“Fenny” is a deeply charming, enormously readable novel, which opens with the Fenny of the title (Ellen Fenwick) a young English school teacher coming to Italy as a governess to the granddaughter of an actress that she admires. The Fenny who arrives at Villa Meridiana in the summer of 1933 having recently lost her mother, has endured seven years teaching at a Yorkshire high school and is ripe for change. For a while Ellen – who soon becomes Fenny -finds acceptance and peace in the beauty of her surroundings. However Fenny must soon face emotions which are completely new to her, as she falls in love and finds that the relationships of people around her are not always what they seem. Fenny and Juliet the child to whom she is governess, very quickly develop a close and touching relationship, but there are changes and upheavals for the family and they leave Italy. Fenny deciding to stay in Italy pledges to keep in touch with young Juliet. Three years later Ellen is working for another family she had first encountered while working at Villa Meridiana. She is drawn to wanting to help Shand, the teenage son of her employer whose deep unhappiness and longing to get back to America concerns her. The backdrop to the story of Fenny and the families she works for is the terrifying rise of fascism in Italy and the coming of war. There comes a time when Fenny must really face up to what is happening, and make decisions about her own safety.
Fenny’s relationship with her two charges continues over many years. While she herself faces hardship and fear during the war years, she learns things about life which she can pass to the adult children she loves so deeply. In the course of the novel we see Fenny develop from an inexperienced young woman with much to learn, into a strong mature woman who survived the turbulent war years in Italy.
The novel spans the years of 1933 to 1949 and through these years we see the changes that occur in Italy as the fascist party takes firmer hold, and war looms on the horizon. There is one particular short scene – witnessed by Fenny and young Shand - of a middle aged clerk being dragged off by a group of black shirts that I thought was beautifully and frighteningly described. Throughout the novel it is easy to see the affection that Lettice Cooper had for Italy and for Florence in particular. For me this was the perfect reading experience, I loved the setting, the characters are marvellous creations – although two of the Italian women Fenny encounters are horribly selfish and manipulative – but fascinating for all that. Fenny is a real joy of a read.