Page 11, 6th June 2003

6th June 2003
Page 11
Page 11, 6th June 2003 — Snuff and nonsense

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Organisations: Sacred College
Locations: Rome, New York, Turin


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Snuff and nonsense

David Twiston Davies suggests some Edwardian holiday reading for Mr Blair

The Cardinal's Snuff-box by Henry Harland, Fisher Press £8.99 t is the height of an idyllic Italian sum mer. Peter Marchdale has taken a villa with a garden next to the castle of the Duchessa di Santangiolo. They meet the day he moves in, then exchange words while feeding goldfinches on opposite sides of the river that separates their properties; but this is rural Umbria in the late 1890s, and a formal acquaintance can only he embarked upon slowly.

Peter learns from his peasant housekeeper that the beautiful Duchessa is an Englishwoman and a ' widow; and, on applying to a friend at home, he is Informed that she is the only daughter and heir of Lord Belfont, head of a Lancastrian family of "the most bigoted Roman Catholics". Beatrice' the Duchessa, discovers from her correspondent in England that Mr Marchdale is the son of a QC, who has several thousand pounds a year and writes poorly received novels under a pseudonym. It takes a piglet intended for slaughter, a meeting with two children walking to Turin and a tierce thunderstorm for him to be invited to dine at the castle.

Henry Harland, author of The Cardinal's' Snuffbox, was an American who wrote a series of novels about Jews in New York and edited The Yellow Book, a celebrated, if scandalous, British literary journal, before converting and moving to Italy where he died in 1905.

He brings out the exhilaration and the pain of the young couple. Despite their absorption in each other, they are so restrained, at least until they get onto the identity of the heroine in Peter's novel, that one half-wonders if anything is going to happen at all. Happily, Harland introduces the Duchessa's uncle, the snuff-taking Cardinal Udeschini, who describes himself as the centre of levity in the Sacred College, and Mrs Florence O'Donovan, a larger than life Irishwoman, to keep matters moving.

What gives this charming work special interest is its Catholicism, which is no more popular a theme for best-selling comedies of manners today than it was when the hook was first published 103 years ago. Every aspect of the Faith which we cradle Catholics take for granted, such as the sign of the Cross, is pondered over. The background is the split in Rome between the Whites and the Blacks over the issue of whether the recently lost Papal States should be restored to the Pope.

peter's Protestant prejudices are not very strong. He attends Mass twice on Sundays in the hope of glimpsing the Duchessa and talks of "Bloody Elizabeth", with the sanction of Cardinal Newman, whom he thinks should be canonised. He is even willing to concede that there is not much wrong with superstition. This, however, prompts some splendid scenes in which the piety of the housekeeper and the common sense of the Duchessa demonstrate that he is suffering from the infection himself. For good measure, Beatrice offers him some useful tips on social relations, such as that "a gentleman can offer his hand to every woman — under royalty".

Tony Blair, particularly, might profit from the discussion about whether a Protestant can be a good Christian without becoming a Catholic, if he holidays in Italy this summer.

David Twistott Davies works for The Daily Telegraph

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