The Battle of the Villa Fiorita written by Rumer Godden (1907-1998) is partly autobiographical. When her first marriage ended in divorce and she later remarried, there were difficulties between her two daughters and her second husband. This situation was fictionalised in The Battle of the Villa Fiorita.
In this book, the two children of Fanny and Darrell Clavering, Hugh aged fourteen and Caddie aged eleven, are uprooted when their mother abandons them and runs off to Italy with a film director. Up until that time Fanny had been a dependable and solid person whose life revolved around her home and family.
Her husband was a colonel in the British Army and worked hard to provide for his family. They lived in a large, slightly shabby, but comfortable home. Colonel Clavering may have been a little dull and ordinary compared to the sophisticated Rob Quillet, but he was honourable and steady.
The children had been away at boarding school when their mother met Quillet at a dinner party she reluctantly attended on her own because her husband was away on an assignment. Quillet was attracted to her right away. She was a homely and gentle sort of woman and that’s what he wanted in a wife. He didn’t seem to be worried that she was already someone else’s wife.
Fanny wasn’t unhappy with her life but Quillet ‘stole her heart.’ On a couple of occasions, at the beginning of their relationship, Fanny’s conscience cautioned her but she ignored the warnings. The relationship developed quickly and she ended up going to Italy with Quillet where he planned to marry her when her divorce came through.
What they didn’t realise was that Fanny’s two children decided that they would find their way to Italy and bring their mother back home.
Rumer Godden portrayed the feelings and thoughts of both the adults and the children caught up in this situation so poignantly. Fanny had been the busy mother running her home essentially on her own at times. Darrell understood that loneliness had played a part in the affair and he behaved very magnanimously, considering the circumstances.
Although I didn’t want to, I felt some compassion for Quillet’s circumstances, especially as his intention was not a quick fling. He wanted to marry Fanny. And then there were the children. Quillet had a ten year old daughter from his first marriage. His wife had died not long after the girl’s birth and she was brought up by her grandmother. Like the two Clavering children, she determined to undermine this new relationship.
I wondered all the way through how this story could end. There could be no winners in this battle of duty versus feelings.
In her preface to the book, Rumer Godden wrote:
“The Battle of the Villa Fiorita was written because I 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,’ I thought and, in the book, the children, a school-aged boy and girl, instead of going miserably back to school, run away to Italy where their mother had absconded with a film director, determined to fetch her back. No book of mine has been more unpopular, especially in America.”
I can understand why this was the case. It was 1963 and divorce was no where near as common as it is now. I imagine, too, that stories of this nature were a little unusual back then.
Although the author says that the children would not be victims, they were. They were desperately unhappy and life would never be the same again. They had lost their home because their father couldn’t manage the place on his own as well as work, and they had to move into a pokey flat in London.
Fanny was happy with her decision until her children turned up in Italy. Before her children arrived she had submerged her guilt and was enjoying her freedom. But being around children made her very uncomfortable:
‘Now and again she would come on a procession of toddlers, little boys, pale-faced, in blue pinafores and peaked caps, from the Colonia Infantile to which children were brought from the slums of Milan; every day they paraded solemnly down to the harbour, walking two by two, each child holding on to the tail of the pinafore of the one in front. Fanny always walked quickly past them, as she walked past the children playing in the piazza, the babies feeding the pigeons on the steps of the church.’
When Fanny questioned the ‘honesty’ of wearing a wedding ring before she and Quillet married. His reply was:
‘If a public promise, before witnesses, to put it at its least, makes all that difference to you, I have to remind you that you have already given that promise to Darrell.’
I can’t say that the subject matter of The Battle of the Villa Fiorita was ‘enjoyable.’ My reaction to the book was in keeping with my experience of coming from a broken home where the break-up solved nothing and really messed up the everyone’s lives; particularly the children’s.
I think Godden, having been through a divorce and re-marriage herself, although in quite different circumstances, presented a realistic and thoughtful portrayal of the situation.
Elizabeth Goudge’s book, The Pilgrim’s Inn, offers a different scenario where a woman in a similar situation makes a decision to put duty before passion and is faced with working this out in daily life. Not a popular idea in our ‘me first’ society, where feelings trump promises and commitment, but one in which children are protected. I think that if my parents had had a way to work through their feelings; if they’d had some sort of guidance; if their feelings hadn’t overwhelmed other considerations, it would have been better for all involved. It wouldn’t have been easy, but neither were their lives after the initial feeling of freedom when the consequences of their decisions were apparent.