Chiara Ridolfi

C.K. Stead

Penelope Fitzgerald’s Innocence is set in Florence, the principal characters are Italian, and I kept asking myself: how is it done? She knows quite a lot about Italian society: but more important, she has somehow got inside her Italian characters, so that when a young Englishwoman appears on the scene she really seems a foreigner and not, as one might expect, the focus of the novel’s consciousness. Imagination is part of the mystery; the other part is pace. This novel seems to impose its own slow pace on the reader. Probably that means one has a sense that nothing we are told is insignificant. It has, not opacity, but density. It is a book that never seems to settle back, as so much currently admired fiction does, into a conventional exercise, fiction as a pastiche of itself.

The time is 1955. Centre-stage are a young doctor, Salvatore Rossi, and a young woman just out of school, Chiara Ridolfi. They fall quite violently in love, and marry. There is some deft movement back and forward in time, giving us their respective backgrounds. Chiara is heir to a house of faded nobility. Salvatore is the son of a village Communist. He has resolved when young to have nothing to do with politics. Nevertheless he is enraged to find himself helplessly in love with the Ridolfi scion – and Fitzgerald clearly enjoys doing characters whose impatience borders on passion and whose passion compels anti-social behaviour. Chiara’s English schoolfriend, a young woman known as Barney, is another character in that mould. Compulsive and overbearing, she falls in love with Chiara’s taciturn cousin, Cesare, who runs the family winery – and tells him so, offering to marry him. It looks as if the novel is heading for a parallel pairing: but disconcertingly Cesare doesn’t respond, except to indicate that he knows Barney loves him. By one hint only (and Fitzgerald requires us to read attentively) it is signalled that Cesare, though sympathetic to Barney, is in love with Chiara. This in turn explains his otherwise inexplicable behaviour at the dramatic climax.

But there is an older story than the one we are being told. In the late 16th century the Count Ridolfi was a midget. He married a midget and they produced a midget daughter. To save the child from a sense of inadequacy they employed only midgets. She was to be protected from the world of full-sized people. They acquired for her a midget companion, whom she loved – but then at some point in childhood the companion put on what is called these days a ‘growth spurt’. What should be done about it? The midget daughter, believing her companion’s size to be a misfortune, suggested she should be blinded so she would not see what ‘ordinary’ people looked like, and cut off at the knees so that her deformity would not be excessive.

We are told this in the opening pages. But what happened? It is not until late in the novel that one of the Ridolfi houses is more or less requisitioned by the Italian Tourist Board. For a tourist brochure a version of the 16th-century story more palatable than the real one is invented, telling how the companion child escaped over the wall. Thanks to that, and the fact that a Communist novelist wants to make a film about how a ‘child of the people’ was mutilated by corrupt aristocrats, we acquire – obliquely – an answer to the question which those opening pages has left us with.

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