Pritchard (The Odditorium, 2012, etc.) blurs past and present, male and female, living and dead, and reality and fiction in a supernaturally infused, innovative story about Victorian-era novelist Vernon Lee and her modern-day biographer.
Newly divorced historical fiction author Sylvia Casey arrives at Villa il Palmerino without a clear purpose. Her husband, Philip, left her for a male colleague the day after his 60th birthday, and her last two books have suffered mediocre sales. In fact, her agent has instructed her to write a book targeted for commercial success, something juicy, and Sylvia hopes to find inspiration in the historically rich area she and her former husband once visited. Living in a rented room at the villa seals her destiny: Sylvia becomes obsessed with—and possessed by—a long-dead writer who once inhabited the premises, Violet Paget. Born into an eccentric family in 1856, Paget spent most of her life in Italy and developed a reputation as an intellectual devoted to art, perception and the supernatural. (A contemporary of John Singer Sargent, the two once vowed to commit themselves to art as they stood over the body of a dead sparrow.) Her homely face, abrasive personality and mannish attire were considered repulsive by some, but she traveled in esteemed circles and held forth on a variety of subjects. Paget was a lesbian who adopted the pseudonym Vernon Lee and claimed that only male authors were taken seriously. She became enamored with two women during her lifetime: naïve Mary Robinson and vivacious, willful Kit Anstruther-Thomson. As Sylvia traces Paget/Lee’s life, the lines between modern existence and events a century earlier become distorted, and even the continuous presence of a dog that follows Sylvia holds significance. Pritchard's fertile imagination and presentation give new meaning to the expression "a meeting of the minds."
Although the florid prose and pages of 19th-century discourse sometimes suffocate the story and may prove off-putting for some readers, Pritchard excellently maintains control of a multifaceted exploration of lesbianism.