A life in writing
A story lost and found in Venice
Sally Vickers tells Nicholas
Wroe why English literature is a cheat subject.
Salley Vickers's debut novel,
Miss Garnet's Angel , is one of those heartening, unpredictable
word-of-mouth successes that assure us we are not entirely
slaves to hype. The synopsis - English spinster responds
to the death of her life-long companion by upping sticks
and travelling to Venice - hardly seems to signal a
bestseller. Yet Vickers manages to convey the rich potential
of the unlived life - an idea that seems to have a powerful
appeal to its author in both her art and her life. Before
beginning to write her book three years ago, Vickers
had been an academic and an analytical psychologist.
Not for her the lingering regret of what might have
been. She says the novel took nine months to write and
20 years to compose. But in fact her literary apprenticeship
began much earlier.
Vickers says her early vocabulary
was expanded by Beatrix Potter, and when she got to
school her syntax was stretched by Henry James. "Beatrix
Potter uses a word like soporific and then, very tactfully,
tell you what it meant," she explains. "James's
syntax looks quite complex at first, but if you listen
to him then it makes absolute sense."
By the time she was at university
in the early 1970s she said she had, "crushingly
high standards" in writing. "The people I
loved were Jane Austen, Conrad, James and Dostoevsky.
I felt you had to be in that sort of range. I couldn't
just write any old book, so I thought about writing
as something separate to earning a living."
She went on to teach English
at the Open University, Oxford and Stanford, specialising
in Shakespeare, the 19th-century novel and 20th-century
poetry. Her first major career move came when she left
academia to become an analytical psychologist. "I
eventually thought that literature is not a very good
academic subject," she explains. "The great
writers didn't write to be analysed, they wrote to entertain
and to share a vision of human life. It's lovely to
sit around drinking coffee and talking about books at
Cambridge, but I sort of felt that English is a cheat
As a psychologist, Vickers jumped
in at the emotional deep end, working with people with
addictive disorders, and fathers in families where there
had been unsubstantiated allegations of sexual abuse.
She says an important aspect of this work was finding
the corresponding experience within herself. "The
capacity to feel within the consciousness of another
person has obviously been important to me as a writer."
She now works with artists, writers and musicians: "people
with a block or anxiety about performance. People who
feel for whatever reason they have come to a hitch in
their life." But she says she has always believed
in the importance of the creative arts. "I think
they are probably much more use to people than psychology
Vickers had been a regular visitor
to Venice ever since she first travelled there as an
"arrogant teenager who thought it would be awful
and full of tourists. But as I walked from the station
to Piazza San Marco I could feel my prejudices dropping
away." She stumbled upon a church containing a
series of paintings by the elder Guardi brother, telling
the biblical story of Tobias and the angel.
Despite searching for it on
subsequent visits, she only found it again in 1998.
"I went straight back to my apartment and started
to write Miss Garnett . It was as if it had lain there
dormant all these years waiting for me."
Having been brought up in an
atheist communist family (her grandmother, writing under
the nom de plume of V Virens, had a play about an adulteress
banned by the Lord Chamberlain before the first world
war), Vickers say she always regarded religion as "a
mysterious and slightly forbidden area. But I do now
think that human beings are not the measure of all things."
In the novel, Julia Garnet dips into her past and finds
it made strange by the swirl of mythology, psychology,
religion and politics thrown up by the Venetian setting.
Vickers says that as a psychologist she had sensed that
people were "increasingly fed up with the materialism,
the consumerism, the violence in our culture".
"I knew from talking to
people at quite an intimate level that there is a longing
for what I can only describe as traditional values,
by which I mean in this case, art, the ancient story
of Tobias and the angel, the paintings of Venice, even
the character of my heroine. I thought if people could
find these things they would enjoy them. People are
bored with chick lit and men behaving badly; they want
something more substantial."
The book was given a huge pre-publication
boost when the late Penelope Fitzgerald said of it:
"We think, well yes, we know the plot, but the
book turns out to be subtle, unexpected and haunting
in a way we certainly never guessed." It has since
been serialised on Radio Four, and has steadily picked
up readers. Vickers says: "Some people were slightly
misled by the simplicity of the style. In fact, it is
a quite subversive story."
Owing to a delay in publication,
Vickers was able to write a second novel, published
this autumn, in what she calls "lovely complete
obscurity". But she does acknowledge that a higher
profile will have at least one practical advantage.
"'Salley' means willow in Irish, and the spelling
of my name comes from 'Down by the Salley Gardens' by
W B Yeats," she explains. "It's a nuisance
when it comes to computerised book databases because
I come up as 'not known'." Not for much longer,