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:
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: