Melissa Pritchard interview with Meg Tuite and book review of Palmerino
Melissa Pritchard’s Palmerino is a fascinating historical novel of the life of Violet Paget, who wrote under the pseudonym, Vernon Lee. It is a mesmerizing love story multilayered by Sylvia, a lonely writer, newly divorced, going through her own angst, writing the novel while living in the Villa il Palmerino, the place where Vernon Lee spent most of her life. Sylvia finds herself almost ghost-writing this story, haunted by the place and the life of Vernon and her family, with three main characters who are masterfully woven into this magnificent novel: Sylvia, Violet/Vernon and Villa il Palmerino.
Violet Paget was born in 1856 to British expatriate parents. Although, she wrote for an English readership, spent the majority of her life just outside Florence in the Palmerino Villa from 1889 until her death in 1935. She was a feminist, a lesbian and wore only men’s clothes most of her life. She wrote over a dozen volumes of essays on art, music and travel and supernatural short fiction.
Pritchard captures the essence of this extraordinary woman during a time when women were expected to be beautiful and quiet. Vernon Lee was certainly not quiet and did not consider herself beautiful by the standards of the time, but radiate she does through the depth of Pritchard’s poetic prose:
“My intelligence was formidable; I used it as both sword and shield.”
“The room feels indifferent to time; no steadying sequence of weeks or years, no roundness or linearity…”
“Forced into a solitude that holds twin bass notes of doubt and isolation…”
“…her mother’s milk spurting Voltaire from one breast, dribbling Rousseau from the other?”
“The breadth and depth of her friend’s intelligence, enfolded, engraved deep within her young brain, can never be fully sounded; it settles around Mary like a cloak or climate, like some infinite and liberating perspective.”
Pritchard’s Palmerino envelops us in two separate eras that collide through a haunted connection between the modern day writer, Sylvia, the Villa, and Vernon Lee.
This is not a biography. It is so much more than that. Pritchard takes us by the hand into the Villa and the intimate interior worlds of these two women and gives us scenes: the unrequited love of Mary Robinson:
“With the solemnity of a priestess, Mary places the ice on her friend’s tongue. But as she steps back, Mary sees it, Vernon’s look, not of simple affection, but of helpless longing–no, worse than longing, a look of rank lust on her face.”
And Kit, who loves Vernon fully, yet without expectation:
“She (Vernon) learned to reject her image, carry on as if flesh were not a visible fact. If her face has no reality to her, she reasoned, it cannot have reality for others. Instead, Vernon’s incumbent mind, her gleaming expanse of brain, her voice expressive of that brain, will prove the instruments of forgetting. The instruments, too, of seduction. Rise above the body, rise far, far above, and others may follow, some even to worship.
But it is Clementina Anstruther-Thomson before whom she must one day stand physically naked. Kit who must lend her the courage to be kissed. Opened. Loved.”
Palmerino is descriptive, detailed, rich and consonant. Pritchard is unafraid to move into new terrain with each unforgettable book that she writes. Don’t miss out on this journey through time and place in Palmerino. How blessed I was to read this while I was in Italy. Get a copy and enjoy!
What was your inspiration for writing a novel about Vernon Lee?
On a hot July afternoon in 2008, I was introduced by an Italian friend to Federica Paretti, one of the current owners of Villa il Palmerino in Florence. As I stepped onto the grounds of the villa and was welcomed by Federica, I had the strangest sensation I had already met her and in some manner, had come home. I would return three more times as a guest at the villa, for increasing periods of time. During my second visit, I discovered Federica’s collection of books by Vernon Lee as well as various articles and a biography about her. When I asked Federica who she was, saying I had never heard of her, I learned she had been a late nineteenth century British writer and that for many years, until her death in 1935, Villa il Palmerino had been her home. I was fascinated to learn that many writers had made the short pilgrimage up from Florence to visit her, among them Henry James, Oscar Wilde and Edith Wharton. The inspiration to write a novel loosely based on Vernon Lee came from two sources 1) the discovery that she had written a number of supernatural tales, was interested in the notion of “genius loci,” or spirit of place and had been one of the first writers to introduce the idea of empathy into literature, and 2) the startling experience, during my second visit to Villa il Palmerino, of “seeing” into the past, having brief, cinematic glimpses of events or scenes, that, as I described them to Federica, unnerved her. Apparently, I was “seeing” things that had actually transpired there during Vernon Lee’s lifetime. At one point, she looked at me and quietly said, perhaps you are meant to write a novel about Vernon Lee – you seem so attuned to her spirit and to the spirit of this villa. The dovetailing of these things, my fascination with Vernon Lee’s supernatural tales and her awareness of empathy as a force in literature, combined with my own seemingly mystical connection with her, a haunting that would increase over time, persuaded me I was indeed meant to write about this brilliant, prolific woman.
The weaving of the life of Sylvia, the modern-day biographer and the haunted pen of Vernon Lee working through her is an absolutely mesmerizing structure. How did the structure of the novel come to you?
The character of Sylvia is very much based upon myself, not specific life details so much as the sense of being a woman standing on a precipice, a woman experiencing deep loneliness stemming from loss as well as a decline in her own confidence as an artist – I was feeling all of these at the time I was introduced to the historical figure of Vernon Lee and the ongoing, vibrant world of Villa il Palermino. Palmerino is as much about the enchantment of place, about the villa itself, as it is about Vernon Lee. Still, in the beginning, I was daunted. How to write about such a multi-faceted, complex, even protean, woman? I did not want to spend ten years and five hundred pages writing a fictionalized biography, I knew that much! So I began with what fascinated me most about her, what I was most in love with. Her childhood, her two great love affairs, the villa itself, her gift for seeing beyond the natural world into the supernatural. I thought, too, of her friend Henry Jame’s novella, The Turn of the Screw, and decided it would provide a model for the novel I wished to write, in terms of its tone and ambience. I envisioned a short novel or novella, that like James’ classic tale, would be a ghost story, a love story, a terrifying yet oddly reassuring tale. I wanted the villa itself to be a character equal to Sylvia’s, to V’s (Vernon’s ghostly voice,) and to Violet Paget/Vernon Lee’s (Sylvia’s fictionalized rendering of Vernon Lee.) Eventually, I came up with the idea of a narrative triptych crossing centuries, challenging conventional notions of time. The idea for this structure, followed by the decision to commit to it, came with agonizing slowness, after a number of false starts. Once I intuitively “felt” the rightness of my choice, the story unfolded with sudden ease.
You travel often to Italy. Place is very important, of course, in this novel. Did you go to Villa il Palmerino?
I went five times. The first time was a brief afternoon meeting with Federica Paretti. The second time, my younger daughter and I stayed for a few days - that was when I began to seriously “feel” I was meant to write about Vernon Lee. The third time I returned, again with my daughter, and began research on the novel, visiting libraries and other sources in Florence. The fourth and fifth times I returned alone to work on the manuscript. Palmerino was eventually completed over month long stays at writing residencies, the Liguria Study Center in Bogliasco, Italy, and Chateau Lavigny near Lausanne, Switzerland. I want to stress that Palmerino is as much about the haunting of place, about genius loci and the spirit a place retains from its movement through time and history, as it is about Vernon Lee. I felt this very strongly, especially during my two solitary visits, the power and influence upon the human psyche of place. Vernon Lee’s presence was everywhere, and I can say I experienced the “great female soul that is Palmerino.” So the whole novel looks at the idea of place haunting person, person haunting place, and how these together become about possession, longing, love.
Where did you do most of the research for this novel?
For me, research usually has three stages. The first is online research, the second is going to libraries and museums and discovering as much as possible about the subject. These are the early forms of sleuthing, detective work. The third stage is my favorite: immersion research. Getting as close to the subject’s life as possible, following in her footsteps, going to places she lived, traveled, meeting people who knew her or of her. This is the real adventure, the stage where I pick up the most psychic clues, flashes of intuition. Plus, it’s pure fun, a living story (yours,) within the historical subject’s. As a fiction writer, I am free of the scholar’s burden to remain stringently loyal to facts. I am free to interpret and to intuit, to create my own fictionalized story loosely based on the research. The “scholarship” is in service to the art. I have no idea how close I came to finding the “real” Vernon Lee, but I was recently told by one of the foremost authorities on Vernon Lee that, in her opinion, I have come remarkably close to capturing the spirit and psychological complexity of Vernon Lee as well as the ambience and atmosphere of Villa il Palmerino. This is thrilling to me.
It is not surprising that this brilliant writer, Vernon Lee, was not especially liked by many of the male writers of the time, but was well-respected by the intelligentsia. What can you say about her fierce mind and wit that challenged many during an age of repression?
I can say that she was not only brilliant, strongly opinionated and capable of speaking in a mesmerizing way for hours at time, but that she was a lesbian and was considered, mainly by men, to be ugly. She certainly defied standards of Victorian beauty, and her outspoken, “suffer no fools” manner, combined with her dressing like a man and being more stimulated by, than afraid of, intellectual argument, put her at odds with the myth of how a woman should be, how she should act, what she should represent or symbolize. Violet/Vernon was so challenging to the conventions of her day that she was either resented or admired. Walter Pater was a close friend of hers, as were numerous other men. She and Bernard Berenson had a complex relationship which softened over the years, and as they became neighbors. Vernon Lee never apologized for who she was, never diminished her intelligence or her remarkable powers of articulation. She threatened the men and women unable to bear being outshone by her. Beneath her sometimes brash manner, she was tender, even timid, but compensated for a self-consciousness about her looks, by striving to be the most brilliant and talkative person in the room. This had a predictable effect, drawing admiration from some, alienating others; often men were cruelest in their assessments of her.
Did you read all of her books and which would you recommend to a novice, like myself? I was drawn to “The Haunting,” because it is a collection of supernatural stories.
I am most fond of her supernatural tales. Her travel writings, too, are superb. Her first book on the music and literature of eighteenth century Italy, written in her teens, published in her early twenties, is still highly recommended, but I really love her travel writings. It was said that to take a walk with Vernon Lee, particularly anywhere in Italy, was to see the world, its layers of past and present, come alive as never before. She could tell you the history of a stone in a wall, it’s layers and connections with time and persons, and I think if there was any way to do it, I would adore going on a long ramble with Vernon Lee. Henry James once said she was the only person in Florence worth having a conversation with. She was more of a monologist than a conversationalist, but most people didn’t mind. She had many followers, especially among young women, because everything she said was fascinating, exceptionally learned and strong in opinion. She had been a child prodigy, was a polymath and completely self-taught. Initially, I was daunted by her genius and had to overcome a kind of “how-dare-I” presume to write about such a larger than life personality? But once I began to sense her emotional vulnerabilities, I was able to give myself permission to write – although I found myself frequently apologizing to her for any and all inaccuracies. And in a less extreme way than Sylvia’s, I felt the spirit of Vernon Lee around me as I wrote. I consciously courted her, invited her in. These sensations were strongest when I stayed at the villa, less so in other places.
What are you working on at this time?
I have a number of previously published essays I am assembling into a collection. And thanks to a fellowship, I can begin research and travel for the next novel. I miss writing short stories, contemporary pieces, so I hope to write one or two of those as well.
You are a constant inspiration. Thank you so much, Melissa, for sending Connotation Press, some of your pure brilliance! Can you give us a link to order a copy of “Palmerino?”
Palmerino can be ordered through Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe, Az, Amazon Books, Barnes and Noble – and of course, you can order and find links through Bellevue Literary Press’s and my own website.
Thanks, Meg! It’s been such a pleasure to answer your questions.
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