Miss Garnet's Angel

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If you spend most of your life alone you do not know that you are lonely.... A shimmering first novel of self-discovery, of redemption from numb solitude, and of the matchless consolations to be found in human connection and spiritual nourishment, Miss Garnet's Angel limns-with uncommon subtlety and an engaging, often subversive wit-the thematic parallels and intersections that bind an ancient tale from the Apocrypha to a modern-day narrative about a retired British spinster on sojourn in Venice. A word-of-mouth ...
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Miss Garnet's Angel: A Novel

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If you spend most of your life alone you do not know that you are lonely.... A shimmering first novel of self-discovery, of redemption from numb solitude, and of the matchless consolations to be found in human connection and spiritual nourishment, Miss Garnet's Angel limns-with uncommon subtlety and an engaging, often subversive wit-the thematic parallels and intersections that bind an ancient tale from the Apocrypha to a modern-day narrative about a retired British spinster on sojourn in Venice. A word-of-mouth bestseller and a critics' favorite on both sides of the Atlantic, Salley Vickers' resonant debut achieves something that has become all too rare in recent years: a wholesale blurring of the line distinguishing the "popular" from the "literary" on today's fiction shelves.

Miss Julia Garnet is a retired history teacher who, as we learn in the opening pages of the novel, has been practicing economies of the spirit for a lifetime. A virgin in her sixties, she is still haunted by the spectre of her tyrannical, abusive father. It has been her belief that there are two kinds of people in the world: those willing to tangle with their fate, who endeavor to shape the course of life, and those who bear their circumstances with little or no struggle. Now, unmoored by the sudden death of Harriet Josephs-for more than thirty years Julia's companion in a small West London flat-Miss Garnet decides to spend six months in Venice. It is a decision that sparks an exhilarating adventure of the soul. With this opening, author Salley Vickers sweeps us away into a mesmerizing narrative about the dissolution of prudence, the discarding of worn categories, and the challenging of dogmasthat leave no room for wonder or transcendence.

The greatest wisdoms are not those which are written down but those which are passed between human beings who understand each other.... This is a book of stories-stories within stories, stories complementing stories, stories refracting and reshaping the elements of older stories. The strange beauty of Venice, with its spectacular architecture and abundance of art pregnant with history and ancient mysticism, storms Miss Garnet's staunch English reserve and challenges her socialist ideology. For the first time in her life she falls in love-with Carlo, a charming art dealer with twinkling eyes and a white moustache-and her spirit, once awakened, is liberated further by her friendships with a beautiful Italian boy called Nicco and an enigmatic pair of twins engaged in restoring the fourteenth-century Chapel-of-the-Plague. It is her discovery of a series of paintings in the nearby Church of the Angel Raphael, however, that leads finally to Julia's transformation and reassessment of her past. Intrigued by the paintings, Julia begins unraveling the story they tell of Tobias and the Archangel Raphael, an ancient tale depicting a quest of faith and redemption. At the same time, she embarks on a quest of her own to recover losses-not only personal losses but also a priceless angel panel that goes missing from the Chapel, along with one of the twins restoring it.

In Salley Vickers' prose, the legendary city of sublimity and light comes to life with an unprecedented sensual clarity. Through Miss Garnet's eyes, we encounter a city swarming with the ghosts of history and enduring even in the face of its own perpetual erosion into the sea. A ravishing novel possessed of an insistent emotional honesty and an infectious curiosity about life's oldest mysteries, Miss Garnet's Angel is that rarest of contemporary novels: kindhearted and complex, subtle and genuinely suspenseful. ABOUTBIO: Salley Vickers, author of Miss Garnet's Angel and Instances of the Number 3, has worked as a university teacher of literature, specializing in Shakespeare and texts of the ancient world. Trained as a Jungian analytical psychologist, she lectures widely on the connections between literature, psychology, and religion. She lives and works in London and Bath.
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What People Are Saying

From the Publisher
Praise for Miss Garnet's Angel:

“Artfully wrought, told with a bracing directness and lucidity . . . a gem.” — The Wall Street Journal

"Novel-writing at its finest and most eloquent . . . splendid . . . the sort of book that effortlessly, like angels, or sunlight on Venice's rippling waterways, casts brightness and beauty into those private and most shadowed recesses of the human heart." —The Christian Science Monitor

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780452282971
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 4/2/2002
  • Edition description: Reissue
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 5.42 (w) x 8.10 (h) x 0.83 (d)

Meet the Author

Salley Vickers is a former university professor of literature and Jungian psychotherapist. Miss Garnet’s Angel, her first novel, was a book club favorite and an international bestseller. She lives in London and is currently Royal Literary Fund fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge, UK. Her latest novel is The Cleaner of Chartres.
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Read an Excerpt

Miss Garnets Angel

By Salley Vickers

Thorndike Press

Copyright © 2002 Salley Vickers
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0786236906

Chapter One

Death is outside life but it alters it. It leaves a hole in the fabric of things which those who are left behind try to repair. Perhaps it is because of this we are minded to feast at funerals and it is said that certain children are conceived on the eve of a departure, lest the separation of the partners be permanent. When in ancient stories heroes die, the first thing their comrades do, having made due observances to the gods, is sit and eat. Then they travel on, challenging, with their frail vitality, the large enigma of non-being.

When Miss Garnet's friend Harriet died, Miss Garnet decided to spend six months abroad. For Miss Garnet, who was certainly past child-bearing years and had lost the only person she ever ate with, the decision to travel was a bold one. Her expeditions abroad had been few and for the most part tinged with apprehension. As a young woman straight from college she had volunteered, while teaching the Hundred Years' War, to take a school party to Crecy. On that occasion she had become flustered when, behind her back but audibly, the boys had mocked her accent and had intimated (none too subtly) that she had brought them to France in order to forge a liaison with the large, sweating, white-faced coach driver.

'Mademoiselle from Armentieres,' they had sung hilariously in the back of the coach. 'Mademoiselle from Armentieres. Hasn't had sex for forty years!' And as she had attempted to convey to the coach driver the time she considered it prudent to start back for Calais, wildly and suggestively they had chorused, 'Inky pinky parley vous!'

The experience had left its mark on Miss Garnet's teaching as well as on her memory. Essentially a shy person, her impulses towards cordiality with her pupils, never strong in the first place, were dealt a blow. She withdrew, acquired a reputation for strictness, even severity, and in time became the kind of teacher who, if not loved, was at least respected. Even latterly, when in terms of pupils' taunts Mademoiselle From Armentieres would be considered very small beer, no member of Miss Garnet's classes ever thought publicly to express a view about her intimate life.

Julia Garnet and Harriet Josephs had lived together for more than thirty years. Harriet had answered Julia's advertisement in the National Union of Teachers' monthly journal. 'Quiet, professional female sought to share small West London flat. No smokers. No pets.'

Harriet had been, in fact, the only person to respond to the advertisement, which had not prevented Julia from giving her what her friend later described as 'a toughish interview'. 'Honestly,' Harriet had used to say, on the few occasions when together they had entertained friends, 'it was worse than the time I tried to get into the Civil Service!'

Generally Harriet had laughed loudly at this point in a way her flat-mate had found irritating. Now Miss Garnet found she missed the laugh just as she missed Stella, Harriet's cat. The prohibition against pets had been relaxed seven years earlier when late one night after choir-practice Harriet had been followed from the station by Stella. Stella, then an anonymous black kitten with a white-starred throat, had waited all night on the stairs outside the front door of their fourth-floor flat, whereupon, on finding her, the soft-hearted Harriet had fed the kitten milk. After that, as Julia had observed, there was 'no getting rid of the animal'.

Alongside the two school teachers Stella had grown into an elderly and affectionate creature but it was Harriet to whom the cat had remained attached. Two days after they had both reared (they had arranged the events to coincide in order, Harriet had suggested, that the New Year could see them setting off on 'new feet') Julia returned from the shops to find her companion, apparently asleep, stretched out upon the sofa, her romantic novel face down on the carpet. Later, after the doctor and then the undertaker had been, Stella disappeared. Julia had placed milk outside first the flat door and then, worry making her brave the neighbours' ridicule, downstairs by the main entrance to the block. The milk she left outside was certainly drunk but after a few days she was forced to accept that it was not Stella drinking the milk but, more likely, the urban fox who had been seen rootling in the communal dustbins.

Perhaps it was not just the loss of Stella, but also her incompetence in the face of it -- so soon after losing Harriet -- which finally determined Miss Garnet's abrupt decision. She and Harriet had made plans -- or rather Harriet had -- for it must be said that, of the two, she was the more given to planning. ('Flighty' was sometimes her companion's name for Harriet's tendency to cut out advertisements from the Observer for trips to faraway and exotic places.) Harriet's (now permanent) flight had rendered the plans pointless; a kind of numbness had dulled Miss Garnet's usual caution and she found herself, before she was quite aware what was happening, calling in on one of the numerous local estate agents which had sprung up in her locality.

'No worries, Mrs Garnet, we'll be able to rent this, easy,' the young man with the too-short haircut and the fluorescent mobile phone had said.

'Miss Garnet, it's Miss,' she had explained, anxious not to accept a title to which she felt she had never managed to rise. (There had never been any question of Miss Garnet being a Ms: her great-aunt had had some association with Christabel Pankhurst and the connection, however loose, with the famous suffragette had strengthened Miss Garnet's views on the misplaced priorities of modern feminism.)

'Miss, I'm sorry,' the young man had said, trying not to laugh at the poor old bird. He'd heard from Mrs Barry, the caretaker, that there had been another old girl living with her who had just died. Probably lezzies, he thought.

Miss Garnet was not a lesbian, any more than Harriet Josephs had been, although both women had grown aware that that is what people sometimes assumed of them.

'It is very vexing,' Harriet had said once, when a widowed friend had opined that Jane Austen might have been gay, 'to be considered homosexual just because one hasn't been lucky enough to marry.'

'Or foolish enough,' Julia had added. But privately she believed Harriet was right. It would have been a piece of luck to have been loved by a man enough to have been his wife. She had been asked once for a kiss, at the end-of-term party at the school where she had taught History for thirty-five years. The request had come from a man who, late in life, had felt it was his vocation to teach and had come, for his probationary year, to St Barnabas and St James, where Miss Garnet had risen to the position of Head of the History Department. But he had been asked to leave after he had been observed hanging around the fifth-form girls' lockers after Games. Julia, who had regretted not obliging with the kiss, wept secretly into her handkerchief on hearing of Mr Kenton's departure. Later she plucked up courage to write to him, with news about the radical modern play he had been directing. Mr Maguire, Head of English, had had to take over -- and in Miss Garnet's view the play had suffered as a consequence. Timidly, she had communicated this thought to the departed Mr Kenton but the letter had been returned with 'NOT KNOWN AT THIS ADDRESS' printed on the outside. Miss Garnet had found herself rather relieved and had silently shredded her single attempt at seduction into the rubbish bin.

'Where you off to then?' the young estate agent had asked, after they had agreed the terms on which the flat was to be let (no smoking, and no pets -- out of respect to Stella).

Perhaps it was the young man's obvious indifference which acted as a catalyst to the surprising form she found her answer taking -- for she had not, in fact, yet formulated in her mind where she might go, should the flat prove acceptable for letting to Messrs Brown & Noble.

Across Miss Garnet's memory paraded the several coloured advertisements for far-flung places which, along with some magazine cuttings concerning unsuitable hair dye, she had cleared from Harriet's oak bureau and which (steeling herself a little) she had recently placed in the dustbin. One advertisement had been for a cruise around the Adriatic Sea, visiting cities of historical interest. The most famous of these now flashed savingly into her mind.

'Venice,' she announced firmly. 'I shall be taking six months in Venice.' And then, because it is rarely possible, at a stroke, to throw off the habits of a lifetime, 'I believe it is cheaper at this time of year.'

* * *

It was cold when Miss Garnet landed at Marco Polo airport. Uncertain of all that she was likely to encounter on her exotic adventure she had at least had the foresight to equip herself with good boots. The well-soled boots provided a small counter to her sense of being somewhat insubstantial when, having collected her single suitcase with the stout leather strap which had been her mother's, she followed the other arrivals outside to where a man with a clipboard shouted and gestured.

Before her spread a pearl-grey, shimmering, quite alien waste of water.

'Zattere,' Miss Garnet enunciated. She had, through an agency found in the Guardian's Holiday Section, taken an appartamento in one of the cheaper areas of Venice. And then, more distinctly, because the man with the clipboard appeared to pay no attention, 'Zattere!'

'Si, si, Signora, momento, momento.' He gestured at a water-taxi and then at a well-dressed couple who had pushed ahead of Miss Garnet in the shambling queue. 'Prego?'

'Hotel Gritti Palace?' The man, a tall American with a spade-cut beard, spoke with the authority of money. Even Miss Garnet knew that the Gritti was one of the more exclusive of Venice's many expensive hotels. She had been disappointed to learn that a Socialist playwright, one whom she admired, was in the habit of taking rooms there each spring. Years ago, as a student teacher, Miss Garnet had, rather diffidently, joined the Labour Party. Over the years she had found the policies of succeeding leaders inadequately representative of her idea of socialism. Readings of first Marx and then Lenin had led her, less diffidently, to leave the Labour Party to join the Communists instead. Despite all that had happened in Europe over the years she saw no reason now to alter her allegiance to the ideology which had sustained her for so long. Indeed, it was partly Venice's reputation for left-wing activity which had underpinned her novel notion to reside there for six months. Now the long plane flight, the extreme cold rising off the grey-green lagoon waters and the extremer fear, rising from what seemed more and more like her own foolhardiness, joined force with political prejudice.

'Excuse me,' Miss Garnet raised her voice towards the polished couple, 'but I was first.' As she spoke she lost her footing, grazing her leg against a bollard.

The woman of the couple turned to examine the person from whom these commanding words had issued. She saw a thin woman of medium height wearing a long tweed coat and a hat with a veil caught back against the crown. The hat had belonged to Harriet and although Miss Garnet, when she had seen it on Harriet, had considered it overdramatic, she had found herself reluctant to relegate it to the Oxfam box. The hat represented, she recognised, a side to Harriet which she had disregarded when her friend was alive. As a kind of impulsive late gesture to her friend's sense of the theatrical, she had placed the hat onto her head in the last minutes before leaving for the airport.

Perhaps it was the hat or perhaps it was the tone of voice but the couple responded as if Miss Garnet was a 'somebody'. Maybe, they thought, she is one of the English aristocracy who consider it bad form to dress showily. Certainly the little woman with the delicately angular features spoke with the diction of a duchess.

'Excuse us,' the man spoke in a deep New England accent, 'we would be honoured if you would share our taxi.'

Miss Garnet paused. She was unaccustomed to accepting favours, especially from tall, urbane-mannered men. But she was tired and, she had to own, rather scared. Her knee hurt where she had stupidly bashed it. And there remained the fact that they had, after all, pushed in front of her.

'Thank you,' she spoke more loudly than usual so as to distract attention from the blood she feared was now seeping observably through her thick stocking, 'I should be glad to share with you.'

The American couple, concerned to undo any unintentional impoliteness, insisted the water-taxi take Miss Garnet to the Campo Angelo Raffaele, where the apartment she had rented was located. Miss Garnet had chosen the address, out of many similar possibilities, on account of the name. Devout Communist as she was, there was something reassuring about the Angel Raphael. She found the numerous other saintly figures, whose names attach to Venice's streets and monuments, unfamiliar and off-putting. The Angel Raphael she knew about. Of the Archangels of her Baptist childhood, Gabriel, Michael, Raphael, the latter had the most appeal.

The water-taxi drew up at shallow broad stone steps, covered in a dangerous-looking green slime. Miss Garnet, holding back the long skirts of her coat, carefully stepped out of the boat.

'Oh, but you have hurt yourself!' cried the American woman, whose name, Miss Garnet had learned, was Cynthia.

But Miss Garnet, who was looking up, had caught the benevolent gaze of an angel. He was standing with a protective arm around what appeared to be a small boy carrying a large fish. On the other side of the angel was a hound.

'Thank you,' she said, slightly dazed, 'I shall be fine.' Then, 'Oh, but I must pay you,' she shouted as the boat moved off down the rio. But the Americans only waved smiling and shouted back that it could wait and she could pay what she owed when they all met again. 'Look after that leg, now,' urged the woman, and, 'Come to our hotel,' boomed the man, so loudly that three small boys on the other side of the canal called out and waved too at the departing boat.

Miss Garnet found that the departure of the newly met Americans left her feeling forlorn. Impatient with what seemed a silly show of sentimentality in herself, she caught up her suitcase and her hand luggage and looked about to get her bearings. Above her the angel winked down again and she now took in that this was the frontage of the Chiesa dell' Angelo Raffaele itself, which lent its name not only to the campo but also, most graciously, to the waterfront before it.

'Scusi,' said Miss Garnet to the boys who had crossed the brick bridge to inspect the new visitor, 'Campo Angelo Raffaele?' She was rather proud and at the same time shy of the 'Scusi'.

'Si, si,' cried the boys grabbing at her luggage. Just in time Miss Garnet managed to discern that their intentions were not sinister but they wished merely to earn a few lire by carrying her bags to her destination. She produced the paper on which she had written the address and proffered it to the tallest and most intelligent-looking boy.

'Si, si!' he exclaimed pointing across the square and a smaller boy, who had commandeered the suitcase, almost ran with it towards a flaking rose-red house with green shutters and washing hanging from a balcony.

The journey was no more than thirty metres and Miss Garnet, concerned not to seem stingy, became confused as to what she should tip the boys for their 'help'. She hardly needed help: the suitcase was packed with a deliberate economy and the years of independence had made her physically strong. Nevertheless it seemed churlish not to reward such a welcome from these attractive boys. Despite her thirty-five years of school teaching Miss Garnet was unused to receiving attentions from youth.

'Thank you,' she said as they clustered around the front door but before she had settled the problem of how to register her thanks properly the door opened and a middle-aged, dark-haired woman was there greeting her and apparently sending the boys packing.

'They were kind.' Miss Garnet spoke regretfully watching them running and caterwauling across the campo.

'Si, si, Signora, they are the boys of my cousin. They must help you, of course. Come in, please, I wait here for you to show you the apartment.'

Signora Mignelli had acquired her English from her years of letting to visitors. Her command of Miss Garnet's mother tongue made Miss Garnet rather ashamed of her own inadequacies in Signora Mignelli's. The Signora showed Miss Garnet to a small apartment with a bedroom, a kitchen-living room, a bathroom and a green wrought-iron balcony. 'No sole,' Signora Mignelli waved at the white sky, 'but when there is ... ah!' she unfolded her hands to indicate the blessings of warmth awaiting her tenant.

The balcony overlooked the chiesa but to the back of the building where the angel with the boy and the dog were not visible. Still, there was something lovely in the tawny brick and the general air of plant-encroaching dilapidation. Miss Garnet wanted to ask if the church was ever open -- it had a kind of air as if it had been shut up for good -- but she did not known how to broach such a topic as 'church' with Signora Mignelli.

Instead, her landlady told her where to shop, where she might do her laundry, how to travel about Venice by the vaporetti, the water buses which make their ways through the watery thoroughfares. The apartment's fridge already contained milk and butter. Also, half a bottle of syrop, coloured an alarming orange, presumably left by a former occupant. In the bread bin the Signora pointed out a long end of a crusty loaf and in a bowl a pyramid of green-leafed clementines. A blue glass vase on a sideboard held a clutch of dark pink anemones.

'Oh, how pretty,' said Miss Garnet, thinking how like some painting it all looked, and blushed.

'It is good, no?' said the Signora, pleased at the effect of her apartment. And then commandingly, 'You have a hurt? Let me see!'

Miss Garnet, her knee washed and dressed by a remonstrating Signora Mignelli, spent the afternoon unpacking and rearranging the few movable pieces in the rooms. In the sitting room she removed some of the numerous lace mats, stacked together the scattered nest of small tables and relocated the antiquated telephone -- for, surely, she would hardly be needing it -- to an out-of-the-way marble-topped sideboard.

The bedroom was narrow, so narrow that the bed with its carved wooden headboard and pearl-white crocheted coverlet almost filled it. On the wall over the bed hung a picture of the Virgin and Christ Child.

'Can't be doing with that,' said Miss Garnet to herself, and unhooking the picture from the wall she looked about for a place to store it. There were other pictures of religious subjects and, after consideration, the top of the ornately fronted wardrobe in the hallway seemed a safe spot to deposit all the holy pictures.

Going to wash her hands (in spite of the high cleanliness of the rooms the pictures were dusty) she found no soap and made that a reason for her first shopping expedition.

And really it was quite easy, she thought to herself, coming out of the farmacia with strawberry-scented soap, because Italian sounds made sense: farmacia, when you heard it, sounded like pharmacy, after all.


Excerpted from Miss Garnets Angel by Salley Vickers Copyright © 2002 by Salley Vickers.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Interviews & Essays

Question: What was the germ for Julia Garnet's story? What is it that drew you to Venice and the Book of Tobit as the setting and occasion for your novel?

People often ask me if there is a biographical element in the book. I think no novel can be written without some kind of autobiographical input (the trick is not to let one's own personality intrude inappropriately) and in this case the persoanl note my own discovery of Venice, which was a turning point in my life - not unlike Julia Garnet's. But there the point of comparison ends for I was a rebellious adolescent, visiting Venice with reluctance, supposing myself 'above' everything that appealed to, what I liked then to think of as, 'the average tourist'. I first came, in fact, to the city for the day only, by train, (not the best way to arrive - the royal route is via the water) and as I walked towards the city's centre, following the ubiquitous signs to St Mark's, I felt, almost tangibly my silly adolescent reservations being eroded. When I finally reached the Piazza San Marco and saw the basilica across the square, like a great gleaming pearl, all my prejudices were turned upside down and I fell unreservedly in love with the place. I quite often use this story with people in my psychology practice, as an example of how any extreme position can be tipped into its opposite - and of course opposites and their role in life are a key theme in 'Miss Garnet'.

After I had visited the basilica I made, as I thought, my way, back to the station. But, as the Monsignore in'Miss Garnet' recommends, I got lost and found myself in a small campo outside the tourist area. It was a hot summer day and I was tiredso, seeing shade, I went into the church which stood, looking rather dilapidated, in the middle of the campo with its back to me. From the gloom inside immediately a figure shuffled toward me stretching out hi hand for what I understood as a plea for money. I gave him a few coins and he took me by the arm to the front of the church, switched on some inadequate lights and showed me a series of paintings. I didn't know what the paintings were about but I could see a boy, a dog, a fish and an angel - and I understood that they told a story.

Years passed. I read the Apocrypha and the Book of Tobit. If I ever connected it with the paintings I had seen as a young woman I don't recall doing so. Then four years ago I returned to Venice, one of many many trips since that first momentous one, and wandering one afternoon found myself in a small deserted campo. I recognised that this was the place I had found all those year ago - and had never - one of those seemingly meant mysteries - tried to find since. Once more the door was open, once more a bent figure shuffled towards me asking for money, but this time I knew the lovely story of the paintings which greeted me like long lost friends. An that same day I went back to the apartment where I was staying and began Miss Garnet's story.

Question: Tell us about your research into the Apocrypha, the Middle East of ancient times, and Venice. Can we look forward to reading more about these topics in upcoming books?

The novel came out of me almost uninterrupted. But once I had written it I became fascinated with the origins of the story of Tobit and did much research on it - of which a fraction appears in the 'Authors Note'. I discovered the story has strong Zoroastrian antecedents - and I became very enamoured of the Zoroastrians. It is a religion which, the more I learned of it the deeper its appeals to me. It still exists - and the Parsees are its main inheritors - but what attracts me to it most is its great stress on tolerance - especially religious tolerance, which all of us who have lived through recent troubles must agree has become an urgent necessity in our time. Something which occurred in many small ways throughout the writing of the book: I had written the Epiphany scene before I had realised that the Magi, who visit the Christ child at Epiphany, are for the tribe of the Medians who are Zoroastrian priests; then I had written the important scenes which occur on the bridge by the church of the Angel Raphael, before I had learned that the bridge is a key Zoroastrian image for the threshold of worlds. Perhaps most of all I loved uncovering the role of the dog i the Tobit story - dog's were not at all popular with the Jews and Tobias's dog is the only one who gets a good press in the Hebrew scriptures. This is almost certainly because the dog is part of the Zoroastrian element in the story, and for the Zoroastrians the dog was sacred - a psychopomp, one who leads the soul across the threshold of life and death.

Question: Julia Garnet is a lovely creation-inspiring, affecting, charming, utterly believable. Is she based on any real-life models?

No one in any of my books is based on anyone - other than myself. All my characters are aspect on my own selves - and the more successful the character I would say the more unconscious the self. One marvellous feature of being a novelist is that it allows for t possibility of living unlived aspects of the personality - to explore these is part of the reward of writing.

Question: Your novel has been celebrated by one writer as the antidote to the "Bridget Jones brigade." Why do you suppose Miss Garnet's Angel has caught on the way it has and resonated with so many readers? What sorts of feedback have you gotten?

This is going to sound immodest - but I was not so surprised as my British publishers at the success of 'Miss Garnet'. For some time I have been aware that people want serious matter in what they read, even if they do no necessarily want it served up in a solemn or inaccessible way. I have more respect for readers than some English publishers have - who seem to think we only want to be titillated depressed. My readers have been outstandingly kind. Most days I get letters, email and, so far, the only criticism has been from a psychoanalyst who felt i didn't understand psychoanalysis (which amused me, since I am an analyst myself.)

Question: How do you feel about the popular critical and commercial practice today of sorting contemporary novels into tidy categories: women's fiction, men's fiction, gay fiction, romantic comedy, literary fiction, etc.? To what categories have you most often found Miss Garnet's Angel assigned?

I find the modern habit of categorisation irritating ad limiting. I like all kinds of writing - and I feel really good books appeal to all kinds of different levels. Shakespeare knew this - he was popular and profound - so was Homer, so was Dickens. It is a modern failing to separate the popular from the so-called literary. 'Miss Garnet' was marketed as woman's book - but the best reviews, if you look, come from men; I have many men - gay and straight - among my most ardent fans (I think because I have a sympathetic interest in male sexuality) and of course because of Julia's age it has drawn a big following from older readers who tend to get ignored these days (heaven's knows why - they are the chief readers and have time and resources to buy books - another case of British publishers' short-sightedness). Away with categories, I say!

Question: Give us the inside scoop on your writing regimen: How many hours a day do you devote to writing? Do you outline the complete arc of your narrative early on? Do you draft on paper or at a keyboard? Do you have a favourite location or time of day (or night) for writing? What do you do to avoid distractions? Well, this may disappoint you but I have no regime whatsoever. I write only when the fit (and it is a kind of fit) takes me - and that might be for ten days on the trot - or not at all for a month. once a book gets going I seem to want to be at it all the time. it's like a love affair - irresistible - the book is like a secret lover, nothing else is of such interest. Perhaps because of this I write, when I do, very fast. I wrote Miss Garnet in nine months - but, as I am always saying - it took over twenty years to mature in y mind - most of the ideas I want to write about have been mulling about somewhere inside me, linking up with other ideas, for many years. Physically, I write on a, now, quite aged laptop and I have no plan at all other than a kernel of the idea. That grows inside me and then seems to flow down my arms - or not; and if not I stop till they do.

Question: Did the first-person voices for Tobit and Tobias come easily? What particular sorts of challenges, risks, or liberties came with creating the voice of a Biblical character (and adopting a rhythm, tone, and syntax completely distinct from the narrator of Julia's story)?

This was the biggest challenge in writing the book and in fact I completely rewrote the Tobit/ Tobiassections. The first shot was too Biblical - you can't beat the original and it felt too much like a parody. So I scrapped it and tried for something old and plain - different from the more complex syntax of the Venetian sections. But I kept a cadence - a rhythm - which I do take from the - matchless - Authorised Bible. I write both from and for the ear and in fact the Tobit/Tobias sections are now almost my favourites. I was pleased at having some first person narrative to mix with the third person and i think it is what give the book its particular texture, which many people are kind enough to say is part of the richness of the book.

Question: One of the most poignant aspects of Miss Garnet's Angel concerns Julia's muted recognition of her father's oppressive role in shaping her nature and identity. How did you go about creating the rich back-story that informs the Julia we meet in the present action of the novel?

Again I didn't go about it - it arose as and when needed. I don't plan, as I say, but I find ideas, and characters, arise like helpful genies when I need them. I loved finding some of the minor character in 'Miss Garnet'- Signora Mignelli, for example, Julia's highly practical and unselfconsciously mercenary landlady, or Mr Akbar - the man who buys her flat an gives her fake champagne and plays her Elvis - I don't know where he came from; or Mr Mills, the junior senior partner in the firm of solicitors, from whom she accepts coffee, even though it disagrees with her. That's what the Mr Mill's of this world make us do.

Question:What would your ideal reader walk away thinking and feeling after finishing Miss Garnet's Angel?

Oh dear - should a writer, I wonder, be allowed the luxury of an ideal reader? Since you've tempted me I suppose I might hope to have deepened the reader's sense of life's rich possibility, and sense of the value inherent in apparently unimportant people and things. I have an acute sense of life's prodigality - its hidden resources and splendour if we only care to look. And I have a special dislike of the conviction of being 'right' - I hope the book might dislodge some certainties and liberate a kind of creative subversiveness.

Question:How does your background as a Jungian psychologist and English literature scholar feed your work as a novelist? And vice-versa?

Working in these two professions together with bringing up my children have been a privilege - without theses disciplines I would be much lesser person. Studying and teaching literature has given me high standards but I'm glad to have these - and literature has also given me a sense of scope, and maybe, too, the courage to tackle what I want to tackle (and not what we are told readers 'want' - which can anyway never be predicted, I'm glad to say!) Practising as an analyst has the great advantage of teaching you everything about yourself which your children have not already taught you. Know thyself, is, in my view the supreme command for a writer. It helps to keep you honest - to convince a reader one must be honest.

Question:Who are you reading these days?

I am always reading Shakespeare - and, in fact, at present also the Bible, which I am trying to read all through. I am writing on The Book of Common Prayer, so I'm also reading the Prayer Books - so I'm surrounded by what y family call my 'holy books'. Then I'm reading a lot of poetry for my nest novel - and also quite a bit of philosophy (which I may write about soon). I read almost no contemporary fiction. The last novel I read was 'Chance' by Joseph Conrad. I'm a great devotee of Conrad - when one thinks he wrote not even in his second language but his first, the mind boggles. It makes anything I do seem very unimpressive! And I love detective stories - especially the old=fashioned ones.

Question:Tell us about your new novel, Instances of the Number 3.

It is also about other levels or dimensions of existence - and it also begins with a death. Come to think of it, so does my next novel which I'm writing right now, from which you can tell that death is a subject which intrigue me. Like 'Miss Garnet', 'Instances' is a novel - about redemption and the possibilities of forgiveness although with a more contemporary setting.. A man dies leaving behind a wife and a mistress, but, against the expectation, these women become f not friend allies. The man returns in disembodied form and we learn about the follies in his life. Again as in 'Miss Garnet', of illusion, of things not being as they seem is key. I like the way we poor old human beings blunder along believing we know all about life and what's what; and we don't! I also like the idea of an irony deep within the principle of the universe - as if somewhere there is a cosmic voice, laughing at us. If I manage nothing else in my writing I would like to give a flavour of that cosmic laugh....
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Reading Group Guide

Question: Salley Vickers' novel has been held up by numerous reviewers and readers as a refreshing and innovative alternative to much of what's out there on the contemporary fiction shelves today. What do they mean? What is it about Miss Garnet's Angel that has struck such a chord with so many readers internationally?

Question: One writer described Vickers' novel as a book that stubbornly defies any neat categorization. So what kind of a novel is this? A romance? A mystery? A tale of religious awakening? How does Vickers' novel depart from every genre to which we try to assign it? How would you describe Miss Garnet's Angel to a friend?

Question: In Miss Garnet's Angel, Salley Vickers treats us to a narrative within a narrative of personal odysseys and spiritual awakenings separated by millennia; of sexual repression and revitalization; of ideological feuds and rapturous epiphanies. Through it all, an overarching, timeless vision of "a world poised between truth and lies" shines through-filtered through the enigmatic character of contemporary Venice itself. "What a world she had entered," Julia marvels early on. "A world of strange ritual, penumbras, rapture." Discuss the author's writing style.

Question: Describe the change Julia Garnet undergoes over the course of her stay in Venice. What effects do the events and discoveries of her visit have on her sense of self, as a communist grounded in atheism and as a woman generally wary of life's "irrational" realms, whether romantic, mystical, or spiritual? What-and who-are the catalysts for this change?

Question:Describe each of the other characters in this novel. Vera. Carlo. The Cutforths. The Monsignore. Sarah. Toby. Azarias. Tobit. What are the motivations underlying their choices and actions?

Question: "Long ago she had decided that history does not repeat itself; but perhaps when a thing was true it went on returning in different likenesses, borrowing from what went before, finding new ways to declare itself." Discuss the parallels Vickers establishes between the narrative of Tobias and the Angel and that of Julia, Toby, and Sarah.

Question: Consider the way the author's narrative establishes dual meanings for "blindness": as a physical, unalterable condition on one hand, and as a more abstract reference to one's capacity for empathy, love, or self-awareness on the other.

Question: "Can't be doing with that," Miss Garnet tells herself upon first seeing the picture of the Virgin and Christ Child above her bed at Campo Angelo Raffaele. With this moment, Vickers establishes Julia's atheist-communist wariness regarding religious iconography-and also foreshadows the radical nature of the spiritual and emotional transformations to come. Chart the course of Julia's awakening: discuss the specific moments and scenes in which Vickers illuminates her heroine's mounting intoxication with religious pageantry and mystery.

Question: With the opening lines of the novel, Salley Vickers introduces readers to an ancillary character who comes to haunt the proceedings of all that follows: Death. "It leaves a hole in the fabric of things which those who are left behind try to repair." Elsewhere, Tobias invokes death as a metaphor for sexual penetration. Discuss the novel's other characterizations of and reflections on death. What, for example, is Julia's conception of death-and how does it evolve, particularly leading up to her last night in Venice?

Question: "We cannot commission desire," Julia reflects at one point, referring not only to herself but also to Carlo. To what degree, and on what grounds, does Julia come to feel a sense of solidarity with Carlo, of all people? Explain.

Question: Re-read the epigraph by John Ruskin. How do his words speak to the themes and preoccupations of Vickers' interwoven narratives?

Question: How does Salley Vickers' vision of Venice compare, inform, and/or add to your own personal experiences with the city?

Question: What parallels and distinctions might we draw between the lives of Julia and the Monsignore? Although they've both been given, for much of their lives, to starkly different philosophical ideologies, what fundamental beliefs and traits do the two of them share?

Question: What were your understandings of the Angel Raphael and Zoroastrianism before you read Miss Garnet's Angel? Did Vickers' novel inform and/or complicate these understandings? How?

Question: Julia Garnet is, among other things, a woman struggling to emerge from the long shadow cast by her father's censure and abuse. How successful, finally, has she been in doing so?

Question: What sort of a man was Julia's father? What picture of him emerges to us through Julia's intermittent recollections?

Question: Standing with Vera before The Last Judgement at the Tintoretto church, Julia wonders, "What did it mean to be weighed in a balance and found wanting?" And later, in her journal, she writes, "What does my life really amount to?" How are these questions ultimately resolved?

Question: What is the Bridge of Separation?

Question: Near the end of the novel, Julia encounters a young woman on a train named Saskia. As they talk, Julia experiences "the strangest sensation." And later, Julia reflects that "the meeting had crystallized something for her." What has happened here? What issues of identification, regret, and mutual recognition might Julia be coming to terms with in this scene?

Question: The various mysteries and awakenings in Miss Garnet's Angel all play out against a Venetian backdrop that is perpetually in danger of annihilation, of being swallowed by the relentless sea tides. "Each day Venice sinks by just so much of a fraction." How does this tension speak to and enrich the sense of instability and flux underlying Julia's own beliefs and assumptions? At what points in the narrative-particularly in the final pages of the book, when Julia has returned to Venice after the wedding-does Vickers make the metaphor plain?
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