was ever discussed in this light – and what was decided!
‘During the years ‘animals’ – presumably goats – were causing trouble to the library, so it was decided to allow [them] to be grazed upon the library grounds providing they were tethered at a respectful distance from the trees and plants, and that a fee of 1 peseta per animal, per year, was paid. By 1927 the goats appear to have got out of hand again. Also, the neighbours seem to have developed the annoying habit of washing and hanging out their laundry in the library precincts. And, horror of horrors to some virtuous users of the library, the precincts of the library struck them as being used for immoral purposes. The question of an enclosure or wall was again seriously considered.’
‘There was a curious air of having been left over from a more gracious age. A trip to Santa Cruz [the island’s capital] was regarded, by the ladies especially, as an undertaking of some consequence, necessitating the tapping of barometers the night before, some thought to one’s apparel, and a legitimate reason for ‘resting’ for a few days afterwards.’
‘If one sat at the Club or Library it was a good idea to slip one’s legs into a cotton or crettone sack to prevent the flies from nipping.’ One problem we probably won’t have at The Breach House library – blankets maybe!
And here’s what one of this institute’s most cherished and revered librarians from the 1960’s, Olivia Leicester-Cooke, prioritized:
‘I pray that the last faculty God will remove from me will be my sense of wonder.’ Surely a sentiment Lawrence would have endorsed, and one that our own library project would be advised to adopt. All in all, an inspiring and instructive find, and one I hope to return to on future visits.
For further superlatives and recommendations to this unique place, look no further than Trip Advisor, or for a potted history, and information about their facilities and events try their website: http://www.theenglishlibrary.es/ – even better, just go!