The Chevalier of Pensieri-Vani

The Chevalier of Pensieri-Vani (1890) was Henry Blake Fuller‘s first novel. Set in more than a dozen Italian cities and featuring a mysterious, nomadic antihero, it was inspired by Fuller’s long, meandering trips to Italy in 1880 and 1883, when he was in his mid-twenties. In the winter of 1886, when he was working in a business office on Lake Street, he pulled an envelope out of a wastebasket next to his desk and began writing the first lines of The Chevalier. By early the next year, he had completed the full manuscript. Fuller’s second novel, The Chatelaine of La Trinité (1892), was a companion piece to The Chevalier set in the Alps.

The Chevalier of Pensieri-Vani was first published (poorly) by a small Boston press and may have languished in obscurity had someone not sent an advance copy to Charles Eliot Norton, who then sent a copy to James Russell Lowell as a Christmas present. The book was praised by New England’s literary elite, including William Dean Howells, and then in newspapers all over the country. Reviews were mostly glowing, though contemporary and modern critics alike viewed the novel as romantic instead of satirical.

The novel’s success led to a (vastly improved) new edition in 1892 by the Century Company in New York (printed by De Vinne Press), who commissioned Alice Cordelia Morse to redesign the cover. New illustrations were added (uncredited), along with a dedication to Charles Eliot Norton, a flashback chapter set in Siena, and an author’s note explaining the addition. The Century Company republished a fifth edition in 1899 that is nearly identical to the fourth.

The Chevalier is unusual for a variety of structural and thematic reasons, especially when compared to typical late Victorian fiction. There is no traditional protagonist; the Cavaliere (Italian for Chevalier) at the center of the plot, remains virtually unknown, and often takes a back seat to a cast of recurring characters, who are themselves broadly drawn. The chapters are episodic and almost self-contained until the final few. And what contemporary critics and readers mistook for a genteel romance is laced with Fuller’s biting satire of European hubris, American industrialization, and Victorian sentimentality.

On several occasions, Fuller implies same-sex relationships between the Cavaliere and the Seigneur of Hors-Concours, as well as the Prorege and George Occident. Though these references are subtle, Fuller later wrote some of the earliest American gay fiction.

Characters

Most characters in The Chevalier have allegorical names.

The Cavaliere of Pensieri-Vani: Italian for “The Knight of Vain Thoughts.” A care-free, nomadic young bachelor obsessed with Italian art, culture, and society, who travels around the country in pursuit of artifacts, knowledge, and experiences. His title is honorary, not indicative of nobility. Not much else is known about him. He has an apartment in Florence, but doesn’t spend much time there.

The Seigneur des Hauts-Rochers de Hors-Concours: French for “high rocks” and “out of the competition.” A young French nobleman with an estate in the Alps a few miles from the Italian border, and the Cavaliere’s traveling companion, though Fuller implies a more intimate relationship in several passages.

The Prorege of Arcopia: An older, prideful Italian viceroy of the King who presides over the (fictional) region of Arcopia (a portmanteau of “Arcadia” and “Utopia”), which seems to be an island somewhere east of Venice in the Adriatic Sea.

The Contessa Nullaniuna: Italian for “nothing connected.” A solitary Italian countess with a cold sense of humor and an eye for mischief and revenge.

George Occident: A young Midwestern-American businessman who becomes an apprentice of sorts to the Prorege, though a more intimate relationship is implied.

The Margravine of Schwahlbach-Schreckenstein: German for “word stream” and “fearsome stone.” A German countess with an iron will.

The Duke of Avon and Severn: An older British nobleman residing in the Italian city of Ravenna.

The Princess Altissimi: A young Italian princess and friend of the Contessa Nullaniuna.

Gregorianius: An elderly Italian historian.

An Unnamed Signorina: A young operetta who debuts at the Pisan opera.

Summary

Chapter 1: Viterbo: An Elusive Etruscan. The Cavaliere “borrows” a crown from an ancient Etruscan tomb and accidentally destroys the corpse.

Chapter 2: Pisa: Man Proposes; Woman Disposes. The Cavaliere enlists the Prorege of Arcopia and the Seigneur of Hors-Concours to drum up a standing ovation for the debut of a young operetta. When his attempt seems to fail, the Cavaliere leaves the opera, but overhears a massive ovation happen anyway from the street outside.

Chapter 3: Tuscan Towns: The “Madonna Incognita”. The Cavaliere helps the Prorege track down a Perugino painting that turns out to be a Sodoma, so he buys it himself.

Chapter 4: Siena: A Vain Abasement. A flashback chapter (added to the fourth and later editions) explaining how the Cavaliere beat the Duke of Avon and Severn to the Sodoma painting (the Prorege detained the Duke by inviting him to look at books in a cathedral library).

Chapter 5: Orvieto: How the Cavaliere Won His Title. A priest asks the Cavaliere to play the organ during a crucial event when his own organist is unavailable. The crowd is enraptured by his playing, word spreads, and the Signor of Pensieri-Vani becomes the Cavaliere of Pensieri-Vani.

Chapter 6: Rome: The Margravine and the Iron Pot. A nondescript iron pot is found by German archaeologists in an old Italian church. Everyone disagrees on when it’s from and who it belongs to (when asked, the Cavaliere says it’s recent and worthless), but after a legal and political battle, it winds up with the Margravine of Schwahlbach-Schreckenstein. However, she has to pay an exorbitant tax fee and later sells it for a fifth of what it was appraised.

Chapter 7: The Valley of the Po: Master and Pupil. Arcopia welcomes the Prorege back with an architectural tribute, so he wants to repay them somehow. The Prorege takes on a young Midwestern American, George Occident, as an apprentice, and shows him around the countryside. They argue over the best simile for civilization (a river or a work of architecture). Near Venice, the Prorege stumbles upon a building that he will essentially copy and rebuild in Arcopia out of his own pockets to repay his people for their architectural tribute to him.

Chapter 8: Anagni: The End of a Career. An elderly historian named Gregorianius meets the Cavaliere and Hors-Concours in Anagni. Early in his career, Gregorianius was obsessed with Italy during the middle ages, but once he mastered that time period, he became obsessed with classical antiquity, and then later with prehistoric Etruria, and finally with “the unknowable” at the end of his career. He dies on their couch, looking out the window at the Alps.

Chapter 9: Around Rome: The Moth and the Candle. To honor Gregorianius’s dying wish that he fill in some gaps in his history of Ravenna, the Cavaliere head to Rome for research. The Prorege is also on the outskirts of Rome to show George Occident around, but avoids the inner city because he fears the King. The Contessa Nullaniuna, also in town, organizes an outdoor concert at a Roman amphitheatre, where the Princess Altissimi delights a small crowd with her singing. After the concert, the Cavaliere, the Contessa, the Prorege, the Princess, and Occident all leave together and run into a messenger, who asks the Prorege to come and see an archaeological excavation. Once there, he reveals the King himself commanded the excavation as a “means of showing his deep regard for the viceroy.” The Prorege is mortified, because he was hoping to avoid the King, and the Contessa laughs, revealing to the Cavaliere that it was she who told the King that the Prorege would be in Rome, as her revenge on the Prorege for an earlier slight. The King wants to see the Prorege in person.

Chapter 10: Ravenna: A “Human Interest”. The Cavaliere travels to Ravenna to honor his promise to Gregorianius, where he runs into the Duke of Avon and Severn, who rudely ignores him. The Duke keeps going to the town library, where the Contessa Nullaniuna has also arrived. The Cavaliere sleeps with the Contessa, and he learns from her that the Duke is in town searching for a valuable set of Aldine books. As revenge on the Duke for his previous rudeness, the Cavaliere and the Contessa plan to beat him to the books in Venice.

Chapter 11: Venice: A Double Endeavor. The Cavaliere gets lost in Venice while trying to help George Occident get out of some bad art investments, but the Contessa sets him back on track. The Cavaliere beats the Duke to the Aldines, but it turns out there are only two copies of the same book, and the elderly owner is selling them for pennies. The Cavaliere purchases one and leaves the other for the Duke.

Chapter 12: The Adriatic: Arcopia on the Horizon. The Prorege sets sail from Venice on his yacht for Arcopia — along with the Cavaliere, the Contessa, the Seigneur, the Duke, the Princess, and George Occident — to attend the dedication of the new opera house he financed. While on board, the Duke shows off his Aldine book, only for the Cavaliere to reveal his own (authentic) edition while proving that the Duke’s copy is a fake. Someone knocks into the Prorege’s bookcases, spilling several authentic Aldines onto the floor and further humiliating the Duke. Later, the Prorege shows the Contessa a book where every word she’s spoken aboard the yacht has been printed, without immediately revealing how (eavesdropping spies with a portable letterpress and bookbinder), as revenge for her trick with the King in Rome. Occident confesses to Hors-Concours that he feels neither American nor European and isn’t sure what to do with his life. Finally, a ship bearing the Margravine boards the Prorege’s yacht after getting caught in a storm, and she joins them on their way to Arcopia.

Chapter 13: Florence: Finale. Completely skipping over the events of Arcopia, two weeks later the Cavaliere has returned to his apartment in Florence, where the Sodoma painting and the Aldine book are now among his souvenirs. He remembers the dedication of the Arcopian opera house, which went well for all involved. More time passes, and George Occident visits to say goodbye, revealing his plans to move back to America with his new wife, the unnamed operetta. Soon after, the Seigneur de Hors-Concours also comes to announce his marriage to the Princess Altisimmi, which devastates the Cavaliere at first. “The Cavaliere implored his friend not to end the intimacy of so many years. The Seigneur rejoined that their intimacy might still continue, but that the long line of Hors-Concours must not be allowed to lapse through any fault of his” (p184). The Cavaliere eventually regains his carefree attitude and expresses gratitude for his freedom and lack of obligations.

Contemporary Reviews

“There is so much fun in this volume… Neatness of touch, the kind of brushing at a thing with a feather so as hardly to raise the dust, are the marked characteristics of this fiction. A million of miles (sic) away from what is the modern standard is the originality of ‘The Chevalier.’ Its likelihood of popularity will be small. One must have dozed in grass-grown Pisa, or been bored in Rome, or had a fit of malaria in Venice to understand [Fuller]… Moral sense! Fiddlesticks! Go and find that in the clapboard schoolhouses of New England. ‘The Chevalier’ is the most Italian of books we have yet read.” — The New York Times, Sunday, February 15, 1891 (no byline).

Editions

  1. First edition (1890), J. G. Cupples Co., Boston, under the pseudonym Stanton Page.
  2. Second edition (1890), J. G. Cupples Co., Boston. Full view via Harvard University.
  3. Third edition (1890), J. G. Cupples Co., Boston. Full view via Princeton University.
  4. Fourth edition (1892), The Century Company, New York. Cover design by Alice Cordelia Morse. Fuller added a new chapter, set in Siena, and dedicated the book to Charles Eliot Norton. Full view via Cornell University
  5. Fifth edition (1899), The Century Company, New York. Cover design by Alice Cordelia Morse. Full view via the University of California.

Links

  • View or download the full text for free at Google Books
  • Alice Cordelia Morse’s fourth edition cover at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
  • “The Chevalier of Pensieri-Vani: Henry Fuller’s Not-so-Elusive Anatomy” by William D. Burns at JSTOR
  • “Italy as an Ideal: Henry B. Fuller’s The Chevalier of Pensieri-Vani” by Sue Morton at JSTOR
  • Fuller’s second novel, The Chatelaine of La Trinité (1892), was a pseudo-sequel to The Chevalier set in the Alps.

Sources:

  • The Henry Blake Fuller Papers, Newberry Library
  • Henry Blake Fuller: A Critical Biography by Constance M. Griffin
  • Henry Blake Fuller by John Pilkington Jr.
  • A Varied Harvest: The Life and Works of Henry Blake Fuller by Kenneth Scambray
Categories:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s