One of the things I look for first in a used-book store is how many green Viragos they have on the shelves. Though my TBR stacks are full of wonderful books that I've found in Houston's stores, I haven't had much luck with Viragos here, until now. I recently discovered a new-to-me store on the north side, Kaboom Books, which reminds me of the great Powells in the range of its stock. I think that on my two visits so far I've looked at every single Virago they have on the shelves. Last Friday I found Fenny, by Lettice Cooper. I knew nothing of the author, but after reading the back-cover blurb, I had to buy it (and the next day, I had to buy another bookcase, but that's a topic for another day).
The offer of a summer post as governess to the granddaughter of a famous actress seems a dazzling prospect for Ellen Fenwick, far removed from the fireside teas and prize-giving of her Yorkshire high school. And the Villa Meridiana, surveying the Tuscan hills, with their vines and rows of silvery olives, provides a dreamlike setting for the new life she anticipates . . . Moving from 1933 to 1949, this is a stirring account of Fenny's development and of the experiences which shape the resilient woman she becomes.I was immediately reminded of a favorite book I read earlier this year, Maura Laverty's No More Than Human, about the adventures of a young Irish governess in 1920s Spain, as well as Kate O'Brien's novel Mary Lavelle, with her very different heroine in a similar situation. And I also thought it would be interesting to compare a fictional account of those years with Wanda Newby's Peace and War, her memoir of growing up in Fascist Italy.
When the story opens, Ellen Fenwick is just arriving in Florence on an April evening. I took an instant liking to her:
Long before the train ran into the station at Florence she had been sitting on the edge of the seat, a starter poised for a race, handbag, overcoat and umbrella disposed on one arm . . .She has spent the last seven years "desperately homebound," caring for her widowed mother and teaching in the local high school. After her mother's final illness and death, she feels the need of a change, and she cannot resist the offer of a summer job in Italy, particularly when it involves teaching the granddaughter of an actress she has long admired. Her pupil, eight-year-old Juliet Rivers, was very ill earlier in the year, and her parents have brought her to the Villa Meridiana outside Florence to recuperate in the sunshine of the Tuscan summer.
The Rivers warmly welcome Ellen, who is soon re-christened "Fenny." But as she and Juliet settle into their routine, she becomes aware of undercurrents in the family. There are frequent visits to their neighbors the Warners, a blended Italian-American family with deep tensions of its own. Though Fenny dislikes Mrs. Warner, she accepts a position with them after Juliet returns to England. She forms a special bond with Shand, the son of Mr. Warner's first marriage, who wants desperately to get away from his step-mother and return to America. When her employment with the Warners ends abruptly, Fenny is determined to remain in Florence. She supports herself with office work and with tutoring in English. She enjoys her independence, the circle of friends she has made, and the city of Florence that she has come to love so much. Reluctant to leave even as war begins to seem inevitable, she decides against the advice of family and friends to stay, knowing that she risks internment as an enemy alien.
Fenny's story is divided into four sections (and one Interlude), each covering a period of time ranging from a few weeks to several months. At the end of each section, the story jumps ahead some months or years, in one case six years. The story then simply picks up and carries on from that point. There is no attempt to bridge the gap with backstory or explanation, though as the story continues there are references to past events that help fill in the details. The gap of six years, for example, covers the war, so we get no first-hand information about Fenny's experiences, though we learn in the brief chapter of the Interlude that she was indeed interned. I found the shifts a little disconcerting, but I came to enjoy the sense of catching up with Fenny and figuring out what had happened in the intervals.
I suppose in some ways this is a familiar story. Fenny is hardly the first character to fall in love with Italy and make her home there. But that never crossed my mind while I was reading it, because Lettice Cooper created such a sympathetic character in Fenny, with a story that drew me in from the first page. Fenny's delight in her Italian summer is contagious. She revels in the beauty of the Tuscan country around the villa, as well as in the ancient streets and buildings of Florence. Unlike the Irish governesses in Spain, she falls more in love with the country than with the people, though she finds an equally warm welcome. It's that love, as well as a more personal attachment, which shapes her decision to remain in Italy in 1939, despite the risks. It sustains her under the many challenges that she faces. I understood her decision but knew it was a mistake. She feels a great responsibility for each of the children entrusted to her care, and she makes decisions based on their best interests, even when it comes at a cost to herself (in one case, the loss of her position).
This book was not quite what I expected. Fenny spends much of the 1930s in the school-room or in an office, untouched by the rising tensions in Italy and more than a little naive when it comes to politics. But I enjoyed it very much, and I am looking forward to reading more of Lettice Cooper's books. I see from the introduction that she wrote quite a few novels, in addition to biographies of Charles Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson and several children's books. Any recommendations about what to read next?