‘Shame your mother couldn’t come’, said Mr Kolynopulo, assisting Lavinia, with more gallantry than was necessary, into his gorgeous gondola. ‘Does she often have headaches?’
Miss Johnstone wore a harassed air. ‘Venice doesn’t really suit her,’ she replied. ‘It’s the tiresome sirocco.’ She looked wistfully down the lagoon to where that climatic nuisance was wont to assert its presence with an unanswerable visibility: but the air had lost its fever, could not have been clearer….
She gazed earnestly at a point directly in their wake; her scrutiny also included [gondolier] Emilio, who did not return it, but stared angrily at the horizon.
‘Good-looking, isn’t he?’ remarked Mrs Kolynopulo, indicating Emilio with her thumb.
Lavinia started. ‘I suppose he is. I never thought about it,’ she said.
‘I guess he’s caused a flutter in many a female breast. We considered ourselves lucky to get him. We’ve been the subject of congratulation.’
‘Do you share the flutter?’ Lavinia presently enquired.
‘Bless you, no,’ replied his wife. ‘We’re married. We leave that sort of thing to the single ones.’
observations: A non-straightforward love story for Valentine’s Day.
This conversation is going to go in quite a surprising direction: in setting and mood the novella has some things in common with Henry James in Venice (Aspern Papers and Wings of the Dove), and with the Wilkie Collins Haunted Hotel. But Lavinia is going to learn about extra services sometimes offered by the gondoliers, which isn’t something you find in those other books.
This is very short, was one of the first books Hartley published, and is very readable and entertaining, and also quite sad. Luckily my copy had an introduction (by Margaret Drabble) which made crystal-clear what I might have been cautious about: Hartley was gay, and this book about a posh young woman attracted to a gondolier in Venice should be read in that light. Drabble makes no bones about it – Hartley gave his story a heroine because he could not write about a young man in that situation.
It’s an atmospheric story, giving a lovely picture of Venice, and Lavinia is a very real person, with flashes of humour – there’s a great discussion with her mother of the exact marital status of Jezebel in the Bible. Lavinia worries that she is missing out on life, she is yearning for something but doesn’t know what it is. She turns down a marriage proposal in a way that is funny but actually horrible – the potential husband asks her:
‘Lavinia, what am I most in need of?’ [implication: I need a wife]The reader is guessing for a long time before finding out who the eponymous Simonetta is.
‘Consideration, imagination, everything except self-confidence,’ she said, and burst into tears.
It’s a sweet, dusty story, and you do wonder what will become of Lavinia…
The lower picture of Venice is by Rubens Santoro, from The Athenaeum.