“I bought the 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 of Venice cast such a spell that it has been with me ever since…”
When I read those words, in Rumer Godden’s introduction to Pippa Passes, I knew that I had to try to find a copy of the book she wrote about: The City of Beautiful Nonsense by E Temple Thurston.
I did find it – in a later Penguin edition – and now that I have read it I can understand why it such an impression on the girl who would grow up to be a wonderful author.
The love story began in a London church, after an evening service. A number of the congregation remained, to light a candle before they left. Eventually two people were left: a young man and a young woman; but only one candle.
“Here you have a man, a woman, and a candle destined for the altar of St Joseph, all flung together in an empty church by the playful hand of circumstance and out of so strange a medley comes a fairy story …”
They share the candle, and it brings their hopes, their dreams, their lives together.
The young man is John Grey, a struggling writer, and when he leaves the church the story follows him. And it follows the details of his life, showing that he is such a compassionate and thoughtful young man. A young man who deserves a happy ending.
John and Jill, the young woman he met in the church, continue to cross paths. Sometimes by chance – or maybe fate – and sometimes by contrivance. A friendship, and then a romance, grows oh so quietly.
The story is slow and quiet, and it is sentimental, but I was charmed. By the wonderful old-fashioned storytelling, and by a narrator who was so eager to share his love for the young writer. He had a tendency to ramble, but he was engaging, and so the pages turned quickly.
And throughout the story he picks up so many lovely details, makes astute observation, and manages some lovely moments of gentle humour.
John dreamed of taking Jill to Venice.
“You’ve got to see Venice. You’ve got to see a city of slender towers and white domes, sleeping in the water like a mass of water lilies. You’ve got to see dart water-ways, mysterious threads of shadow holding all those flowers of stome together. You’ve got to hear the silence in which the whispers of lovers of a thousand years ago, and in the cries of men, betrayed, all breathe and echo in every bush. these are the only noises in Venice – these and the plash of the gondolier’s oar or his call ‘Ohé!’ as he rounds a sudden corner. You’ve got to see it all at the night, when great white lily flowers are blackened in shadow, and the darkened water-ways are lost in an inpenetrable depth of gloom. You’ve got to hear the stealthy creeping of a gondola and the lapping of the water against the slimy stones as it hurries by. In every little burning light that flickers in a barred window up above you must be able to see plotters at work, conspirators planning deeds of evil or a lover in his mistress’s arms. You’ve got to see magic, mystery, tragedy and romance, all compassed by grey stone and green water …”
She shared his dream, she loved him as much as he loved her, but she knew that the dream could not come true.
But that wasn’t the end. Because there was another couple – John’s mother and father. They loved each other dearly and they had retired to Venice to lie in genteel poverty. All they wanted was for their beloved son to be happy.
John couldn’t to tell them that he had lost his happy ending.
Jill couldn’t let go of the dream of Venice, or of John.
And so they would meet again, they would see Venice together, and they would try to somehow give John’s parents the happy ending they so wanted.
But how? Could it be real?
When the story moved to Venice it opened out. And the narrator was clearly captivated and told the story and described the city quite beautifully.
” A great white door divides the front of gey stone, up to which lead steps from the pathway – steps in the crevices of which a patch of green lies here and there as a perfect harmony of contrast to the well-worn slabs. This door is always closed and, with no windows on either side, only the broad stretch of masonry, there is a stern appearance about the place, suggesting a prison or a barracks in its almost forbidding aspect. But when once that wide, wooden gate is opened, the absence of windows upon the ground floor is partially explained and the mind is caught in a breath of enchantment. It does not give entrance to the hall, but to an archway – an archway tunnelling under the house itself, at the end of which, thorough the lace-work of wonderful wrought-iron palings, you see the fairy-land of an old Italian garden, glittering in the sun.”
The real ending was a wonderful mixture of happiness and sadness. And exactly right.
The City of Beautiful Nonsense is a wonderful love story. It is terribly sentimental, and rather old fashioned but, if you can accept those things with an open heart, it can take you on a wonderful emotional journey.