I sadly only have a couple of the wonderful Penelope Fitzgerald’s novels left to read, and a few of her non-fiction books. I purchased Innocence (1986) several months ago, but chose to leave it on my to-read shelf as a special treat to snuggle down with, rather than immediately rushing into it and then having to wait an age to find her outstanding titles. I was moderately disappointed by Fitzgerald’s Booker Prize-winning Offshore, but have very much enjoyed the rest of her books to date.
A.S. Byatt calls Innocence ‘exquisite’, and The Guardian deems it ‘Delightful… a bubbling and beautiful book.’ The novel begins in 1955 in Florence, and follows the once-moneyed Ridolfi family who, ‘like its decrepit villa and farm, has seen better days.’ The character whom Fitzgerald has placed most focus upon is the eighteen-year-old Ridolfi daughter, Chiara. Her vitality is ‘matched by innocence – a dangerous combination.’
Chiara has fallen head-over-heels for Salvatore Rossi, ‘a young doctor who resolved long ago to be emotionally dependent on no one.’ Chiara, frustrated by her own progress in the matter, has to ask one of her English friends from the convent school which she attends to help her set them up. ‘And so,’ writes Fitzgerald, ‘ensues a comedy of manners, in which lovers, with the best of intentions and the kindest of instincts, succeed in making one another astonishingly miserable…’. Indeed, the novel feels Shakespearean in its scope, and in the witty asides made at times.
Fitzgerald makes us aware of Chiara’s limitations when at home: ‘Chiara Ridolfi was a beauty, but not thought beautiful in Florence. Her American mother’s family had once been Scottish, her looks were northern, her delicate high colouring was suited not to a fierce climate but to the mild damp and mist of the north. Only the lids of her blue eyes were Florentine, round and languid… her half eager, half diffident approach to whatever came along hadn’t the ruthlessness of the ancient money-making city which in its former days had questioned the bills of the world’s greatest artists…’. In this manner, Fitzgerald intertwines the history of the Ridolfi family, as well as the Florentine people, with the present-day stories of Chiara and her father, Giancarlo.
Fitzgerald is highly informed about Italian culture, and the differences between separate regions; this knowledge translates marvellously to the page, and makes each setting all the more vivid. There is also a focus upon the minutiae of life, and the use of colour and sense are particularly striking throughout. Fabric comes in shades of ‘tender grey’, the sky is a ‘darkish olive-green’, and the air is ‘damp and caressing’. Of the Ricordanza, the secluded house in which the Ridolfis live, Fitzgerald writes: ‘The ground floor was used for storage and was lit only by two round windows. This raising up of the front door made the whole house look unwelcoming and inaccessible. The lemon trees in their terracotta jars, each balanced on an empty one turned upside down, dispensed their bitter green smell: their dark green leaves were startlingly fresh against the blank, bleached, cracked and faded house.’
As with her other novels, I found Innocence both shrewd and immersive. Fitzgerald’s writing is as finely crafted as it is highly distinctive; there is a playful sharpness to it. Full of wisdom, humour, and measured reasoning, Innocence is a wonderfully mesmeric read.