One of Godden’s great strengths is she doesn’t get in the way of a good story. Whenever I read a book by her I feel thrown into another world from the first page. The Battle of Villa Fiorita was no exception; I was transported to Italy. Finding myself in the middle of high drama was confusing at first. It was difficult to keep track of the characters and what was happening, but by chapter three (or four) I was well acquainted with the characters and a lot of the backstory. The result of this immersion was a fascinating read, a plot that moved forward and an interesting development of characters.
Villa Fiorita is a story about marriage and children, and yet it begins with divorce. Fanny has left her husband and their three children to be with her lover, Rob. The couple have fled to the Villa to begin their new life together. The Novel begins with two of Fanny’s children: Hugh (14) and Caddie (12), describing the Villa Fiorita. I always find Godden’s portrayal of children to be refreshing and surprising. Godden gives them a certain amount of autonomy without making them simply little adults. Hugh and Caddie have sold their possessions, plotted their escape and traveled to Italy on their own to fetch their mother. They are waging war against the couple. Later on, Pia, Rob’s daughter from his late wife, joins the battle with a fierce child-like independence.
We keenly feel Hugh’s and Caddie’s intrusion as they observe and are shocked by the intimate details of their mother’s and her lover’s daily living habits. Godden is able to focus on the small details to show the depth of the problem of infidelity: their mother’s scarf, his driving gloves, his cigarettes by their bedside. Pia (a Catholic) is also appalled by the adult’s behavior. Her arrival ushers in ancient codes and the tension between Protestantism and Catholicism. In the novel children are at once the blessing and the safeguard of marriage.
The story is also a coming of age story for Hugh, Caddie and Pia. They are all faced with a loss of innocence; they must confront their own desires, their own sexuality. Divorce has prematurely thrown them into the adult world.
Godden successfully shows the absurdity of divorce while remaining sympathetic to the entangled characters. Regardless of Fanny’s wishes for remarriage, the marriage bond cannot be broken by mere desires; she knows that she and Rob are play acting.
This is not simply a cautionary tale, it is more a study than a lesson. Much like Henry James’ The Bostionans, Godden’s The Battle of Villa Fiorita is exploring the most salient and peculiar point in it’s society, in this case – divorce.
Towards the end of the novel we know that her marriage will never be the same, even if reconciliation takes place; so much harm has already been done and it is the children who suffer and who heal. As I read on and the pages diminished I began to think that reaching a satisfying ending would be impossible, but as one review stated so perfectly: “The ending is unimaginable until it arrives, and then appears inevitable. Splendid.”
Another Godden novel to treasure and share.