I saw that author Charles Lambert included The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone in his ‘best books set in Italy‘ list, and when I noticed that it was, in fact, a novel, and not a play (as I’d thought for some reason), I decided to read it. I’ve seen both film versions of The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone, and liked the story very much indeed. I’ve also read Tennessee William’s memoirs and found them great fun. I don’t have a ‘best books set in Italy’ list, so The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone will, instead, slot into my Women Who Go Wild in Italy category. If you think along the lines of women getting off the plane in Italy and starting to tear their clothes off, then you’ll be on the right track or at least in sync with my sick and twisted thoughts.
Mrs Stone, Karen, is an aging actress, and while she doesn’t exactly start tearing her clothes off when she arrives in Rome, she does get herself into a great deal of trouble through her efforts to stave off the nagging fact that she’s aging. Karen and her husband were travelling after she announced her retirement from the stage, and she lands in Rome following his sudden death. Karen’s husband worshipped her, protected her and required very little in return. Karen isn’t aging well, and when I say that, I should add that she looks marvellous–one of those expensively, well-oiled and well-maintained machines. She started to put on a little weight but managed to shed it, and for a woman in her 50s she looks wonderful. Mentally, however, Karen isn’t doing so well; she cannot adapt to the fact she’s aging. Rome is a refuge for Mrs Stone as she thinks that here she can avoid the judgments of the theatre crowd:
In Mrs. Stone there was a certain grandeur which had replaced her former beauty. The knowledge that her beauty was lost had come upon her recently and it was still occasionally forgotten. It could be forgotten, sometimes, in the silk-filtered dusk of her bedroom where the mirrors disclosed an image in cunningly soft focus. It could be forgotten sometimes in the company of Italians who had never seen her as other than she now was and who have, moreover, the gift of a merciful kind of dissemblance. But Mrs. Stone had instinctively avoided contact with women she had known in America, whose eyes, if not their tongues, were inclined to uncomfortable candour.
As the novel continues, it’s revealed that Karen’s retirement came after her rather embarrassing performance as Juliet. No amount of makeup could cover the fact that she was an aging woman–not a nubile, dewy virgin. And now she’s in Rome alone. No money worries, true, but she’s lonely and terrified by aging. If you know the story, you know that Karen starts keeping a gigolo who is managed by a predatory Italian Contessa. It’s a curious and self-destructive decision. After all, Karen isn’t much interested in sex, and she fully realises that her boy-toy Paolo is an expensive little con-artist.
The novel’s great irony is that while Karen pampers a petulant, beautiful gigolo in order to convince herself that she’s still a pulsating, desirable woman, in the final judgment, this act only endorses her desperation. A woman of her age, wealthy, still attractive and with a fabulous past could most certainly acquire a respectable male escort (and by respectable, I mean he wouldn’t have to be paid to do it), and she could very possibly acquire a husband. So what is Karen Stone playing at? Why does she stoop to paying a snotty little gigolo who can’t even be nice in public? She doesn’t see herself as a laughing stock, but rather she imagines that Paolo’s beauty reflects back on her. Perhaps part of the answer can be found in Karen’s past. She’s used to acting opposite beautiful young men, and considered them only a threat when their performances overshadowed hers. Does she see Paolo as the next best thing to a young, ambitious actor? In her relationship with Paolo, is Karen simply trying to recreate an acting role with the comfort zone of a young, good-looking actor as a foil?
She had been twice as long in the world as Paolo and had known in her profession a fair quantity of young men with languid graces and a measure of beauty who only looked at mirrors. They had not interested her in the past, but she had known them. She had liked them to play opposite her on stage for they had little resistance. It was like sticking your finger into a puff of meringue to take their measure, and yet they did well enough as supporting players. They felt and provoked no excitement. You knew what they were going to do and could obliterate them with a gesture. It was rather fun doing it. Sometimes it was nice to catch hold of their moist young palms in the wings and say, Don’t be nervous! Every play has to open and some have to close …
Their dressing rooms smelled nice, their bodies not giving off the musk of the male, or not enough of it to be detectable through the talcum or pine cologne. She had felt for them the sort of affection that is based on knowing you have the power to destroy and which is the warmer for being mixed with contempt.
The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone is a terribly sad story of a woman whose acting talent was predicated on her looks; she did not build for a future without beauty. When we first meet Karen, she’s fallen swiftly from the pinnacle of her success, but after that it’s a rapid, lurid downhill slide. While all relationships contain some element of power, perhaps in the best relationships there is some balance achieved without dominance. In Karen’s relationship with Paolo, she should in theory have the power since she controls the money. There are many scenes which detail Paolo’s little ploys for money and presents, and while Karen initially may hold the cards, she accedes all control to Paolo when she begins demanding love.
Anyway, this was a great read–no dull characters and marvellous descriptions throughout. Frustrated female passion seems to be the author’s speciality, and here instead of the raging nymphomania of Blanche DuBois, in Karen we see equally complex sexual behaviour. Tennessee Williams shows that Karen Stone is not the only middle-aged female character with difficulties adjusting to aging. Paolo has quite a history with a range of women–including the lonely married variety. But one of my favourite characters here (and there are several to choose from) is Karen’s acquaintance, Mrs Bishop–a woman who can’t adjust her notions of femininity to fit her own body:
Meg Bishop was a woman journalist who had written a series of books under the basic title of Meg Sees, all dealing with cataclysmic events in the modern world and ranging historically from the civil war in Spain to the present guerilla fighting in Greece. Ten years of association with brass hats and political bigwigs had effaced any lingering traits of effeminacy in her voice and manner. Unfortunately she did not choose to wear the tailored clothes that would be congruous with her booming, incisive voice and her alert, military bearing. The queenly mink coat that she wore, the pearls and the taffeta dinner gown underneath, gave her a rather shockingly transvestite appearance, almost as though the burly commander of a gunboat had presented himself in the disguise of a wealthy clubwoman.