Peter Bridges – Evelina, A Victorian Heroine

I knew of Judith Harris as a writer whose work has stretched from big Bronze Age boats on an Italian lake through Pompeii to a lot of penetrating commentary on Italy today.Her new Evelina is something different. It is the first biography of an exceptionally versatile, attractive, strong woman with an exotic background, and is at the same time the tale of other fascinating people in a fascinating epoch. It’s a short book, but not I think too short, and it’s well documented. In 1853, Evelina married Count Giovanni Pisani, descendant of a Venetian doge. His family had been wealthy but had lost much of its wealth and had had to sell its palace in the city. Sometime after the marriage, Evelina’s father provided a dowry of 20,000 French francs. The author leaves it to the reader to calculate how much that might be today; I figure it to be roughly a half-million U.S. dollars. That must have helped the couple’s finances appreciably, but the husband was not penniless; he had an elegant apartment on the Grand Canal—and a 3,000 acre estate with a huge manor house at Vescovana, in the Po valley near Padua. That is flat and not, to my mind, attractive territory, and it can flood. Indeed Harris begins her book with the account of a disastrous flood at Vescovana that left fields full of water for months. After her husband died in 1880, Evelina, who Harris says “had developed a will power of steel,” continued on her own the restoration of what had been a rundown manor and farming enterprise, while creating a 14-acre garden “in a unique mingling of Italian, English, Dutch, and Turkish horticultural traditions.“ This garden, which is open to the public today, reminds one a little of the magnificent garden that Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West created at Sissinghurst, or Lelia and Hubert Howard’s equally fine garden at Ninfa in the Pontine marshes —but at Vescovana there was only one creator, Evelina, and not a couple working together. Evelina moreover did all his while playing the grand Venetian hostess to many of Britain’s and America’s rich, titled, and famous. Henry James said she had “un-Venetian” energy and “makes one believe in the romantic heroines of D’Israeli and Bulwer.” Judith Harris has resurrected a memorable lady.