Vernon Lee and Palmerino

This past Wednesday, Melissa Pritchard, an American short-story fiction writer, came to the British Institute to present her newest book Palmerino. The novel is based on the life of Vernon Lee (real name Violet Paget, 1856-1935), a British writer who spent the majority of her life in the outskirts of Florence and wrote over 40 books.

Melissa Pritchard divided her presentation in two parts – first she talked about Vernon Lee’s life and why she was inspired by her, and then she read two chapters of her recent book to the audience.

Here are two pictures of Melissa before the presentation:

 

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Many in the audience already know about Vernon Lee because the British Institute is the owner of a huge part of her collection of books, diaries and letters. She was an interesting personality – according to Melissa Pritchard, she was “massively brilliant” and often found herself unsatisfied with other people’s intelligence. She was also controversial and “ahead of her time”, because she was openly a feminist, a pacifist who joined anti-militaristic organizations, and likely a lesbian. She read as many books as she could in various languages and wrote just as much – Melissa even mentioned she wrote so fast and so passionately that her handwriting is barely legible.

It was clear that Melissa knew Vernon Lee’s life not only factually, but was also familiar with her peculiarities and moods in a close way. “It was a process, though”, as the American writer shared, and in the beginning of her research she said she couldn’t fully grasp who Vernon was as a person, but one day suddenly she found herself strangely familiar with her persona.

Melissa began serious research on the book in 2010. She did a lot of her research back in the US, in Colby College MI. She said that during the time she was writing she also visited Villa il Palmerino, where Vernon Lee lived near Florence, three times. On multiple occasions strange spiritual incidents occurred that made her feel like she really was meant to write about Vernon and was finally connected to her.

The book is not a biography however, nor is it a story about Vernon’s entire life. In fact, it is fiction that is only based on Vernon’s life as an author and a woman. It is Melissa’s own interpretation of how Vernon felt and acted, based on documents that provoked Melissa to have this particular understanding of the historical figure’s life. I thought this kind of literature is an interesting way to go, probably more interesting to many readers that a simple biography would be, and one that allows for Melissa to be more creative and have her own side to the story.

Melissa Pritchard read two chapters from the novel in her presentation in the British Institute. In fact, the book is divided in 3 segments that are completely separate from each other. One is from the modern perspective of a female novelist, whose husband has left her for a man, who comes to visit Vernon Lee’s villa. The second is from the outlook of Vernon Lee herself, and the final segment is written from the perspective of the spirit of the villa.

Melissa read the two segments that she had picked out passionately, allowing the audience to get a glimpse of what the book is all about. It really felt like Melissa had a good grasp on the life of Vernon Lee and was able to depict her moods and opinions in very delicate nuances, that give the impression that Melissa really did know Vernon Lee very well.

Here is Melissa after her presentation:

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By:Boyana Georgieva

Reading Experience Database

 

Last Wednesday, Shafquat Towheed presented a lecture called “British readers and Italian journeys in the ‘Reading Experience Database’.” As someone who was unaware of this ongoing project, to methe title seemed confusing but I was surprised to find myself very interested in the topic, particularly because I never imagined that such a study would ever be created.

What Shafquat Towheed, the Director of the ‘Reading Experience Database’ , and his team do is a massive continous research project. It is an online database that compiles information about what people read now and have read throughout history. Anyone in the world can go in the database, and record based on historical documents (let’s say diaries, newspapers or family letters) what it is that a certain historical figure or just a normal person read throughout his life.

Why is this important? Well, as Shafquat said we in the world today very well know what a specific author has written, but do we know what they read in order to come up with the ideas that influenced their writing? Do we know what the most read book was, let’s say during World War II in Italy? No. Well, and least not for now. But this database is a start to acquiring this knowledge.

Every recorded piece is very detailed and cites evidence, so this Database can be used for complex research by linguists and literature experts. And it is something they have never had access to before. I found that great!

During his talk, Shafquat focused on Italy and Britain, especially in the time period between 1450 and 1950. He presented numerous examples of entries that explained what a certain person read in his or her life. Even thought the database is enlarging, it still has a lot of room for growth and as our speaker said, it is yet difficult to draw conclusions about the habits of readers in general. But from what the database has so far (and this could be for many different reasons), Italy is the number one recorded country when counting the entries, and from those entries nearly 2/3 are about the reading habits of women, as opposed to men. This is interesting because in the database overall, the ratio is practically reversed. This does not necessarily mean there were more readers women in Florence, but also means that for some reasons those voluneers who have been making the entries have more information about women in Florence or are more interested in their reading habits. Here are some photos I took during the talk of women who read in Florence:

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Shafquat ackowledges that there is still a huge space of unrecorded readers, and the project as he mentioned is “limitless”. A good question that was also brought up by the audience is: When is the data going to be wide enough so we as reseachers can safely draw conclusions from it? And to this, the team of RED is hoping that the answer is “soon”.In any case, I thought the project was one of the most innovative and interesting I have been exposed to recently and it is aiming to accomplish something very massive. It was quite amazing to hear from the Director himself, and understand his motivations and passion.

And here is a photo of the director himself:

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By: Boyana Georgieva

The Waterfields of Tuscany

The Waterfields of Tuscany

        This month, the British Institute had the pleasure to receive as a speaker Nigel Beevor, the grandson of one of the main founders of the organization, Lina Waterfield. Here are some photos I took before the event started:

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The audience was numerous and excited as many of the British living Florentines were already familiar with the books within the collection and were eager to hear the story of Lina and her family from a personal perspective. And Nigel did not disappoint them – his narration was personal and filled with jokes and stories that no one aside the family would be familiar with. Before the presentation started, he even went around the audience and distributed a family tree which made it even easier to relate to his story. Here is a picture of him before the talk that I took taking him by surprise:

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The talk was based on two key narratives: the life of Lina Waterfield as a progressive British woman in Florence and one of the founders of The British Institute, and the artwork of her husband Aubrey Waterfield who was inspired by the Tuscan landscapes and produced high quality paintings undervalued during his lifetime. Nigel is the one that has donated the Waterfield collection to The Institute in 2001 so hearing the story from him personally was interesting for everyone attending the event. Kinta Waterfield, Lena’s daughter and Nigel’s mother, was also a main point in the presentation as she is one of the main sources for Nigel’s detailed knowledge of the life of Lena and her family. It was interesting to see the passage of time in respect to the different generations and value the fact that so much information and art has been passed down without the loss of the Tuscany tradition. In fact, the collection at The British Institute will serve as a tool for the passage of the Waterfields’ values because it includes research material, letters, essays, photographs, unpublished manuscripts, a printed book and a painting directly from Nigel.

Hearing about Lena’s life was particularly memorable since she lived through the First and Second world wars, and was always a key player in the British community in Tuscany and Italy in general even when times were tough and it was inconvenient to be here. She was very familiar with life in Italy since she had lived here for so many years, and she found it vital to share the news in Italy and her opinions with her fellow British citizens back home. She was the correspondent to The Observer and believed women should have careers and be the most active they possibly can in making a difference in their communities. A very surprising fact that Nigel shared was that his grandmother interviewed Mussolini many times – before the war and during it, and was never scared to ask him questions directly and openly (scandalously, Mussolini maybe even “made a pass at her” but as Nigel said “we will never know for sure”!).

Right before the Second World War broke out, her and her husband were living in their favorite villa in Tuscany even though they knew that the political situation was not favorable to them as British expats. They luckily ended up leaving the country the very night before war broke out in Italy, and went back to Britain. Nigel also talked about the art of Lena’s husband, Aubrey.

During the presentation we were able to see a dozen of his painting which varied thematically. Here are some of them:

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Quite interesting was that Nigel, of course knew the personal story of each and made sure to share it: we, the audience, got familiar with where the paintings are in the family house, how they have been saved through time and passed down the generations, and even what the individual inspirations were for some of them. One of them was not finished which Nigel attributed to Aubrey’s artistic impatience.The end of the talk was open to questions and the audience was very responsive to Nigel. It was clear that many had read Lena and Janet (her aunt)’s books and were curious with additional questions towards the pieces of literature. Nigel went into more details about Lena and Aubrey’s personal life and careers – some of the information is also available on the website in the section dedicated to the Waterfields of Tuscany collection.

By: Boyana Georgieva