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THE ETRUSCAN Reviews, Videos, Readers' Guides and More

Linda Lappin. The Etruscan. Galway: Wynkin deWorde, 2004.
Reviewed by Walter Cummins

"Compelling plot...intriguing characters...vivid sense of place" -- W.Cummins

Among the pleasures of The Etruscan are a compelling plot, a group of intriguing characters, a vivid sense of place, and strong descriptive writing. But Linda Lappin's principal achievement - and greatest challenge - may be found in her realization of Count Federigo Del Re and the strange power he exerts over the novel's heroine, Harriet Sackett. Del Re, who claims Etruscan ancestry, embodies the title. Closely examining a stone-carved mask, Stephen Hampton, Harriet's skeptical cousin, thinks:

It was some sort of propitiatory god . . . a spirit of the woods or waters, and, from the looks of it, was a genuine piece of antiquity, although he found it an ugly thing, with a mockingly perverse expression. He did not care for Etruscan arts in general. The Etruscans were a vicious and cruel people . . .

Although Hampton believes Del Re "was only a phantom of Harriet's overwrought imagination," the reader knows this emotional reaction appropriately reveals how a man of his background and sensibility would have reacted to Del Re's appearance. But Harriet, both fascinated and repelled, is overpowered. Early in their relationship, stunned by the sensation of his presence, she has a realization: "I knew I would come to love the owner of that hand with a desperation I never imagined possible, yet all the same I felt a foretaste of revulsion."

Lappin's task -or that of any writer who wishes to create a Federigo Del Re- is convincing the reader to share Harriet's complex, almost otherworldly, obsession with the man. In The Etruscan she succeeds. From the title alone, one might expect a novel set in the distant past, a pre- Aeneid setting. The work is, in fact, historical but placed in a much more recent time, the 1920s and ending in 1945. It begins in London in the Russell Square home of Stephen and Sarah Hampton, but quickly moves to Italy and the area around the village of Vitorchiano in Tuscia, site of the Etruscan relics that Harriet has gone to photograph. Lappin knows both the time period and the geography well. She has been writing a series of essays on women writers and artists of the Twenties, and she has lived in Italy since 1978. Stephen Hampton and Wimbly are men in their fifties, Sarah and Harriet women of about forty. Harriet is Stephen's American-educated cousin, whose mother had run off with a no account American; Sarah is her American-born school friend with whom Stephen fell in love. Wimbly, a widower back from India, would like to marry Harriet; but she is a bohemian who travels about the world with a camera and wearing trousers instead of ladylike dresses. Her project this time is Etruscan ruins. When the Hamptons do not hear from her for a long period, they send Mrs Parsons to Italy. The housekeeper discovers a desperately ill Harriet and the first part of her diary. With that the intrigue begins.

While the novel has a twenty-first century publication date and a twentieth-century setting, many of its narrative strategies are Victorian, with the Gothic overtones found in writers like the Brontes. Del Re is clearly a Byronic figure in the tradition of Rochester and Heathcliffe. Mystery lies at the heart of the story-for much of the novel the question of what happened to Harriet in Italy and, even after the final page, the nature of what draws her to Del Re. In addition to the overt unknowns, several surprises come as shocks-what once happened between Stephen and Harriet, Del Re's real background, the lost decades of Harriet's life. Yet, once revealed, the reader realizes they have been prepared for.

Two realities are contrasted, that of Edwardian perspectives of Wimbly, the Hamptons, and the Hampton's housekeeper, Mrs Parsons, and that of Harriet's immersion in another realm. Lappin presents the attitudes and perceptions of Wimbly, the Hamptons, and Mrs Parsons in close third person. But Harriet emerges directly through her first-person diary, a document like that found in many traditional novels. The physical diary itself becomes an object of contention, with Stephen trying to burn it, Mrs Parsons rescuing it, and Sarah preserving the final, torn out page until its content is revealed on the very last pages of the novel. The Italian settings are certainly Gothic, the ancient homes, the treacherous landscapes, the Etruscan tombs. Because of Lappin's exact descriptions, they are very convincing:

"Off the cloister a small chapel stood intact. The iron gate creaked as he pushed it open and we stepped inside. The warped wooden pews were coated with dust. Snail shells had collected at the base of the altar, swallow's nest hung from the rafters. We walked down the aisle and stopped before the altar where a shriveled bouquet of wild flowers lay amid brown rose petals and the withered bodies of dead bees. . . "

Of even greater importance for the novel's fulfillment is the need for the reader to grasp Del Re. Lappin provides the same precision of detail:

"Federigo Del Re seemed older in the scrutiny of sunlight. A stubble of white beard sprouted on his chin where the skin beneath was no longer firm and taut, and yet hardly a wrinkle was etched in his face. His features were an odd composite of contrasts: the thin lips of an aesthete, the jutting forehead of a brooder, the full cheeks of a sensualist. With his eyes closed, the energy and light had drained away from him. He looked grey and sad, quite different from the bronze masks blazing in the lamplight that I had glimpsed earlier in the tomb. This unexpected vulnerability in him moved me and I reached out hesitantly to touch his face. . . ."

For Harriet, "I had never felt so drawn to any man or woman." That's the essence of the novel.

Walter Cummins

Linda Lappin, The Etruscan, Wynkin deWorde Ltd.
Set in the early 1920s, in the middle of Etruscan country north of Rome, this wildly romantic first novel unburies the nearly lost genre of the literary Gothic. Told through alternating points of view and diary entries, it recounts the story of Harriet Sackett, an independent lady traveler and photographer who leaves the staid society of England in order to photograph and research Etruscan tombs on behalf of the London Theosophical Society. Still stinging from a tragic love affair, she rents a dilapidated farmhouse in the wild Italian countryside and falls in love with the mysterious count, Federigo Del Re. After months pass without correspondence, Harriet's British cousin, Stephen, and his wife, Sarah, begin worrying about her welfare and send their housekeeper, Mrs. Parsons, to Italy to "help." Mrs. Parsons finds Harriet emaciated, near death, completely alone. She telegrams Stephen and Sarah, who come to rescue Harriet. As they wait for Harriet to recover enough so that they can take her back to England, each character reads her diary, unraveling the passionate mystery of what actually led to their friend's downfall.
In the tradition of Ann Radcliffe's classic novel, The Italian, The Etruscan sustains a heightened emotional level and mystery throughout. It revels in the details of dark romance, mining images of the lush, Italian setting. The Etruscan forest teems with wild boars and porcupines, hidden ancient sarcophagi, ruined churches, murky sulphuric springs; Harriet's dilapidated farmhouse is filled with old, gilded mirrors that reflect sunlit gardens by day, and reveal the soul's most private fears by night. By using the local peasant mythology, Lappin creates a rich and shifting reality, echoing the book's Gothic ambivalence between darkness and light. Harriet's Italian housekeeper, Maria, refuses to kill the spiders that inhabit the farmhouse because she associates them with earning; poisonous scorpions often reveal themselves as innocent spots of mold clambering down the walls. This uncertainty between good and evil can be found in the local characters as well, especially the Count Federico Del Re. When Harriet first describes him to her cousin Sarah, she calls him "part wild boar, part porcupine, part bear," but when he is first seen in the flesh, he appears to be a gentle, shabby peasant who rescues Harriet from a fall in the Etruscan tombs. Later, while seducing her on a wild mushroom hunt, he splits a pomegranate in half as deftly as the king of the underworld, encouraging Harriet to eat it, seeds and all. After the count vanishes from her life, Harriet spies him in the woods while she is out walking. Bathing in a yellow sulfur pool, practicing his swordsmanship while in the nude, he seems both ugly satyr and magnificent, pleasure seeking Etruscan god.
Like Radcliffe's enduring classic, The Etruscan transcends the Gothic conventions, portraying a complex heroine who appeals absolutely to contemporary sensibilities. In some ways, Harriet is the perfect Byronic hero. A defiant and melancholy orphan, she falls prey to violent desires. Hopelessly bound to the dark and sensual Federico Del Re, she remains doomed to obey him beyond the grave. But she is no frail ingenue. An experienced world traveler approaching middle age, an independent artist, she has "dedicated her life to capturing fleeting and vanishing moments in her photographs." She remains skeptical of all "those eerie Etruscan things" even as she is seduced by them. Through Harriet's character, Lappin explores the central preoccupations of artistic endeavor: Can a balance remain between reason and emotion, artistic freedom and decorum? How does one distinguish among imagination, hallucination and madness?
The basic pleasure of this book lies in the suspension of disbelief, the heightened emotional urgency, the mystery, the lush and mystical scenery. But unlike Mother Radcliffe, whose passages of Italian landscapes were notoriously inaccurate, Lappin has lived in and studied her melancholy terrain. A longtime resident of Italy, she approaches its details with the eye of an educated scholar, using the Etruscan race as an umbrella metaphor for her novel's central questions about the mutability of history and the ambiguous nature of story telling. Wiped out and assimilated by the ancient Romans, there is little known about the Etruscans except what can be found in their tombs. Unable to speak for themselves, they were deemed "vicious" by the conquering Romans, ignored by some scientific historians, called a "simple and natural people" by the sympathetic writer, D. H. Lawrence, in his 1920s travel log, Etruscan Places. Similarly, while she is unconscious and unable to tell her own story, Harriet's diary is read and interpreted by all the minor characters of the novel. Stephen, a brutally prim man of science, reason and propriety, wants to destroy it. His docile wife Sarah both envies and admires it. Mrs. Parsons finds Harriet's story indecent but probable; more importantly, she intuitively understands that the diary belongs to Harriet. In this gorgeously detailed, wickedly fun novel, Lappin celebrates and plays with these varied interpretations of Harriet's story, cleverly exploring how the ambiguous text of a woman's life can be thwarted by gender and social position, become lost, and eventually survive.
COPYRIGHT 2005 University of Nebraska Press

Book of the Week....Bookview, Ireland
July 2004

The thin line between illusion and reality is captured in Linda Lappin's account of an American woman's experiences in 1920s Tuscany. Admittedly photographer Harriet Sackett is not an average woman of the 1920s; always dressing in trousers to facilitate her peripatetic lifestyle, and with the fashionable 1920s bob, she cuts an unusual figure in rural Italy when she goes in search of Etruscan tombs. Past the first flush of youth, Harriet finds herself inexorably drawn towards her landlord, Count Federigo Del Re, a man whom she initially mistakes for a peasant farmer but a man who is able to lead her into realms of consciousness which she has never before experienced.
The surreal relationship between the pair, and the cast of characters who people the Count's world, are in marked contrast to Harriet's own family in London. The conventionality of her cousin Stephen and his wife, Sarah, with their house on Russell Square and their faithful housekeeper Mrs Parsons nicely counterbalances the far from conventional happenings among the Etruscan tombs of Tuscany. Here there are sites dating back centuries where Harriet has "out of time" experiences; mushrooms with special properties form a major part of the local diet and Maria, Harriet's housekeeper, rids her of the evil eye. However as the story unfolds Linda Lappin contrives to show how the two worlds overlap, the apparent correctness of Stephen and Sarah, and Harriet's would-be suitor George Wimbly belying their previous unorthodox behaviour. Harriet's final predicament can to some extent be laid at the doors of both Stephen and George, and it is the women who emerge the stronger although they appear to have been under the domination of the men in their lives throughout the narrative.
Harriet, Sarah and Ethel Parsons are all determined, though for different reasons, that the episode in Tuscany will not be forgotten and while the men are intent on destroying any evidence, written or photographic, these three over a long number of years preserve the truth, whatever that is.

The Etruscan by Linda Lappin
Reviewed by Pat Aakhus
Winter 2005 The Southern Indiana Review

The Etruscan by Linda Lappin is an intelligent, atmospheric novel with finely drawn characters and beautiful language and style. It is not easy to put down. The feminist protagonist Harriet falls in love with a charismatic count, extraordinary in the tradition of Cornelius Agrippa, Cagliostro or Conte de St. Germaine, who materializes and disappears into the Etruscan landscape. Her well bred friends from Russell Square manage to save her from her fatal obsession by wiping out all evidence of his improbable existence, removing her from the wild landscape (wild at least to an American and her proper English friends), while simultaneously driving Harriet into madness and a long residence in a mental institution.
This engaging story is told from the point of view of the Bloomsbury friends, whose own dark secrets are incidentally revealed (but only to us) as they read her personal journal of the love affair. The long hidden guilty truths remain hidden, and as we learn about them, as Harriet stalks her phantasm-lover, the solution to the mystery which propels the novel retreats. Is the Conte Federigo Del Re faithful; is he a real count, or even a real man; a fantasy or an Etruscan ghost? This shape-shifting Rochester will not be tracked down, unmasked or domesticated.
Like the ephemeral count and the exotic landscape, Harriet is a fascinating, vivid character. To what extent are her civilized friends responsible for her affair, her madness? Certainly they create an opium addiction which makes Harriet “manageable,” protecting themselves from incriminating revelations about their own actions. Lappin handles this weaving of related pasts deftly, providing one of the most interesting aspects of the novel. Because the novel is primarily told from the point of view of “disinterested” characters reading Harriet’s journal, a strong sense of voyeurism pervades the narrative. Of course we too are culpable, racing through the pages to find the Conte Federigo Del Re, hoping that he will not disappoint us and show up one more time in some surprising incarnation.
Harriet is an American, and therefore an outsider, notwithstanding her predilection for Turkish silk trousers, outspokenness and photographing Etruscan tombs. She might have been lifted from one of Katherine Mansfield’s short stories or is perhaps an eccentric portrait of Mansfield herself. For she is neither passive nor paralyzed like many of Mansfield’s or Woolf’s heroines, nor self victimizing like Chopin’s. But Lappin is a twenty-first century novelist and although the first wave of feminism is far behind us, not all has been resolved. While possessed of a fortune and entrée into European society, still Harriet is a victim of abuse and of the machinations of her controlling upper class cousins. It is a working class woman who ultimately saves her, rescuing Harriet’s past, and therefore her identity.
Lappin has done an admirable job providing authenticity in every detail of time and setting, while providing provocative questions about the extent to which women are driven to hide abuse, and the effects of that suppression. There is no preaching in this novel; the issues are conveyed subtly and believably. Harriet would have had some things to discuss with Virginia Woolf, a victim of sexual abuse plagued by clinical depression throughout her life, had such things been discussed in Bloomsbury.
Lappin’s elegant prose simultaneously creates suspense and evokes a precise setting in which supernatural events are realistically grounded. Her polished style and subtly achieved atmosphere effects recall the works of M. R. James and the Brontes; her special effects are psychological, driven by landscape, deftly drawn interiors and characters, rather than spectacle. In a time when the grotesque and the bizarre comprise plot and character in so much of contemporary literature, Harriet’s sexy Count who dresses up as a wild boar, supplies her with mushrooms, porcupines and a carnelian ring is a refreshing change.

“He raised the lantern to a niche, hollowed in the wall, where the remains of a fresco were barely visible, half-eaten by the moss, but I could clearly discern the outline of a ship. I knew what it was: the ship of death. I had seen the small model of one in his study, “La nave della morte,” I murmured, pointing to the image. The Count nodded. “Each one of us much prepare his ship,” he said, “and load it up with wine and grain and oil, for the long journey home.”
Now he shone the light towards the back wall of the tomb where an even larger doorway stood. Approaching it, I saw that it was not a real door at all, but merely an image sculpted in the wall. I asked f the builder had meant to add another chamber.
“No,” he said. “That is the door of the soul through which the dead exited our world and sailed beyond time. Sometimes you find such doors carved in the rock, other times only painted.”
I reached out to run my hand across the chill stone surface. The tomb wall was beaded with cold drops of moisture, and my hand left a greasy streak upon the stone. “What did they envision on the other side? I asked.
The Count set the lantern down at the base of the carved doorway. The flame flared high and our shadows danced, huge, then merged on the tomb wall. He took a step toward me and intoned in a low voice, “Beyond that door lies an unknown world, where men and women…” here he paused like a skilful actor for dramatic effect. His face glowed orange in the lamplight, “…where even you and I…can become immortal, if we choose.” (pg. 98)

With the astonishing success of Da Vinci Code, it is clear that the supernatural in a context of religion, art and history, is of immense interest to many readers. Both novels begin with an art work held in museums (the Louvre and British Museum), but there the similarities end. Lappin’s artfully written novel inhabits a supernatural landscape, but alludes subtly to hints of Etruscan culture, rather than appropriating New Age fabricated pseudo-legend. Character rather than spectacle drives this first novel, and Lappin’s gift for atmosphere places her amongst the finest writers of gothic art, not genre.

Author: Lappin, Linda
Kirkus Discovery Reviews

Review Date: AUGUST 29, 2005
Publisher:Wynkin deWorde (225 pp.)
Price (hardback): 20.00 Euro
Publication Date: July 2004
ISBN: 1-904893-00-7
ISBN (hardback): 1-904893-00-7
Category: AUTHORS
Classification: FICTION

In this haunting literary gothic novel, American photographer Harriet Sackett barely escapes with her life after traveling to a small Italian village.

After a disappointing love affair, Harriet journeys to the country village of Vitorchiano to research and photograph Etruscan tombs. She rents a farmhouse from the mysterious Count Federigo Del Re, resident of the nearby run-down castle. Harriet’s letters—with their romantic descriptions of the charming farmhouse and surrounding countryside—intrigue her closest friend Sarah. But when Sarah, her husband Stephen (also Harriet’s cousin) and George, a family friend, encounter Harriet a few months later, they find her drastically changed. Sarah thinks Harriet’s bewitched, and Stephen decides to send their trusted housekeeper, Mrs. Parsons, to look after her. Mrs. Parsons finds Harriet on the brink of insanity, in a dark and dank place bearing no resemblance to the enchanting cottage described in the letters. The only clue to what has transpired is Harriet’s diary; Stephen and George try to verify the facts contained in the diary, with little success. Readers will devour the tantalizing words of the diary and will become absorbed in guilty, voyeuristic fascination as Harriet describes her increasing obsession with the Count and the terrible consequences. Considering Harriet’s state, the friends are unsure how much of the diary is real and how much is the product of a mind skirting the edges of sanity. As the unraveling of Harriet’s mind is revealed, so to are the secrets between Sarah, Stephen, George, Mrs. Parsons and Harriet, which are no less fascinating than the diary. Mystery, fear, betrayal and uncertainty abound as Harriet’s story unfolds against the backdrop of Etruscan tombs and cemeteries. Influenced by D.H. Lawrence’s travelogue Etruscan Places, Lappin elegantly brings the characters, Italian countryside and surroundings to life in vivid, engrossing prose.

A solid, well-written tale wrought in entrancing detail.

Harriet's map
Pen and Ink Drawing by Sergio Baldassarre