For fans of Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things and Pip Williams’ The Dictionary of Lost Words, The Natural History of Love by Caroline Petit is based upon the true story of 19th century French explorer, naturalist and diplomat the Count de Castelnau and his lover Madame Fonceca; a sweeping historical narrative set in the wilds of Brazil, salons of Paris and the early days of Melbourne’s settlement.
First visit to Mayfield, July 1901
I never had a madman for a client until I met Mr Edward Fonç eca at his country property. As the driver guided his horse up the long, winding entrance, I kept craning my neck out the window to see more of the half-wild grounds protected by an honour guard of tree ferns and stands of different types of eucalypts I could not name. Their scent was strong in the cold of that late winter morning. At the base of the gums, hardy plants flowered. Further on, a strange towering tree was crowned with huge nut pods. A flock of galahs circled round as if annoyed by our intrusion. The cabman stopped suddenly and pointed with his whip. On a low branch a koala sat munching leaves. Judicial in his disinterest, he made me smile and my unease dissolved.
We came to a substantial two-storey brick house, double-fronted with bay windows. Brilliant orange and red orchids grew in enormous porcelain pots on the veranda, lending the house an exotic, otherworldly air.
Mr Henry Kenny answered my knock. He was a tall man, nearly six feet, with blacksmith arms and a fighter’s fists, but his face was kind as he spoke in a calm, deliberate manner.
‘Welcome, Mr Smithson. We don’t get many visitors. Eddie is looking forward to meeting you.’ He led me into a dusty sitting room to the sound of heavy footsteps racing down the staircase. With his arms swinging like pistons, Mr Edward Fonç eca powered into the room and sat down next to Kenny in one enormous harrumph. Then, as if remembering his manners, he jumped up saying, ‘Hello. Hello. So glad you’ve come, sir, and Kenny nodded approvingly.
It was strange to see a man of nearly forty who reeked of cheap tobacco behaving like an exuberant child. Although properly dressed, there was a spot of egg left from breakfast on his shirtfront; his trousers hung on his scarecrow frame while his skin had an indoor pallor; and his thick brown hair hung in a halo of unruly curls reaching almost to his shoulders. He needed a haircut.
‘Eddie’s not one for barbering. Doesn’t like scissors or sitting still,’ Kenny said.
On the sofa, Mr Fonç eca shook his legs in agitation, and fixed me with an accusatory stare, the pupils of his brown eyes pinpricks. ‘Don’t talk about me. It’s not allowed.’
In a drawling, comforting voice, Kenny said, ‘Now, Eddie, Mr Smithson is your solicitor, remember? He’s a nice man. A good man. Your mother asked him to help you.’
‘She’s not here. Dead.’
‘Yes, I’ve been told Madame Fonç eca was a fine woman. Please accept my condolences,’ I said. ‘Her death is why I’m here. She left everything to you in her will.’ I hesitated, looking at Kenny to gauge if I should talk to my client like any other. Kenny nodded. ‘Your brother Charles is contesting your mother’s will.’ I continued. ‘He wants this house, all the considerable money and other property she left you and …’ Again I paused. Mr Fonç eca was murmuring to himself, shaking his head furiously, his pinprick eyes roving about in fear.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Caroline Petit was born in Washington D.C., raised in Maryland and now lives in Melbourne with her husband. She is a graduate of Chatham College in Pittsburgh and holds advance degrees from Johns Hopkins University, the London School of Economics, the University of Melbourne’s School of Law and a Graduate Arts Diploma in Professional Writing and Editing from RMIT.
Her previous novels, The Fat Man’s Daughter and Deep Night, were published in the US by Soho Press.