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Review

Sad Youth and Beauty in Tuscany

A TUSCAN CHILDHOOD by Kinta Beevor; Pantheon $24, 272 pages

May 05, 1999|MICHAEL FRANK | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In and around Tuscany there is a long tradition of English ex-patriation that dates back to the 18th century at least. The first visitors were a mixture of young men on the Grand Tour and Romantic poets like Keats, Shelley and Byron, who had come in search of sunlight, sensuality, adventure or (in Keats' case) relief from illness. Eventually there developed a sizable community of these Anglo-Florentines, hybrids whose often-constricted British mores became loosened by the Italian landscape and soul. Their descendants continue to populate Tuscany today.

Kinta Beevor was born into one such Anglo-Florentine family, and the impact of Italy on her young and maturing self is the subject of her lovely memoir "A Tuscan Childhood," which appeared in England in 1993, when Beevor was in her 80s. (She died in 1995, and this was her only publication.)

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Beevor's book stands apart from its recent near-analogues--Frances Mayes' "Under the Tuscan Sun" comes readily to mind--on account of her profound connection to the region, the sad subtext of her personal life and the quantity of time the memoir embraces: Beevor's great-aunt, the writer Janet Ross, established herself in Florence in 1867, and Beevor lived long enough to see Tuscany remake itself from a place where women used to rinse laundry in the river to one where electric washing machines became commonplace.

"A Tuscan Childhood" is not an intimate book; indeed, there is a good deal about Beevor's life that we do not learn. But in its careful depiction of a place and people, and the transformative effects of time on both, it is sharp-eyed, intelligent and abundant in its riches.

Beevor's parents, Aubrey Waterfield and Lina Duff Gordon, a painter and a journalist, respectively, married in defiance of Janet Ross, Lina's formidable aunt and guardian, who disapproved of Aubrey's undependable career. "It was often said of my parents," Beevor notes, "that they had all of the luxuries of life but none of the necessities." Chief among these luxuries was the Fortezza della Brunella, a castle in Aulla on the northwestern frontier of Tuscany that Aubrey had first seen and fallen in love with in 1897 and where he and Lina launched their children's early lives. "This extraordinary choice for a dwelling place," Beevor recalls, "promised an enchanted world far from English formality."

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Beevor's childhood was a mixture of enchantment and deprivation. On the side of enchantment was the castle, with its stone walls, towers, dungeon, roof garden and its loyal and devoted staff who become Beevor's friends and lifelong instructors in Tuscan habits and ideas. Other points on Beevor's magical Tuscan compass included the beach at Forte dei Marmi; a campsite at Lagastrello, high in the Apennines; and Aunt Janet's villa in Fiesole, Poggio Gherardo, which was the setting for the first three days of "The Decameron."

In these Tuscan settings Beevor learned about "the 'dance of the seasons,' and how one should follow the rhythm of the year." The reader, in turn, learns how olives are pressed into oil and grapes turned into wine; how mushrooms are hunted and truffles foraged; how to make vermouth on an old Medici recipe and ricotta on an Aullese one.

Beevor may portray all this savoring so effectively because of the way it molded her childhood, where the "extremes of happiness and sadness seemed far greater than those of other children." Although she in no sense writes confessionally, Beevor nonetheless pointedly conveys her parents' emotional impoverishment. Lina was consumed with her work and disliked any show of emotion, while Aubrey was austere and believed that compliments corrupted children. Tragedy strikes the family--Beevor's brother John was killed in World War II--but it hardly seems to reverberate, either with Beevor's parents or (it must be said) to some degree in her own writing.

The reader is once again reminded of why Italy has exerted such a strong pull on the English. It is not just the food or the sunlight; it is, one senses, the lessons the English learn--or perhaps unconsciously long to learn--from Italy's more open way of being, its less wintry or wary human sensibility. Many of these lessons registered on Kinta Beevor, whose fine book presents two contrasting worlds in intricate and captivating conjunction.

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