Most readers will not be familiar with either the name or the writings of Vernon Lee, the nom de plume of Violet Paget, a late 19th- to early 20th-century author. A prodigious writer, she wrote scholarly and aesthetic criticism, as well as novels and short stories. Palmerino is the name of the 14th-century Italian villa located near Florence where Lee lived in the 1920s and ′30s, until her death. She was well known to many of the leading artistic lights of the day, from Henry James to Virginia Woolf, Oscar Wilde to John Singer Sargent (they were best friends from childhood), the aging Pre-Raphaelites to the budding Expressionists.
This short novel is an interesting and strange story of Sylvia, a novelist “of a certain age,” recently divorced, who rents a room at Palmerino Villa to help her re-ignite her literary fires, write a “different” kind of novel to please her agent, and come to terms with her life. Vernon Lee is both the subject of her novel and a growing ethereal presence as Sylvia becomes absorbed into the lush, moist, enclosed, and overgrown garden that is Palmerino.
As the narrative sways back and forth from the present-day Sylvia to the latter-day Vernon Lee, more and more of it is taken over by the insistent “presence” and story of the Edwardian writer. Those parts of the novel are well done, vibrant, passionate and absorbing. The parts where Sylvia takes center stage are, by contrast, listless and somewhat shallow. Sylvia is less a character than a vehicle for expression by the overwhelming intellect and character she is writing about. While the author may have intended this, it leaves those passages rather flat and lacking in urgency. Fortunately, these less engaging sections are short, leaving much more time to spend with Vernon Lee. Recommended.