Many – maybe most – of Ann Bridges novel’s draw on her experiences of living overseas when when she was the wife of a diplomat, but ‘Enchanter’s Nightshade’ is a little different. It’s a period piece of Italian provincial society, set in the early years of the twentieth century, years when the author was still a girl. I have to believe that she visited that world then, because she captures it – the place and the people – quite beautifully.
The story is of a family that has grown so big that it has become a community, spending the summer months in the country. Days drift by as they exchange visits, go on picnics, and make trips to places of especial interest. The young are kept busy with lessons in the mornings before that are given their freedom in the afternoons and evenings. One family has a Swiss governess of many years standing who is wise and capable, and who has tactfully and effectively managed the household since the death of its mistress. Another family is awaiting the arrival of a new governess from England.
Almina Prestwich was Oxford educated and, because her father’s death had left his family ill provided for, she was setting out on a career as a governess. Her home and her family, her packing and her concern that she properly prepared for her new life, and her parting with her mother and her younger sisters were so beautifully drawn.
Everything in this book is beautifully drawn; every character, every scene, every room, even the furnishings in those rooms are carefully described. That might make the story sound slow, and it is a little, but it felt right. I loved watching the older governess managing her household, and I loved watching the younger governess taking in every detail of her new world.
Ann Bridge wrote with assurance and with finesse Every detail was right, every element of the story was beautifully realised, and the tone was so right. I’d describe it as teacherly in the very best of ways; Ann Bridge had the knack of making things interesting, her love and understanding shone, and I loved that she was prepared to accept that, though tradition was a wonderful thing, the old ways weren’t always the best, and that new ideas were something that should always be taken on board.
She drew me in, and she made me care.
Had she not married a diplomat she might have been a wonderful governess!
She manages a large cast very well. There is Marietta, Miss Prestwich’s bright young charge who is delighted with her new governess. There is her mother, Suzy, who is charming and indolent. There is her cousin, Guilio, who is studious and sensitive, and his sister Elena who is clever and clear-sighted. There is her Aunt Nadia, who is struggling to cope with her husband’s philandering. There is her Uncle Rofreddo who is charming, well-intentioned, but terribly thoughtless. There are two elderly spinster great-aunts, the Contessas Roma and Aspasia …..
Rofreddo charms the new governess and Suzy, used to being the centre of attention, is put out. One thoughtless act will lead to a long chain of consequences. The story becomes a little melodramatic but it works, because the foundations were laid in the early chapters of the book, and because everything is driven by the characters and their relationships to each other.
The story speaks thoughtfully about marriage; considering what might be its basis – romance or arrangement – and what differing expectations husbands and wives may have.
There is a tragedy, and not everything can be put right.
Some things can though, and it is the three elderly ladies, the two Contessas and the family’s matriarch, the Vecchia Marchesa, on the eve of her hundredth birthday, who will do what needs to be done.
They are of their time and class, they do not expect their world to change, and yet, unlikely though it may seem, some of their attitudes will make a 21st century feminist cheer!
I’d love to explain more, but I can’t without setting out almost the entire plot.
That plot is wonderfully dramatic, its world is beautifully realised, its characters are so real and engaging; and all of that together makes this book a lovely period piece.