First published in 1963, Rumer Godden’s The Battle of the Villa Fiorita is the 574th entry upon the Virago Modern Classics list. The introduction to the volume has been penned by Anita Desai, who writes that the novel is ‘a display of her ability to construct a plot, quicken the pace and build up to a dramatic end’.
Desai states that the novel is ‘clearly based on her own feelings over divorcing her first husband, and her awareness of both her young daughters’ and her second husband’s difficulties in accepting each other’. In her own preface, Godden reinforces this, stating that she wrote the novel because she ‘had grown tired of the innumerable novels about child victims of divorce. “Let’s have a book where the children will not be victims but fight back”‘. Financially, The Battle of the Fiorita did well, particularly in the United States, where the film rights sold for the substantial sum of $100,000. Godden goes on to say, however, that ‘no book of mine has been more unpopular, especially in America’.
‘The characters too are those we recognise from her other books,’ Desai informs us, ‘particularly the children… To some extent, it is the children who direct the action and through whose eyes we see it unfold’. The protagonists of The Battle of the Villa Fiorita are siblings Hugh and Candida Clavering – known throughout as Caddie – whose ‘seemingly perfect life’ in their grand English country home falls apart when their mother has an affair with a film director. She decides to leave the country with him, fleeing to the Villa Fiorita on Lake Garda in 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 opens with Hugh and Caddie’s clandestine arrival at the villa. Their father, Colonel Clavering, has been granted custody of the pair. Their elder sister Philippa is seventeen, and above such things: ‘She did not rank as a child and was going to Paris to the Sorbonne’. The children are interesting constructs, Caddie particularly; she is a daydreamer who confesses that she does not listen to anyone, and continually places her pony, Topaz, above everything else. There are, however, many character traits which Hugh and Caddie have in common with a lot of Godden’s other characters, as Desai says, so it never quite feels as though one is reading a fresh novel, or meeting original constructs.
Godden is continually perceptive of how the divorce affects all involved, however; Caddie, for example, has a face ‘lumpy with distress’ and is ‘too broken with tears’. It soon becomes clear that the relationship between the children’s mother, Fanny, and her lover, Roberto, is not as happy as it should be. He continually orders her around, and treats her rather badly: ‘Rob had scarcely looked at her or spoken to her since he met her at the airport barrier’. When the children arrive, for example, he allows her ten minutes in which to see them before they go out to dinner alone.
So much thought has been given to evoking the setting: ‘A path led away through the olive grove, a wide belt of rough grass and old, old trees with twisted trunks, some lichened, some split halfway up their length, showing wood dried to paleness; their roots made humps and coils in the grass but each of them had a crown of leaves, blaring now green, now silver, in the light wind’. Godden’s descriptions work well throughout: ‘The lake had never been more beautiful; it was still as a pool, its mountains dark against the sky; only their snow glimmered’. A lot of the dialogue has interestingly been woven into the prose, so one sentence often has two or three different exclamations or opinions of different characters within it.
Whilst The Battle of the Villa Fiorita is interesting and relatively rich, it does not strike one as Godden’s most engaging novel, and there is nothing overly original about its plot or characters, sadly.