Felicity in love

The English novelist, Salley Vickers, author of Miss Garnet’s Angel, Instances of the Number Three and most recently Mr Golightly’s Holiday is an analytical psychologist who lectures on the connections between literature, psychology and religion and has worked as a university teacher of literature specialising in Shakespeare. This background is apparent in her novels, particularly Miss Garnet’s Angel and Mr Golightly’s Holiday, with their focus on issues of spirituality and belief in the contemporary world.

Vickers sees belief in God as a central feature of life today, even wars being fought over matters of belief, so that whether or not people believe in God they cannot ignore the idea of God. She says, ‘I think human beings are naturally spiritual … we live in an age where even if we are not participating in organised religion we are looking for something.’

She suggests that belief must evolve in the 21st century and that new forms and symbols must be found to represent belief if it is to have any meaning today. This is what she attempts to do in the stories of Mr Golightly and Miss Garnet.

Mr Golightly’s task while on a writing holiday in a Dartmoor village is to revise his unidentified ‘Great Work’ so that it will appeal to a new age of readers for whom ‘human nature hadn’t changed ... but custom had, and the times.’ He concludes after watching an episode of Neighbours that ‘the characters in his original drama were only apparently unlike those of the present day’, and that it is the idiom and episodes that need to be made relevant, not the essence of the work itself. His IT advisors, Mike and Bill whose real names turn out to be Michael and Gabriel help him find his way around one aspect of modern idiom, using email on golightly@golightly.com. There he communicates with the mysterious nemo@nemo.com, someone who doesn’t wish to be known but with whom he finds he has ‘an ancient language in common’.

This novel presents, through the actions and thoughts of the central character, the idea of an evolving God, one who is recreated, redefined and reappraised. As Mr Golightly evolves and changes in response to events, so do the people around him become less alienated and unconnected as their daily lives connect with his. In his dealings with his neighbours Mr Golightly lives out the advice given in Robert Orage’s epigraph for the book: ‘Take hold tightly, let go lightly; this is one of the great secrets of felicity in love.’ In the long run his involvement with his neighbours causes him to reappraise the need to rewrite his book and he decides that this task is no longer necessary as the work ‘seemed to have found its own way of reproducing itself’.

Johnny Spence is one of the most alienated characters in the novel. He is presented as a kind of parallel to Mr Golightly’s long mourned and, in his father’s thoughts neglected, son. The loss of this ‘young man with a piteous face’ whose photo he keeps in a travelling frame comes frequently into his thoughts. Perhaps he has this son in mind when he finds Johnny has broken into his house and is playing his Elvis records. His reaction is to treat Johnny as an invited guest and a fellow Elvis fan and to set him to work as his research assistant. It is not surprising that it is through respect, not nagging that Johnny Spence starts to get his life together. Nor is it surprising that it is Johnny’s research notes that explain the puzzling emails from nemo@nemo.com and Mr Golightly’s responses to them.

Julia Garnet, in Miss Garnet’s Angel is as alienated and unconnected as Johnny Spence although it takes a number of experiences, some of them painful, for her to recognise this. She comes to Venice after her retirement and the death of her companion and like Mr Golightly gradually becomes connected with a web of interrelated people who lead her to explore ideas outside her experience and, as a result, counter her alienation. Her struggles parallel those of Tobias whose story she sees in Giovanni Guardia’s paintings in the Chiesa dell’Angelo Raffaele, and despite being a devout communist she finds ‘something reassuring about Tobias’ guardian, the Angel Raphael.’ Just as Tobias can neither visualise the outcome of his journey nor understand the identity of his companion which is revealed only at the end, so does Miss Garnet unknowingly embark on her journey of self-discovery.

Vickers says that the outcome of both novels is influenced by ‘the comic outlook’ of authors such as Dante, Shakespeare, and the authors behind the New Testament, comic in the sense that ‘ultimately they saw life as more powerful than the forces which conspire against it’. This ‘implies a particular slant of vision, one which sees the potential, deep in the core of human affairs, for misfortune’s alternative—a view which may in fact encourage just that possibility’.

With his many glimpses of misfortune’s alternative Mr Golightly does not regret leaving Dartmoor without fulfilling the purpose of his holiday. We last see him being escorted out of town in his ‘Traveller’ by Michael and Gabriel on their motor bike leaving Mary Simms leaning over the gate chatting to Joseph the gardener. Miss Garnet’s story also reaches a satisfying ending which is linked to the Tobias story which ends with the angel Raphael who has travelled with Tobias under the guise of a mortal being finally recognised by the young man and his father. The last of the series of paintings shows the angel flying heavenward, his job done, while Tobias and his father look up in amazement and prayer and Raphael’s faithful dog barks as if unable to understand why it is being left behind. Like the angel Miss Garnet is no longer needed and can leave without regret the people whose lives she has enriched. She does however leave them symbols of herself like her hat and her books—small things that speak for the larger truths they represent.

Vickers says she does not start a book with any aim although her training in psychology has led her to be ‘always on a wave length of unconsciously working with the unconscious … trying to work with what is going on in the collective unconscious.’ So her next book will be about the same sort of themes: ‘the other dimension, the invisible, intangible, yet fundamental truths like love. Although these things are real we have no everyday vehicle for them so they must always be disguised as angels, ghosts or miracles.’

Mary Manning interviewed Salley Vickers at Writers Week at the Adelaide Festival.



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