Christine Balint, Water music (#BookReview)

Christine Balint’s Water music was a joint winner of the 2021 Viva La Novella Prize with Helen Meany’s Every day is Gertie Day (my review), but they are very different books. Meany’s is contemporary, perhaps even near-future, and tackles some up-to-the-minute issues regarding fact, truth and authenticity, while Balint’s is historical fiction, a coming-of-age story, albeit a very specific one.

Set in 18th century Venice, Water music tells the story of a young orphan, Lucietta, who is raised by a fisherman’s family until she’s 16 years old when she leaves to live in Derelitti Convent, one of Venice’s many musical orphanages for girls. This interested me, because when my children were young we loved listening to an audiocassette telling the story of Vivaldi teaching in a Venetian orphanage for girls, but I’d never researched it further.

Balint explains her inspiration in the Acknowledgements and on her website. The book, she says, draws on “the unique history of the musical orphanages” in Venice, which existed from around 1400 to 1797, and were run by and for women. They took in girls of any class or background, if they passed an audition, and provided them with an opportunity to pursue a professional career when this “was rarely possible elsewhere in the world”. In particular, they gave impoverished girls an opportunity “to earn an income and establish a career or save for a dowry—enabling them to forge a fruitful life”.

The obvious question is, how could impoverished girls learn enough music to pass the audition? There must have been a way, but in our Lucietta’s case, she was born illegitimately and placed in a “foundling home”. From here she was given to a wet-nurse, the woman who became her mother, but her “real” father had left instructions and money for her musical education. This sets her on the course that leads her to auditioning for and being accepted at Derelitti.

From the beginning, it’s clear that Lucietta, who has learnt the violin, is musically talented and that her parents have been conscientious about fulfilling these instructions. Her mother, Lucietta tells us, “believed that if she followed these instructions, my musical and marital future would be assured”. Notwithstanding this, the question the novella poses is, what is her future to be? A few options are available to, or possible for, Lucietta, ranging from the future her mother doesn’t want for her, being a fisherman’s wife, to one dreamed of by the orphanage girls of being married to a nobleman from the “Golden Book“.

The story is told first person by Lucietta, so we see it all through her eyes. She’s a sensitive, intelligent young woman who has loved her fishing family, which includes a brother Lionello, so it’s not surprising that she is initially disconcerted when she leaves her family to live in the convent. However, this seems to be a kind place were the nuns and music teachers are supportive and the other girls are friendly. There’s not a lot of drama here, which is counter to your typical historical fiction. Instead, we travel along with Lucietta as she absorbs the influences, ideas and life around her, as she grows and changes, and as she meets, under the eyes of her mentors Maestra Francesca and the Convent’s priora, her suitor and potential husband, Don Leonardi.

Lucietta has decisions to make … and the good thing is that she is supported in those decisions without pressure. Well, there is a little pressure, including from one of her Convent friends, the sweet but one-armed and therefore in those times unmarriageable Regina. She had been sent to the Convent by her father who didn’t want to waste money on her. This is a world, after all, where “a girl is only as worthwhile as her marriage prospects”. Through Regina, Lucietta sees all the

Unwanted, unmarriageable girls through centuries. Here in this vast echoing building. Creating sublime music, their souls lost to time. Their music remaining.

There is a little political barb here regarding all those women who created and produced in the past – but anonymously. These convent girls may have had more opportunities than many, but they were not individually remembered. Some may see it as anachronistic when Lucietta sees value in “restoring the music, in finding the music, trying to recover their stories”, but then again, why wouldn’t someone back then have thought of doing this?

Balint’s writing is lovely. She brings the settings Lucietta experiences – her fishing home and then her convent one – to life, and creates in Lucietta an engaging, believable character.

Water music didn’t excite me quite so much as Helen Meany’s book did, perhaps because it’s a gentle book that explores a familiar story, albeit in a different and thoroughly interesting historical setting. However, because of that setting, because of its feminist underpinning, and because the writing is sure, I’d recommend it to anyone interested in a good – and not bleak – story.

Theresa also enjoyed this book.

Christine Balint
Water music
Lidcombe, NSW: Brio Books, 2021
ISBN: 9781922267610

22 thoughts on “Christine Balint, Water music (#BookReview)

    • A pleasure Theresa. I ordered them both in advance of publication, and the Meany one, I’m pretty sure, arrived first. I’ll be interested in what you think when you get to read it.

        • Yes, Theresa. Sometime before Christmas I was halving problems and I knew my theme had long since been made obsolescent so I thought that might have been the issue so I changed the theme. It didn’t solve the problem, but I’m glad that I have a theme that’s being supported all the same. It’s close in functionality to my old one but has a couple of “misses”.

        • It definitely took me some time to get used to the ‘quirks’ of block editing. I find it more temperamental than the old editor but I believe you have to be a business customer to access that now and that’s pretty pricey. For the most part, I get by without incident. I have altered my post layouts to suit the block editor as there were some real annoyances with the way I used to like setting a post out. It just didn’t work well with the block editor – bearing in mind I still work in Microsoft word and paste into WordPress.

        • Is that right re the old editor? Unless I guess you didn’t leave it. I’m sure Lisa still uses it. I didn’t have any issues re layout but I didn’t have a specific layout like you do. It’s just the bugs for me.

          I do write straight into the blog. Somehow it helps me think blog post writing when I’m in the blog, if that makes sense.

        • Yes, a friend of mine looked into it because she was struggling with the block editor but the business plan is very expensive for things that a regular blogger probably wouldn’t get a lot of use out of. Big ongoing investment just to avoid the block editor, and who knows, they may eventually faze out the original editor anyway. I’d say that as long as you remain in your older theme, you retain the characteristics of it, however, I would expect that eventually the older themes will get glitchy, forcing people to change. That’s usually the way of things.
          That does make sense – writing in the blog = blog mindset.

        • I changed over to block editor long before I changed the theme, but I suspect you’re right ie that changing theme might force you to change to block editor. My old theme (it was my second theme) had stopped being available soon after I adopted it around 2010/2011 but it kept working. However I felt that one day it would break so every now and then I’d check themes and not see anything that came close – until this time! I changed to block editor because I felt, as you suggest, that one day it will go, and I thought I’d rather go myself than be pushed!

          Interesting though that you can still pay to use the old editor.

        • So it is! I’ve just gone and looked. I hadn’t noticed. I always thought yours was a lovely bright open theme. I have two problems with it. One is that I don’t like the fact that you don’t see categories and tags until you click on a particular post, and then they appear at the bottom. In my old one they were displayed with the post on the home page. I love categories and tags and like them to more visible. On the other hand I prefer the way this theme handles quotes. My old one italicised quotes which is fine, except for when the quote had an italicised word! You couldn’t replicate that. And if you tried to de-italicise that word to make it stand out, you couldn’t as it was clearly hard-coded (at least for free use of the theme.)

          The other is a weird thing. If you use block editor, as I’ve been doing for a year or so, and you make a block a quote block, it doesn’t look any different in the editor to the normal paragraph blocks. Very disconcerting. But, I can live with it, because overall I think it’s a good theme.

      • That weird thing with the quotes and the block editor…annoying, yes! When the post publishes it looks the way it should but I would like to see that in the editor mode too.
        The new site looks good, I like your header, it’s all very clean to the eye.

        • So you use block editor too? Yes, you see it in preview and with your cursor in the block you can see it’s a quote block, but it’s a weird fail isn’t it.

          Thanks re the header. I do like it more.

        • Are you happy with it? I am generally, but I’ve had a few bugs that bother me, like suddenly not being able to edit a block and having to refresh the screen. And sometimes when I use the keyboard undo function it works but other times it does weird stuff. Just me?

  1. This sounds right up my street – unfortunately it doesn’t seem to be out in the UK yet, but I will definitely keep an eye out for it! Like so many people, I have a long fascination with Venice so the setting appeals, and I like the idea of the feminist underpinning.

  2. WG, what can I say about a work of Hist Fic? I like the idea of bringing women’s history back to life, though this one sounds really improbable. Why would you give a fisherman’s daughter the skills of a gentlewoman? But I’m glad you enjoyed it. Do you think it is ‘true’?

    • Good question, Bill. I don’t know enough about the history of these orphanages to be sure of my answer, but I think it is generally true in terms of what these orphanages achieved. BUT Wikipedia says about one of these places (there were a few):

      “As the institution became celebrated, it sometimes received infants related (not always legitimately) to members of the nobility. In the later decades of the Venetian Republic, which collapsed in 1797, it also accepted adolescent music students – called figlie di spese – whose fees were paid by sponsoring foreign courts or dignitaries.

      The Pietà produced many virtuose like Chiara della Pietà and at least two composers – Anna Bon and Vincenta Da Ponte. The life of successful figlie was much coveted. Some were given lavish gifts by admirers, and many were offered periods of vacation in villas on the Italian mainland. Most remained there their entire lives, though as the Venetian economy declined in the eighteenth century, some left to make (usually advantageous) marriages. In this instance, the institution provided a future bride with a small dowry.”

      The story here is that she was not a fisherman’s daughter, but the illegitimate daughter of a nobleman, whom the wet-nurse had asked to be allowed to raise. There may be a little romance in the likelihood of this happening, but I think the novel is true to what these convents were about and the range of young girls who ended up there.

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