BoatGirl’s #CBR4 Review #26: The Devourers by Annie Vivanti Chartres
The Devourers was another Gutenberg Roulette pick, but in this one it turns out that I have stumbled upon a classic.
The Devourers looks at mother-daughter relationships where ambition and talent are present. In each, the mother winds up a single parent raising a talented (“genius”) daughter. The first daughter, Nancy, seems to be the stand-in for the author. From toddler hood in England, Nancy is obsessed with words and her widowed mother is obsessed with cultivating her gifts, at her own expense. Her mother misses chances at possibly remarrying or finding happiness, to make sure that Nancy is safe and given a quiet environment in which to write. At 15, Nancy publishes a book of poetry to great acclaim, taking the acclaim as her right. Her success as a writer seems assured until the arrival of Aldo, a weak but pretty man who marries Nancy thinking that she will continue to write and provide him with continual money. Nancy plans to continue writing, but the arrival of a daughter drives thoughts of writing away in favor caring for the next generation, Anne-Marie. As Anne-Marie grows older, there is again the possibility of Nancy returning to writing, finding a new love, etc., but then Anne-Marie shows a passion for the violin. So Nancy makes a conscious decision to deny herself happiness to support her daughter’s career.
Once I began reading, I became interested in looking up background information about the author and the book itself, and it turns out that Annie Vivanti Chartres was a very famous Italian author and that The Devourers is considered to be semi-autobiographical. At 24, Chartes published a book of poetry and later on she became a best-selling novelist, writing in both Italian and English. She had a daughter who was a violin prodigy, touring at a very young age. I can only hope that the book was an exaggerated, fictionalized version rather than how she actually saw things, as I found the relationships extremely sad even though the mothers and daughters loved each other a great deal.
The idea that the mothers had to sacrifice themselves and their happiness was really disturbing to me, especially as the book presented it as a given, without really showing why they had to sacrifice. It didn’t really make sense to me why the mothers made the choices they did, perhaps because I’m coming from a modern perspective 100 years down the road where working mothers are the norm. But even so, it didn’t make sense to me why Nancy had to give up writing so that Anne-Marie could practice violin. To me, it would seem like an ideal situation – daughter is happily practicing in one room while mother happily writes in another room. (And, from looking at Chartres’ biography, that may have been what actually occurred, as she wrote steadily throughout her daughter’s childhood.)
I found the book very interesting from a feminist perspective because even though it was published in 1910, the women are the strong characters, the money makers, and the artistic talents. The men float in and out of their lives rather like jellyfish – pretty, sometimes innocuous and sometimes dangerous. Also fascinating was watching Nancy move up and down the class ladder, from an upper class English childhood, to meeting royalty in Italy, to living hand to mouth in New York City and avoiding people who might recognize her in shame. I didn’t have as much sympathy for the primary characters as perhaps the author intended, but again, I think it is due to the cultural shift over 100 years. The writing was beautiful. The beginning, told from the perspective of Nancy’s 7 year old cousin Edith, was really good. It seemed to capture the perspective of a young child.
Overall, I would say this is a book well-worth reading. I think it would appeal to someone who enjoys Edith Wharton or Henry James.