It is rare that an unread Persephone in my possession stays that way for more than a week, but number 120, Gladys Huntington’s Madame Solario, has been sitting on my to-read shelf for over a year. I have been looking for just the right kind of sultry summer’s day on which to read it, when I would be able to devote a whole day to becoming fully immersed in the novel. I finally found it in late July, on an unusually beautiful and cloudless day in Scotland, and settled down with another beautifully designed Persephone novel.
Huntington began to write Madame Solario in 1944, but only finished it after two of her short stories were published in The New Yorker. The novel was eventually published anonymously in 1956, and Huntington’s name was surprisingly not revealed as its author until thirty years afterwards. Madame Solario was a bestseller upon its publication, and has been made into a film.
Madame Solario is set during the month of September 1906, on the banks of Italy’s Lake Como. Its beginning is sumptuous, and wonderfully sets the scene: ‘In the early years of the century, before the First World War, Cadenabbia on the Lake of Como was a fashionable resort for the month of September. Its vogue was easy to explain. There was the almost excessive beauty of the winding lake surrounded by mountains, the shores gemmed with golden-yellow villages and classical villas standing among cypress trees; and the head of the lake lay close to the routes that connected Italy with all the capitals of Western and Central Europe, yet Cadenabbia itself was difficult to reach, which was an added charm. Long stretches of the lovely shore were without high road of any kind, and are arrived by the little steamboat that started at Como and shuttled back and forth across the lake, calling at one dreaming place after another in a journey of incredible slowness. It was wonderful to arrive. As no wheels ever passed, there were no sounds except human voices, the click of the peasants’ wooden pattens, and the lapping of waves.’ There is a strong sense of place throughout, and whilst not all of the descriptions are as breathtaking as the above, they have a layering to them which is fascinating to read.
It is in Cadenabbia, at the Hotel Bellevue, that young Englishman Bernard Middleton is spending the summer, between finishing his Oxford degree and being sent to work in his family’s bank in a northern English town. Soon after Bernard’s arrival, a previous guest of the hotel, Madame Natalia Solario, comes back. Throughout the novel, she is a mysterious being; others who are staying in the hotel, and who met her previously, are unable to pinpoint her nationality when asked. Madame Solario is quick and impulsive, and Bernard is drawn to her immediately.
Huntington’s character descriptions are unusual, particularly when taking Madame Solario as her focus. She writes: ‘In those days the great, equalising power of cosmetics and beautifying inventions had not yet been let loose, and Madame Solario’s complexion and colouring, and the arc of her eyebrows, and the wave of her hair… were not being counterfeited by everyone who wished; they were rare, like noble birth. The high rank of her beauty had to be met with something of awe.’ Although Huntington tries to pull Madame Solario apart, layer by layer, she remains a shadowy and unknowable figure throughout; I felt little more familiar with her when the novel ended as I did at its beginning. We are given clues and hints as to her past and a particular scandal which surrounds her as the novel goes on, but sometimes these raised more questions than the novel answers. There is an almost oppressive feeling which comes when Huntington focuses so intently upon the emotions of her characters, particularly with regard to Madame Solario and Bernard. Huntington does, however, have such an awareness of human character throughout; her insights are often profound and memorable ones.
Madame Solario is quite an unusual novel. I felt rather detached from it throughout, and found the second section, which is largely occupied with recounting conversations between Madame Solario and her brother, Eugene Harden, too long and involved. The second part of the novel, in fact, feels very different, both with regard to its tone and execution. The sense of place, which is so beautifully depicted elsewhere, is almost forgotten during this rather lengthy section of the novel, and Bernard is entirely lost, with only a couple of nods to his character throughout. This part was rather too drawn out; whilst the conversations were lengthy, not a lot was actually said, and it began to feel repetitive after a while.
Madame Solario is not at all a predictable read; I truly had no idea whatsoever regarding its direction. As with Madame Solario herself, there is a quality of mystery about it. Madame Solario is a cleverly constructed novel of identity, and what it means to be human. I did find it problematic in places, and to me, it did not have the feel of a traditional Persephone novel. Unfortunately, I never fully got into the story, or became entirely invested in any of its characters. Whilst not my favourite of the Persephone list, it is still a story which I will likely be thinking about for a long time to come.