A while ago I did one of my novella reading weekends, but I don't think I ever actually told you about it, before or afterwards. One of the books I read was my first stab at W. Somerset Maugham, only eight or so years since I first bought one of his books. Which wasn't the one I read. Up at the Villa (1941) came recommended by Simon Savidge (see links at the bottom) and is only 120pp - plus it has a lovely cover, so why not?
Up at the Villa is rather difficult to classify - in terms of length, it probably counts as a novella, but structurally it seems much more like a short story. There are all manner of attempts to define the short story, and I find a few quite helpful. Brander Matthews suggested over a century ago that "a short-story deals with a single character, a single event, a single emotion, or the series of single emotions called forth by a single situation." In 1979 Wendell Harris picked up on the same focal word in his definition: "single memorable curve of action revealing a single memorable personality." Poe wrote more vaguely, but sensibly, that the short story must have "unity of impression". All these definitions essentially suggest singularity - no room for interweaving plots, multiple focalisation, etc. etc. Of course, there are dozens of writers and hundreds of short stories which break these rules, but rather fewer novellas and novels which fit so neatly into the definition.
Up at the Villa doesn't take us far from beautiful young widow Mary Panton's perspective, nor from the events of a single momentous day. In the wake of her husband's death, Mary is living in a beautiful borrowed villa overlooking Florence. Her beauty is striking, she is privileged (if not quite opulent) and at the beginning of the novel she even receives a proposal from an older man who is soon to be Governor of Bengal. Not to mention the rakish attentions of Rowley Flint, who doesn't have marriage on his mind.
So where does this single memorable curve of action take us? It starts with one act of generosity:
And, one thing leading to another, it does make a difference to a lot of lives. But I'm not going to reveal any more of the plot...They had dined late and soon after eleven the Princess called for her bill. When it grew evident that they were about to go, the violinist who had played to them came forward with a plate. There were a few coins on it from diners at other tables and some small notes. What they thus received was the band's only remuneration. Mary opened her bag."Don't bother", said Rowley. "I'll give him a trifle."He told a ten-lira note out of his pocket and put it on the plate."I'd like to give him something too", said Mary. She laid a hundred-lira note on the others. The man looked surprised, gave Mary a searching look, bowed slightly and withdrew."What on earth did you give him that for?" exclaimed Rowley. "That's absurd.""He plays so badly and he looks so wretched.""But they don't expect anything like that.""I know. That's why I gave it. It'll mean so much to him. It may make all the difference to his life."
I do love stories where one seemingly innocent action leads to a huge fallout. The only one which comes to mind right now is a broken cup in an episode of Flight of the Conchords, which probably isn't a seriously helpful example... but you know what I mean. I thought Maugham manipulated the situation well, and without contravening the personalities of the characters drawn at the beginning. Mary is impulsive and romantic and not always able to deal with the outcome of her actions, and this makes for a plot which snowballs out of her control - a touch melodramatically, but still within the realms of feasibility.
My only confusion is why it became a 120 page book. Most authors would have condensed it into thirty pages, or added more characters, more ideas, more occurrences - and another 120 pages. It might seem an odd thing to focus on, but Up at the Villa falls between two stools, which is difficult to ignore. What makes me want to return to Maugham, and try one of his more famous books, is that even with these reservations, I still found Up at the Villa a skillful, interesting read.
Others who got Stuck into it:
"Up at the Villa is a perfect book when you want something slightly familiar and yet something that completely throws you." - Simon, Savidge Reads
"The pacing of the story is excellent, starting off at the slow, languid speed that you might expect from a novel about the English upper classes in Italy and gradually speeding up until it feels almost out of control." - Old English Rose
"It’s a fine and entertaining diversion, and it’s got guns in, and sometimes that’s all we need" - John Self, The Asylum