When I was first bought Madame Solario I was aware of Gladys Huntingdon’s writing having been compared to Henry James, I didn’t allow that to put me off – it is some years since I read Henry James, but I can’t say I find him easy. Now that I have read the novel, I understand the comparison, there is an elusive, intense quality to the narrative that is quite Jamesian – and one can’t help but think of Henry James, and perhaps Edith Wharton and E M Forster when one reads a novel of society people abroad. However, Gladys Huntingdon’s novel is far more scandalous than anything those other literary giants produced.
Before we get to the novel itself – the story behind the novel is in itself fascinating. First published in 1956 – Gladys Huntingdon chose to publish this, (I believe) her only novel, written when in her seventies, anonymously, it was thirty years before the author was revealed. No doubt, the mystery surrounding the authorship of Madame Solario contributed to its success at the time. Born Gladys Parrish, in 1887 the daughter of a wealthy Philadelphian Quaker, her life growing up was itself quite Jamesian in nature – so we are told by Alison Adburgham, in her afterword to this Persephone edition.
Back to the story itself – a beautifully written novel of almost 500 pages, there is drama here – however it is not a novel with a great deal of plot. Madame Solario is strangely compelling, the reader can’t help but be drawn into the intense relationships which slowly develop between a large group of mainly Europeans on the shores of Lake Como. It is a world painted exquisitely by the author – who herself would have experienced something very similar as a young girl, holidaying with her family on Lake Como.
Set in Cadenabbia on Lake Como in September 1906, Madame Solario transports us instantly to another world – a world of European and American high society, a lakeside retreat, shuttered villas, picnics, polite conversation and whispered scandal.
The novel is divided into three sections, the first and third sections told from the view point of Bernard Middleton, who we meet on page 2 – a nice, young Englishman in whose company we feel instantly at ease. He is young, his experiences of the word so far have done little to prepare him for the unspoken passions, and complexities he finds himself in the midst of.
“‘I don’t know what your studies have been, but you may know that geologists speak of faults when they mean weaknesses in the crust of the earth that cause earthquakes and subsidences.”
Having pulled on his gloves he was energetically buttoning them.
“And I will tell you something out of my own experience. There are people like ‘faults’, who are a weakness in the fabric of society; there is disturbance and disaster wherever they are.” He gave Bernard a fierce look beneath his bristling eyebrows.
‘Young man, go away from! Get on to solid ground as soon as you can.’”
The middle section – (I shall come to that again later) Bernard retreats from view, and my one minor quibble with this novel is that this section is longer than it need be. Bernard has recently finished at Oxford, destined for a career in banking – a career arranged for him, and one he doesn’t look forward to. A few weeks on Lake Como is a kind of compensation for the dull years ahead. Supposed to be meeting up with a friend, who having fallen ill can no longer come, Bernard is on his own, experiencing grown up society for the first time. Clustered around Bernard, at this society retreat are members of the American and European elite, British, Italian, Russian and Hungarian society are represented. Bernard is drawn to Ilona Zapponyi, daughter of a countess, but Ilona has had her heart broken by Kovanski, and the Zapponyi’s leave quickly. Bernard realises that Kovanski is at the hotel in pursuit of the mysterious Madame Solario, still young and beautiful – who arrives amid disturbing rumours of her past. Whispers of a terrible scandal within her family, leading to her being married off to her much older South American husband – only where is he now? And what happened to her brother who disappeared around the same time?
“Bernard saw coming out a lady he had not seen before. She was not a girl, not young in his sense, though he knew she could not be more than twenty-seven or -eight, and his eyes stayed on her – not with any interest that a girl might have aroused, only contemplatively, but stayed, because he at once thought her beautiful. Her figure was a little above medium height and very graceful; she was fair, and she wore a hat trimmed with velvet pansies in shades of mauve that deepened into purple. After she had walked out into the sunlight she opened a white silk parasol, and Bernard saw a tall Italian called Ercolani go quickly up to her; they stood talking – that is to say, she stood very still with her parasol resting on her shoulder, while he did the talking.”
Bernard starts spending time with Madame Solario, she seems to appreciate his easy company. Walking along the winding paths that run alongside the lake, he is a frequent, rather over-awed companion to this elusive beauty. Bernard is a great observer, he watches and listens to everything that goes on around him. Kovanski – who Bernard has taken seriously against – makes Bernard feel young and foolish. Just as Bernard’s unlikely friendship with Natalia Solario begins there is another surprise arrival at the hotel – Eugene Harden, Madame Solario’s brother – whom she hasn’t seen in twelve years, and who calls her Nelly.
The second part of the novel – explores the intense, rather disturbing relationship between Natalia and her brother and their reunion. Eugene cross examines his sister about their past, bitterness, jealousy and shared remembrances come into play. Eugene plots to raise his own social standing by taking advantage of various imagined alliances, and we lose sight almost completely of dear Bernard. This second section, as well as being a bit long is the weakest section of the novel – which is gloriously revived in the final section which sees Natalia leave Cadenabbia, and Bernard is right in the middle of the action as he is given the opportunity to protect the woman who has so beguiled and charmed him.
Gladys Huntingdon tells a story of disturbing scandal, against a backdrop of polite society, under which flows a current of something rather dark.
I finished reading this novel – both impressed and full of questions. Madame Solario remains elusive, we never completely get to know her – and this feels exactly right, as the memory of the glimpses we get of her, haunts the reader long after the book is laid aside.