Being both a crime fiction and Somerset Maugham fan, I was delighted to have come across one of his lesser known novellas this year- Up at the Villa– a pseudo crime story set in the wondrous backdrop of Florence.
The beautiful and charming Mary is staying in a friend’s villa in Florence, and has been proposed to by the respectable, determined Edgar Swift, who is pushing 60 to Mary’s tender 30. She has known him most of her life, but does not share the same love that he has for her, and so promises to give him an answer when he returns from a short trip to decide his fate as the future Governor of Bengal.
Meanwhile, Mary attends a dinner where she sees Rowley Flint, notorious womaniser but charming and shrewd man nonetheless, who also proposes marriage to her, but whom she also rejects.
A gesture of kindness and pity towards a poor, violin-playing illegal immigrant, in which she takes him into her villa and offers him one night of passion, turns disastrous when the poor fellow- both in pocket and life- discovers the temporality of their arrangement:
‘You have shown me heaven and now you throw me back down to earth!’
The man shoots himself in the chest, and Mary is left to fearfully deal with the aftermath. Calling upon Rowley Flint, who helps her dispose of the body, Mary comes to learn, albeit slowly and through the surprising wisdom of Flint, how foolish she is in the manner in which she deals with and expresses love.
A very short read that took me less than an hour, Maugham’s novella is nevertheless an outstanding, heartbreaking read, with each page beautifully written with fastidious details of both characters and surround, the reader, whether male or female, becomes equally as infatuated with Flint as all other fictitious female characters. As with his equally heartbreaking Of Human Bondage, the work details the brutal honesty and truths of love, the disappointments and realities attached to love and romance. A line uttered by the secretly disappointed Swift echoes one in Maugham’s The Painted Veil: ‘There is nothing to forgive’, before the two must part. All love prospects seem doomed, though the ending is far less bleak and shattering in Villa, as we are given an unlikely though delectable hope for Mary and Flint whose unlikely liaison seems destined to survive.
Marvellously written and beautifully told, Maugham was truly a master of prose that probed at your mind and pulled at your heartstrings. Furthermore the details of the body and the subsequent hiding of it are fairly tame compared with other ‘crime’ novels, (though this would be considered only partially a crime story) but the suicide and crime with which Mary and Flint commit (which acts in its own way as a date or rendezvous), is brilliantly juxtaposed to the breathtaking surrounds of the Florence scenery. Wealth and superfluousness contrasted with poverty, death and sparseness makes for an intriguing story of prestige, chance and luck, how our fortunes are shaped and by what means and events shape them. Perhaps the most ironic yet fateful fact is that Mary and Flint, so wrong for each other, are brought together through death and the refusal of love.