Paul Geddes, a Scot living in London, arrives in Venice to seek out a cache of papers that will give new lustre to a forgotten fin-de-siècle singer in whom he has an ardent interest. In rescuing Esme Maguire from obscurity he hopes also to shed light on the wider events of her life and times. His researches have put him in touch with Eva Forrest, a wealthy widow in possession of a tantalising archive that is yet to be explored.
Eva is mysterious, expressing willingness to help but selective in what she allows Paul to read. These fragments seem unconnected to Esme: they centre on the young Elena Merlo, a gifted singer who first visits Venice in 1684 and narrates an impossibly long life in which the city’s fluctuating fortunes are mapped through her own experiences of change.
A troubled love affair fraught with mistrust develops between the two. Eva resists Paul’s probings about her personal story and the history of the Venetian house where he is staying. When her past begins to come to light through an encounter in the Dolomites, the effects are devastating. Is Eva delusional, unsound of mind? Is she a hoaxer, or a middle-aged woman whose anxiety about ageing has overwhelmed her?
The novel is inspired by Janacek’s opera The Makropulos Case, in which a singer lives for nearly 300 years – a questioning of what it would mean to be immortal and a valuing of mortality. It’s a novel about how the signs of ageing can contradict who we feel we are and how that looming prospect acts on love and desire, emotions with the power to rejuvenate. Throughout, music is a sustaining force.
A present set around the year 2000 has scenes from Venetian history threaded through it as the novel’s central character moves through time. She is painted by Pietro Longhi and comes to know the pastellist Rosalba Carriera. Her travels take her to Regency London and Edinburgh, and to the Paris studio of the famed photographer Nadar.
My research for this story began in Venice, where I lived for a number of years. I wanted the novel to have a strong sense of place and convey the city’s atmospheres. I also wanted to suggest how much women’s lives have changed in a matter not just of centuries but decades; and how one life can seem to encompass many.
Legal men were everywhere in this city, and I sang one evening at a gathering of eminent lawyers and advocates; it was leavened with doctors, for they too abounded. I began with a series of Haydn songs, the music set to English words, then Scottish folk tunes to poems by Robert Burns. I often liked to end with Mozart, and had chosen a lied, Das Traumbild.
Intent upon conjuring this dream picture, I was gratified by the attentive silence that accompanied my singing. A warm late-summer breeze entered through the floor-length windows. The large drawing room was brightly lit and I had a clear sense of the many eyes upon me. Only the shadowy area beyond its wide-open double doors, where gentlemen stood smoking, contained any movement, as guests made their way into the room; murmured conversation could be observed in the gestures of these figures, although no sound of it disturbed my concentration or that of my listeners.
Suddenly, I noticed a commotion there: a man rudely attempting to push into the main part of the room. Someone held him back. I sang on, concerned that nothing should impinge on my absorption in the music. I faltered, missing only a single beat, when struck by the knowledge that the man was George Lake.
I dared not look at him; yet my determination not to have my performance ruined by his arrival impelled me to even greater bravura than I would otherwise have achieved. I was doing battle, music being my great weapon, my singing self my strongest one. As my voice grew in richness and expression, as I found more tenderness and meaning in the sounds that I shaped, so my own strength increased, and while my all was surrendered to the song, so that I and it were now inseparable, I could feel another part of me, deep and distinct, at work in making a decision that might save me.
George Lake was not to have me back. I was untouchable, my own mistress and no man's slave. I sang on, conquering my terror and knowing that my salvation lay in denial. I sang on, fierce with music, curbing my gaze, rehearsing for a part.
The applause was broken by a shout.
I ignored it, nodding gracious acknowledgement to my audience, before turning to my accompanist.
But George was upon me, seizing my hands in his.
– Eleonora! I have found you at last. Forgive me. I know not what I did to make you leave me, but it has been my torment. Now, I promise you, I shall make you very happy. Let us leave at once, I have a carriage outside.
Astonishment almost made me succumb to recognition, but I shook myself free.
– How dare you, Sir. You mistake me for someone else.
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