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Emily Hogstad

The Devourer and the Devoured: The Intertwined Lives of Poet Annie Vivanti and Prodigy Vivien Chartres, Part 1/4

May 16, 2012 at 6:46 PM

Here is a very long essay (over a year in the making) that discusses the relationship between violin prodigy Vivien Chartres and her mother, author Annie Vivanti. At the turn of the twentieth century, Vivien Chartres was often mentioned in the same breath as Bronislaw Huberman and Mischa Elman, two of the greatest prodigies in the history of violin playing. And yet for a variety of reasons her name has been largely lost to history. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first Chartres biography publicly available in print or on the Internet. Hopefully it shines a small light on these two extraordinary women and their unique, symbiotic relationship. I would be absolutely delighted if other readers, writers, and researchers dig even deeper into their story...believe me when I say I only skimmed the surface.

I’d like to thank Douglas d’Enno (Chartres’s grandson) and Vivanti expert Annie Urbancic for their generous feedback and encouragement. Any errors that remain in the text are entirely mine. (If you see anything that you feel ought to be altered, let me know.)

This piece will be in four parts. After all four are published, I will make a PDF available for printing that will include a full bibliography.

Enjoy.

***

There was a man, and he had a canary. He said, “What a dear little canary! I wish it were an eagle.” God said to him: “If you give your heart to it to feed on, it will become an eagle.” So the man gave his heart to it to feed on. And it became an eagle, and plucked his eyes out.

There was a woman, and she had a kitten. She said: “What a dear little kitten! I wish it were a tiger.” God said to her: “If you give your life’s blood to it to drink, it will become a tiger.” So the woman gave her life’s blood to it to drink. And it became a tiger, and tore her to pieces.

There was a man and a woman, and they had a child. They said: “What a dear little child! We wish it were a genius.” …

***

Nearly every prodigy has a parent who supports the development of his child’s unique, oftentimes unnerving gifts. Witness to the blossoming of extraordinary talent from the beginning, he aspires to encourage it and train it, like a gardener might train a vine. The role tends to be a thankless one. It is difficult (some would say impossible) to nurture a well-adjusted prodigy who has also taken advantage of every opportunity to develop professionally. Curious bystanders are always on hand to criticize every decision the parent makes. Your child is playing too much; let her rest and be a child. Your child isn’t playing enough; she will never develop into a great artist. When the child’s successes begin to snowball, it becomes more and more tempting to push her harder, faster, to see what she is all capable of doing. Some parents drift from supporting to hectoring, then from hectoring to abusing. Then, once the child has achieved notoriety - if the child achieves notoriety – the supporting parent inevitably melts into invisibility, his name becoming a footnote in a dusty music history text read by no one but musicology students.

Many of the great violin virtuosas of the nineteenth century had counselor fathers, all of whom have since faded into an even darker obscurity than their daughters. The Italian violinist Teresa Milanollo (1827-1904) had a father who, to his great credit, did not care that the violin wasn’t an instrument fit for ladies; when his daughter begged him for a fiddle, he bought her one, and when she proved to be a prodigy, he traversed the Alps with her so that she might study with the finest Parisian teachers. Wilhelmina Norman-Neruda (c 1838-1911) was born into a family of prodigies, all, regardless of sex, taught and encouraged by a musician father. Camilla Urso (1842-1902) had a flautist father who faithfully badgered the officials at the Paris Conservatoire (an institution that refused to admit girl violinists) until they agreed to hear his daughter play. Teresina Tua (c 1866-1956) was the child of an amateur violinist who became her teacher and traveling companion. Unfortunately his support came at a horrific cost: according to one newspaper ‘account, Teresina’s mother “in the temporary absence of her husband…deliberately burnt herself to death.”

The case of Vivien Chartres, a violin prodigy born in 1893, was different. First, her counselor parent wasn’t her father; it was her mother, Annie Vivanti. And not only was Vivanti a mother; she was also a talented writer, and she had no qualms about pouring her conflicted feelings about her daughter’s talent into an unsettling novel called The Devourers, published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons in 1910. The Devourers is fiction, ostensibly. But it rings again and again with a gripping emotional truth clearly drawn from life.

An appealing ambiguity is available to authors when they write themselves into their fiction. If anyone ever questions them about a particularly thorny passage or plot point, they can always smile and say, “Oh, but that part I made up.” It is possible to say everything while admitting nothing. Vivanti takes full advantage of this freedom, interweaving fact and fiction until it becomes impossible to tell what exactly is what. One gets the impression that three-quarters of the novel is, in fact, a memoir. But which three-quarters? Vivanti never says. It is up to us to read between the lines – to draw our own hesitant conclusions about Vivien and Vivanti’s talents, their unique symbiotic relationship, and the all-consuming nature of exceptionally gifted children.

***

So Fräulein, after she had tried all the words she could think of, took Lenau’s poems from her own bookshelf, and read Nancy to sleep. On the following evenings she read the “Waldlieder,” and then “Mischka,” until it was finished. Then she started Uhland; and after Uhland, Korner, and Freiligrath, and Lessing.

Who knows what Nancy heard? Who knows what visions and fancies she took with her to her dreams? In the little sleep-boat where Baby Bunting used to be with her, now sat a row of German poets, long of hair, wild of eye, fulgent of epithet. Night after night, for months and years, little Nancy drifted off to her slumber with lyric and lay, with ode and epic, lulled by cadenced rhythm and resonant rhyme. On one of these nights the poets cast a spell over her. They rowed her little boat out so far that it never quite touched shore again.

And Nancy never quite awoke from her dreams.

***

When Annie Vivanti wrote herself into The Devourers as the prodigy poetess Nancy who is destined to be metaphorically devoured by her own prodigy violinist daughter Anne-Marie, it was not her first time recreating herself. Vivanti specialized in self-invention. Throughout the course of her decades-long literary career, she became a poet, novel writer, short-story writer, playwright, and journalist who switched effortlessly back and forth between English, French, Italian, and German. She was a chameleon, constantly adapting herself and her work to suit respective markets and societies. Accordingly she had a series of monikers she used professionally on different continents and in different contexts: George Marion, Annie Vivanti, Anita Chartres, Annie Vivanti Chartres, Anita Vivanti Chartres, A. Vivanti Chartres…the list goes on and on.

Her impulse toward re-invention came partly from her multicultural upbringing in Britain, Italy, Switzerland, and America. She was born in London in 1866 (although she later claimed 1868). Her father was a silk merchant named Anselmo Vivanti, a revolutionary from Mantua of Jewish descent; her mother Anna Lindau was a German writer who knew Marx and other intellectuals, and who died of tuberculosis when Annie was fourteen. It was an unconventional upbringing in an unconventional household, and it granted Vivanti a strength and independence that she would draw on throughout her life.

Annie Vivanti, mid-1890s

Vivanti began her career as a poetess writing in Italian. In 1890 a firm offered to publish a volume of her work if she could get Giosuè Carducci, the great Italian poet, to write a preface for the book. This was no small request, as Carducci made no secret of the fact that he thought women (and priests) were unable to write good poetry. Despite the misogyny, Vivanti refused to be intimidated by the great man; she traveled to his home to ask him for the preface in person. Not only did he end up providing it, but he declared her to be the equal of Sappho, Marcelline Desbordes-Valmore, and Elizabeth Browning. He even took Vivanti on as a protégée of sorts, their relationship raising more than a few eyebrows. That year her book Lirica was published to great acclaim.

Vivanti and her Devourers doppelgänger Nancy are tantalizingly similar. Nancy too is the product of a mixed-race marriage: her father is English, her mother Italian. Nancy too has lost a parent to tuberculosis. Nancy too is feted for her poetry from childhood, and she writes a bestselling book of poetry at a young age (sixteen, however, as opposed to twenty-four). From the very beginning of the book we are treated to Vivanti’s characteristic mix of fact and fiction.

***

So Valeria had her wish. Her child was a genius, and a genius recognized and glorified as only Latin countries glorify and recognize their own. Nancy stepped from the twilight of the nursery into the blinding uproar of celebrity, and her young feet walked dizzily on the heights. She was interviewed and quoted, imitated and translated, envied and adored. She had as many enemies as a Cabinet Minister, and as many inamorati as a premiere danseuse.

To the Signora Carolotta’s tidy apartment in Corso Venezia came all the poets of Italy. They sat round Nancy and read their verses to her, and the criticisms of their verses, and their answers to the criticisms. There were tempestuous poets with pointed beards, and successful poets with turned-up moustaches; there were lonely, unprinted poets, and careless, unwashed poets; there was also a poet who stole an umbrella and an overcoat from the hall. Aunt Carlotta said it was the Futurist, but Adele felt sure it was the Singer of the Verb of Magnificent Sterility, the one with the red and evil eyes…

During the discussion that followed, the din of the two poets’ voices built a wall of solitude around Nino and Nancy.

“How old are you?” asked Nino, looking at her mild forehead, where the dark eyebrows lay over her light grey eyes like quiet wings.

“Sixteen,” said Nancy; and the dimple dipped.

Nino did not return her smile. “Sixteen!” he said. And because his eyes were used to the line of a fading cheek and the bitterness of a tired mouth, his heart fell, loveuck and conquered, before Nancy’s cool and innocent youth. It was inevitable.

***

In 1892 Annie Vivanti married John Chartres, a businessman, lawyer, and journalist who agitated for Irish independence. Together they moved to Italy. In 1893 she bore him a daughter named Vivien.

***

Nancy stirred, sighed, and awoke.

In the room adjoining, Valeria was sobbing in Zio Giocomo’s arms, and Aunt Carlotta was kissing Adele, and Aldo was shaking hands with everybody.

Nancy could hear the whispering voices through the half-open door, and they pleased her. Then another sound fell on her ear, like the ticking of a slow clock – click, click, a gentle, peaceful, regular noise that soothed her. She turned her head and looked. It was the cradle. The Sister sat near it, dozing, with one elbow on the back of the chair and her hand supporting her head; the other hand was on the edge of the cradle. With gentle mechanical gesture, in her half sleep, she rocked it to and fro. Nancy smiled to herself, and the gentle clicking noise lulled her to sleep again.

She felt utterly at peace – utterly happy. The waiting was over; the fear was over. Life opened wider portals, over wider, shining lands. All longings were stilled; all empty places filled. Then with a soft tremor of joy she remembered her book. It was waiting for her where she had left it that evening when futurity had pulsed within her heart. The masterpiece that was to live called softly and the folded wings of the eagle stirred.

***

After her daughter’s birth, Vivanti published several short stories and a novel called The Hunt for Happiness. She also wrote a play called That Man, which ran on Broadway in 1899. (The play became notorious when Vivanti brought the producer to court for altering the fourth act.)

Not long after came a mysterious interlude in her marriage. According to an article in The New York Times dating from December 1900, Vivanti and Chartres traveled to South Dakota in 1897 and were divorced. (South Dakota was famous at the time for its relatively lax divorce laws.) Existing Vivanti scholarship has so far been unable to shed light on the incident; it remains to be seen whether the divorce actually occurred, and in any case, it seems that Vivanti and Chartres were back together within a few years. In the interim, however, Vivanti was cited in The New York Times as London businessman Sidney Samuel’s fiancée. She went so far as to come to America to prepare for the wedding, when finally Samuel gave in to the wishes of his disapproving father and broke off the engagement. Vivanti, ever the businesswoman, demanded $8000 for the amount that she had spent at the Fifth Avenue Hotel and on her trousseau. The sorry affair ended in Samuel’s suicide.

Such stories – true or not – confirm Vivanti’s reputation as an independent woman who wasn’t afraid of doing what she thought was best for herself and for her family, other people’s opinions be damned. She would draw on every ounce of that self-certainty while raising Vivien.

In June 1905 Vivanti wrote a striking essay called “The True Story of a Wunderkind” for Pall Mall Magazine, describing Vivien’s earliest successes. In the article Vivanti relates how she had attended a concert of the prodigy Bronislaw Huberman “some seven years ago” (actually, it was nine), when Vivien was an infant. She found herself unsettled by the sickly boy who played so ethereally, whose astonishing talents she was convinced were being taken undue advantage of. She came home to say good-night to Vivien and whispered to her, “No! you shall never be a violin virtuoso, my baby!”

Vivanti continues:

At this moment – at this precise moment and no other! – that baby turned down the corners of its mouth in the extraordinary way I know so well, and set up a wail of grief, a sudden cry of despair! I was thrilled. It seemed a direct answer to what I had said. I kissed her and soothed her in vain.

Vivanti told her husband of their baby’s response. She brought him into the nursery and tried to produce another such reaction – but to no avail. “No vocation whatever,” Chartres finally pronounced. “She is a most commonplace infant. Just a brat.”

Only one thing spoils this dramatic story: it wasn’t true. Despite what Vivanti claimed, Vivien was born in 1893, not 1895. Bronislaw Huberman didn’t make his New York debut until 1896. Something – maybe everything – was fabricated. But whatever the actual truth, the story illustrates several themes that Vivanti would struggle with, both personally and professionally, in the coming years – the special, indeed sacred bond she felt with Vivien; the competing feelings of fascination and horror that her daughter’s talent engendered; the relative absence of John Chartres in mother and daughter’s professional lives; and most importantly, the sense that Vivien was destined to become a great genius, and there was nothing anyone could do about it.

Next time: More italicized excerpts from Annie Vivanti's autobiographical novel. Also, Vivien takes up the violin and travels to Prague to study with none other than acclaimed pedagogue Ševcík...


From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on May 18, 2012 at 9:19 PM
There's a lot here, and your treatment of it is fascinating. But the story and the writing are also rather horrifying, overwrought and almost Gothic--this child who is tired of living at age 6, the mother fervently wishing her child weren't a "Wunderkind," making it seem more like a curse than a blessing.
From Emily Hogstad
Posted on May 19, 2012 at 1:58 AM
It's a very complicated, ambiguous story. I can see people finding it uplifting, terrifying...or maybe both.

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