The Battle of the Villa Fioritaby Rumer Godden ~ 1963. Viking Press. This edition: Book-of-the-Month Club hardcover, 1963. Library of Congress #: 63-14677. 312 pages.
My rating: 8.5/10
Middle-aged Englishwoman Fanny Clavering is by and large content with her life. Competent mistress of a stately country house and beloved garden, dependable wife to an affectionate husband, and devoted mother to three adolescent children, her greatest stress is in occasional mild conflicts with her managing mother-in-law and her rather bossy and condescending friends.
That is, until the day Fanny turns from the counter of the village shop to meet the admiring gaze of an unknown man. An acclaimed film director has just arrived with his entourage to shoot scenes for his latest work in the local countryside, and he falls in love, literally at first sight, with the gentle Fanny.
Fanny immediately recognizes an answering attraction in herself for the charismatic Rob. She means to do the right thing, to deny herself the romance that she has not encountered in her life until this point, but circumstances work against her and Fanny, torn between duty and growing passion, falls hard.
Fanny’s subsequent divorce and loss of custody of her children to her husband shocks her circle of friends and the staid village society; it also turns her children’s lives upside down. 16-year-old Philippa and 14-year-old Hugh are worldly enough to understand and somewhat accept what has happened, but 12-year-old Caddie is torn out of her self-involved dream-world to the reality that her future means no more dependable, alway-there mother, no more sanctuary of a country home, and no more beloved pony Topaz.
Philippa takes the changes in stride. After all, Rob Quillet is wealthy and influential, and as an aspiring model she may well benefit by his connections. She quite happily goes off to spend the summer in France with a school friend, leaving Caddie and Hugh trapped in the depressing London flat which is their new home. The country house is in limbo – soon to be sold with no Fanny to look after it. The pony Topaz is being boarded at a farm, with his ultimate fate in question, and the two languish the summer away.
The difficulties of trying to organize themselves for their fall terms at boarding school without their mother’s overseeing presence becomes the final straw. “Why must children of a divorce be made to put up with all of this? I won’t be a victim!” the suddenly aroused Caddie cries, and she comes up with an audacious plan. She and Hugh will go to Italy where Fanny and Rob have retreated to await their planned marriage, they will make Fanny “see reason” and they will bring her back home.
Needless to say, things do not turn out to be anything like so simple. In the battle for the possession and future of Fanny – and a brutal conflict it turns out to be – no one emerges a clear winner; all have lost something precious by the end. What is gained is elusive, and every one of our protagonists is left facing an uncertain future.
This is one of Rumer Godden’s “A”-list novels, and an accomplished piece of writing. The characters of Fanny and Caddie are in particular are beautifully portrayed; Godden’s strength is definitely in depicting girls and women working through challenges and coming to terms with their conflicting needs and desires.
The male characters are also handled well. Complex Rob Quillet is a contradictory yet single-minded personality; he is shockingly chauvinistic, to our 21st Century eyes, in his attitude towards women and children, but we also see his softer side, which ironically leads to his moral defeat. Hugh is seething with adolescent yearnings and moodiness, while the bemused Darrell Clavering gets credit for refusing to be the victim in his marital betrayal; his daughter Caddie comes by her surprising rebellion honestly.
Godden shows her usual genius at portraying place; she brings to full life the world of the English countryside as well as the more exotic Italian setting of the antique-filled villa and its lush gardens, set on the shores of Lake Garda.
Nicely done, Rumer Godden. This is why I keep a shelf full of your books.