What does haunting mean? Can it be the words of a writer a hundred years ago who expresses so beautifully the thoughts you hold yourself?
The passionate feeling for places depends very largely on a habit of craving for the beyond: beyond the plain which intervenes between us and the mountain range; beyond the hill, the pass between us and the seashore. And it is my experience that the Genius Loci is sure to haunt the turn of the road where our daily walk comes to an end; or the place where the rocks, growing too steep, close in the mystery of the stream; we feel him immanent in every valley which opens and closes again as the train or the motor rushes by. All our finest pleasures require forestalling in wish and fancy ; and it is doubtful whether nine-tenths of them are not due to such forestalling. This does not mean that the finest happiness exists in anticipation only, but that when it really comes in the present its most exquisite essence is but the remnant of expectation and longing.
The sentimental traveller: notes on places
Vernon Lee, who wrote these words, lived in the Residenza del Palmerino, a villa just below the Fiesole hills that was first constructed by a jeweler to the Medici family some six centuries ago. It passed through several Florentine families and was, for a time, a monastery before Lee bought it in 1889. She hosted the literati of the time and today the children and grandchildren of the painter and writer who bought the villa in 1935 host and promote artistic events in the Residenza.
And in April I’ll make it my home for a week. Looking for a place to cocoon and write and just be in Italy after a tumultuous beginning to the year (hospital stay for a bizarre injury, a trip to Africa cancelled, being laid off from my job of seven years) I found the villa on SabbaticalHomes.com. Exceedingly fortunately, I am to be there during a week that a room was available (and at a writer-friendly budget of 200 euros!).
At first I was lured by the beauty and history and peace. Then I became intrigued by the writer who called it home a century ago. Her short fiction explored the themes of haunting and possession, wikipedia tells me, but she “was also known for her numerous essays about travel in Italy, France, Germany, and Switzerland which attempted to capture the psychological effects of places rather than to convey any particular piece of information.”
I checked my library to no avail for her books, evidently long out of print, but had better luck on Google books, where I found the passage above. I read it and reread it, enchanted, shared it on facebook, and read it aloud to my husband before falling asleep dreaming of the villa and the long-dead writer.
She wrote about haunting and possession. When I stay at her home, what if I can conjure something of her spirit? The part that led such captivating words to flow from her pen?
She says in her dedication to The sentimental traveller:
To whom should I dedicate this book, if not to you, dear neighbour and fellow-traveller ? Neighbour, not merely in a brick-and-mortar (and, since I have built it, let us hope, not incommodious) dwelling, but in the closer vicinity of thought and feelings. And fellow-traveller, also, down the sloping twilit years, as well as across the woods and vineyards and old gabled market-places of this unmetaphorical world of space. It has always seemed to me that to know a country one must have friends belonging to it ; bodiless friends, perhaps, in book or music score …
Shall I not take her as my friend in Italy then? Since I will be staying in her (decidedly not incommodious) dwelling? As my friend perhaps I can seek out a friendly haunting from her. Why not be mentored by an English writer born in 19th century France who made her home in Italy? I like a spooky ghost story as much as the next person, though it gives me the shivers to think of a real ghost. But couldn’t sharing a space, if not a time, with the writer provide a chance to seek her ghost? At least the ghost of her gift, in the hope that she can share it? I don’t know. But I’ll find out.
I’ll dream until then of my room in the villa, waiting and wondering:
are there perhaps in time, as well as in space, enclosed places of the spirit, little regions of tender memories and peaceful hopes, set with wonder-trees bearing deathless blossom and fruit ? A tiny now, safe embosomed in happy yesterdays and to-morrows, which (like the plains looked at from the hills, or the hills from the sea) are of the mirage blue of dreams. All of us, surely, have known such days of causeless and pervading joy ; have, by some spells impossible to learn, found ourselves admitted within those vanishing, longed-for isles, those closed valleys, where the gold-dust of sunset lies tangibly on all things, and our own thoughts all wear an aureole.