In her new novel, Palmerino, Melissa Pritchard reinvents the life and loves of 19th-century British writer Vernon Lee, born Violet Paget, who is best (although not widely) known today for her supernatural fiction, her inquiries into aesthetics, and her habit of dressing a la garconne, or like a man.
Part love story (or stories), part treatise on aesthetics, part mysterious tale of the supernatural, Palmerino seems to be as much about the relationship between the writer and her subject as it is about the love between two "real" people. It's a tale of multiple seductions that also strives to seduce the reader with descriptions "of villas hidden within drenched groves of palm, ilex, oak and magnolia, of low stone walls shrouded with honeysuckle, each flower a star, orange splashed bright at its heart."
Pritchard has taught creative writing at ASU since 1992 and is the author of four short story collections and three other novels in which she often explores the territory between the known world and those other less-defined places.
The novel begins in the present, with Sylvia, a moderately successful, recently divorced writer who has returned to Villa il Palmerino, near Florence, Italy, where she and her now ex-husband had stayed just a year earlier. Sylvia is back because she's drawn to the story of Vernon Lee, who held court at Palmerino from the 1880s until her death in 1935, and she is trying to write a novel based on Vernon's life. We learn about the Victorian writer through Sylvia's eyes, and her research, beginning with Vernon's childhood.
Violet Paget is brilliant but "unlovely," in her own words, and uses her formidable wit to keep the world at bay. Only with a few of the very lovely women she adores -- one of whom recoils when she realizes that Violet is in love with her -- can she "take off [her] brain, like a hat."
So Violet Paget refashions herself as Vernon Lee, dresses like a man and with a man's name, and becomes a respected author of works on art, music, and travel as well as of supernatural stories with titles like A Phantom Lover: A Fantastic Story. Vernon can hold her own with the intelligentsia of her time, many of whom make appearances in Palmerino -- there's Henry James, John Singer Sargent, Oscar Wilde, and Virginia Woolf, who's quoted as saying that "listening to Vernon Lee talk is like listening to a big, garrulous baby." And then there's Vernon Lee's "frenemy" Bernard Berenson, who has his own theories about art and beauty.
Throughout the course of the novel (both Pritchard's and the one that Sylvia is writing), Sylvia feels herself being drawn to Violet/Vernon and to "the great female soul that is Palmerino," until finally the book has the feel of a palimpsest in which the one, earlier chain of events is taking place immediately underneath and almost simultaneous with Sylvia's contemporary life in the same setting.
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The ending, which I won't reveal here, is surprising but fitting, and brings the strands of the story together to reveal what Sylvia was headed toward all along: "the concealed garden within the known garden. The play within the play. The kiss that will change, or seem to change, everything."
Melissa Pritchard will be at Changing Hands Bookstore for a reading of Palmerino ($14.95, paperback) at 7 p.m. February 4, with Aurelie Sheehan, author of Jewelry Box: A Collection of Histories.