It’s cold; it’s winter, and what better time to pick up a book that falls into that fascinating category: Women Who Go Wild in Italy. Is there such a category? Well if there isn’t I’m making one. I can think of a few books that qualify for inclusion: Tennessee Williams’s The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone, E.M. Forster’s Where Angels Fear to Tread, Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes, Muriel Spark’s The Drivers’ Seat, Gladys Parrish’s Madame Solario and A Month by the Lake by H.E. Bates. I started thinking about this category after reading author Charles Lambert’s list of best books set in Rome (The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone makes his list). Women Who Go Wild in Italy is entirely my own, and it’s really an offshoot of my weakness for books in which people go off on holiday and engage in behaviours they wouldn’t dream of on their home turf.
I’m going to admit that Up at the Villa does not make my favourite W. Somerset Maugham list, but more of that later. One of Maugham’s frequent themes is the exploration of relationships between the classes; it’s a theme that dominates Maugham’s most famous novel, Of Human Bondage, and the same theme sneaks into Up At the Villa. Most of the characters in the novel are members of the British leisure class with just a couple of servants and service industry people in the background, and the whiff of colonialism enters the picture through the novel’s stuffiest character, Sir Edward Swift. As for the date, it’s not mentioned, but it’s some time between the 1938 Nazi invasion of Austria and Britain’s declaration of war in 1939. For Maugham’s British holiday crowd in Florence, the brittle political situation has not yet pierced through their moneyed cocoon; they’re relaxing, eating, drinking and soaking up the sunshine with very few cares to trouble their thoughts. The intrusion of a young Austrian refugee into the picture, however, shakes up the life of a British woman. When the classes mix in Up at the Villa, tragedy results.
Mary Panton is a young widow whose wastrel husband has been dead for about a year. The marriage began in love but ended badly with Matthew Panton gambling away his fortune and whooping it up with other women. Mary is staying in a villa near Florence that belongs to friends. When the novel begins, it’s June, and Mary has been at the villa for about three months. The word ‘recuperating’ isn’t used, but there’s the sense that Mary is healing slowly from the trauma of the last few tumultuous years with Matthew. She is satisfied “to lounge about the garden and read books.”
Thanks to Matthew’s excesses, most of his fortune is gone:
at first [when] the lawyers, with glum faces, had told her that after the debts were paid there would be nothing left at all.
But things are looking up, and after the final tally, Mary will have enough to live on for the rest of her life if she uses “rigid economy.” Prior to that little financial detail, I’d been feeling a twinge of sympathy for Mary–the poor woman who’s getting some much deserved R&R after living with a rotter of a husband for eight miserable years. This is the point at which my attitude shifted away from sympathy for Mary. I think we’re supposed to feel sorry about that “rigid economy,” but that information set my teeth on edge. Here’s this 30-year-old beautiful woman, finally free of the encumbrance of her ridiculous husband, lounging in the sun in Florence. The fact that she will never have to work a day in her life doesn’t exactly engender a modicum of sympathy from this reader. “Rigid economy”? Boo-hoo.
Back to the plot:
Mary has a suitor: that bastion of colonialism, Sir Edward Swift. As an old friend of Mary’s deceased father, Swift is an interesting marriage prospect. On one hand, since he’s well into middle-age, his course and career are set. There will be no surprises there, and with any luck no hidden vices. Swift is dependable but he’s also very stuffy. He appears on the scene to announce a prestigious appointment in India and a short departure to work out the details. Up to this point, Swift has been biding his time. He’s always loved Mary, and now he feels that the time is ripe to make a proposal.
In Swift’s absence, Mary is supposed to weigh the proposal and make a decision:
There was a curious sense of apprehension in her heart. He was certainly very handsome. It would be thrilling to be the wife of the Governor of Bengal and very nice to be grand and have the ADCs [Aide de Camps] running about to do one’s bidding
This glimpse into Mary’s mind confirmed my suspicions. This is a character I disliked.
With visions of colonialism running in her head, Mary tries to make a decision about marriage to Swift. Fellow Britisher, Rowley, a wealthy man with a scandalous reputation and considered to be a “wastrel and a rotter,” tries to persuade her against making a match with Swift. This serves to cement Mary’s determination, and then tragedy appears in the form of Karl Richter, an Austrian who’s fled the Nazis only to end up playing the violin badly in a restaurant for the bored, wealthy tourists.
Karl is little more than a literary device to help Mary make up her mind about her future. Maugham reveals immense sensitivity in many of his novels that explore the disastrous relationships between the classes, but that sympathy is absent in Up At the Villa. Instead there is a chasm of misunderstanding and objectification.
As a writer Maugham seems fascinated by the relationships between the classes. While Maugham was from a privileged background, his writing shows some understanding of the struggles of his working class characters. This is mainly seen through the exploration of the obstacles presented by class differences within relationships. Class differences are minimized or overlooked in the love and courtship phase, but then those differences become glaringly obvious as the day-to-day routine kicks in. Consider The Merry-Go-Round for example–a novel in which upper-class Basil Kent marries barmaid Jenny and their subsequent marriage becomes hell for them both. In Mrs Craddock, Bertha Ley marries capable farmer Craddock. For Bertha and Basil, the traits that were so admirable in courtship take on a repugnant, wearing aspect in wedlock.
When I read Up at the Villa, I found myself making comparisons to E. M. Forster’s superb novel, Howard’s End. In the novel, Leonard Bast enters the lives of the wealthy Schlegel sisters. Leonard Bast is an impoverished, self-educated man who dreams of books, art, and culture (rather like Maugham’s Herbert Field in The Merry-Go-Round) but as a member of the working-class, Bast finds his days consumed by the drudgery of scraping by with barely enough to eat. After he meets the Schlegel sisters, disaster results in a way that can certainly be compared to Up at the Villa. Indeed there are some intriguing parallels to be drawn between the behaviour and motivations of Mary Panton and Helen Schlegel. Forster’s Howard’s End is a superior treatment of the same scenario.
Up at The Villa‘s Mary is a superficial woman who gains no depth from her relationship with the young Austrian, Karl. Her act towards Karl–a sort of inverted Droit de Seigneur–is driven by her complete inability to understand hunger or poverty. Ok, so perhaps that’s not her fault, but the trivialization of Karl, by the other characters and by Maugham, results in a lesser book. He’s just a device to move the plot along, and the novel’s most interesting stuff spews from Swift–a man for whom love is subsumed to service to the British Empire. Part of the novel’s superficiality springs from the problem that the crux of the story isn’t what happens with Karl but rather the emphasis is on Mary, Rowley, and Swift’s reactions to the incident. While in other Maugham novels, his characters undergo a moral shift through their relationships, emerging at the other side somewhat battered but a better person for the experience, there’s no indication that Mary has undergone one iota of change (beyond her decisions regarding matrimony).
Many criminally underrated Maugham novels make my re-read list: Mrs Craddock (1902), The Merry-Go-Round (1904), Of Human Bondage (1915), The Moon and Sixpence (1919), The Painted Veil (1925), and Cakes and Ale (1930). Up at the Villa (1941) seems quite superficial and light in comparison.