Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Battle of the Villa Fiorita

The Battle of the Villa Fiorita is one of three novels in the Rumer Godden omnibus I bought at the Fabulous Charity Sale for $1. It contains Godden's best novel, An Episode of Sparrows, a classic (marketed for children via NYBR, but originally published as an adult novel); The Greengage Summer, a perceptive study of an emotional trauma that hits a family of children living on their own in a French hotel while their mother is in a hospital; and the puzzling, uneven, but well-written novel, The Battle of the Villa Fiorita. The latter analyzes a battle between children and parents over a divorce. Do not look for a family story with a comfortable ending. Agonizing in parts, sad, moving, and occasionally comedic, written in Godden’s distinctive, poetic style, part narrative and part musing commentary, the novel unflinchingly examines the real horror that can be caused by children who don't understand adult relationships.

Godden writes lovely sentences, but she packs a fierce emotional wallop: she is not the mistress of the happy ending. Weirdly, this bitter, intelligent, realistic novel was dismissed as sentimental in Time magazine when it first came out in 1963. In a scathing attack, the reviewer wrote,

“There is evidence that the Book-of-the-Month Club could not exist with out Rumer Godden... This time Author Godden, 55, is addressing herself to the woman in early middle age who has had her children, has become bored with her husband and feels parched for romance.”

The reviewer apparently really disliked Godden. What does her being 55 have to do with it? The heroine, Fanny, is a complicated person - hardly looking for romance. And divorce is certainly not romantic: perhaps in '63, when divorce was less common, the reviewer didn't understand that.

The Battle of the Villa Fiorita is skillfully told, an interweaving of the points of view of the children and tthe adults. Caddie, the 11-year-old who plots with her brother, Hugh, to run away to Italy and break up their mother’s relationship with her lover, is very simple, naive, and direct. She is the ordinary child who values honesty and family tradition, and she desperately wants her mother back. Hugh is the sensitive, sickly, intelligent older brother who has been devastated by the loss of his mother but is too angry to show it. Godden has a gift for portraying children as they are, not from an idealized point of view. And we can see them turn into wily beasts, shattered by their mother’s leaving, willing to do anything, however unethical, to get her back.

But the most interesting part of the novel is told from the point of view of Fanny, a wife and mother who, after years of acting as a housekeeper-chauffeur-caretaker-wife-of-an-absentee-military husband, leaves her family, torn away by her first real sexual love for Rob, a film director. (By the way, Godden does not introduce this career for the sake of glamour, as Time magazine implies: Godden herself was acquainted with filmmakers of the ilk of Renoir, who filmed her beautiful novel, The River.) Fanny is lonely, left alone by her military husband who travels for his job, always the odd woman out at dinner parties (and she meets Rob at a dinner party). Fanny and Rob occupy a beautiful temporary nest in a borrowed Italian villa, but Fanny is also recovering from the loss of her children, won by her husband in a punitive custody battle. She sleeps all the time.

“Rob, Celestina, and Giulietta were united in worrying in case she was uncomfortable, cold, depressed. Here Fanny was first and for years she had always been last; the last to be served -’Because I did the serving’--the last to go to bed, unless Darrell were at home, but first to get up in the morning, she thought wryly. She was last on every list and automatically the one to give up everything, to stay behind, to go without. ‘Well, mothers are like that,’ she would have said. ‘Some mothers,’ said Rob.”

Although this is not Godden's best book, it is considerably better than much of what I read today! (Sorry, contemporary writers, but she was an original.) Considered middlebrow these days, she is still popular and her novels are available widely at used bookstores and stores online.


ellen.moody said...

You make me want to buy this book and sit down and read it! I have taken a little vow not to buy another for 3 months and no more movies. Between all the activity on two of my listservs and my project I've been buying too much, especially DVDs. (I love them.)

So I'll tuck away the title. What is it with people that they dislike truth about families and resent when it's told effectively.
Unless the author has the right connections to be framed as high brow, then she (or he) is dissed. Jhumpa Lahiri, much as I love her, I know deliberately mutes her message so she is misunderstood and her connections are impeccable on top of that. Or you do the Booker Prize type novel and under cover get the truths in.

I love the children perspective especially. To blame the adult and sentimentalize the child is par for the course, and that's what the reviewer did. And to do is prosaically (not like the melodrama of the bad seed). That's part of the mythology that must be held up: children are wonderful. Christina Stead is at least (the reviewer might say were she or he conscious) only giving us harsh portraits of the parents.

I'll look to see if the author is named in Diane Philips’s Women’s Fiction, 1945-2005 about the 2nd half of the 20th century novel by women.


Frisbee said...


The review really startled me. I looked up Rumer Godden and there was quite a lot about her in magazines like Time and Harpers, but Time was the only one I could read without a subscription.

I know you would love her autobiography, beautifully written, and probably better than some of her novels.

The BAttle of the Fiorita is not her best, but it might even be available at the library.

Women are, or were, encouraged to lie about family life, you're right. Godden seems to be able to write about the whole family without judging.

Nicola said...

I'm surprised Persephone haven't re-issued any of Godden's books. She wrote for children, too, of course. I loved Miss Happiness and Miss Flower as a child (about a Japanese doll's house). I have the second volume of her biography A House with Four Rooms which I bought from a second-hand shop in Rye where Godden lived but I've not yet read it because I don't have the first volume!

Frisbee said...

It would be great to see more of her books in print. An Episode of Sparrows is evergreen at NYRB, and two of her nun books have been reissued by Loyola Press, but she wrote so much.

Yes, Persephone should bring her back!

Amalee Issa said...


The Villa Fiorita is Rumer Godden's finest work, and my favourite book. I'm so pleased you've brought it to wider attention through your blog - one more of us, one less of them! You'll pick up her books through Amazon & Ebay.

Amalee Issa
Rumer Godden devotee

Frisbee said...

I love Rumer Godden! I wish more of her books were in print, but they are available at Amazon and e-bay, as you say. I only paid $1 for my omnibus edition with three novels. I'm glad to know another of us loves her books.