Pippa Passes by Rumer Godden
This short novel, one of Godden’s last books, tells the story of a young English ballet dancer who goes with her company on tour to Venice. Despite the very full schedule, she discovers the real Venice, making friends with a gondolier, a marchese and marchesa. She falls in love with the beauty of the city, but she also experiences disillusionment and loss of innocence.
This isn’t one of Godden’s best books, not in the same class as In This House of Brede or Five for Sorrow Ten for Joy and not even up there with Black Narcissus; but it’s a nice little story and I do enjoy just about everything I’ve read by Godden. Very evocative of Venice. As I’ve come to expect with Godden there are some nice passages about faith as Anglican Pippa comes into contact with Catholic Venice.
Philippa Fane (interesting that here is another Philippa, very different from the protagonist of Brede) is the youngest member of the ballet corp. She’s an innocent, rather naive actually. And yet it is her very innocence which becomes the lens through which she is able to discover Venice beyond the usual tourist experience, which is neither museum-piece Venice nor the disappointing, dirty, run-down city, but instead embraces both the ugly and the beautiful. Philippa’s Venice is a city that is full of life and love and music and heartbreak.
Not only is Philippa a talented dancer, she is almost as talented a singer. It is her voice as much as her looks that opens the door to her adventure. When the gondolier Niccolo hears her singing he decides she would be the perfect boost to the band he’s trying to launch. A ballerina who moonlights as a jazz singer? Why not?
I do wish I knew Browning’s poem from which the novel gets its name. I think I’m going to have to go read it for I strongly suspect that Godden is deliberately playing a variation on a theme, a modern jazz improvisation on Browning’s narrative. And perhaps that layer of meaning the poem could provide is the depth that the novel otherwise lacks. Looking at the Wikipedia article on the poem, I see that it’s set in Italy:
A young, blameless silk-winding girl is wandering innocently through the environs of Asolo, in her mind attributing kindness and virtue to the people she passes. She sings as she goes, her song influencing others to act for the good – or, at the least, reminding them of the existence of a moral order.
That certainly sounds like the poem influenced Godden’s story more than a bit. The part about reminding people of the existence of a moral order, I have to think about that. I think even if Godden’s character doesn’t, the novel most certainly does that.
An interesting biographical note: Godden herself trained in ballet and even ran a dance school in Calcutta. So she does write about ballet as an insider. Although she herself was not able to succeed as a dancer, I think she knows something about the pull of two competing arts, both of which demand full attention to perfect. I believe she also was tagged early as a painter and had some training in that direction, but didn’t pursue that dream.
I do feel that in fairness, I should include a warning about the scenes of seduction and attempted seduction. Although they are totally appropriate in the context of the story and definitely fit within a moral order, they might not be suitable for younger or more sensitive readers. This is not one of Godden’s children’s books.