By Nick Travis
Author Carolyn Morgan spoke with The Herald about her new novel Unveiled on location with the bust of the Veiled Virgin, the sculpture that inspired the book
One would only have to take a single look at the sculpture of the Veiled Virgin to know how special it is. She has an ethereal, almost holy presence about her. The stone veil that is carved around her face looks so lifelike that you swear a gentle breeze could blow it away.
One can see how authors like Carolyn Morgan could be inspired to write about it. She sat down with The Herald at the Presentation Convent, where the Veiled Virgin is housed, to speak about her novel.
What inspired you to write about the Veiled Virgin?
Well, you look at her. I don’t think you really need to ask what inspired me. She is perfect. She’s more than perfect. She is so, so beautiful. And the first time I saw her I couldn’t get her out of my mind. I’ve come back here many years and every time I saw her I wondered about her. Who was she? Who was the model? What was it like to do that? How did Giovanni Strazza feel when he finished that? He must have been over the moon.
As an artist myself, if I had created something anywhere near that I would be ecstatic. So it was that curiosity, I suppose, that’s what fed my creativity. I really wanted to know how that felt like so in creating the book, that’s what I did. I imbued how I would feel, and how other people I think would feel about things, and I wanted to bring the characters to life.
I wanted to bring Giovanni’s studio to life – what it was like to live in 1855 carving this? Who’d been with him? Who would his model be? How would that have come about? And so that was the inspiration for writing the novel.
What is the history behind The Veiled Virgin?
Well what we know about her is it was created by Giovanni Strazza. We’re not sure of the date of completion actually. There’s no record of that but December 4, 1856 is when it arrived here in St. John’s, Newfoundland under the auspices of John Thomas Mullock, who was the Roman Catholic Bishop of Newfoundland at that time. And he was responsible for bringing her here so it would have had to been completed obviously prior to that, so I would say she was created somewhere from 1853-1856.
To me this is very special because the figure of a veiled woman was very popular in the 19th century, and so many artists did veiled figures. You can see them, you go online you’ll see a full length women with the veil on. It was really popular. But what he was able to achieve with the Veiled Virgin is incomparable.
You wouldn’t think it would end up here of all places.
Well that was one of the things that had me writing the novel is that I looked at it and I said we are so lucky. But we’re on an island, we’re isolated.
At the time she came to Newfoundland the population was a lot smaller than it is now, and very few people would ever see her. And from Strazza’s point of view, I mean, I can’t see as an artist how he could part with her.
As an artist, I think if you’ve done your best work you want it displayed for everybody to see. That’s the whole purpose, to share your vision of what you’ve created.
If you’ve been able to do something to that level of mastery you want it to be shown. And yet he allowed it to come here to Newfoundland and he would never see it again. It’s not like today where you hop on a plane and you’re here. So he would never see it again, and most of the world wouldn’t see it. It’s only really in I would say since the 1960s that people have seen it at all!
Tell me a bit about your novel, Unveiled.
So what I did was I decided I would have a character who would be fascinated as I was with the Veiled Virgin. And it’s Rebecca Howell. She already has a master’s degree in art history and she decides that she wants to know more about Giovanni Strazza after seeing the Veiled Virgin. She is doing research about Giovanni Strazza, it’s going to be a doctoral dissertation and she travels to Milan and is at the Academia in Milan. And so it’s her story of finding out about why the Veiled Virgin was allowed to come to Newfoundland, and as she makes a discovery in her research we travel back in time.
I’ve written it so that there are two parallel stories. You have the 19th century story of the Veiled Virgin being created. So we actually are in Giovanni’s Strazza’s studio while he’s doing it, and I’ve written about how he feels about it. And I wanted to bring that creativity to life.
What kind of research went into this novel?
Well my first part of the research was to go on the internet and find out everything I could – see any image I could of Giovanni Strazza’s work. I even went to museums in Milan trying to get information but of course I don’t speak Italian. In the book Rebecca does, lucky girl. I did send letters but I didn’t get a response. And so I wasn’t able to get original resources that were written in Italian but we do know a fair amount about him. So I was able to research that and I did go to the Newfoundland Centre at the Memorial University, and they have documents there about newspapers.
I went to the newspapers from December 4, 1856 and the description is a wonderful thing to read about, how excited everybody was to see it when it came here then. And there’s also John Thomas Molluck – he had a diary and he doesn’t talk about how it came about, whether he commissioned it, whether he himself went to Giovanni Strauss’s studio. Unfortunately he didn’t write that. And that’s the frustrating thing about diaries, they don’t always say the things you want them to say.
How does Newfoundland play a role in your book?
Well I lived in Newfoundland almost all my life. I did actually live in Dominican Republic and Jamaica because my father was a trade commissioner there with the Canadian government at the time. But I’ve lived here all my adult life and so I have a real connection with the province.
I love the history and when I was at university I majored in English, but I minored in History and so that’s always been a love of mine, and I think for me what I’ve been able to do thankfully sort of bringing all the aspects of my life together in that I have the visual art as the catalyst for the books – both of them – and then I have the history of Newfoundland to wrap that around it and I get to do my writing as well, so writing the novels it brings the art and the history all together for me.