If you spend most of your life alone you do not know that you are lonely….
A shimmering first novel of self-discovery, of redemption from numb solitude, and of the matchless consolations to be found in human connection and spiritual nourishment, Miss Garnet’s Angel limns—with uncommon subtlety and an engaging, often subversive wit—the thematic parallels and intersections that bind an ancient tale from the Apocrypha to a modern-day narrative about a retired British spinster on sojourn in Venice. A word-of-mouth bestseller and a critics’ favorite on both sides of the Atlantic, Salley Vickers’ resonant debut achieves something that has become all too rare in recent years: a wholesale blurring of the line distinguishing the “popular” from the “literary” on today’s fiction shelves.
Miss Julia Garnet is a retired history teacher who, as we learn in the opening pages of the novel, has been practicing economies of the spirit for a lifetime. A virgin in her sixties, she is still haunted by the spectre of her tyrannical, abusive father. It has been her belief that there are two kinds of people in the world: those willing to tangle with their fate, who endeavor to shape the course of life, and those who bear their circumstances with little or no struggle. Now, unmoored by the sudden death of Harriet Josephs—for more than thirty years Julia’s companion in a small West London flat—Miss Garnet decides to spend six months in Venice. It is a decision that sparks an exhilarating adventure of the soul. With this opening, author Salley Vickers sweeps us away into a mesmerizing narrative about the dissolution of prudence, the discarding of worn categories, and the challenging of dogmas that leave no room for wonder or transcendence.
The greatest wisdoms are not those which are written down but those which are passed between human beings who understand each other….
This is a book of stories—stories within stories, stories complementing stories, stories refracting and reshaping the elements of older stories. The strange beauty of Venice, with its spectacular architecture and abundance of art pregnant with history and ancient mysticism, storms Miss Garnet’s staunch English reserve and challenges her socialist ideology. For the first time in her life she falls in love—with Carlo, a charming art dealer with twinkling eyes and a white moustache—and her spirit, once awakened, is liberated further by her friendships with a beautiful Italian boy called Nicco and an enigmatic pair of twins engaged in restoring the fourteenth-century Chapel-of-the-Plague. It is her discovery of a series of paintings in the nearby Church of the Angel Raphael, however, that leads finally to Julia’s transformation and reassessment of her past. Intrigued by the paintings, Julia begins unraveling the story they tell of Tobias and the Archangel Raphael, an ancient tale depicting a quest of faith and redemption. At the same time, she embarks on a quest of her own to recover losses—not only personal losses but also a priceless angel panel that goes missing from the Chapel, along with one of the twins restoring it.
In Salley Vickers’ prose, the legendary city of sublimity and light comes to life with an unprecedented sensual clarity. Through Miss Garnet’s eyes, we encounter a city swarming with the ghosts of history and enduring even in the face of its own perpetual erosion into the sea. A ravishing novel possessed of an insistent emotional honesty and an infectious curiosity about life’s oldest mysteries, Miss Garnet’s Angel is that rarest of contemporary novels: kindhearted and complex, subtle and genuinely suspenseful.
Salley Vickers, author of Miss Garnet’s Angel and Instances of the Number 3, has worked as a university teacher of literature, specializing in Shakespeare and texts of the ancient world. Trained as a Jungian analytical psychologist, she lectures widely on the connections between literature, psychology, and religion. She lives and works in London and Bath.
AN INTERVIEW WITH SALLEY VICKERS
What was the germ for Julia Garnet’s story? What is it that drew you to Venice and the Book of Tobit as the setting and occasion for your novel?
People often ask me if there is a biographical element in the book. I think no novel can be written without some kind of autobiographical input (the trick is not to let one’s own personality intrude inappropriately) and in this case the persoanl note my own discovery of Venice, which was a turning point in my life—not unlike Julia Garnet’s. But there the point of comparison ends for I was a rebellious adolescent, visiting Venice with reluctance, supposing myself ‘above’ everything that appealed to, what I liked then to think of as, ‘the average tourist’. I first came, in fact, to the city for the day only, by train, (not the best way to arrive—the royal route is via the water) and as I walked towards the city’s centre, following the ubiquitous signs to St Mark’s, I felt, almost tangibly my silly adolescent reservations being eroded. When I finally reached the Piazza San Marco and saw the basilica across the square, like a great gleaming pearl, all my prejudices were turned upside down and I fell unreservedly in love with the place. I quite often use this story with people in my psychology practice, as an example of how any extreme position can be tipped into its opposite—and of course opposites and their role in life are a key theme in ‘Miss Garnet’.
After I had visited the basilica I made, as I thought, my way, back to the station. But, as the Monsignore in’Miss Garnet’ recommends, I got lost and found myself in a small campo outside the tourist area. It was a hot summer day and I was tired so, seeing shade, I went into the church which stood, looking rather dilapidated, in the middle of the campo with its back to me. From the gloom inside immediately a figure shuffled toward me stretching out hi hand for what I understood as a plea for money. I gave him a few coins and he took me by the arm to the front of the church, switched on some inadequate lights and showed me a series of paintings. I didn’t know what the paintings were about but I could see a boy, a dog, a fish and an angel—and I understood that they told a story.
Years passed. I read the Apocrypha and the Book of Tobit. If I ever connected it with the paintings I had seen as a young woman I don’t recall doing so. Then four years ago I returned to Venice, one of many many trips since that first momentous one, and wandering one afternoon found myself in a small deserted campo. I recognised that this was the place I had found all those year ago—and had never—one of those seemingly meant mysteries—tried to find since. Once more the door was open, once more a bent figure shuffled towards me asking for money, but this time I knew the lovely story of the paintings which greeted me like long lost friends. An that same day I went back to the apartment where I was staying and began Miss Garnet’s story.
Tell us about your research into the Apocrypha, the Middle East of ancient times, and Venice. Can we look forward to reading more about these topics in upcoming books?
The novel came out of me almost uninterrupted. But once I had written it I became fascinated with the origins of the story of Tobit and did much research on it—of which a fraction appears in the ‘Authors Note’. I discovered the story has strong Zoroastrian antecedents—and I became very enamoured of the Zoroastrians. It is a religion which, the more I learned of it the deeper its appeals to me. It still exists—and the Parsees are its main inheritors—but what attracts me to it most is its great stress on tolerance—especially religious tolerance, which all of us who have lived through recent troubles must agree has become an urgent necessity in our time. Something which occurred in many small ways throughout the writing of the book: I had written the Epiphany scene before I had realised that the Magi, who visit the Christ child at Epiphany, are for the tribe of the Medians who are Zoroastrian priests; then I had written the important scenes which occur on the bridge by the church of the Angel Raphael, before I had learned that the bridge is a key Zoroastrian image for the threshold of worlds. Perhaps most of all I loved uncovering the role of the dog i the Tobit story—dog’s were not at all popular with the Jews and Tobias’s dog is the only one who gets a good press in the Hebrew scriptures. This is almost certainly because the dog is part of the Zoroastrian element in the story, and for the Zoroastrians the dog was sacred—a psychopomp, one who leads the soul across the threshold of life and death.
Julia Garnet is a lovely creation-inspiring, affecting, charming, utterly believable. Is she based on any real-life models?
No one in any of my books is based on anyone—other than myself. All my characters are aspect on my own selves—and the more successful the character I would say the more unconscious the self. One marvellous feature of being a novelist is that it allows for the possibility of living unlived aspects of the personality—to explore these is part of the reward of writing.
Your novel has been celebrated by one writer as the antidote to the “Bridget Jones brigade.” Why do you suppose Miss Garnet’s Angel has caught on the way it has and resonated with so many readers? What sorts of feedback have you gotten?
This is going to sound immodest—but I was not so surprised as my British publishers at the success of ‘Miss Garnet’. For some time I have been aware that people want serious matter in what they read, even if they do no necessarily want it served up in a solemn or inaccessible way. I have more respect for readers than some English publishers have—who seem to think we only want to be titillated depressed. My readers have been outstandingly kind. Most days I get letters, email and, so far, the only criticism has been from a psychoanalyst who felt i didn’t understand psychoanalysis (which amused me, since I am an analyst myself.)
How do you feel about the popular critical and commercial practice today of sorting contemporary novels into tidy categories: women’s fiction, men’s fiction, gay fiction, romantic comedy, literary fiction, etc.? To what categories have you most often found Miss Garnet’s Angel assigned?
I find the modern habit of categorisation irritating ad limiting. I like all kinds of writing—and I feel really good books appeal to all kinds of different levels. Shakespeare knew this—he was popular and profound—so was Homer, so was Dickens. It is a modern failing to separate the popular from the so-called literary. ‘Miss Garnet’ was marketed as woman’s book—but the best reviews, if you look, come from men; I have many men—gay and straight—among my most ardent fans (I think because I have a sympathetic interest in male sexuality) and of course because of Julia’s age it has drawn a big following from older readers who tend to get ignored these days (heaven’s knows why—they are the chief readers and have time and resources to buy books—another case of British publishers’ short-sightedness). Away with categories, I say!
Give us the inside scoop on your writing regimen: How many hours a day do you devote to writing? Do you outline the complete arc of your narrative early on? Do you draft on paper or at a keyboard? Do you have a favourite location or time of day (or night) for writing? What do you do to avoid distractions?
Well, this may disappoint you but I have no regime whatsoever. I write only when the fit (and it is a kind of fit) takes me—and that might be for ten days on the trot—or not at all for a month. once a book gets going I seem to want to be at it all the time. it’s like a love affair—irresistible—the book is like a secret lover, nothing else is of such interest. Perhaps because of this I write, when I do, very fast. I wrote Miss Garnet in nine months—but, as I am always saying—it took over twenty years to mature in y mind—most of the ideas I want to write about have been mulling about somewhere inside me, linking up with other ideas, for many years. Physically, I write on a, now, quite aged laptop and I have no plan at all other than a kernel of the idea. That grows inside me and then seems to flow down my arms—or not; and if not I stop till they do.
Did the first-person voices for Tobit and Tobias come easily? What particular sorts of challenges, risks, or liberties came with creating the voice of a Biblical character (and adopting a rhythm, tone, and syntax completely distinct from the narrator of Julia’s story)?
This was the biggest challenge in writing the book and in fact I completely rewrote the Tobit/ Tobiassections. The first shot was too Biblical—you can’t beat the original and it felt too much like a parody. So I scrapped it and tried for something old and plain—different from the more complex syntax of the Venetian sections. But I kept a cadence—a rhythm—which I do take from the—matchless—Authorised Bible. I write both from and for the ear and in fact the Tobit/Tobias sections are now almost my favourites. I was pleased at having some first person narrative to mix with the third person and i think it is what give the book its particular texture, which many people are kind enough to say is part of the richness of the book.
One of the most poignant aspects of Miss Garnet’s Angel concerns Julia’s muted recognition of her father’s oppressive role in shaping her nature and identity. How did you go about creating the rich back-story that informs the Julia we meet in the present action of the novel?
Again I didn’t go about it—it arose as and when needed. I don’t plan, as I say, but I find ideas, and characters, arise like helpful genies when I need them. I loved finding some of the minor character in ‘Miss Garnet’— Signora Mignelli, for example, Julia’s highly practical and unselfconsciously mercenary landlady, or Mr Akbar—the man who buys her flat an gives her fake champagne and plays her Elvis—I don’t know where he came from; or Mr Mills, the junior senior partner in the firm of solicitors, from whom she accepts coffee, even though it disagrees with her. That’s what the Mr Mill’s of this world make us do.
What would your ideal reader walk away thinking and feeling after finishing Miss Garnet’s Angel?
Oh dear—should a writer, I wonder, be allowed the luxury of an ideal reader? Since you’ve tempted me I suppose I might hope to have deepened the reader’s sense of life’s rich possibility, and sense of the value inherent in apparently unimportant people and things. I have an acute sense of life’s prodigality—its hidden resources and splendour if we only care to look. And I have a special dislike of the conviction of being ‘right’—I hope the book might dislodge some certainties and liberate a kind of creative subversiveness.
How does your background as a Jungian psychologist and English literature scholar feed your work as a novelist? And vice-versa?
Working in these two professions together with bringing up my children have been a privilege—without theses disciplines I would be much lesser person. Studying and teaching literature has given me high standards but I’m glad to have these—and literature has also given me a sense of scope, and maybe, too, the courage to tackle what I want to tackle (and not what we are told readers ‘want’—which can anyway never be predicted, I’m glad to say!) Practising as an analyst has the great advantage of teaching you everything about yourself which your children have not already taught you. Know thyself, is, in my view the supreme command for a writer. It helps to keep you honest—to convince a reader one must be honest.
Who are you reading these days?
I am always reading Shakespeare—and, in fact, at present also the Bible, which I am trying to read all through. I am writing on The Book of Common Prayer, so I’m also reading the Prayer Books—so I’m surrounded by what y family call my ‘holy books’. Then I’m reading a lot of poetry for my nest novel—and also quite a bit of philosophy (which I may write about soon). I read almost no contemporary fiction. The last novel I read was Chance by Joseph Conrad. I’m a great devotee of Conrad—when one thinks he wrote not even in his second language but his first, the mind boggles. It makes anything I do seem very unimpressive! And I love detective stories—especially the old-fashioned ones.
Tell us about your new novel, Instances of the Number 3.
It is also about other levels or dimensions of existence—and it also begins with a death. Come to think of it, so does my next novel which I’m writing right now, from which you can tell that death is a subject which intrigue me. Like Miss Garnet, Instances is a novel—about redemption and the possibilities of forgiveness although with a more contemporary setting.. A man dies leaving behind a wife and a mistress, but, against the expectation, these women become f not friend allies. The man returns in disembodied form and we learn about the follies in his life. Again as in Miss Garnet, of illusion, of things not being as they seem is key. I like the way we poor old human beings blunder along believing we know all about life and what’s what; and we don’t! I also like the idea of an irony deep within the principle of the universe—as if somewhere there is a cosmic voice, laughing at us. If I manage nothing else in my writing I would like to give a flavour of that cosmic laugh….
Reading group guide and author interview by Daniel Eshom.