Childhood exposed. The Battle of the Villa Fiorito

Rumer Godden described the genesis of her novel, 'The Battle of the Villa Fiorito', in wondering what if the children of a divorce, rather than always being seen as passive victims, strike back, wage war, seek to reverse the unfolding events (even after the fact)?

Thus did the novel come to pass.

Fanny has fallen in love with Robert Quillet, a film director, when he comes to direct a film in her very beautiful but socially confining village in Wiltshire. The first move was his but the passionate  engagement that unfolds leads to Fanny divorcing her husband, Darrell, leaving her three children in his custody (as was the default position in the 1950s). Phillipa, the eldest child, off to be 'finished' in Paris makes her peace given that she is on the threshold of her own adulthood. Hugh, fourteen, and Caddie, 12, do not and abscond from their father's flat in London (itself a consequence of the divorce) to visit Rob and Fanny, not yet married, at their beautiful rented villa on Lake Garda. The evocation of which, as was Godden's want, is itself worth the price of entry to the novel. The two children are joined by a third, Pia, a part Italian, part English child, from Rob's previous marriage (the mother being dead) and battle commences.

Godden must be one of the greatest novelists of that 'liminal space' between childhood and adulthood when a child is fully a child and yet is growing into something yet other. The otherness comes and goes, is seen and lost, and is both wholly alluring and wholly threatening. In very different ways the three children embody and enact these shifts, each modulated differently according to their age, temperament and upbringing.

Godden is also utterly realistic about the nature of childhood - it is a complex realm of its own - that has a capacity to be wholly self-centred, rigorously cruel and yet also piercingly perceptive, self-sacrificing and visionary. Indeed if you wanted to provide pre-reading to prospective (and actual) parents, I can think of nothing better (if not for wannabe parents as it might be too realistic and off putting of the struggles ahead)!

The children's war is effective - even if you can imagine in its course alternative parental tactics that might have secured a different outcome - and the novel ends with mother taking her children back to England and to a uncertain future with regard to the rejected husband and Rob nursing his child, and by implication, considering a different path for her upbringing.

The outcome is undoubtedly driven by Godden's personal travel towards Catholic conversion (and as a divorcee herself) and the Catholic elements are either clumsily intrusive or happily redemptive, according to taste, but remain interesting sidelines that never detract from the psychological truth of the battle.

Meanwhile, Godden, herself, was always concerned as to whether her writing was simply popular or literary - goaded perhaps by the effortless nature that a number of her books were turned into films, films that mostly emphasised the drama at expense of the thoughtful depth. She need not, I think, have worried.

They are fluid, accomplished narratives that both tell a story and question our understanding of life. No one touched by them can remain unmoved or uneducated as to the ways of the world. And, at her depth, she accomplishes extraordinary feats of illumination. Here, with Caddie, at La Scala, describing the effect of music on an impressionable soul encased in an exhausted body. The ability of an experience to stretch our selves beyond ourselves, to show us a new possible world and identity as it shows us how we are connected in a widening whole.

I am delighted that Virago has thought fit to republish all her significant works for she is a novelist that continually repays attention and is a simple delight to read.


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