Friday, 28 October 2016

Book Review: The Devourers by Annie Vivanti review of a book written
by an author whose family name starts with the letter

Without doubt when a baby is born, most parents hope that it will be special in every way, i.e. more beautiful, more intelligent, more gifted than average. Many mothers and fathers will even look out for the slightest sign of geniality in their offspring, and indeed, outstanding talent often shows already at an early age. It’s only natural that the proud family of such an exceptional child will do everything in its power to encourage it to live up to its potential. The best school will be chosen, additional classes booked, tutors hired to join innate talent with skill and knowledge. And here we are, setting aside own needs and desires for the sake of the child prodigy like three generations of mothers in the forgotten classic The Devourers by Annie Vivanti. Each one of the women readily changes into the role of the devoured sacrificing everything, including love and a promising future, for her extraordinary daughter.

Anna Emilia AnnieVivanti was born in Norwood, England, U.K., in April 1866 and grew up in her father’s Italy, in Switzerland, in England and in the USA. For a while she worked at the theatre and then dedicated herself to writing. In 1890 she made her literary debut with the acclaimed poetry collection Lirica (Lyrics) and the following year she brought out her first novel entitled Marion, artista di caffè concerto (Marion, Coffee Concert Artist). After her marriage in 1892 she turned to writing in English. Apart from a couple of stories for different magazines and successful plays, she produced the novels The Hunt for Happiness (1896) and Winning Him Back (1904). In 1910 appeared her most famous novel The Devourers that she not just translated but rewrote in Italian to be published in 1911. The author wrote her later, highly successful and widely translated works in Italian, most importantly the novels Marie Tarnowska (Circe: 1912), The Outrage (Vae Victis: 1917), Naja tripudians (1920), and Mea culpa (1927; My Fault) and the travel book Terra di Cleopatra (1925; Land of Cleopatra). Annie Vivanti Chartres died in Turin, Italy, in February 1942.

As soon as Valeria arrives to live with her late husband’s family in Hertfordshire, her baby Giovanna Desiderata Felicità soon to be called Nancy, the first of The Devourers and devoured, becomes the common centre of attention. All wish the best for Nancy and when they discover her exceptional talent for poetry, everybody in the household, Valeria first of all, does whatever it needs to help the little genius to live her vocation. Thus eight years pass until the youngest and only surviving sibling of Nancy’s father begins to show signs of tuberculosis. Valeria fears that being so close to the young woman her precious little girl might catch the terrible illness and returns to Italy to live with her family there. In Milan life continues to revolve around the ingenious poetess. At sixteen, Nancy publishes a much acclaimed collection of her poems and is invited to read some of them to the Queen at the Quirinal in Rome. Her success attracts all kinds of admirers and would-be poets whose presence keeps her from writing. Then the handsome and charming dandy Aldo Della Rocca enters into her life. Although he is virtually penniless and Nancy gets only a small dowry from her family, they get married and soon have a little girl called Anne-Marie. When family and friends are no longer able or willing to support them financially, Aldo suggests that he travels to Monte Carlo to multiply in the Casino what remains of Nancy’s dowry since he can’t bear being a clerk. Of course, it doesn’t work and destitute they immigrate to the USA. In New York they struggle for mere survival. One day Aldo leaves his family and Nancy is on her own to take care of herself as well as of Anne-Marie. Then the girl turns out to be a violin prodigy…

The third-person narrative The Devourers is a three-generation family saga that explores the complex relations between mothers and their highly-talented daughters. In accordance with the female role model of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the time frame in which the plot is set, each of the three women – Valeria, Nancy, and eventually Anne-Marie – pushes her own life including her dreams, her desires and even her needs into the background as soon as her baby makes her first cry for food. But their sacrifice is selfless only at first sight. In fact, they begin to live through their daughters, and what is more, they keep their self-respect alive and even raise themselves “making”, i.e. shaping their daughters and their exceptional careers. Consequently, each of the women is at the same time devourer and devoured. To write the novel the author drew largely from her own experience as mother of the child prodigy at violin Vivien Chartres which surely accounts for the authentic plot and the psychological depth of the characters. The language of the novel is rich in subtle symbols that reveal the ambiguity of the mothers’ feelings as well as their subconscious refusal to step back and leave their place in the limelight to their daughters.

Thanks to its dynamic plot and unpretentious language, The Devourers by Annie Vivanti has been an absorbing read that I enjoyed very much. For a novel from the early twentieth century set in Edwardian England it’s also surprisingly timeless. After all, who doesn’t know a parent who tries to push his/her child to achieve the extraordinary, if not the impossible – to become a celebrated artist, an outstanding scientist, a supreme entrepreneur? Despite all, it’s a topic that not many novels touch like this one that is undeservedly forgotten today. In a nutshell: I recommend this book.

Nota bene:
The works of Annie Vivanti Chartres are in the public domain since she died more than 70 years ago. Several of her books can be downloaded for free from the Project Gutenberg site, among them also The Devourers and its Italian version I Divoratori.

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  1. I like your review. I would say this book is timeless. I know mothers like this in Los Angeles.

    1. Oh, I think that we all know such mothers. It seems to be a trait of our time that parents want their children to outdo others and be more successful than they could ever dream to be.


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