"Who would believe, that a most interesting and edifying book, and that, too, a romance, could be written, the scene of which should be laid in a dungeon-yard, and the main character should be a simple flower, that finds its way up between the flagstones?"
Yes, it may sound too wonderful to be true, but there really is such a book! I just read it and was so touched by it that I had to share my new-found treasure with you!
Picciola: The Prisoner of Fenestrella, or Captivity Captive, was written by the French novelist and playwright, Joseph Xavier Boniface-Saintine solely for his own enjoyment, but a friend happened upon the manuscript, read it through entirely in one sitting, and persuaded him to have it printed. Published in 1836, it was translated into English two years later and immediately became wildly popular in America. The Richmond Review called it "The most charming work we have read for many a day", and the New York Review wished "that those who rely on works of fiction for their intellectual food, may always find those as pure in language and beautiful in moral as Picciola."
It was beloved by several famous American authors, including Emily Dickinson, who received the book from her cousin and thanked him thus: "I'm a 'Fenestrellan captive,' if this world be 'Fenestrella,' and within my dungeon yard, up from the silent pavement stones, has come a plant, so frail, & yet so beautiful, I tremble lest it die. This is the first living thing that has beguiled my solitude, & sometimes I fancy that it whispers pleasant things to me - of freedom - and the future. Cans't guess its name? T'is 'Picciola'; & to you Cousin William, I'm indebted for my wondrous, new, companion."
Perhaps what makes this story so beautiful is the sweet simplicity with which it is told. As the author himself says in the preface, "Here are no stirring incidents, no thrilling love tale. And yet there is love in what I am about to relate; but it is only the love of a man for...Shall I tell you? No, read and you will learn".
By now you must be dying to know what the story is about, so I will tell you! The hero of the story is a young French nobleman, Count Charles Veramont de Charney, who by the age of twenty-five is already a master of seven languages. He has "a vast facility for learning" and devotes himself to the study of philosophy and metaphysics. At last, overwhelmed by contradicting truths, he loses his faith in both God and man, and comes to the conclusion that chance alone is the father of creation.
"Chance became his God, nothingness his hope!"
He seeks happiness in society. He gives concerts, balls, and hunting parties, yet he cannot find pleasure in them. His own great learning causes him to pity and despise the ignorance of his fellow men. At last, he throws himself into politics and joins in a conspiracy against Napoleon Bonaparte, for which he is arrested and imprisoned in an old fortress on the Italian border - Fenestrella. Here he is deprived of all communication with the outside world. He is allowed neither books nor pen and paper. He is alone with his own thoughts, which have oppressed him for so long and now become unbearable. Yet here, in the courtyard of his prison, where he is allowed to exercise for an allotted time each day, he is surprised by "a feeble growth", a tiny seedling, who, by its wondrous marks of design, rebukes his denial of an intelligent Creator.
"How had that tender, delicate plantlet, so fragile that a touch would destroy it, managed to lift up, divide and cast aside that soil baked and hardened by the sun, trodden down by himself, and almost cemented to the two fragments of stone between which it was confined?"
Daily he watches its progress, still trying to believe that it is the result of Chance, albeit a happy chance, but always the plant refutes his arguments. As he observes it closely, he is amazed to find that this tiny plant is provided with everything it needs to grow and survive even in adverse conditions.
"These things you would have known long since, Sir Count, if, stooping from the abstract regions of human knowledge, you had ever deigned to lower your gaze to the simple, humble works of God".
He soon comes to love his little plant tenderly, passionately. He fears for it in storms and even shelters it from hail with his own body. He watches eagerly for its first bud, its first flower. When he falls ill, Ludovic, his jailer, makes a tea of some of the leaves and he recovers. He owes his renewed faith and reason, yes, his very life to that plant, which he calls his Picciola (little one). He studies it constantly. He can tell the time of day by the strength of the flowers' fragrance. With the help of a microscope, a gift from his fellow prisoner and future father-in-law, he makes more discoveries, which he begins to record on cloth with a makeshift pen and ink.
But now Picciola is outgrowing her small crack in the flagstones. The sharp edges begin to cut into the sides of her stem and she is dying. Charney wants to remove a few of the stones to save her, but his jailer, a rough but kind man, who also feels an affection for the plant (he calls her his "goddaughter") nevertheless observes his own orders strictly and tells him that he must appeal to the commander of the fortress. At first, in his pride, Charney refuses, but he remembers all he owes to the plant and finally submits. But the commander refers the request to the governor, and the plant will die while he waits!
Ahh, I could go on and on, but I am telling you the whole story! So I will not give away too much more, except to say that the request is finally granted for Picciola through the intercessions of the Empress Josephine, herself (as is well known) a lover of flowers.
In the end, the Count is pardoned by Napoleon, who, having read the observations written on the handkerchiefs, which had earlier been confiscated (I didn't give away that part, anyway!), comes to the conclusion that "Count Charney is a fool, but a very harmless fool".
"A man who thus subjects his thoughts to a blade of grass", said he, "may make a very good botanist, but no conspirator".
I am so delighted with this book! It is no exaggeration when I say that it is the sweetest, most beautiful story I ever read - and I have so many favorites! I read the whole book in 24 hours, quite a record for me! But this story was something so near and dear to my heart, and in many ways I could relate to it from my own experiences. My love for plants has changed my life too, though perhaps not quite as dramatically!
A few more notes... You know how I enjoy finding familiar plants mentioned in stories. I was hoping to learn the identity of Picciola, and paid close attention to every description of the flowers, leaves, and fragrance, but to no avail. Her flowers are described as white, purple, and pink, with "tiny, silvery rays". Her fragrance became stronger towards evening. From the rapidity of her growth and flowering, one would think she was an annual, yet it seems that she is expected to return with the next season. The jailer refers to her as a 'gillyflower', but then he admits that "to my eyes all plants are more or less gillyflowers". My hopes were up near the end of the story, when the Count, still imprisoned but now enjoying certain special favors, is given some books on botany and begins to try to discover Picciola's true name. But then he begins to fear...what if her name turns out to be something like Hydrocharis morsus? Or in English, what if she bear a name like fly-trap, dog's-tooth, mouse-ear, or goat's beard? At last, casting aside the books, he exclaims, "Why should I consult you? Her name is 'Picciola'! Nothing but 'Picciola'! the prisoner's plant, his comforter, his friend! Why should she need another name, and why should I care to know?". Well, perhaps the author had no particular flower in mind when he wrote this, or at any rate he didn't care to reveal it!
I will close with yet another of my favorite passages from this enchanting book. I do hope you will be inspired to read it for yourself! 😊
"Of what use to the flowers are their sweet odors? Do they themselves enjoy them?
P.S. You'll be happy to learn that our great internet dilemma is over! We were only disconnected for a day! 😊
I am a passionate gardener and seed-saver, who also enjoys playing the violin and accordion, running, spending time with my 4 golden retrievers, keeping chickens, photography, and reading.