Towards the end of last month Faber & Faber published The Madonna of the Mountains, a novel by Elise Valmorbida, which is set in Italy during the 1920s and onwards and the rise of fascism, telling the story of Maria Vittoria. To celebrate the publication I’m delighted to present here a special post which includes Elise’s answers to my three questions as well as a photo or two from a wonderful night in early March when I saw Elise interviewed in such a stunning room at Liberty’s in London.Faber & Faber have published the novel in partnership with Liberty London and they were responsible from drawing on their vast array of historic designs and patterns to create the gorgeous cover for the novel But first a little of what The Madonna of the Mountains is about.
Set in the Veneto in Northern Italy and spanning nearly three decades following the First World War, The Madonna of the Mountains is a fierce, sharply observed and richly detailed account of a woman’s fight to keep her family alive and thriving – at whatever the cost.
We meet Maria in 1923 as she awaits the arrival of her husband, chosen for her by her father and miraculously neither disfigured nor damaged by the previous war. Together they start a shop and build a business and a family – but the creep of fascism casts a dark shadow, and the horrors of war, political and practical, threaten their very survival.
The Madonna of the Mountains is about what unites family and community and also what destroys them. It is about love and enmity, envy and generosity, two men, one God (and his mother) and the undying bond of a mother to her children.
Thanks very much to Elise for taking the time to answer my questions!
What was your inspiration for the character of Maria? Did her character develop as you were writing the novel or did she stay true to how you first imagined her?
When I started work on this novel, I knew I wanted to write about the life of a woman, and I wanted to write about a woman in times of war. Not one of Mussolini’s lovers, not an aristocrat, not a leader, not a political heroine. An ordinary peasant woman. Finding out about such a person’s day-to-day life was not so easy. I started writing about a birth in a remote time and place, from the point of view of a newborn baby girl. It’s a chapter that has well and truly vanished. But it got me going, and Maria Vittoria slowly emerged from her. She doesn’t have the education or worldliness to analyse ideology, nor the heroism to overcome pragmatism. And she is of her time. The character has changed from draft to draft. She started out tougher. I grew to love her more. I have cried with her.
What is it about Italy during the 1920s and World War II that so appealed to you as a setting for your novel? Are there any other historical periods/places that appeal to you as a writer?
Many historical novelists are historians who have turned their hand to fiction, and some specialise in a favourite era. I’ve met writers who introduce themselves very specifically, say, as ‘a 1066 novelist’, or ‘a specialist in medical nostalgia’. I’m not a historian. And I don’t think of myself as a historical novelist. But I have developed a near-obsession with Italy and the early part of the 20th century. I’m sure this is because of my roots. I feel a strong sense of connection with this time and place, so familiar to me and yet actually so distant. But history repeats itself in lazy loops, and I look on fearfully now as populists and despots take hold in too many places…
Which novelists and books have inspired you?
Shakespeare inspires me above and beyond all other writers. I love the poetry of TS Eliot and Samuel Beckett’s prose and plays. I love Virginia Woolf’s wry intelligence, her soulful and poetic prose. Two slim novels that are standalone perfection: F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood, Annie Proulx and Michael Ondaatje sing to me.
For other stops on the blog tour, please take a look at the poster below.