“I don’t know what your studies have been, but you may know that geologists speak of faults when they mean weaknesses in the crust of the earth that cause earthquakes and subsidences.”
Having pulled on his gloves he was energetically buttoning them.
“And I will tell you something out of my own experience. There are people like ‘faults’, who are a weakness in the fabric of society; there is disturbance and disaster wherever they are.”
Madame Solario was originally published in 1956 as an anonymous novel, but Gladys Parrish (Gladys Theodora Parrish Huntingdon) was the author of this mysterious and somewhat scandalous novel: try suicide, adultery, and pathological familial relationships simmering underneath the impenetrable membrane of elegant manners, yes it’s all here in a novel that reminds me a bit of Henry James and Edith Wharton. Madame Solario, while not quite as well-crafted as Wharton or James (at his best), is ultimately a disturbing read, and somehow its structural problems manage to add to the novel’s atmosphere of malignant mystery. This is not a perfect novel (more of that later), but it is a novel that haunts and disturbs in spite of, or perhaps even because of, its flaws.
Madame Solario is set in 1906 and most of the drama takes place at a Lake Como resort. The novel begins–almost reassuringly–with the introduction of Bernard Middleton, a young Englishman. He’s finished university with the anticipation of a career in the Foreign Office. That exotic future has been replaced–by Bernard’s parents–with the news that he is to have a banking career instead. It’s all been arranged very quietly and efficiently between Bernard’s parents and his bank-owning uncle. Bernard is to spend the summer at Cadenabbia as “compensation.”
So it’s a gloomy Bernard who arrives at the Lake Como resort. He was supposed to be joined there by a friend, but the friend is ill and consequently delayed. Bernard is surrounded by the beauty of Cadenabbia, but he’s alone, lonely and very much an outsider. Colonel Ross, an older English man who is the social barometer of the guests at the resort takes Bernard under his wing. Colonel Ross warms considerably to Bernard after discovering:
“he had been at Eton with Bernard’s father and that Lady Louisa Middleton was Bernard’s grandmother, which was interesting, as she was a connexion of Mrs Ross’s. And so the society of Cadenabbia was opened to Bernard.”
Bernard quickly strikes up a number of relationships with the other young guests. He’s particularly attracted to a Hungarian girl called Ilona. Sensitive and intelligent, she stands out from the pack, but Bernard (rather like a Jamesian character) is above all an observer, and he notices something about Ilona that escapes the attention of all the other guests at the resort.
Shortly, the very beautiful, graceful and mysterious Madame Solario arrives. Her current marital status is vague, and Bernard learns that Madame Solario has a somewhat difficult, scandalous past. The gossip is that Madame Solario’s stepfather fell in love with her, her brother fought a duel with him as a result, and then she was hurriedly married off in a marriage of convenience. But where is her husband now? And what precisely is her relationship to several other male guests, the brooding Russian Kovanski, & the wealthy, married Italians Ercolani and San Rufino? Bernard watches all sorts of peculiar behaviour take place under the polite veneer of the cosmopolitan society manners. While none of the characters at the resort overtly or openly misbehave, there are dangerous undercurrents just beneath the surface, and young naive Bernard tries to understand it all. In time he becomes a confidant, or at least a preferred companion of sorts to the elusive Madame Solario. This only directs the ire of the unpredictable Kovanski towards Bernard. And then Madame Solario’s brother appears….
The novel can be divided into three distinct sections: 1) the resort prior to the arrival of Madame Solario’s brother, Eugene Harden, 2) the resort after Eugene’s arrival, and finally 3) departure from the resort. For the first section, Bernard is a central character and the eyes and the ears of the reader, so our attitudes are shaped through Bernard’s perceptions and impressions. Bizarrely and abruptly this all changes when Eugene appears on the scene, and Bernard, who’s been Madame Solario’s almost constant companion practically disappears from the tale. Bernard, however, appears for the novel’s third and final section. The author picks up Bernard from where she last dropped him and then once again he has a crucial role to play. This abandonment of a central character is jarring, and yet it works in a strange way. Through Bernard’s eyes, we see Madame Solario as entrancing, mysterious, beautiful and somehow imbued with tragedy. For the next section of the novel, Bernard disappears into the backdrop of the resort’s social life and Madame Solario’s relationship with her brother takes over. It’s through this relationship that we see her character at her truest, and through Bernard’s absence, his romanticized, chivalrous impressions of Madame Solario vaporise.
As the guests arrive and depart, they are sometimes drawn together for social moments, and one intriguing element of the novel is its focus on culture and class. At the resort the English stick together in the safety of their cultural cocoon, and the Italians cluster languidly even while all the various nationalities feel slightly ill-at-ease with the rowdy freedoms of the American girls who tirelessly organize various outings and activities. Kovanski is the sole Russian, but then some of his acquaintances arrive and a bizarre evening takes place of drunken, boisterous behaviour. The guests are both alarmed and appalled with the unspoken threat that the Russians’ behaviour may spill forth from Kovanski’s room and flood the resort and its elegant guests.
Colonel Ross is also an observer, and while he tends to give Madame Solario the social benefit of the doubt, he’s not that keen on the non-English crowd:
“One had better be careful with foreigners, We don’t quite understand them-they don’t play to the same rules, you know”
Colonel Ross’s delicate, nimble social categorizations no longer seem to fit the world. He experiences some difficulty placing Madame Solario and her brother within his narrowly defined social view:
Colonel Ross’s expression was naively puzzled because he was trying to put Eugene Harden into a class. Though without a foreign accent, Harden didn’t seem quite like an Englishman. He was not, according to Colonel Ross’s conceptions, either the right or the wrong kind of Englishman. Not quite English, yet too English to be foreign–one couldn’t tell, in short, where he belonged.
But Colonel Ross isn’t the only person who worries about just where to place the guests on his invisible scale of social acceptability. At one point, Madame Solario privately sneers at Bernard’s future profession, but her brother corrects his sister’s erroneous social impression:
“Really Nelly!” he said, making his exasperation comic. “Do you know nothing? Haven’t you seen your Colonel Ross being paternal to him? Would that yachting-cap be paternal to a bank clerk? I wonder how you get on, my poor sister, if you have learned so little?”
Madame Solario is not an action-packed novel and even the drama distills down to a glance or a matter of seat snatched from a rival, but the novel’s languid qualities add to its slow, suffocating and poisonous atmosphere.
The social life of the hotel was a forcing-house for situations; the opportunities to see, meet, success, fail, and recover never stopped from morning till night. Every shade of behaviour in public had significance, so that the choice of a seat could constitute a victory or a reverse, and a few words aside change the complexion of half the day.
Finally there’s Madame Solario: an elegant woman who is drifting through Europe with some unspecified purpose in mind. Bernard at first wants to believe the best of this strange woman, but ultimately she’s an exotic creature far beyond his realm of experience:
Her laughter, as it became uncontrollable, was noiseless–and secret, for she did not share it with others; she tried to conceal it. Bending her head and biting her lips, she hid, as it were, and silently laughed. This mirth of hers, the unexpectedness of it and its peculiar air of secrecy, so fascinated him that he couldn’t take his eyes off her. Ercolani, too, was amazed. He drew his chair forward till the tip of the black osprey [on her hat] brushed against his cheek.
There’s the sense that this is a fragile world rapidly fading from view. This is partly the age–1906, and by the time WWI begins, Bernard will be chained to a desk in some airless bank. This is Bernard’s last summer before he begins a career he does not want, and this is a summer he will never forget. I’m not much for descriptions of landscapes, but here the descriptions are not overly long, and they are well-done. Here’s a scene between Bernard and Madame Solario as they take a rowboat on Lake Como; the beauty of the lake pales next to Bernard’s fascination with his companion:
The boat rocked gently, as he stopped rowing. With the sun beginning to set, strong shafts of light were slanting through a gap in the mountains and striking like swords across the foothills and the bay. It was tremendous. But she was looking up at the villa, and he observed her. Her face was somehow baffling in its beauty, but that might have been because its shape and the unbroken line of nose and brow–that classic sweep of the brows from the straight nose–and the large orbits of her eyes belonged to a conception of beauty itself.
I found Madame Solario while reading Laurence Cossé’s book The Novel Bookshop. Madame Solario was one of the books selected by Cossé’s fictional characters as one-of-the-best-books-ever. The bad news is that Madame Solario is out-of-print. The good news is that there are plenty of cheap copies available online.