Ellen Fenwick is on her way to a villa outside Florence to take up a summer post as a governess. It’s 1933, Ellen is 26 & has been working as a teacher in a North of England school for several years while caring for her mother. Her mother’s illness prevented Ellen from taking a trip to America after she graduated from Oxford but now, her mother has died & she takes this opportunity to travel.
This first trip outside England is a revelation for Ellen. The Rivers family – Charles, Madeleine & their daughter, Juliet – are kind & the Villa Meridiana is like a dream to Ellen. Before long, she has become known as Fenny, has cut her hair & begun to release herself from her grey tweed past & embrace the warmer colours & textures of her Italian present. The summer that Fenny spends with the Rivers family changes her in other ways. She falls in love with Daniel, an English tutor living with a neighbouring family, the Warners. Mr Warner is an American now married to an Italian, Lucrezia. He has a son, Shand, from his first marriage & Lucrezia has a daughter, Donata. They have a daughter together, Blanche. Fenny soon realises that Shand is desperately unhappy in Italy & hates his stepmother who is brittle & artificial & has a string of admirers. Fenny’s relationship with Daniel is tentative & hampered by his moodiness. He grew up in a mining community & was the only one of his family to escape working in the pits. The betrayal that ends their relationship bursts the bubble of Fenny’s happiness & infatuation with Italy.
Four years later Fenny is now living with the Warners & teaching their daughters. She’s still part of the community of ex-pat English & Americans, living in another country villa & immune from the political changes of Italy in the late 1930s. Shand is now 16 & still desperate to go home to America & live with the aunts who cared for him when he was a baby after his mother died. Fenny dislikes Lucrezia Warner but loves Italy & finds herself drifting along in her comfortable life until a crisis sends her life in a new direction.
In 1938, Fenny is living in Florence & working in a travel agency. On a trip home to England just after the Munich crisis her family encourage her to return home for good lest she be trapped in Italy if war breaks out. Fenny thinks she is only returning to Italy for a few weeks, just to see how the political situation turns out. However, after a chance meeting with Professor Arturo Marelli, who she had met with his young wife, Graziella, a year before, Fenny’s life takes a new turn. Her involvement with Arturo & his circle enmesh her more deeply in Italy & when the war begins, she is unable to return home, even if she had wanted to. Her growing realization of the consequences of political opposition to Mussolini’s regime & her loyalty to her friends as well as her love for Arturo will leave a mark on the rest of her life.
This is such a wonderful book. Lettice Cooper’s descriptions of Italy are gorgeous & she really shows how Fenny responds to the warmth & beauty of Florence & the countryside from the moment she arrives. This is Italy before the hordes of tourists took over. It was a time when visitors could stroll along the streets of Florence, visiting empty churches & sitting at outdoor cafes almost as one of the locals. I discovered from reading the Introduction by Francis King (after I’d finished the book, of course) that Lettice Cooper had visited Italy frequently & based the Villa Meridiana on a villa she (& King) knew & had stayed in. The details of Fenny’s life are so beautifully described. The changes in her hair & clothing are representative of the changes in her emotional & spiritual life. The visit home to England shows her how much she has changed as she realises how little she has in common with her brother’s family as he worries about the coming war & tries to convince her to leave Italy. By this time, though, Fenny knows she will never leave golden Italy for grey, gloomy England.
I can’t believe this book is out of print. Persephone have reprinted another of Lettice Cooper’s novels, The New House, one of my favourite Persephones) & Bloomsbury have a couple more available as ebooks but Fenny would surely be popular with anyone who’s read Elizabeth Von Arnim’s Enchanted April. On a purely aesthetic note, isn’t the cover of this Virago edition gorgeous? The painting is Sewing by Harold Knight & reminds me of how much more evocative the old Virago covers were than most of the current designs (the recent Winifred Holtby & Angela Thirkell covers are exceptions).