The idea of women walling themselves away from the world and living in seclusion has deep cultural roots. From Grey Gardens to Miss Havisham, the images are of lonely, grief-stricken figures, often more than a little nutty.
But what really happens when people take leave of the outside world and turn inward? It’s a question at the heart of Laisha Rosnau’s new novel Little Fortress, based on the extraordinary true story of an Italian noble family who ended up living in strange seclusion in Vernon, British Columbia.
The trio at the story’s centre — Ofelia Caetani, her daughter Sveva, and their loyal secretary/dogsbody Miss Juul — make up an odd triangle, built on love, grief, desire, and in the case of Sveva Caetani, ferocious ambition.
As a kid growing up in Vernon, Rosnau, author of The Sudden Weight of Snow and the recipient of the Dorothy Livesay Award, knew about the Caetani family. She never saw them, but often walked by their house and heard the speculation about what happened behind the big gate and bushes that guarded the property.
“There were a lot of rumours,” she says. “That they were wiccans, lesbians, artists.”
The truth was stranger.
The family’s move to Vernon from Rome was driven by Leone Caetani, the Prince of Teano and the 15th Duke of Sermoneta. He was already married when his mistress Ofelia Fabiani gave birth to their grandly named daughter Sveva Ersilia Giovanella Maria Fabiani. He decided they would come with him.
The Caetani family had a long and storied history in Rome, producing scholars and writers as well as a pope or two. Leone Caetani was also no slouch, conversant in 12 languages, an Islamic scholar and an ardent socialist. The Caetanis left Italy behind partly because of the rising tide of fascist sentiment.
Caetani was already familiar with B.C. “One of the Duke’s first experiences was grizzly bear hunting in the Selkirk Mountains,” Rosnau explains.
Sveva was three when the family settled in Vernon in 1921. The duke described the move to the small town as “a return to simple nature, to a primitive life, a longing for peace and rest after the torment of war and the post-war period. A spiritual rest…”
The family moved into their big house in the centre of town, with few signs of the “primitive life” Caetani described. There were trips abroad, private tutors for Sveva and relative comfort and ease. But following the duke’s death in 1935, family fortunes took a precipitous decline.
Ofelia cut off all contact with the outside world and demanded that her daughter do the same. Twenty-five years of seclusion followed.
Their story seems like a novel in the making, but Rosnau says it took time to settle on an approach.
“At first, I thought about treating it as nonfiction or an extended poem,” she says. Ultimately, she settled into written from the perspective of Miss Juul, the Caetani’s long-time secretary and companion.
Miss Juul, originally from Denmark, initially seems an unlikely protagonist. But her perspective offers the widest scope and the most intimately observed details. Her mysterious loyalty to the family added another dimension — what kept her there for such a long time? “Who was this woman, who devoted her whole life to these two women?” Rosnau asks.
The novel answers that question, sketching out the tangled, occasionally torturous, intersections of three intermingled lives.
After Rosnau left Vernon the story faded, but years later, while at a friend’s house she was flipping through a book of Sveva’s paintings and discovered the work has been created by a member of the mysterious Caetani family. The idea for Little Fortress took hold.
“The story stayed lodged in my brain,” she says. It also transported her back in time as she returned to Vernon to research her novel. “I grew up in the ’80s. When I went back, I kept running into my 17-year-old self.”
Sveva burst out of isolation after her mother died in 1960, starting her life anew in her mid-forties. She got a teaching degree and a job at the local high school. “Everyone who knew her describes her as a force of nature,” Rosnau says.
This elemental power was channelled into her art, a total of 56 paintings, entitled Recapitulation, that secured Sveva a strange measure of immortality.
The paintings are deeply weird, recalling the work of William Blake and its insular iconography, as well as literary motifs and arcane symbols. The work seethes with a hothouse power.
Sveva’s paintings and life have become something of a cottage industry in Vernon. The family home has become the Caetani Cultural Centre, and Sveva’s story has become the basis for both a play and a town festival.
Rosnau’s research discovered a great deal of information about the family buried in letters, cards, photographs, even income tax statements. “Prior to 1935, there was lots of information, heaps of letters, cards of condolence,” she says. “This was harder to do in the period they were in seclusion.”
From the wealth of material, Rosnau fashioned a timeline of the family’s pre- and post-seclusion periods. But there was little information from the 25 years of housebound isolation, leaving her free to imagine what was really going on as the three women lived behind four walls.
This is where Miss Juul began to emerge the dominant narrative voice, Rosnau says. The few photographs of her show a small, mousy woman, but an assortment of letters from men clearly besotted with Miss Juul tell another story. “She must have had some kind of power,” Rosnau says.
In addition to personal letters to family, full of coded references to babies and children, there was also Miss Juul’s journals, translated from Danish into English. “There were things that were spoken and written about, that I pieced together to imagine what happened,” Rosnau explains.
After spending so much time with these women, in both their real and fictional versions, was it hard to leave them behind when she finished her novel?
“Yes, I was very attached to them,” admits Rosnau. After years of writing and researching her work, she welcomes the chance to read from Little Fortress as a way to keep their story alive, and to bring the three women out of solitary confinement and into the wider world once more.
Laisha Rosnau is part of two different events at the 2019 Vancouver Writers Festival, including The Lives of Girls & Women at Performance Works on Wednesday and Prose Under Pressure on Thursday. Find details and ticket information here.