The life of British writer Violet Paget — better known by her nom de plume and male persona, Vernon Lee — seems ripe for novelization. Born into an intellectual family, Violet/Vernon was considered quite ugly (though I confess that every picture I’ve seen belies this assessment), but also brilliant, gifted especially with language. She spent most of her life in Europe, where she held court in a kind of salon at Palmerino, a villa near Florence. The constellation of writers and thinkers in her orbit reads like a who’s who of a late-Victorian anthology: Henry and William James, Edith Wharton, Oscar Wilde, Walter Pater. One of her best childhood friends was John Singer Sargent.
Violet/Vernon wrote supernatural fiction and researched aesthetics, and was one of the first people to study empathy and art. (This link between science and art explains why Palmerino is published by Bellevue Literary Press, a small, nonprofit press dedicated to publishing works that connect art and science.)
Melissa Pritchard’s Palmerino defied my expectations in its structure and plot. I though I’d be reading a straightforward exploration of Violet/Vernon’s life and loves, perhaps featuring one of her several lesbian relationships. And indeed, the novel is about Violet/Vernon’s life, and about her relationships with Mary Robinson and Kit Anstruther-Thomson in particular.
However, Ms. Pritchard approaches her subject through a framing device, following the fictional American novelist Sylvia as she takes up residence at Palmerino to begin work on a novel about Vernon Lee. The perspective alternates among Sylvia, V. (apparently the ghostly voice of Violet/Vernon in the present), and Sylvia’s narrative of Vernon’s world. Ms. Pritchard is selective about the parts of Vernon’s biography included, so the effect is rather like piecing together a puzzle. For example, we see particularly vivid scenes from V.’s childhood and adolescence which bear on her future as a thinker and writer. The elided sections speak through silence, like the turns between stanzas in poetry.
Palmerino incorporates elements of biography, supernatural fiction, and historical fiction as it explores the nature of research,, genius loci, loneliness, and eroticism — and it’s a fascinating, unexpected way to enter into Vernon Lee’s life. Highly recommended.
Tomorrow on the blog: An interview with Melissa Pritchard, author of Palmerino.
Note: I received this copy through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program, in exchange for an honest review.