A dancer and a gondolier in charming, romantic tale

January 15, 1995|By Anne Whitehouse

For more than 50 years, English writer Rumer Godden has been enchanting grown-ups and children alike with her beautifully wrought fiction, memoirs, poetry and criticism. This new novel, her 60th published book, is no exception: a fairy tale for adults, set in late-spring Venice, a city of "magic, mystery, tragedy, and romance, all compassed by stone and green water."

The newest member of England's Midland Cities Ballet, young, gifted and dedicated Pippa Fane, is promoted from member of the corps to soloist, then to a principal's part -- all during the company's two-week Venetian tour. In addition, Pippa attracts passionate admirers and falls in love with Nico, a handsome, young gondolier and an aspiring musician in a rock band. Like Pippa, Nico is an artist with great ambitions.

As in traditional fairy tales, the novel describes a rigidly hierarchical social world -- that of the ballet company -- where the young heroine rises from obscurity to renown. What makes this modern fairy tale so satisfying is its combination of romance and tough-mindedness. For instance, the workings of the ballet company and the arrangements of their Italian tour are described in realistic detail. Ms. Godden shows us the sweat on the dancers' bodies. The ballets they dance -- "The Tales of Hoffman," "La Bayadere" -- become part of the story.

Ms. Godden creates a wonderful tension between two visions -- the idealistic and the jaded. A romantic, Pippa has fallen in love with Venice before she ever sees it. Like Ms. Godden herself -- so she tells us -- she first encounters Venice in an old travel book with a magical title -- "The City of Beautiful Nonsense." Even though she is told that the Venice of today is "decayed and smelly, crowded with tourists, noisy," Pippa still insists on seeing the Venice of legend, and because she believes in it, it comes alive for her.

Ms. Godden shows us events through Pippa's eyes, and we see Pippa through the eyes of others. Nico's attraction to her -- which Pippa enjoys and encourages -- is contrasted with the desperate passion of the company's ballet mistress, Angharad Fullerton. Angharad is Pippa's mentor. Pippa idolizes her teacher, and in turn, Angharad promotes her at every opportunity. In Pippa's darkest moment of disgrace, publicly criticized by the zTC company's director for her performance as a member of the corps, she is elevated, through Angharad's influence, to a solo role. We learn, long before Pippa does, that Angharad's involvement with her is not disinterested. Pippa's realization and awakening disgust are believably rendered by Ms. Godden. As Pippa flees from Angharad's frenetic embraces to Nico's comforting arms, she wonders, "Why should one person touching you fill you with horror and disgust and another with such longing?"

But Nico's interest in Pippa is also other than it seems. When he presents her with the precious moonstone necklace which she covets, she believes that he is making her an extravagant gift. He soon sets her straight. The moonstone, he explains, is a part of a bargain; in return, Pippa, also a talented singer, must sing with his band during their engagement at Venice's seaside Lido.

Nico's gondola is part of his attraction. He uses it to whisk Pippa to and from dance rehearsals and performances at the Teatro La Fenice and to engagements with his band. It is no ordinary boat for hire, but a sumptuous vessel, one of the few private gondolas remaining in Venice, belonging to the elderly Marchese dell'Orlando and his gracious English wife. The dell'Orlandos are Nico's godparents as well as his employers, and when they do not require the gondola, they allow him to ply the tourist trade. In consenting to Nico's request to entertain Pippa, they convey that he is no ordinary gondolier, but a young man worthy of their interest and devotion and, thus, of Pippa's as well.

They become Pippa's surrogate guardians, too -- her fairy

godparents, so to speak -- when they take her in after the debacle with Angharad and invite her to stay with them in their beautiful palazzo. The marchesa offers Pippa wise counsel: "Be merciful," she says, "then you can never go wrong."

The theme of mothering is a subtext of the novel. Angharad allows her inappropriate desire for Pippa to override her maternal concern for her talented pupil, with disastrous results. The marchesa's mothering, on the other hand, is more beneficent. The marchesa is a bereft mother -- her son died years ago in an accident. Like the Virgin whom she adores -- and who also lost her Son -- the marchesa seems the very spirit of noble motherhood. Venice, Pippa discovers, is the Virgin's city: Paintings of her grace the churches, and niches in buildings along the streets hold votive statues of her. "She is our go-between, which is why she is so popular. . . . There is even a family tree for her done in mosaic in the Basilica," the marchesa explains.

In this contemporary fairy tale, the two lovers do not live happily ever after. A sense of loss prevails -- this seems to be the lesson of Pippa's maturity. Yet the novel ends on a note of exhilaration. "Pippa Passes" is a delightful book, a sensitive, sensible and satisfying story by a truly gifted writer.

Ms. Whitehouse is a writer who lives in New York.

Title: "Pippa Passes"

Author: Rumer Godden

Publisher: Morrow

Length, price: 172 pages, $22

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