Vanessa Couchman Interviews Maria Orsini from The House at Zaronza
I’m sipping a glass of Corsican vin de myrte with Maria Orsini in her family home in Zaronza, on the Mediterranean island of Corsica. Her story starts in early 20th-century Corsica and goes on into World War I and the Western Front and beyond.
VC: tell us about your family background in Corsica, Maria.
MO: I was born in 1879 in Zaronza, a village on the north Corsican coast, the only child of middle-class parents. A new schoolmaster, Raphaël Colombani, came to the village in 1899 and we fell in love. We had to meet in secret, since my strict parents wouldn’t have approved. We came from different social classes and my father was convinced that all teachers were socialist firebrands and atheists. Raphaël and I met in secret and hid our letters in the village shrine to Santa Ghjulia.
VC: When and how did you meet Raphaël?
MO: My best friend Sophia’s father was the village mayor and Raphaël’s role included being his secretary. Sophia’s father held a small party on Raphaël’s arrival, to which my parents and I were invited. I was immediately drawn to him, but he and my father had an argument about politics. This only convinced Papa that Raphaël was a bad influence and that I should have nothing to do with him.
VC: What appealed to you so much about Raphaël?
MO: I led a sheltered life with my parents. At 20, I had very little experience of men and the world. When Raphaël arrived, who had travelled and knew so many things, I was dazzled by him. My friend Sophia was more intelligent and well-read than me, but Raphaël never treated me like an ignorant girl. He treated me like a woman, with respect for my opinions. He was also perceptive enough to see aspects of me that even I didn’t recognise.
Oh yes, and he was handsome. I was very pretty, but then so were other girls in the village. I never quite trusted him after a few suspicious incidents, even though he swore he was always faithful to me.
VC: What is the main conflict in your story? What ruins your life?
MO: I wanted to marry Raphaël, but my parents wanted me to marry my cousin Vincentello to keep the family possessions together. This was not uncommon in Corsica. Since he was the son of my father’s brother, he also had the name Orsini, so the family name would continue as well.
Vincentello was handsome in a rather florid way, but he had very few redeeming features. My parents were blind to this, no doubt influenced by the Corsican view of family honour.
My scheme to avoid marrying Vincentello was thwarted by circumstances and by the actions of someone close to me. I didn’t find out about that until much later and I went on for many years mistakenly thinking that Raphaël had abandoned me.
VC: What was your personal goal?
MO: At the start, it was simply to lead a more interesting life and escape the boredom of life with my parents and then with my husband, Vincentello. Eventually, Vincentello emigrated to Puerto Rico, along with other Corsicans. He wanted me to go, too, but later he agreed that I could stay behind and run Papa’s business after he died. You can’t imagine what a relief it was to see my husband go!
Later on, I wanted to do something useful, so I trained as a nurse during the Great War, first in Corsica and then in a field hospital at the Western Front. I hadn’t heard of Raphaël for some years and I didn’t know if he was fighting. But I hoped against hope that one day he might be brought in, wounded. When the war ended, I decided to try to find him again. Some surprising and unpredictable things happen.
VC: How did you find life near the Western Front?
MO: It was so different from Corsica and I missed the island dreadfully. To start with, I nursed in a hospital near Bar-le-Duc, which was quite far behind the lines, but once the second Verdun offensive began in August 1917, we were desperately busy all the time.
I enjoyed the nursing, and felt I was doing something valuable, but it was hard when you saw men die whom you had nursed. It was even harder when some of them became emotionally dependent on you. One young teacher who had lost an arm was particularly upset when I refused his advances. I was much older than him and had no desire for a relationship.
In early 1918, during the German offensive, I transferred to Amiens, where the hospital was much closer to the front line. Streams of refugees flooded through the city and missiles fell all the time. We feared for our lives every minute, but we were eventually evacuated to Beauvais, where I spent the rest of the war.
I had to stay on after the armistice, when the flu epidemic claimed thousands of lives, but I counted the days until I could get back to Corsica. I was away for nearly two years.
VC: What other parts of France did you see during the war?
MO: I spent a short time in Marseilles before taking the train to Paris. Both places are huge cities compared to the Corsican towns and I found them stifling.
I had a few days to spare in Paris before being deployed as a military nurse and I spent them sight-seeing. Although it’s a magnificent city, I found Paris rather sombre. Many of the shops were closed and the atmosphere was tense. I also found the people’s morals quite loose – something I wasn’t used to in Corsica. I saw soldiers and women embracing in the street. You never saw that in Corsica. For an unmarried woman even to be seen with a man was an affront to her honour.
VC: What is it in particular about Corsica that you love so much?
MO: It’s my homeland, where my roots are. We Corsicans are very attached to our island. I love to climb the hill opposite my house and sit with my back against the watch-tower looking at the ever-changing light on the hillside over the bay. That’s where I do all my thinking. I also love the particular scent of Corsica that comes from the maquis, the aromatic scrubland that covers much of the island. It’s almost impossible to describe it, but all Corsicans know exactly what you mean.
Having said that, there’s a darker side to Corsica. It has a troubled history, having been invaded and conquered many times. The idea of family honour is very strong and the penalties for breaching it are severe, especially for women.
VC: If Raphaël had left Corsica, would you have gone with him?
MO: That’s very difficult to answer. I loved Raphaël but I also love Corsica. I’m very attached to my village, Zaronza, and the house I live in. I would have found it very hard to give them up, even for love.
VC: In what ways has your character developed?
At the beginning of the story I was a self-centred, naïve young woman. My friend Sophia was much more sensible and mature, as my parents regularly pointed out. But as time went on, I became more mature. I have a capacity for organisation and the ability to endure adversity, both of which I have needed throughout my life. I still have a tendency to be a little headstrong, but time and circumstances have curbed it a little.
VC: What is the one secret you have never told anybody?
What I did with Raphaël’s letters. I kept them, you know, but I had to hide them. Maybe they’ll come to light one day.
Vanessa Couchman is a novelist, short story author and freelance writer and has lived in southwest France since 1997. Her first novel, The House at Zaronza was published by Crooked Cat Publishing in 2014. She has just completed her second novel, The Corsican Widow, set in 18th-century Corsica and Marseille, and plans further Corsica novels. Vanessa’s short stories have won and been placed in creative writing competitions and published in anthologies.
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About the House at Zaronza
The House at Zaronza is loosely inspired by a true story. Maria Orsini, the daughter of a bourgeois family in a Corsican village, and the local schoolmaster carry on a secret romance. Maria’s parents have other plans for her future and she sees her dreams crumble. Her life is played out against the backdrop of Corsica, the ‘island of beauty’, and the turmoil of World War I. This is a story about love, betrayal, loss and reconciliation in a strict patriarchal society, whose values are challenged as the world changes.
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