Penelope Fitzgerald was attached to the virtue of omission, telling one interviewer that her books were ‘about twice the length … when they’re first finished, but I cut all of it out. It’s just an insult to explain everything.’ She was exaggerating, but not by much. In her sixth novel, Innocence (1986), set in 1950s Italy, Fitzgerald provides two tantalising glimpses of the future of Chiara and Salvatore, the main characters. In one flash forward, their wedding photographs are seen from the perspective of someone looking back, three decades later. In the other, Chiara is seen ‘during the later stages of her life, when things were not going well for her’, recalling a bewildering phrase uttered by her English convent school friend Barney: ‘You must let us know, though, if you’re ever in Chipping Camden.’ This is all we’re allowed to see. ‘Is this frustrating?’ Julian Barnes asked in his introduction to the 2013 edition. ‘Yes. Is it unfair? A little. Is it calculated? Exactly so.’
Fitzgerald’s working papers, held at the Harry Ransom Center in Texas, reveal hints of the future she imagined for Chiara and Salvatore. Fitzgerald originally envisaged the novel in two parts: Part 1 would cover the events leading up to Chiara and Salvatore’s wedding in 1956; Part 2 would return to the same characters a decade later. ‘It was supposed to end in the flood in Florence in 1966,’ she wrote to Stuart Proffitt, her editor at Collins, ‘but I gave up as all the characters would have got so old by that time.’
A densely written notebook that contains her ‘Attempt at Synopsis’ for Part 2 catches up first with Chiara:
She had been married now for ten years and they had three children, a thin son and two thin little girls. It could not be said that the marriage had gone wrong because from the very first she had been crazy with joy, though not more crazy than Salvatore. The ‘craziness’ reflected, however, not so much how they felt themselves as other people’s ideas about them. Florence, perhaps, thought them crazy.
The synopsis then moves to Barney. Chiara has heard that her English friend has fallen in love at last, ‘and so unsuitably’, with an art historian called Matthew Massini. But Massini, it becomes clear, is not in love with her. He has merely used her to gain an introduction to Chiara’s father, Count Ridolfi, in whose library Massini hopes to find Botticelli’s annotated herbal, the key to identifying the hundreds of flowers in his Primavera. Chiara has her doubts about Massini, but resolves to help for the sake of her friendship with Barney. ‘Not to be expected that the Ridolfi family would abandon their destructive search for other peoples’ happiness,’ Fitzgerald writes.
The fragment here begins with Massini’s arrival at Chiara and Salvatore’s villa at Bellosguardo. Closely written in Fitzgerald’s distinctive italic hand, each crammed page shows both her painstaking research and her method of drafting. Scenes are sketched in note form, second and third thoughts are interlined, inserted in square brackets, and squeezed vertically in the margins in black, blue and red ink – she wrote of ‘endless work, on old envelopes, losing bits’ – before the excising and paring down begins.
Almost all of this material was omitted from Innocence when Fitzgerald gave up her two-part plan, though some traces remain. In one draft passage, Fitzgerald sketches Massini’s wartime service in Florence ‘as a junior dogsbody in the sub-commission for Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives’. In the printed novel, Fitzgerald gives this history to Professor Pulci, and shrinks the passage to half its length, reducing it to one multi-clausal sentence. Massini also makes a spectral appearance at the dinner party held by Professor Pulci at the Villa Hodgkiss, when a young art historian called Murray Burton, ‘nicely dressed and on the make’, witnesses the furious row between Chiara and Salvatore. Though drastic cuts have again been made, the idea stays the same: Burton is Massini in all but name.
Fitzgerald believed that an original image or idea ‘always stays so to speak latent, within the novel when it’s finished’. What is omitted – the imagined future of Chiara and Salvatore, or the British businessman’s greenhouse that inspired, but disappeared from, The Beginning of Spring (1988) – is important because it shadows or informs what remains. She went further: ‘I can only say that [these original ideas or images] seem to me close to the mysterious individual life of the novel which you can recognise whether you’re reading it or writing it.’
Some people never expect to be expected. No matter what their preparations, they can never be sure that they are at the right place at the right time, or worse still, they know that the place, and even the time, is right, but can’t believe they will be welcome, either then or ever. As a child, and even in adolescence, Matthew Massini had been in this condition. As a young man he had corrected it himself to this extent, that although he assumed that other people might not much want to see him he also came to believe that they were wrong. At 37, as an adviser to private collectors, he believed he had almost forgotten the feeling altogether.
He arrived in Florence, where he was supposed to be and had been commissioned to come, in the late autumn. He took a taxi up to the Porta Romana and up the hill to the contour roads of Bellosguardo. It was raining heavily with a hard silvery persistence and the vineyards, between their rolling stone walls, were as sodden as the Home Counties. He rang the bell in the garden wall of via dei Cipressi 15. A Morris 1100A, parked outside the villa, bounced and drummed with rain. When a voice almost drowned by a barking dog asked who he was, he replied in an Italian which was as good as his English, his German and his French that his name was Masson and he had an appointment. Then he looked up, for the voice had not been behind the entrance, but from further away and high up.
‘Go away and come back later.’
A woman in black, a servant, was leaning out of the second-floor window.
‘I said I have an appointment to see the Contessa Signora Rossi.’
This won’t do, Matthieu thought.
Against all sense and reason, his past selves threatened him. Through the Hampstead Garden Suburb, up Linden Lea and by Reynolds Close and Constable Close, a small boy walked home by himself. Not however because no one had wanted to come with him, but because he not been able to find the words to ask them.
At wartime Cambridge on the table in his history tutor’s room lay a board game of the tutor’s own devising, based on the possible economic strategy and tactics of the Allies. Anyone who happened to be in the room could make a move, indeed must do if the tutor was to be appeased and there was a possibility of winning, or at least of losing, but to Matti the correct next move was so easy to calculate that he couldn’t bring himself to make it.
In 1944 he was in Florence for the first time, as a junior dogsbody in the sub-commission for Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives with the duties of surveying ‘important artistic objectives’ as soon as military operations made it possible, wherever possible, and of circumventing also, whenever possible, the American Commission for the Protection of Cultural Treasures in War Areas. Beyond any doubt he was invaluable, checking his catalogues calmly among broken sewers and gas mains and working till midnight in the candlelit rooms of the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, the Allied military government headquarters, a few hundred yards away from the German forward positions in Fortezza da Basso.
It now appeared that Matti was as before and as usual both needed and rejected at via dei Cipressi 15.
Meanwhile he stood there in the rain.
‘It is not possible to see the Contessa.’
‘In God’s name why?’
The window shut to and at once, as though one thing had caused the other, someone from inside the wall pressed the release and about a quarter of the doors opened. Chiara came dashing out, with a high colour, visibly distressed, thin as a bird in her Levis.
‘But you’re wet!’
‘A little damp,’ said Matti.
The guard dog, slavering with pricked ears at Chiara’s side, was quelled, and retreated to the house, its low-slung tail registering yet another of a hundred disappointments.
‘Is it Dr Matteo Masson?’
‘You had to wait?’
‘Did you think me impolite?’
‘There seemed to be some kind of difficulty, so I made allowances, and I’m still making them, Contessa.’
Chiara gave him her thin hand. ‘I’m Mrs Rossi. I don’t call myself Contessa. The state doesn’t recognise these titles, no one does.’
‘I expect they’re useful at times, all the same,’ said Matti, but Chiara could not have heard him, she was opening the door of the Morris. He added ‘call me Matti.’
‘Please get in, Matti. Please get in at once out of the rain.’
They began to move at full pitch down the twists and turns of the hill.
The gutters were streaming full, and the olive trees turned each separate leaf away from the rain, showing the pale sides only.
‘I am very sorry I couldn’t admit you to the villa. I want you to come later. I should be very pleased if you could come to dinner this evening. Meanwhile I’m taking you to my father’s flat in Piazza Limbo. I have been looking forward so much to meeting you, and to hearing about Barney. I couldn’t ask you in just now because I was quarrelling with my husband.’
Matti wondered whether there were certain days of the week reserved for this. The Boboli Gardens and tier above tier of dark green flashed by them through the streaming windows. He felt hopelessly confused, a very unpleasant sensation for the expert classifier. To what could the confusion be attributed?
His reception at via dei Cipressi 15 was not enough to account for it. Letting his reactions speak for themselves, as one does in considering which meal consumed during the day has caused the food poisoning, he saw that he had been disturbed by the mention of Barney at such an early stage.
Barney, who was not married but had an unusually good job, they said, for a woman, with the Animal Blood Stock Agency, had one importance to him and one only, that of giving him this recommendation to the family Ridolfi. It was known, everybody knew, that the Prince, now 80, was thinking of putting his affairs and in particular his collection in order and required in order to help him a discreet and versatile young man, quite young in any case, with the preserved youth of experts in the fine arts.
He scarcely ever saw Barney now and had only met her, not entirely by chance, at a Stubbs exhibition, where he saw her staring woodenly at a Brood Mare and Foals. He took the opportunity to mention the matter. A mention of anything to Barney had to be very plain, but she had grasped his meaning. It had been arranged quite quickly after all.
Only he did not want to talk about Barney now. Her devotion to him, which he had had to regard, as all his circle did, as a mild joke, ever since that distant weekend at Painstake, would have been rather different if Barney had not been large and handsome. If she had been just as strong-minded, but ugly she could have been something like a stock figure of Victorian low comedy, a Katyusha pursuing him through the brilliant bursts and turns of his career. But Barney was not ugly, and never pursued him. As a result, Matti was attacked from time to time by a waking nightmare, that in fact she felt nothing for him at all, and it was he himself who was being laughed at.
Still that was not enough to perplex him so much, there were other elements. Of these, the uppermost was that he was still wet, and that he had been faintly but recognisably pleased when Chiara said she had been quarrelling with her husband. Once he had recognised this last feeling, he congratulated himself. But then, the sensation of self-approval was also confusing.
‘It’s a bit difficult here when you have a passenger to see the traffic coming in from the right.’
‘It’s impossible,’ said Chiara but drove on giving no quarter.
He sat there, hunched and disconcerted, surreptitiously blowing his long, pale inquisitive nose, a fine intelligence not adapted to run when its intelligence was interrupted.
Chiara asked suddenly, ‘Do you like real homemade bread?’
‘Of course, if it is good of its kind,’ said Matthieu coldly.
With total disregard of the unbridled traffic she pulled up, sprang out, dodged into a shop and came out with a large, solid round loaf of bread.
‘Then that’s the real casalinga.’
‘Shall I hold it?’ It was wrapped in coarse whitish brown paper and was still hot.
‘You bought this for me.’ She had held up the traffic of half a million inhabitants to get him this heavy loaf.
‘I’m so very sorry you were kept waiting at the villa. I wanted to give you something.’
‘You were quick, but we were nearly pulverised by a van. And you were only easing your conscience. It’s monstrous to do that.’
Chiara smiled. In a few moments she drew up again in front of a café and let a small boy who had been waiting at the entrance climb onto the back seat. On closer inspection he might perhaps be eleven or twelve, dark and imperturbable.
‘I was just going to telephone, Mamma.’
‘Speak English, Franco, this is a guest, Dr Matthew Masson.’
‘I’m pleased to meet you, sir.’
‘Do you always come out of school so early?’ Matti asked in Italian.
Franco, recognising the irritation in his voice, shrugged. ‘There were no classes today.’ His teacher was leading them out on a demonstration in favour of the legalisation of divorce.
‘Can’t you wait till you’re a student?’
‘I shan’t attend university,’ said Franco. ‘Students are not serious. All of them join the exploiting classes in time. Mamma, I have to meet the others on the south side of Repubblica and bring my own soft drinks.’
‘We’re not going the right way then,’ said Chiara, altering course.
‘Are you fond of bread, sir?’ Franco politely asked, leaning a little forward, over the back of the right-hand seat.
‘Your mother gave it to me.’
‘That’s nice of her. She’s fond of these demonstrations of affection.’
After Piazza della Repubblica, back to Borgo SS Apostoli. Matti had the impression that the traffic regulations were being entirely ignored.
‘He seems quite a clever boy.’
‘I wish I were the right mother for him,’ said Chiara with a kind of gentle resolution which Matthieu believed was a characteristic of those who have largely given up thinking about themselves. Such people were difficult to deal with. Often it was the result of being the oldest girl in a large family.
‘You have a number of brothers and sisters?’
Chiara looked bewildered.
‘I haven’t any, only a cousin. He isn’t here, he looks after the property at Terra Pietrosa. It’s only just outside the Chianti area, still it is vintage and they won’t let us use the mark. Our wine is very good.’
‘It tastes of stone, like Chianti?’
The car plunged into the shadowed entrance of Piazza Limbo.
‘What does your cousin say about that?’
‘But he never says anything,’ Chiara cried.
He looked at her sideways in profile, such a strange angle always, no wonder that it had obsessed the Egyptians, only one cheek, only one eye with lids so round that even the colour of the eye couldn’t be made out, one ear, the sharp plane of her chin, which was not quite young anymore and the fair hair cut short, got out of the way, which was a child’s still. It was his duty to say something, but not what came uppermost, which was why she was not more worried about his wet clothes.
The cortile was one quarter in pale greenish sunshine and three quarters in shadow and silent. Matthieu, glancing rapidly, classed it as of almost no interest and seedy. They crossed the parking squares reserved for the nocturnal service for heart attacks, to the glass doors between the agent for domestic fuel and the consultant for urinary diseases.
‘You’re sure your father is prepared for my visit?’
‘Of course, of course,’ said Chiara.
The rain had stopped. But just as they left the courtyard one of the cortile’s first floor gutters gave way and discharged a quantity of water which fell sharply behind them and rebounded from the stone flags. Matti’s legs were now as damp as the back of his neck. Grasping his loaf, silent about his discomforts, he felt perversely justified, as though making a necessary sacrifice.
They ascended the stairs, pausing where the steps changed from marble to stone to look out of a round window at a glimpse of the Arno. The river, somewhat above itself with the spring rain, reflected the yellowish light in the yellowish water and threw over the nearby buildings a curious transparency, like painting on glass. Chiara had seen these so often that she no longer noticed it, and stopped only because she had come up this way so often with her father who no longer pretended that he wasn’t pausing for breath.
Matti, just behind her as she started up the last flight, thought, she has grazia which from time immemorial has had nothing to do with elegance or even with beauty. Grace is never intended or even deserved. How can it be possible in a girl, with flanks as thin as those, in a dung-coloured raincoat, probably from Standa. It was no compliment to him that she put on a thing like that to drive him into Florence. But her carelessness as to how she looked was, of course, an element of grace, which is unable to concentrate in itself.
‘Here we are, come in,’ said Chiara. The door opened instantly, for Annunziata had seen the car from her kitchen window.
‘This is the dottore Masson, who will want an aperitif. He is a friend of Signorina Barney, you remember her.’
‘I remember her.’
Chiara had undertaken to do her best for this Dr Masson, when she had been asked to do so, entirely on Barney’s account. In the matter of friendship she was Italian entirely.
Barney had refused to make her grand disappointment into a grievance. She did not even want to discuss it or even hint at its marble persistence as of a rock hidden beneath the water which one must take every precaution not to strike.
And yet Chiara, as a true Ridolfi, could not give up hope in at least a partial solution. A relationship must change as soon as a new element enters, and Chiara was still committed to feeling that change was likely to be for the better. She had not too much idea what Dr Masson hoped to do or to find or to help her father to find but she was quite familiar, from Professor Pulci and others, with the extreme passions of the expert cataloguer.
At least Dr Masson had been obliged to ask Barney for something. If the visit was successful, if it was ‘productive’ and ‘interesting’, then at least Barney would have to be thought of as a benefactor. She would stand higher with the changed perspective.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.