“What immediately caught me were the small sketches in the margin, sketches of a water city I had dimly known of but had not visualised. here were domes, towers, pinnacles, arches, stone bridges, small stone-flagged alleyways – it seemed there was not one spacious street; glimpses of canals, big and little with boats, endless boats, barges, many of them long, graceful, elongated craft steered by a man standing on the stern with a single oar; sketches of markets on the canal banks, of a wide lagoon. All far removed from anything I had seen.
I bought that book and read it; even then I recognised how unashamedly sentimental it was – novels were sentimental at the turn of the century and this was a love story – but in spite of that, it’s evocation cast such a spell that it has been with me ever since.”
Many years after she found that book, towards the end of her life, Rumer Godden wrote a book set in Venice. And she created a young heroine who would find the same magic in Venice that she found in the pages of that book, so many years earlier.
Pippa Fane was seventeen years old, and the youngest and newest member of the Company of the Midlands Cities Ballet. And she was travelling abroad on tour for the first time.
The first engagement of the tour was in Venice.
Pippa was captivated. By the city, by the people, by the food … everything!
Life was wonderful!
Rumer Godden captured this beautifully: atmosphere, sights, sounds, palaces, canals, gondolas and such wonderful light. And she so clearly understood the feelings and emotions of her young heroine as she experiences all of this.
And of course there was the dancing.
Angharad, her ballet mistress, took wonderful care of Pippa her and gave her so many wonderful chances.
But sometimes she had to slip away, to meet Roberto. He was a gondolier and an aspiring musician. He introduced her to his family and friends. He took her out. And he invited her to sing with his band.
It sounds perfect, doesn’t it. Maybe too perfect. Both Angharad and Roberto had ulterior motives.
She was looking for sexual favours from her young protegé.
He was looking for a girl to draw attention to his band – and for a little fun.
Pippa didn’t realise what was happening each time until it was too late. She was hurt, but she came to terms with what had happened, and she moved on. A little older and a little wiser.
She was such a likeable heroine, and it was lovely to see her delight in all the wonderful new things she experienced. And Rumer Godden captured her coming of age, her emotional confusion, her discovery that things were much more complex than she had realised, just as beautifully.
But the shift from light to dark was too sudden, or maybe the contrast was too great. The story became a little too explicit, and the simply drawn characters that had worked so well when everything was light and happy worked less well when dark shadows fell.
And so I have to record that this was a lovely book, just not quite as lovely as it might have been.
But it has led me to another book. The book that introduced the young Rumer Godden to the magic of Venice was The City of Beautiful Nonsense by E Temple Thurston, and I have tracked down a copy …