Rumer Godden: The Battle of the Villa Fiorita
Introduced by Anita Desai
Virago Modern Classics 2015 (1963)
Speaking as someone who has holidayed there, I can confirm that Lake Garda is a jewel, one of Italy’s many natural delights and the largest of its lakes, nestled at the foot of the Dolomites. When viewed from Limone on the western shore the picturesque town of Malcesine is dwarfed by the bulk of Monte Baldo rising behind it two kilometres into the sky, but in Malcesine itself the eye is drawn by the waters, to the craft which ply its surface and the changing outlook determined by the time of day and the weather. It was so in the nineties, and it was so in the early sixties when this novel is set. But for one of the main characters in The Battle of the Villa Fiorita trouble is looming, just as Monte Baldo looms above the seemingly impregnable castle of Malcesine.
Fanny Clavering is unhappy in her Home Counties village of Whitcross: she rattles around her home, her army officer of a husband is often abroad, her children preoccupied with their own lives. She finds herself attracted to Rob Quillet, who is directing a film in the vicinity, and they begin a chaste affair, meeting clandestinely for quiet meals and outings. There comes the inevitable moment when, rejecting her husband Darrell’s advances, she escapes, divorcing her husband and eloping with Rob to the Villa Fiorita near Malcesine. Here she discovers an idyllic existence on the borrowed property, one she had hardly ever dreamed of. But, like the sudden squalls that sometimes buffet the lake, a tempest is on its way to the villa in the persons of her two youngest children, Hugh and Caddie.
The novel is beautifully composed, like an extended piece of music. The principal themes are the two children, Fanny of course, and Rob, and the reader is presented with first one then another’s point of view as we sidle backwards and forwards in time. We follow Fanny’s slow courtship by Rob and the drama of her break with Darrell; we observe Hugh and Caddie’s different responses after they decide, like Fanny, to journey to Italy; unlike Fanny, their principal motive is to bring her back home, back to an imagined status quo. Rob’s increasing frustration after they’ve interrupted Fanny’s idyll and his work is well chronicled, especially after he makes the mistake of summoning his daughter Pia to the villa. As events follow with increasing rapidity we realise that battles usually conclude with some combatants being winners and others losers; but even in victory there may be pain.
The author is adept at orchestrating the rise and fall of the action, the ripples that result from minor incidents, the waves that threaten the lives of individuals. Like the visit to the opera at La Scala, Milan, the unfolding action has its supporting cast of upper-class villagers in England and chorus of Italian locals by the lake. While our sympathies are initially with Fanny, and we get a sense of Hugh’s pubescent angst on occasion, it is the figure of Caddie who latterly draws our attention: her sacrifices, the determination which occasionally wavers, her unconscious attempts to understand, even acclimatise to, Italy’s mysteries and enchantments. There’s little doubt that it is Caddie in the end who breaks our hearts:
As the car drove out of the gates, Caddie noticed what she had not seen before: that the whitethorn flowers had dropped, their petals were scattered in the road. The hedges now did not disguise their pricks and, almost before the car turned up the road, Giulietta ran and shut the gates.
This edition has an informative introduction by Anita Desai and an equally enlightening preface by the author herself, both of which you may want to tackle subsequent to reading the novel if you want to avoid major spoilers. What does come through in both pieces though is how much is semi-autobiographical in these pages, even though outcomes are rather different. The sense of lived experiences — the claustrophobic nature of some English villages, being trapped in an unhappy marriage and having to manage distressed children, an Arcadian existence by an Italian lake, a second chance with a new partner — adds a definite quality of realism to the narrative, encouraging the reader to invest in the characters and their situations.
I bought a copy of this novel in The Rye Bookshop, in the East Sussex town where the author lived in the late sixties. Between 1968 and 1973, when her second husband died, she occupied Lamb House, the building where Henry James spent many of his latter years.