ROBERTA MURPHY SHORT STORY AUTHOR AND NOVELIST INTERVIEWS JULIETA
July 21, 2020
RM: I have now finished your brilliant and moving novel, Eleonora and Joseph. Its breadth is extraordinary, with major historical events and figures conveyed in a fashion that gives them dramatic realism. Reading it, I was immersed in the world you recreated. What impressed me most was your structure, two alternating points of view based on two actual persons who lived in the troubled era you depict. I felt I came to know both characters intimately. Eleanora and Joseph are very different people with vastly different lives. She is passionate, vital, active, uncompromising; he is self-serving, calculating, and compromising in order to achieve the life of the academic intellectual he craved. Her life is cut short by a horrible, shameful death, while he lives out his peacefully.
So, my question is: What were the challenges of entering these two separate minds and the techniques you relied on to make them believable? One, of course, is the imaginative leap by which a writer has to transform herself into a different person.
JR: Before I answer you, I must let readers know who you are and the profound influence you had on me. The two of us met in 1996 at the Writer's Center in Bethesda, Maryland. We were a diplomatic family and had just returned to Washington, DC. As soon as my son started his new school, I began searching the Internet for places where I could learn how to write fiction. I didn't want to go back to the university, I preferred to meet people of different ages, backgrounds, and interests—adults engaged in the same pursuit I had in mind. When I read about the Writer's Center, I knew I would like to enroll in your short story workshop. And, as you might recall, I attended those classes for a couple years, until I felt I could handle my stories about Soviet Russia on my own. You were that good! Workshop participants asked where you published your short stories and I recall you mentioning magazines such as The Georgia Review, Harvard Review, and Feminist Studies. These are very prestigious publications but the names meant nothing to me at the time. What impressed me, and stays with me to this day, is how you commented on people's short fiction. There was ample and constructive criticism on a broad set of issues: the use of metaphor, tone, pacing, form and voice. Not to mention plot, of course.
Voice is what set me free: I discovered my voice in fiction. So, it was only natural that I dedicated my book On the Way to Red Square to you. It is you and your talent that turned me into a lover of that genre, that fleeting piece of art, the short story!
RM: Thank you for your kind words about my writing sessions. Don't forget, however, that you had the initiative to join and the fortitude to keep working at the art of fiction. Many who joined my workshops gave up when they discovered that fiction writing is not an easy undertaking.
JR: I will now answer your question. As you know, it is very different to write from a woman's perspective versus a man's. Let's start with Eleonora. Here is an educated and intelligent young woman confined to home and family, and subjected to the will of her father. Her passion for Joseph doesn't materialize. Eleonora is now librarian to the queen of Naples, and her mother has died hoping she will marry her first cousin Michele. Eleonora doesn't have a strong interest in Michele—intellectually, emotionally, or sexually. So, the relationship forced upon her by her family finishes badly. The army officer she ends up marrying is someone her father found for her as a viable prospect. He turns out to be a Southern European thug, and the relationship is a disaster. I love Eleonora saying at one point: "I agreed to have Don Pasquale Tria de Solis as husband … thinking that I would enjoy his affection, if not the love that so many times has escaped me." I am deeply touched by this phrase, it is actually part of her separation proceedings in court. As so many other women, Eleonora passes from the subjugation of her father to that of her husband. Husbands were even in charge of their wives' dowry. This is a clear case of patriarchy.
Somehow, I found it easy to impersonate Eleonora while writing her memoir. A writer lives with one's characters, and this is particularly true if one is involved with biography. A female character can easily become an imagined sister, a confidante, because the writer feels for and gets to know a character intimately. After a while, Eleonora's eyes became my eyes; her moods became my moods; and her struggles became my struggles.
Two centuries after Eleonora's death, patriarchy is still present in any woman's lives, and I am particularly speaking of the Western world. We have jobs, we have money, and we travel freely, but we still live in a male-dominated society. The glass ceiling is still there, the different salaries are still with us, and the prejudice about female inferiority—"the weaker sex"—continues to be prevalent.
Brought up in Portugal to believe men were superior to women, my life has now filled a gap I would have found inconceivable when I was young. It's true we've seen progress, but we are still far from where we should be in terms of sex equality.
In the novel, I went back in time to a world I once knew. Eleonora wanted to be free and lead a life to which only men had access. She wanted freedom not only for herself but also for her contemporaries. She wanted equality in education for both sexes. She fraternized with men as an equal. As a member of the Republic of Letters, she wished, above all, for freedom of the mind. This was robbed from her early on, starting with her father and continuing with her husband. It is no coincidence that Peter Gray's second volume on the Enlightenment is subtitled, The Science of Freedom. Eleonora practiced that science, and failed many times, until the ultimate sacrifice—her own life.
In many ways, I felt I knew, both in my body and my mind, what it was like for Eleonora to lead a life of hope. She was fighting the odds—and I am very sensitive to these issues.
The commitment I felt for Eleonora requires a particular mind-set, and it is different from the mere technique of writing.
I was brought up in one of the most conservative Catholic schools in Lisbon. I was inquisitive, curious, and forever questioning the official line of thinking; the nuns couldn't take my independence of mind. They knew that I wasn't moldable by their arguments. As a result, I was as defiant as Eleonora in my own world.
Then, we school girls had to conform to the daily Catholic rituals. Not only did we pray with the rosary every day, we went to mass, communion and confession on a weekly basis. Confession is an intrinsic part of the Catholic religion: we confess to get rid of our sins. And, to whom do we confess them? A priest, who happens to be a man. I recall being six or seven years old, and while kneeling down in the confessionary, I revealed my thoughts and deeds to an old priest, someone over the age of sixty. At the end of the session¾considered a sacrament¾I repented and the priest gave me the absolution. If this wasn't the ultimate form of patriarchy in the twentieth century, what is?
Thus, the filthy Neapolitan prison from where Eleonora writes her memoir in my novel was like the nun's school of my childhood. Eleonora's world within her four walls was as confining as the world I had experienced early on.
If we look at Eleonora with contemporary eyes, we see that she spent her adult life mapping a geography of hope, of change. So, in a way, I found it relatively easy to adopt her point of view, to interpret her truth of the heart.
Which brings us to Joseph Correia da Serra. What originally interested me about Joseph was his close friendship with Thomas Jefferson. This issue still resonates in Portugal today because Joseph continues to be revered in diplomatic circles. For many years, I was also part of the diplomatic community and could relate to Joseph's milieu. So I took his diplomatic post as my point of departure. Moreover, some time ago, the Luso-American Foundation (FLAD), based in Lisbon, funded the restoration of the room where Joseph stayed in Monticello.
As I went along finding out more about Joseph's life, I realized that I liked him less than I had anticipated. This both puzzled and annoyed me. I certainly wasn't seeing the merits that Thomas Jefferson had seen.
A Portuguese friend of mine, who read an early version of the novel, noticed this subtext and commented on it. In all, he thought I didn't like the character I had lived with for so many years. So he advised me to look at Joseph as Jefferson had. I found that very hard to do. I was more interested in the man, and his character development, than his scientific pursuits. Thomas Jefferson saw the naturalist, the man of science, and the botanist. Also, someone who could help him set up the statutes of the University of Virginia and later become a professor there. Retired, Jefferson undoubtedly needed spiritual nourishment, and I am sure Joseph provided some of that. The two men had many friends in common, shared various scientific interests, and their age difference wasn't important. So, following my friend's advice, I brought forth more of the naturalist in Joseph, paying attention to how it served my plot. Joseph enjoyed the outdoors, his fieldwork, and the wonders of nature. As a result, I added to the novel many scenes that included landscape in the background. I think Joseph even saw more of the newly independent America than Jefferson himself. Accordingly, I also incorporated instances of his travels in the dialogues with Jefferson. My friend also insisted that Joseph have some redeeming qualities, which I discovered and incorporated. In the end he is human, and a man full of contradictions. It is useless to quantify them, of course, but he had as many as Jefferson. Correia had Jewish origins that he hid in order to become a priest. He was a priest bound by vows of chastity, and went on to have a son. He was a liberal in his early years, and became more and more conservative to preserve the life he wanted to live. He believed it was possible to keep Brazil within the Portuguese empire, and implicitly supported slavery and the slave trade. It might not be redeeming of his character, but I found a way to show Joseph as a man whose views were attuned to the times in which he lived. That his opinions bothered me, that I had a different viewpoint, couldn't be part of the novel if it hurt my character.
I eventually found a few qualities in Joseph. One was his love and attentive care for his son Eduardo, who lived with him in America. Father and son related in a doting manner, the father exceedingly proud of his offspring.
I am totally convinced that what made Correia and Jefferson such good friends were the inconsistencies that both men shared. They had an incredible capacity to hide from others what they didn't want known about their inner, personal lives. The art of disguise is a sublime ability, and both men cultivated it to an extreme. They certainly knew this about each other, possibly without exchanging words on the subject. Friendships are ultimately based on affinities and these secrets were part of their empathy.
So, as you see, the issues I had to deal with for Joseph were completely different from those I faced when writing about Eleonora. If Joseph had had more money, he would have enjoyed all the freedom Eleonora wanted.
Much of a story's success depends on the plot, the way you construct the narrative. Since my female and my male protagonists were so utterly different, I solved this issue with the use of alternating chapters. You need to be faithful both to the person and the times they lived in. But, above all, you need a viewpoint that is subtly waved into the plot, that is fair to the character. The reason is that facts in biography (or any other facts, for that matter) are not self-evident. Except, maybe, in the moment of birth or death.
RM: In the Zoom discussion of "Lovers and Revolutionaries in the Age of Enlightenment" that took place on June 30, you had behind you a poster of the book jacket. I noticed again how striking it is. It tells the reader what kind of novel to expect—one with an incendiary subject matter, causing disruption and danger. So how did you come about that cover?
JR: Anna Lawton, my publisher, and I, went back and forth about the cover. Anna is originally Italian and she was the one who drew my attention to Saverio della Gatta, a remarkable Neapolitan painter in the eighteenth-century that I hadn't heard about before.
We considered "The Destruction of the Tree of Liberty in the Square of the Palace," because the picture shows the fall of the Neapolitan Republic in 1799. Jupiter, the king of the gods in Roman mythology, shown here, is a symbol of ultimate power. The giant statue presided over the square for decades, its back to the viewers. The Royal Palace is to the right, the place were Eleonora worked as librarian to Queen Carolina. The history of the period is strikingly depicted in this painting but, as the giant, somehow, intimidated me, I presumed it might intimidate others as well.
When I discovered "Eruzione del Vezuvio, 1794" by the same artist, I was instantly galvanized and knew this was the picture I wanted for the cover. The image is fiery, incendiary, an adjective I very much like and much in vogue in the eighteenth century. There is an element of awe—wonderment, reverence, and admiration—that impacts the viewer from the start. I hope it is more than a cliché to say that there is a magical element about Mount Vesuvius that Neapolitans adore. Foreigners who have written about Naples throughout the ages adore it the same way, including myself. Eleonora mentions in her memoir Naples as the cittá spettacolo, the spectacular city. This is also what I saw when I visited.
Della Gatta portrays here the senses to perfection: the Bay of Naples and Mount Vesuvius are beautiful to look at. But this is an exalted form of beauty, far from quiet. The landscape is larger than life: we look out, see the volcano erupting, and stare at something that is beyond human control. The scene is nature-made, not man-made. So we humans stand in astonishment because of our frailty. Danger is present—and I like that better than fear. We, viewers of the picture, feel the same way as the viewers in the image who stand along the shore. We connect to these outstretched arms in the face of catastrophe, and to these hands united in prayer. What will come next? Destruction? Death? Or is there a possibility of salvation and hope? Since these are the fundamental themes in Eleonora and Joseph, no other picture, really, could better illustrate my novel.
After I found "Eruzione del Vezuvio, 1794," I looked back at the cover of "The Volcano Lover" by Susan Sontag. I like della Gatta painting much more than Sontag's, by Pietro Fabris. This is an artist who worked for Lord Hamilton for a while. There, the appeal to the senses is much stronger.
RM: The most poignant moment in the novel for me was seeing Eleonora's signature at the close of her final entry while still in prison, before she is brought to trial.
JR: I had seen Eleonora's signature not only in the few letters of hers that have survived, but also in a copy of the document she signed twice, agreeing to go into exile. And that also had a big impact on me. Over the years I have consulted so many documents and books that when I reached the end of the novel and wanted to include her signature, I couldn't find the source where I had seen it. So a graphic designer reproduced it from a photocopied letter in my files. Imagine the vulnerability in that signature, the moment of losing everything you consider dear, both privately and publicly. I'm so pleased that you noticed this detail! In the novel, Eleonora signs her memoir when she hears the soldiers singing "Il Canto Dei Sanfedisti," and stomping their feet in the distance as they come for her in her prison cell. At that moment, only then, she must have realized what was about to happen, where these men were leading her—to the trial, to the scaffold.