The Battle of the Villa Fiorita by Rumer Godden

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(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The Battle of the Villa Fiorita, a novel about children pitted against parents, demonstrates Godden’s technical mastery of character development and family dynamics. One of the author’s few novels set outside India, The Battle of the Villa Fiorita has garnered praise for its vivid evocation of the Italian landscape, as well as for an authentic representation of how families operate—even from critics who find its premise implausible.

For this work, Godden employs a single narrator but shifting points of view, primarily those of the two Clavering children and their mother, to tell a story unfolding in two places. The Italian countryside of exotic fragrances, sprawling gardens, and alluring beauty serves as the immediate battleground setting, while the backstory is set in conventional England, where the Claverings’ once-predictable life ended with divorce.

The story opens with two travel-weary children outside the locked gates of an Italian villa, the temporary lakeside abode of their adulterous English mother and the film director intent on marrying her. Like soldiers pushed to the brink, fourteen-year-old Hugh Clavering and his younger sister Caddie have arrived to derail the relationship between their mother, Fanny Clavering, and Robert Quillet, a widowed director who fell in love with the plain matron while filming in Whitcross, her middle-class neighborhood.

With Godden’s customary acuity for presenting life as children experience it, the story begins and ends with the point of view of eleven-year-old Caddie. Caddie compares the untidy physicality of the villa to the orderly decor and furniture at Stebbings, the spacious suburban home she had to leave for a cramped London flat when her father assumed custody of the three Clavering children. At Stebbings, Caddie’s world had centered on Topaz, her beloved pony, and the secure routine of school, holidays, and childhood rituals. Then, life became ruled by words like “access,” “custody,” and “visitation”—words explained to Caddie by her older sister Philippa, unfazed by the divorce and headed for school in France. Caddie wants her mother and her old life back.

At the villa, Hugh’s attention is attracted by disturbing signs of his mother’s newly awakened sexuality, such as a finely embroidered petticoat and an unmatronly scarf. In a series of flashbacks prompted by visual cues, and eventually by questions from his astounded mother, Hugh tells how he and Caddie left school and traveled to the villa. Fanny is impressed by her children’s efforts to reach her, but she and Rob promptly notify their father, Darrell Clavering, a queen’s messenger, of the children’s whereabouts. As the three adults plan how to return the children to their father, none of them grasps the subversive nature of Hugh and Caddie’s mission. Nevertheless, Darrell’s business schedule and Hugh’s case of food poisoning delay the return.

In spite of themselves, Hugh and Caddie warm to Italy and to fair-minded Rob. Caddie relishes the La Scala opera and sumptuous meal to which Rob treats her, and Rob steadies Hugh with masculine advice after the lad has an unsettling sexual encounter. However, when Rob’s ten-year-old daughter, Pia, arrives at the villa from Rome at her father’s request, battle lines form. The three children join forces against Fanny and Rob, using contentiousness and a hunger strike to drive a wedge between them.

Fanny and Rob disagree over how to handle the hunger strike. The couple also is taxed by...

(The entire section is 849 words.)