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Italian villa yields story for ASU writer

January 22, 2014

It was meant to be.

Though she didn’t know it at the time, a chance introduction in Florence, Italy, would lead Melissa Pritchard to write a short novel – and plunge her into the Victorian-age life of a British lesbian writer both celebrated and controversial.

It would also lead her to a love affair with a flower-filled, historic, larger-than-life enclave in the hills above Florence, named Villa il Palmerino.

The story begins in 2008, when Pritchard, a professor of English at Arizona State University, was in Florence for two weeks. Giuditta Viceconte, a friend she had met years before at the University of Florence, told her, “You must meet my good friend Federica Paretti, to talk about the possibility of a writing residency at her villa.”

Federica, a member of the Angeli family who now owns Villa il Palmerino, invited Pritchard to return and stay at the villa.

“The minute I met Federica I felt I already knew her,” Pritchard said. “A year later, I stayed in the villa with my daughter, Caitlin. When I saw books by someone named Vernon Lee lying around, I asked Federica who this person was.”

Vernon Lee was a British writer who had once owned the villa. Her real name was Violet Paget, but from an early age she used a male pseudonym, and in her 20s, began to dress like a man. She was born in France in 1856, spent the majority of her life on the continent and, when she was 17, moved with her family to Florence.

Still not knowing much about Lee, Pritchard looked out the window of the villa on one of her first visits and mentioned to Federica, “I don’t know why, but I see this as a perfect place for a children’s puppet show.

“Federica looked at me strangely, then said, ‘Vernon used to produce puppet shows for the children of the local peasants right here.’ A few more eerie synchronicities like this, and both Federica and I began to feel I was meant to write about Vernon Lee.”

Pritchard, whose novels, such as “Selene of the Spirits,” often tend to lean toward the otherworld, said she felt the first real connection to Lee when she learned more about her writing and discovered that she was also “connected to the supernatural.”

“For example, Lee was one of the first writers to explore the notion of genius loci or spirit of place, as well as empathy, or the body’s response to art,” Pritchard said.

Lee wrote more than 40 books, publishing widely in the fields of aesthetics, ethics, history, literary criticism and biography, as well as novels, short stories and travel essays.

Pritchard began serious research into the life of Vernon Lee in 2010, returning to Villa il Palmerino three more times. She also did research at Colby College in Maine, which has an extensive Vernon Lee archive in its library.

As a member of the eccentric Paget family, Lee was considered brilliant, odd – and ugly. “I sense she may have overcompensated by being ‘outspokenly brainy,’” Pritchard said. “She had two major love interests, and research suggests – but cannot prove – that she was never physically intimate with these women. One friend who knew her well said Vernon couldn’t bear to be touched.”

Pritchard offers readers an intimate glimpse into Lee’s feelings by including excerpts from actual letters Lee wrote to her lovers.

In “Palmerino,” Pritchard creates a partial mirror image of herself writing her own book. The main character, besides Lee, is Sylvia, a novelist whose husband has left her for a man. Sylvia’s book sales are lagging, and she has come to the villa to seek inspiration for a new book – on Vernon Lee.

Pritchard weaves three stories together – those of Lee, Sylvia and the villa itself – into an ethereal, watercolor-painting-like tale that’s filled with sensuous images and glimpses of Victorian life in a storybook Italy.

She treads lightly on Lee’s sexual orientation, which was criticized by contemporaries like art critic Bernard Berenson. “All along I was nervous writing this book, as Vernon Lee remains a person who elicits strong and contradicting opinions about her remarkable life,” she said.

In the novel, Sylvia is inspired by the presence at Villa il Palmerino of a spirit whom we can only assume is Lee’s. As the book nears completion, Sylvia abandons her computer for pen and paper, “scribbling faster and faster, putting down what she ‘hears’ or ‘sees,’ whole scenes passing more rapidly than her fingers can fly. Page after page the gift comes, she is certain, from a female presence very near now, unseen, old, increasingly close,” Pritchard writes.

Though Lee was nearly forgotten by scholars after her death in 1935, there is a strong resurgence of interest in her and in her writing, Pritchard said. The first international seminar on Vernon Lee was held in Florence in September 2012, and Pritchard took part in it, reading an excerpt from “Palmerino.” There is an excellent online journal, “The Sibyl,” devoted to in-depth studies of her writing and life.

Lee died in February of 1935 while living alone at Villa il Palmerino. “At the seminar in Florence, we watched black and white film clips of Vernon Lee, taken at her friend’s home in France a few years before her death. Unlike her younger, more critical personality, the woman I saw looked very kind. She was appreciative of the garden in which she walked and of the children who played about her.

“Here I saw another side to her, a gentler side, likely there all along. Violet Paget/Vernon Lee, I realized, had been a far more multifaceted woman, far more fascinating and complex than the rather simple impression I had of her during my first visit, in 2008, to Villa il Palmerino.”

Melissa Pritchard will be a guest at the ASU Book Group for a discussion of “Palmerino” from noon to 1 p.m., Feb. 26, in room 165 of the Durham Language and Literature Building on the Tempe campus. The group is open to the ASU community. For more information, contact Judith Smith at