No, that’s not my clever title for a blog post. It’s the title of a new book out by Barbara Lynn-Davis about Caterina Capreta (sometimes Capretta), one of Casanova’s great loves.
I had the great pleasure of zooming through this book over the weekend. Every time I was away from it, I found myself wondering about Caterina, what she was thinking, her anxieties and passions.
But maybe you need a little backstory first for this book of historical fiction.
Caterina Capreta was only 14 when her brother introduced her to Giacomo Casanova, who was then 28. She was quickly captivated by this charmer, as he was by her freshness and innocence. They manage to set secret meetings and even pledged that they were married before God… But I’m going to stop there because if you know the story, then you don’t need me to summarize it. And if you don’t know the story, then you should read Lynn-Davis’s book and let her unfold it for you!
I’ll not spoil the details, but I’d like to share some of my favorite aspects of the book. First, the cover is lovely, with a capricious beauty peeking out from a cutout frame. Don’t you just want to open the flap to see all of her?
Lynn-Davis peppers her story with similes that evoke Venice: “My dreams, once as fragile as blown glass…” and “…like fresh fish just pulled from the water. Their scales glistened like tiny mirrors, still reflecting their lost home.” This brings me back to mornings at the Pescheria! Okay, I’m an English teacher and get excited by a good metaphor, and hers bring 18th century Venice to life in lovely ways. Lynn-Davis writes seamless dialogue and even has her characters explain complex ideas, like how Casanova used the cabbala to dupe people. I remember writing about the cabbala myself and struggling to simplify it, and here the character Elia sums it up in a few paragraphs.
I also love that Barbara Lynn-Davis did her homework. Her “Historical Notes” section at the back of the book gives a detailed account of Casanova and Caterina’s relationship–what scholars do and don’t know about them and other people mentioned in the novel. (In fact, I’d love to reprint the whole thing here to enlighten all about Caterina’s and Marina’s lives, but you can just buy the book and read it there!) I’ve read lots of books and papers about Casanova and still learned new material here. On some pages, I was delighted and jumped a little in my seat as I read Casanova’s words and ideas worked into the text. At one point Casanova describes his attitude towards gaining money from the cabbala this way: “Think of it as taking money destined to be spent on follies by others, and changing its applications to ourselves.” I felt like I was hearing him speak to me again.
Of course, this book is historical fiction, so Lynn-Davis takes some liberties, such as moving Caterina’s house to a different part of Venice where she herself had lived. Writing teachers say, “Write what you know,” so this is a sound choice. But the convent scenes were set at Santa Maria degli Angeli on Murano, their true setting, long since destroyed. Lynn-Davis makes it feel like a lived in an vibrant place. Though some characters are entirely fictional, she also includes historical figures, such as Abbe de Bernis, who plays a part in Casanova’s and Caterina’s drama.
What I enjoyed most about the historical fiction genre as Lynn-Davis used it was her ability to enter Caterina’s mind and imagine what a 14-year-old girl must have been thinking and feeling as she moved through this relationship with an older, more experienced man. I’ve read Casanova’s version of the story numerous times now–all we have to go on is his memoirs, not Caterina’s or M.M.’s letters or diaries or anything else. So Lynn-Davis dives past what Casanova has written to imagine what Caterina might have felt, which in her telling might include jealousy, confusion, anger, and vengeance. When I’ve written about Casanova’s relationship with Caterina and M.M., I have found myself just repeating his version of events. But here in Casanova’s Secret Wife, Caterina is a thinking person all her own. I like this passionate and headstrong girl and am intrigued by her flaws and failings.
Another detail that made me smile: the inclusion of other Venetian women. As the character Leda practices her portraiture skills, the women begin talking about Rosalba Carriera, the masterful pastel portraitist. After writing my own chapter on Rosalba, I’m thrilled any time I see someone else laud her work and life. On another page, a character yells, “All fathers are tyrants,” and I heard echoes of Arcangela Tarabotti, wondering if Lynn-Davis was inspired by her as well.
And as an added bonus, Lynn-Davis has written some imagined letters between Caterina and Casanova. You can see them here, in an article titled “Imagining a Courtship with Casanova”:
Whether or not you know Casanova’s story of his dramatic affair with Caterina and M.M., you’ll enjoy Casanova’s Secret Wife, which will set you pondering the lives of 18th century women, their passions, cares, restrictions, and courage.