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A life in writing
A story lost and found in Venice

Sally Vickers tells Nicholas Wroe why English literature is a cheat subject.

Salley Vickers's debut novel, Miss Garnet's Angel , is one of those heartening, unpredictable word-of-mouth successes that assure us we are not entirely slaves to hype. The synopsis - English spinster responds to the death of her life-long companion by upping sticks and travelling to Venice - hardly seems to signal a bestseller. Yet Vickers manages to convey the rich potential of the unlived life - an idea that seems to have a powerful appeal to its author in both her art and her life. Before beginning to write her book three years ago, Vickers had been an academic and an analytical psychologist. Not for her the lingering regret of what might have been. She says the novel took nine months to write and 20 years to compose. But in fact her literary apprenticeship began much earlier.

Vickers says her early vocabulary was expanded by Beatrix Potter, and when she got to school her syntax was stretched by Henry James. "Beatrix Potter uses a word like soporific and then, very tactfully, tell you what it meant," she explains. "James's syntax looks quite complex at first, but if you listen to him then it makes absolute sense."

By the time she was at university in the early 1970s she said she had, "crushingly high standards" in writing. "The people I loved were Jane Austen, Conrad, James and Dostoevsky. I felt you had to be in that sort of range. I couldn't just write any old book, so I thought about writing as something separate to earning a living."

She went on to teach English at the Open University, Oxford and Stanford, specialising in Shakespeare, the 19th-century novel and 20th-century poetry. Her first major career move came when she left academia to become an analytical psychologist. "I eventually thought that literature is not a very good academic subject," she explains. "The great writers didn't write to be analysed, they wrote to entertain and to share a vision of human life. It's lovely to sit around drinking coffee and talking about books at Cambridge, but I sort of felt that English is a cheat subject."

As a psychologist, Vickers jumped in at the emotional deep end, working with people with addictive disorders, and fathers in families where there had been unsubstantiated allegations of sexual abuse. She says an important aspect of this work was finding the corresponding experience within herself. "The capacity to feel within the consciousness of another person has obviously been important to me as a writer." She now works with artists, writers and musicians: "people with a block or anxiety about performance. People who feel for whatever reason they have come to a hitch in their life." But she says she has always believed in the importance of the creative arts. "I think they are probably much more use to people than psychology is."

Vickers had been a regular visitor to Venice ever since she first travelled there as an "arrogant teenager who thought it would be awful and full of tourists. But as I walked from the station to Piazza San Marco I could feel my prejudices dropping away." She stumbled upon a church containing a series of paintings by the elder Guardi brother, telling the biblical story of Tobias and the angel.

Despite searching for it on subsequent visits, she only found it again in 1998. "I went straight back to my apartment and started to write Miss Garnett . It was as if it had lain there dormant all these years waiting for me."

Having been brought up in an atheist communist family (her grandmother, writing under the nom de plume of V Virens, had a play about an adulteress banned by the Lord Chamberlain before the first world war), Vickers say she always regarded religion as "a mysterious and slightly forbidden area. But I do now think that human beings are not the measure of all things." In the novel, Julia Garnet dips into her past and finds it made strange by the swirl of mythology, psychology, religion and politics thrown up by the Venetian setting. Vickers says that as a psychologist she had sensed that people were "increasingly fed up with the materialism, the consumerism, the violence in our culture".

"I knew from talking to people at quite an intimate level that there is a longing for what I can only describe as traditional values, by which I mean in this case, art, the ancient story of Tobias and the angel, the paintings of Venice, even the character of my heroine. I thought if people could find these things they would enjoy them. People are bored with chick lit and men behaving badly; they want something more substantial."

The book was given a huge pre-publication boost when the late Penelope Fitzgerald said of it: "We think, well yes, we know the plot, but the book turns out to be subtle, unexpected and haunting in a way we certainly never guessed." It has since been serialised on Radio Four, and has steadily picked up readers. Vickers says: "Some people were slightly misled by the simplicity of the style. In fact, it is a quite subversive story."

Owing to a delay in publication, Vickers was able to write a second novel, published this autumn, in what she calls "lovely complete obscurity". But she does acknowledge that a higher profile will have at least one practical advantage. "'Salley' means willow in Irish, and the spelling of my name comes from 'Down by the Salley Gardens' by W B Yeats," she explains. "It's a nuisance when it comes to computerised book databases because I come up as 'not known'." Not for much longer, she won't.


 
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