A wise and comic eye
Salley Vickers talks about her word-of-mouth success,
Miss Garnet's Angel, and the follow-up.
The surprise success of Salley Vickers' novel Miss Garnet's
Angelwhich after a quiet start grew steadily week by
week to sell 8,000 copies through the General Retail
Market in hardback, and over 40,000 in its paperback
edition since April this year* is a tribute to the famous
unpredictability of the book trade. Yes, the novel was
published to very good reviews, with Vickers' wryly
comic style earning her comparisons with Penelope Fitzgerald
and Barbara Pym. But who would really have bet on a
story about an elderly virgin taking a trip to Venice
getting anywhere near the bestseller lists?
Vickers, whose new novel Instances
of the Number 3 (Fourth Estate) is due out in August,
has her own theories about why Miss Garnet's Angel caught
on. "I didn't try to write it to a pattern, but
the subject and the setting of the book happened to
be two things which have what I would call an archetypal
appeal. The story of Tobias and the angel, which I rewrote,
is a very old tale. And lots of people have had very
magical experiences of Venice; it is a timeless city,
and a meeting place between East and West." She
thinks her unfashionable heroine was another factor"There
was something a bit daring about having a 60-year-old
virgin as your central character; it had its own kind
of radical appeal"and partly, Vickers believes,
readers just liked the feeling that they had discovered
the book for themselves, without hype.
Vickers was once a university
English tutor but later retrained as an analytical psychologist.
She says she found her way into psychology through literature
"Forget Freud, forget Jung, the greatest psychologists
without a doubt are Shakespeare, Henry James and Conrad"and
she believes strongly that literary novels should be
"I very much dislike the
way our culture has divided books into 'literary' and
'popular', because the writers I admire Homer, Shakespeare,
Jane Austen were both high literature and also very
She is entirely happy, she says,
when she receives letters from readers who enjoyed Miss
Garnet's Angel simply as a portrait of Venice. But for
those who want to look further, the novel also explores
much more substantial themes, ones which Vickers says
she has been mulling over for many years. Despite its
comedy and, as Vickers points out, "the comic eye
can be a wise eye" Miss Garnet's Angel is, after
all, the story of an elderly virgin whose emotional
life is regenerated by some very mixed experiences,
including falling in love with a man who turns out to
be a manipulative paedophile.
Vickers says it is the story
of how good and evil go hand in hand: "That is
one of the things Shakespeare understands. His evil
characters are very close to his good characters, so
it takes an Iago to understand a Desdemona. The juxtaposition
of good and evil in Shakespeare's plays, and in the
story of Tobias and the angel, interests me very much.
"In the contemporary story
of Miss Garnet I suggest that the capacity to look at
and recognise evil is a strengthening and maturing experience:
Julia Garnet only goes through renewal and regeneration
because she has the experience of humiliation and is
led astray by her sexual inexperience."
Her new novel Instances of the
Number 3 has a more prosaic setting London and the Shropshire
countryside but Vickers' many fans will not be disappointed.
This is another unusual and distinctive story, about
a love triangle in later life. After the sudden death
of her husband Peter, Bridgeta strong-willed woman in
her 60s starts to develop a friendship with his mistress
Frances. The relationship between the two women is further
complicated by the appearance of Zahin, an enigmatic
young Iranian student, whose own links with Peter are
as yet unclear.
As a tale of multiple erotic
and emotional entanglements unfolds illuminated by Vickers'
observant eye for human follies and foibles Peter re-enters
the story in ghostly form, and it becomes clear that
the theme of triads and trinities has spiritual as well
as earthly resonances. Think heaven, hell and purgatory
or indeed, the Holy Trinity itself.
Again, many readers will simply
enjoy Vickers' sharply drawn characterisations, as Bridget
and Frances bicker and bond: "I am fascinated by
human motivation and I find it endlessly interesting,"
Vickers says. "I hope I am not cruel in my humour:
I think it is admirable that we desperately want to
be noble, but of course we can't be, nobility and pettiness
go side by side."
But of the return of Peter as
a phantom, she says: "I was taking the old Catholic
idea of purgatory, and giving it a little cleaning.
It is the sense of a space between life and death, which
exists perhaps in our memory, when we continue to have
a relationship with people who aren't actually here."
There is, she concedes, "a
concept of divinity" in the book. "People
often ask if I have a religious faith, and I've tended
to say that I don't think that man is the measure of
all things, that there are other dimensions. I don't
particularly want to say how I perceive that. But behind
my writing is a sense of other levels, other possibilities
within which we live; I think art and poetry have always
been about that."
She worries now about having
made the book sound "portentous", and recalls
some of her favourite comic moments instead. The one
which always makes her laugh "which it shouldn't,
when it's your own book" is when, in a flashback,
the Catholic priest Father Gerard tries to explain the
Holy Trinity to Peter, who is stumbling after a sense
"Father Gerard is one of
my favourite characters, I tease him like anything.
I gave him this slightly happy-clappy jargon to speak.
He explains the Holy Trinity as a Neapolitan ice cream,
with three different flavours, each contributing to
the ice cream as a whole. At that point Peter can't
quite accept it, because he suddenly thinks of the wafer
of the ice cream and the communion wafer, and he just
can't get past that."
Benedicte Page The Bookseller
June 7 2001
*Hardbacks have sold over 15,000
and Paperbacks have sold over 100,000 to date.