Illyrian Spring by Ann Bridge

A few summer months spent along the glorious, sunny coast of Italy/Croatia/Eastern European countries that no longer exist in the company of an attractive and talented young man sounds like bliss to me. And it is to Lady Grace Kilmichael too, who heads to the Dalmation Coast with her paintbrushes and a copy of The Stones of Venice to escape her rapidly disintegrating home life. Her husband, a celebrated economist, is having an affair (though it appears to be more of an intellectual than a sexual one) with a woman whose intellectual prowess is far beyond Grace’s; their marriage has become lifeless and Grace feels stupid and useless in her husband’s presence. Her only daughter, Linnet, a beautiful 19 year old, is dismissive of her mother and while she loves her, resents her neediness. Grace realises a radical overhaul of her life is needed, and so she heads off alone to discover who she really is and why her life hasn’t turned out as she had expected.

While in Italy Grace meets a young (22 year old) man named Nicholas, who is also escaping an unsatisfactory home life. He longs to paint but has been forced into architecture by his parents, who only want one artist in the family, and that position is taken by Nicholas’s talentless sister. Grace happens to be a famous painter, but she doesn’t tell Nicholas this when she offers to coach him. As the days go by they develop a cosy intimacy, and as they move on along the coast, they reveal more of themselves to each other and gradually work out who they really are and who they want to be. Grace discovers that she is far more intelligent than she thinks, and that she is loved more than she realised. Nicholas is encouraged in his painting by Grace and gathers the strength to fight for his right to live the life he wants rather than what his parents want. And through all of this a friendship, love and affection grows that gives both Nicholas and Grace a peace and contentment that allows their true natures to blossom, unencumbered by the expectations of those that already know them.

There are more characters than this, and all of them are wonderful, but the real star of the book is the backdrop; Ann Bridge was a diplomat’s wife and was widely travelled, and this shows in her terrifically vivid descriptions of the natural and man made environment along the coast of the Dalmatian region. I am now definitely determined to take a trip to Split (referred to by its Italian name, Spalato, in the book), which sounds like a jewel of a coastal city in Croatia, as well as many of the other towns and villages Bridge mentions.

21 comments

  1. I want to go to Italy some day; wouldn't it be lovely to read that there. I shall look out for it, and will of course be reading it at some point!

  2. The book sounds wonderful. I really wish I can get a copy one day. I'll check out the secondhand book websites right now…(just in case).

  3. Heather, you actually did me a favour as I should not be buying any more books just now so thank you!

  4. I just finished reading Illyrian Spring last week and was googling it for a friend. I was attracted to the book because I had visited both Split and Dubrovnik a few years ago. (I should also add that my father was born in Dalmatia on the island of Brac (Brazza in Italian) which is located just across the channel from Split.) I was there in May, just like in the book. Yes, the wildflowers are as she describes them. The weather is mild but changeable and there is no real crowding due to tourists. We spent 6 days in the Old City in Split and loved every minute of it. We visited Dubrovnik and spent the night there anchored in the Gruz harbor. The mouth of the Ombla river is now crossed with a grand suspension bridge and the village of Komolac has a large marina but the scenery is still spectacular. I ended up shooting 32 rolls of film for the 2 week trip. (If anyone is interested, I could send you a few photos or post them on my photo site.) Thanks for sharing this book. It deserves to be more widely read as Anne Bridge really captures the feeling of Dalmatia.magarac

  5. Magarac – Thank you so much for commenting! How fascinating that you've been there and have such history with the area! I'd love to see your photos, please do email them to me. I am so pleased you found Illyrian Spring and love it too.

  6. I was thrilled to find someone else who loved Illyrian Spring as much as I do. Ann Bridge’s 30s books are all so worth reading, I am puzzled that they have not yet been reprinted. The post war Julia Probyn ones are fun but lack the intellectual depth of the interwar ones. The only one I have not really enjoyed is Enchanter’s Nightshade.

    1. Hi Elizabeth! It’s always a pleasure to come across another Ann Bridge fan. I think her 30’s books are superb too, and can’t understand why they have so fallen out of fashion. I wish they were easier to get hold of!

  7. I grew up among Croatians and Serbs and learned to love the sound of the language, the food and, above all, the music and dances of that area.. After reading” Illyrian Spring” in the late 1950’s I vowed that, someday, I would see that glorious Dalmatian Coast for myself. And, finally, I did! In 1964, with Dubrovnik as a base, I traveled , on local buses,as far south as Sveti Sefan and north to Split. Although it was September and I missed the spring flowers it was still fabulous.
    It pleases me greatly that so many other readers have discovered Ann Bridges and this wonderful novel. I have only known one other person who has read it!

    1. Jean, what an amazing story! Thank you for coming by. I am so jealous – I hope to make it to Croatia soon to see the Dalmation coast for myself. I am doing my best to spread the word about Ann Bridge – I think she is marvellous!

  8. I first read the book decades ago and it holds a top ten place in the thousands of books I’ve read over the years. There is something wonderful about the story, the setting, the characters, and the strength of character in them. I have always wished I could see the paintings described in the book, and would absolutely love to see a movie made from it. The copy I originally had was lost somewhere along the way, and I was able to find a hardback version online from Alibris.

    1. I’m so glad to find another enthusiast, Barbara! I too think it really is a special book that has a real power. I too would love to see it made into a film – it would be fantastic – so much they could do with the settings! Glad you have found another copy, and thank you for coming by – you have reminded me that I want to re-read Illyrian Spring!

  9. I’m currently making my Classics Club list and when going through my wishlist of books I saw Illyrian Spring on it with a link to your review. Yes, yes, yes this is exactly the kind of classic I want to discover. Adding it to my Classics Club list right away!

  10. Read it in the late 60’s, and remembered it whenever I saw a bunch of purple iris growing, or saw Van Gogh’s iris painting. Burst into tears when I heard the news reports of shelling in Dubrovnik a decade ago. How is is possible to love a place you have never been to? I think I must have channelled Ann Bridge, those descriptions were so real to me.

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