Historical Notes

Waterskiing, a mountain of truth, yellow omnibuses and getting strangled by a scarf: Historical notes for “A Body in the Villa”

Arguably, one of the most enjoyable parts of writing a historical novel is the research that goes into figuring out how people lived about 100 years ago. I’m always surprised and delighted by what I find. The idea for this story began with a vintage poster (1928) of a woman waterskiing in Locarno on Lake Maggiore (see further below).

Monte Verita

Like much of the country, modern southern Switzerland is quiet, conservative and a bit old-fashioned. Except for the profusion of the latest models of expensive cars, much of Switzerland lives as though it were still the 1950s (many women do not work, women got the vote only in the 1970s, and stores close by 6:30 in the evening and are not open on Sundays). So imagine my surprise to discover that in the early 20th century there existed a bohemian colony above a sleepy fishing village called Ascona. (Modern day Ascona is a fashionable resort for the rich and famous, attracted to its Mediterranean climate and colorful Italianate villas).

The Monte Verita described in the book is a fictional version of the real community that existed above the village of Ascona from the end of the 19th through the first quarter of the 20th century. And while the events and personalities in the book are entirely fictional, the spirit of the community described in the story is based on historical fact. It did indeed attract anarchists, pacifists, feminists and experimental artists, who lived in a proto-utopian community prone to nudism and vegetarianism. And the locals did consider the community a congregation of lunatics.

Fortunately for the community of Monte Verita, the Royal Society for Natural History Appreciation never descended upon it.

The north-south divide in Switzerland

The animosity of a north-south divide hinted at in the book is also a historical fact.

Perhaps this antipathy is best illustrated by an anecdote. In 1902, an Italian draft-dodger named Benito Mussolini was arrested for a second time in Geneva for carrying false papers. Mussolini had been deported previously from Switzerland for his undesirable political activities, such as inciting violet strikes. He was transferred to Bellinzona (the capital of the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino where the book takes place) for extradition to Italy. However, the local government, always on the lookout for ways to thumb their nose at the federal government, released Mussolini instead.

To some extent, this division still exists today. The Italian-speaking south feels its culture and language threatened by the much larger and politically more influential German-speaking north. As stated in the book, during Mussolini’s rise in Italy, there was a strong Fascist movement in Italian-speaking Switzerland. While no one is calling for the canton of Ticino to secede the Swiss union and join Italy any longer, a feeling of resentment towards the north can still be perceived in the south to this day.

Poverty and the reality of life in southern Switzerland

Another fact that many readers may find surprising is that for much of its history Switzerland was not the land of milk and money it is today.

Land-locked and covered with high mountains, it was a country of farmers, herders, and small-scale artisans (such as lace and watch-makers). The country’s topography meant that there was little arable land, travel was difficult, and most communities lived in isolation.

The Italian-speaking south has historically always been poorer than the rest of Switzerland. Perhaps there are many historical and political reasons for that. But one very obvious reason is that the land in the south is rocky and of poor quality. Although blessed with a mild climate, crops beyond grapes were difficult to grow. Families subsisted on chestnuts, young boys were sent to Italy to work as chimney sweeps, and men resorted to smuggling.

While by the 1920s and 1930s the south of Switzerland was already developing a reputation for being a desirable vacation spot for Brits, Americans and Germans, local women were still doing their laundry in Lake Maggiore as evidenced by this photo from Ascona from the 1930s:

Women doing laundry in Ascona, on Lake Maggiore in the 1930s Switzerland.

The smuggling described in the book is also a historical fact and continued well into the middle of the 20th century. Unsurprisingly, now the smuggling goes the opposite way and is of drugs.

The Countess and her island

The island of San Pancrazio is now known as Brissago island and is a well-known botanical garden. From 1885 until 1926, the island was home to Baroness Antoinette de Saint Léger, rumored to be the illegitimate daughter of Tsar Alexander II of Russia. I took inspiration from her life on the island, but gave her a new identity for the book. As in the book, the Baroness and her husband lived in the remains of a convent and transformed the island into a botanical garden by planting many tropical and exotic plants. To make ends meet, once her husband abandoned her, the Baroness turned to smuggling.

The island was purchased by a German magnate, Max Emden, in 1926. He kept the botanical gardens, but replaced the convent with a neoclassical villa that is now a hotel on the island. He was known for hosting wild parties on the island and for having young women waterski naked around the island.

Waterskiing

The idea for the waterskiing accident in the book came to me while viewing an exhibit of vintage travel posters in Lugano this summer. I was surprised to see a 1928 poster showing women waterskiing on Lake Maggiore. Further research told me that waterskiing was invented in the US in 1922 by Ralph Samuelson. It says something about the appeal and popularity of the sport that in just a few short years, the sport had not only spread to Switzerland, but was established enough that waterskiing races for women (!), as evidenced by the poster, were held on Lake Maggiore, at Locarno.

Vintage travel poster. Waterskiing in Locarno 1928.

Below is a travel poster for Ascona from 1939, advertising all the sport and leisure activities available in the area. It’s interesting to note that the poster features mostly women enjoying these activities. Women of leisure in the 1920s and 1930s were quite physically active, a fact I tried to communicate in the books.

The prevailing social conservatism that followed WWII, and into the 50s and 60s, expressed most noticeably in the restriction of women’s liberties, must have been quite a shock for young women who grew up in the unfetter climate of the 20s and 30s.

Land of contrasts

The 1920s and 1930s in southern Switzerland must have been a time of great contrasts. The waterskiing poster and the photo of the women doing laundry illustrate this contrast clearly. The images are of events occurring concurrently along the same stretch of lake.

On the one hand, locals were poor and lived a life guided by traditional values. On the other were foreigners who lived in bohemian enclaves and tourists who waterskied (sometimes in the nude) and listened to jazz.

Saxophone playing violinists

Speaking of jazz, the episode of the violinist putting his instrument aside to pick up a saxophone is also a fact I came across in my research. The American tourists in Switzerland brought with them a love for jazz. The swanky hotels where the rich partied rushed to accommodate this taste in new music. The same bands that played classical music during afternoon tea, had to play jazz at night. Violinists were given mere weeks to master the saxophone.

Deaths on the lake

As stated in the book, drowning deaths on Lake Maggiore are common to this day. Swimmers, boaters and SUP paddlers underestimate the treachery of the lake. Many vanish, pulled under by strong currents, never to be recovered.

Medieval tapestry

The idea for the episode about Lady Caroline’s mother being duped by an unscrupulous antiques dealer came to me after reading about an American robber-baron heiress who came back from Europe with a cache of antiques, most of which were of dubious provenance (either fakes, not as old as she’d believed, or not as valuable as she’d hoped). To her embarrassment, she did not have the sophistication to tell the difference, and had been taken advantage of in Europe.

The dress that can strangle

The elaborate dress Emmeline wears to the party was inspired by the dress of the dancer Loie Fuller. During her time, the early 1900s, Fuller was known for a dance act which involved a complicated dress made from a mass of fabric, which she swirled into a visually-stunning performance.

The strangling part of the story was inspired by the death of Isadora Duncan, who was strangled in 1927 by her own scarf when it caught in the wheel of her open-top car.

The conference room at Grand Hotel Locarno

The conference room that Lady Caroline uses in the book was used in October 1925 to negotiate the Locarno Treaties, which saw the heads of the major European powers agree to normalize relations with Germany. It was seen as a step towards ensuring ever-lasting peace in Europe after the devastation of WWI. The Locarno Treaties were formally signed in London in December 1925.

While the building of the Grand Hotel Locarno still exists, the hotel has been closed since the early 2000s.

Mountain passes, yellow busses and three-tone horns

The yellow bus which Lady Caroline rides was introduced in 1922, and remains an essential part of the Swiss tapestry. Though sadly no longer cabriolets, the yellow Postbuses operating on mountain routes still retain one element from that time – a three-toned horn. First introduced in 1924, the horn signal (C sharp-E-A) is based on the overture to Rossini’s opera “William Tell”. (William Tell is a Swiss national hero). The triad is also reminiscent of alphorns one can still hear in the mountains. If you are lucky enough to ride on a yellow Postbus on a mountain route, you will hear the bus driver use the horn when approaching a blind turn.

The British Diplomatic Service

Thought the conversation Uncle Albert has with his valet regarding the British Diplomatic Missions in Europe is exaggerated for effect, it is a historical fact that for much of its existence the Foreign Service was staffed by British aristocrats and their relations. The reason for this is two-fold: one, these positions were unpaid and required one to have independent means, and two, monarchies around Europe and the world demanded that they deal with aristocrats when discussing issues of politics and state.

Curiosities of Natural History

Curiosities of Natural History by Francis Trevelyan Buckland, the four volumes that Uncle Albert mentions, of which Lord Packenham has only three, are real books. And I believe they are still in print. Mr. Buckland, had he not died in 1880 he would have made an exemplary member of the Royal Society. What makes Mr. Buckland so singular (and the reason, I suspect, that his books are still in print more than 150 years later) is that he was not only a natural historian, but also a noted zoöphagist. For those unfamiliar with zoöphagy, it is the discipline of studying animals by eating them.

The hazards of scenic drives

Another historical fact alluded to in the book is that the Swiss were quite reluctant to accept the advent of motorized vehicles. So resistant were the Swiss to the noise and smoke brought on by cars, that they took every opportunity to block roads and hamper the journeys of unwitting motorized tourists through the countryside. In addition to impromptu road blocks, drivers were hindered further by haphazard speed limits and time restrictions introduced by municipalities. The Swiss government was also unwilling to encourage motorized vehicles, and road rules were not introduced until after the WWII.

Something of the spirit still lives on among Alpine villagers, but now the efforts are aimed at hapless mountain bikers. 

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