An imagined history of a historical cellist by Mary E. Hughes

Imagining Violet

Imagining Violet

Mary E. Hughes

254PP ISBN 978028501640

First Choice Books CA$20 


A few years ago, Canadian writer Mary Hughes acquired a copy of the flyleaf of her grandmother Violet Courtenaye’s Bible, in which had been recorded key moments of her early life. Hughes took these clues, along with the little she knew about her relation, as the starting point to imagine her story.

The resulting work of (mainly) fiction takes the form of letters written by Violet to her family and friends, covering seven years in the 1890s, and beginning when the 16-

year-old sets out for Leipzig, aiming to study the violin at the conservatoire there. We hear of her trials in finding a teacher and auditioning for a place, and the months of waiting before she is finally allowed to begin her studies.

Particularly in its early pages, the pace can be plodding. Yet through Hughes’s diligent research into the language and preoccupations of the period, we gain a thoroughly credible insight into this ‘imagined’ life. Violet’s streak of independence shines through as she negotiates her way in a Leipzig boarding house, complaining bitterly about her landlady’s ‘perpetual stew’, working hard at her violin lessons, skating with friends on the frozen river and enjoying the city’s vibrant music scene. Among the numerous concerts she attends at the famous Gewandhaus are Joseph Joachim playing Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, and an apparently underappreciated performance of Dvořák’s Symphony no.9 – ‘Audiences don’t care for it.’

The book comes with the customary sprinkling of typographical errors common to self-published titles. And Violet’s musings on such topics as the importance of votes for woman and the fierce competitiveness of the German nation feel a little clumsy and overdone. But the book is not without charm, following Violet through her studies and back home to Edinburgh. Hughes promises a further two parts to Violet’s story: Imagining Violet Married and Imagining Violet Blooming.