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Frisbee Book Journal: "Ferri’s delicate, meditative style is more reminiscent of Marguerite Yourcenar than Robert Graves, but it’s safe to say that fans of both Memoirs of Hadrian and I, Claudius will enjoy it."

Date: May 21 2010

Linda Ferri’s Cecilia, a historical novel translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein, was published by Europa Editions this year.  The lovely peach-colored cover, with the 1904  painting of the Roman girl by John William Godward, caught my attention on the table of new books.  Although I don’t read many historical novels, I have a weakness for Europa books, and Europa shares my weakness for ancient Rome, judging by the publication earlier this year of The Ides of March by Valerio Massimo Manfredi.

Ferri’s beautifully-written novel, loosely based on the life of St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music, unfolds in a series of vignettes, some realistic, some dream-like. Ferri’s delicate, meditative style is more reminiscent of Marguerite Yourcenar than Robert Graves, but it’s safe to say that fans of both Memoirs of Hadrian and I, Claudius will enjoy it.   If you’re familiar with Roman literature, you will especially love this novel, full of  allusions to Virgil, Ovid, Martial, Lucretius, and others.  And the well-educated Cecilia,  who is also a musician, is a delightful character in her own right.

Under the reign of Marcus Aurelius,  the brilliant, emotional 15-year-old narrator, Cecilia, begs her father not to force her to get married. A student of music, philosophy, and poetry, she dreads losing her freedom. We learn much about Cecilia’s attitudes toward love through her reactions to literature.  In an incident near the beginning of the book, Cecilia throws the scroll of Aeneid Book IV on the floor and stomps on it.  Having just finished reciting Book IV,  the tragedy of Aeneas’ betrayal of Dido in love, she is enraged by Aeneas’ hard-heartedness and sneaking departure from Carthage–he allows Rumor to inform Dido of his movements.

The tutor is astonished by Cecilia’s passion.  She tells him:

“Look at pious Aeneas, look at him in action!  To get him out of trouble, to conceal how hard-hearted he is, the poet had to resort to the intervention of a god who takes pity and makes him deaf!”

How many of us haven’t disliked Aeneas’ fear of intimacy?  

Marriage doesn’t appeal to Cecilia on the home front, either.  Her mother has spent most of Cecilia’s life mourning her dead children and has recently become a member of the cult of Isis.  Married life hasn’t done much for Cecilia’s friend, Lucretia, a strong-minded girl married to an older man who confesses she has already taken a lover.  When Lucretia describes her lover’s charming courtship, Cccilia recognizes his moves as those described in Ovid’s Ars Amatoria, and  their friendship almost disintegrates, with Lucretia screaming that Ovid should have been exiled.   But the two have known each other since toddlerhood and make up.

After Cecilia’s marriage to Valerian, her life becomes as dull as she had feared.  Although she is passionately in love, Valerian is cruel, calculating, cold, withholding, and even takes her maid as a lover. Cecilia languishes and becomes ill, but after converting to dangerous Christianity, makes a new life for herself.

According to The Penguin Dictionary of Saints , St. Cecilia is believed to have informed her husband, Valerian,  on their wedding day that she had consecrated her virginity to God.  (How delightful, I don’t think!)  Valerian and his brother Tiburtius (both characters in this novel) also convert.  Like Cecilia, they are martyrs.

The historical novel is certainly more complex and Cecilia is not a virgin.  I have to like Ferri’s version better.  But I don’t know enough about the saints, and perhaps will have to read my reference book more carefully.