The opening scene is captivating.
Two children are walking through an unfamiliar garden, and into an a house. Rumer Godden captured their points of view quite perfectly and he writing was gorgeous – she was so good at houses and gardens. The children see so much that it lovely and that is quite new to them, but as they move indoors it clear that they have a sense of purpose, and it also becomes clear that this story will not be a happy one.
‘The villa was on Lake Garda in northern Italy. ‘But it doesn’t matter where it was, said Hugh afterwards. It might have been anywhere; it was simply a place where two opposing forces were to meet, as two armies meet on foreign soil to fight a battle. ‘ The battle of the Villa Fiorita,’ Caddie called it afterwards and always with an ache of guilt.’
Hugh, aged fourteen, and his sister Caddie, aged eleven, have just arrived in Italy, after a long and difficult journey mainly by train from London. They ran away while their father was overseas for work and the housekeeper was distracted, with the express intention of reuniting their father and mother and rebuilding their family home.
Neither Darrell nor Fanny Clavering had been unhappy in their marriage, but when a film crew came to the village where they lived Fanny began to realise that her life was unfulfilling, that the role of wife and mother was trapping her, and that the world offered so many possibilities that she had never explored. She began an affair with the film’s director – Rob Collett – and the depth of attraction between them was such that they ran away together and her husband divorced her. The lovers settled at the Villa Fiorita, planning to get married once the dust had settled.
Darrell closed up the family home – because he knew that a country house required a wife to manage things – and moved to a modern flat in London with his children and the family’s housekeeper.
It was impossible not to sympathise with the children, who had been presented with their parents’ divorce as a fait accompli, who had been abandoned by their mother, and who had lost the home and the life they loved and been tipped into an unfamiliar new world. I had to be impressed at the way they laid their plans and made their way across Europe; Caddie even selling her beloved pony, Topaz, to provide the necessary capital.
Seeing her children again stirred feelings that Fanny had buried
‘I was going to roll it all up, roll it into a ball that I could keep hidden in my hand, or in my heart. It was to be only Rob, Rob and I, together for the rest of our lives. I had accepted that, then … and across every thought and plan and feeling came this new triumphant song: ‘They ran away. Hugh and Caddie ran away to me.’
Rob was more pragmatic, and insisted that they must be sent home; but when Hugh was struck down by food poisoning he didn’t have the heart to send Caddie – who was so like her mother back alone; and when Darrell suggested that the children stay for a few weeks, until he returned from his travel, the stage was set for a battle.
The introduction of Rob’s daughter, Pia, who had been brought up by her grandmother and was terribly spoilt, exacerbated the situation and unsettled that relationship between brother and sister.
The children were completely caught up in their mission to bring their mother home. They could not – or would not – see that she was so much happier in her new life with her love than she had ever been before; and they failed to see that some of their actions could have serious repercussions.
Rumer Godden moved seamlessly between past and present, between the childish and adult perspectives, balancing everything quite beautifully. She drew the children so well, understanding their world views, their stages in life, and the way they see and deal with the things life throws at them. She understood their parents, and the other adults in their world, just as well; and most importantly she knew that their were no heroes and no villains, just fallible human beings at different stages of life.
I thought of another novel that explored the consequences of divorce for adults and children thirty year before this one – ‘Together and Apart’ by Margaret Kennedy – and I was struck by how little had changed.
The story told in this book was compelling and utterly believable. There was – of necessity – a little more drama and less gradual pressure than real life, but it worked.
I’ve seen concerns expressed about the resolution of the story, but I saw signs of how it would be early in the story, and as the end drew near I realised that it was inevitable.
I’m still thinking about that, thinking about everything that happened, and wondering what happened next.