Posts Tagged ‘Violet Trefusis’

pirates at play

I think I must have had this book tbr for quite a while – and I couldn’t remember where I got it until I saw that it had been registered on bookcrossing (not by me) – so that’s where I got it. Violet Trefusis is a name often coupled with that of Vita Sackville West, because of the relationship they had in the years following the end of the First World War. In her introduction to this edition Lisa St Aubin says that Pirates at Play is an apt name for a novel by someone who herself was a social pirate.

“When she writes about falling in love, about flirting, about manipulating the world around her, she is writing about what she knows.”
(Lisa St Aubin – introduction)

I have of course read several Vita Sackville West novels, and for the most part enjoyed them immensely. Her novel Challenge was the exception – and I read somewhere that Violet Trefusis had something of a hand in it. However, I couldn’t remember at first whether I had read Violet Trefusis herself before. A delve into my own archives reveals I read the letters Violet to Vita edited Mitchell A Leaska, in 2010 and it seems Violet got on my nerves a bit. That’s interesting, and maybe revealing as I vaguely remember starting another Violet Trefusis novel (no idea which one) some years ago and giving up on it.

At this point I should say that I did really enjoy Pirates at Play – though something stopped me from really loving it – and I felt I should have done really, it is well written and witty, and Trefusis’ characters are wonderfully vivid. Her descriptions of Italy and the English country estate of the aristocratic Caracole family are also stunning, creating an evocative sense of place. Violet Trefusis was a gifted writer, of that I am in no doubt.

“The ferocious day, striped white and black, like a zebra, was declining at length, as though loath to let go. A nimbus of dust hung over the bridges, never free of the shuffle of feet. At the angle of the Ponte Vecchio, Beppino, the blind guitarist, scratched at his instrument with the frenzy of one affected with erysipelas, raising his moonstone eyes to the Heavens, whenever he heard a foreign language spoken.”

Trefusis is sharply observant about the society she knew so well, in some ways she is poking gentle fun at it. It is a novel about love in many forms, wish fulfilment and society. Trefusis’ female characters are by far the strongest, beautifully well drawn, they sparkle off the page, however, some of her male characters are rather two dimensional.

The pirates of the title are two very different families, one English, one Italian. Elizabeth Caracole (pronounced Crackle) is the daughter of an old aristocratic family, living on a grand and beautiful estate. Her parents decide to send her to be finished in Florence. Golden haired Elizabeth is to live in the home of a Papal Count (the pope’s dentist). The Papagalli family boast one extraordinarily beautiful daughter; Vica and five sons. Florence is a marvellous setting for this romantic comedy, set during the frantic, roaring twenties.

“Do you think that love has to be requited to be genuine? On the contrary, it thrives on indifference.”

Elizabeth is known to turn male heads herself – and here she is entering into a house full of men! Vica is ambitious and has her own plans, which are set to be thwarted by the very formidable old Principessa Arrivamale. For Elizabeth, Florence is a whirlwind of new experiences, and five brothers to get to know. A grand ball is held with half of Europe it seems to attend. As soon as the old princess sets eyes on Elizabeth, she decides she wants the beautiful English aristocrat as a wife for her nephew Gian Galeazzo – little knowing that Vica also has her sights set on him herself (the princess insists on dismissing Vica as being merely the dentist’s daughter). The princess is a fantastic creation, ever so slightly terrifying, she bullies her companion Miss Walker (Valka) horribly and is quite obviously used to getting her own way. Elizabeth knows she isn’t in love with Gian but allows herself to have her head turned – so swept up, as she is, by all these new experiences she is having in Florence. Elizabeth is all set to get herself into a situation.

Two Englishmen then arrive in Florence too, and set about ruffling feathers and undoing carefully laid plans. One is Charles; Elizabeth’s adored brother, the other is Peter – in Florence at Elizabeth’s mother’s request –  Elizabeth’s great childhood friend, himself in love with Elizabeth, and conscious of his almost penniless state. Naturally, Charles takes one look at Vica and is hopelessly smitten. Poor Charles is something of an innocent – and really not equal to Vica’s manipulations.

Pirates at Play is certainly well written and entertaining, yet there is just something about Violet Trefusis’ voice that I don’t engage with quite as much as I would like.

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