October 1, 1997
I think the book is what I wanted it to be from the beginning," says Christina Vella, "a good, scholarly contribution." Last month, when her biography, Intimate Enemies: The Two Worlds of the Baroness de Pontalba, was featured on the cover of The New York Times Book Review, Vella was launched into the literati's narrow stratosphere of recognition.
"I am delighted with the attention," says Vella, a University College adjunct instructor with a doctorate in history from Tulane. "I expected that New Orleanians would be very interested in the book because of the Baroness, but I thought people 60 miles away from the city would just shrug and have no interest at all."
With such national attention, the quiet, busy life Vella has enjoyed may or may not ever be the same. "I have no idea what being on the cover of The Times Book Review means," says Vella. "Does it mean other newspapers will now review it? Does it mean that you are famous for three days and then never heard from again? Could be. I have no idea."
"I think she's hit the jackpot," says Larry Powell, a professor of history who read the work-in-progress, offering advice and moral support. "She has immediately established herself as a scholar of the top order."
The book was painstakingly researched during Vella's methodical 14-year progress through her doctoral program. Originally presented in 1990 as a dissertation on de Pontalba, the work was eventually published by Louisiana State University Press in August. With 6,000 copies already in print, Intimate Enemies is currently awaiting its third printing. From the very beginning of the project, says Vella, she envisioned the work to eventually be published as a book.
"I try not to emphasize that it was a dissertation," says Vella. "The word is the kiss of death. Can you imagine: 'a cross-gender family analysis of 19th-century France and Louisiana!'"
The book has been characterized as a "cross genre," however, combining meticulous scholarly documentation with a strong storyline. Much of the narrative drive is inherent in the fabulous, sometimes horrific life of the Baroness, who survived a tumultuous marriage, relentless harassment and even a murder attempt by her crazed father-in-law, and a number of court battles for control of her own fortune, not to mention, the 1848 revolution in France, the Paris commune uprising, and epidemics of yellow fever and cholera. She would eventually memorialize herself through the construction of landmark architecture in Paris and New Orleans.
"As soon as I laid eyes on the book I knew it was something special," says Powell. "Usually academic books tend to focus on the conversations of other historians. That tends to promote shop talk. Christina knows how to tell a story and has a novelist's gift for revealing detail. You get a feeling for not only the broad, impersonal forces that shaped that period, but also the texture of it, the sounds and smells."
"I wanted to write a really fantastic book," admits Vella. "So I took my time and made the most of the input I received from the professors who were reading it."
Along with Powell, professors Radomir Luza, her dissertation director, and Burlie Brown, both of whom are now emeritus professors, were instrumental in their encouragement and advice, says Vella. By the time she began her doctoral program in 1976, Vella was ready for the challenge. Born into a family with few financial resources, she worked to support herself while earning an undergraduate degree in English and history (Louisiana State University) and graduate degree (University of New Orleans).
She taught in the St. Bernard Parish school system and then directed the departments of history and English at the St. Bernard Community College. In the early 1980s, Vella had two children, now ages 12 and 14, whom she homeschools. Despite the extracurricular activities in her life, Vella completed something that was "passable" as a dissertation by 1985.
"But I kept going," she says, "in order to use the professors who were giving it their attention and to add the French research." When she began the book, Vella says she did not realize that the Baroness, who is something of an icon in New Orleans, lived 68 years of her life in Paris. "I found out I was going to have to go to Paris to do more research and it was going to take the rest of my life to finish the book!" she says.
In 1989, she received a Selley Dissertation Year Fellowship, and used the money to take herself, her husband and two children to France for three months. "During that time my husband and I just combed the archives," she said. "We took turns taking care of the kids."
Returning to New Orleans, she wrapped up the project within a year. If reviewers acknowledge Vella's passionate prose it may be because Vella is very passionate about history. Introduced to Edward Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by her father, who had only an eighth-grade education but was "splendidly self-educated," Vella speaks in almost mystical terms about her discipline.
"When you put yourself into the past and look at a primary document and immerse yourself in this other perspective--the perspective of the past--it gives you a fresh apprehension of reality," she says. "You come back to the present, and you are free of the banalities and cant of your own time. Whatever wisdom I have about life I received from reading history."
Vella, who at Dean Rick Marksbury's invitation teaches "New Orleans, Paris and the Pontalbas," a University College course on 19-century France and Louisiana, encourages people not to be intimidated by historical classics. "There are so many deep and gratifying books," she says. "Try to read history and not feel inadequate to it. People think that there is something mysterious about history until they read wonderful authors such as Robert Palmer, Eugene Weber and William Prescott, and find out how much fun they are."
Vella laments that she has not completed everything on her own reading list yet, and she may have little time to do so in the near future. She is currently working with Luza on his memoirs from World War II and will then take up a book on a controversial murder trial that occurred in Italy in 1902. The cover of The New York Times Book Review not withstanding, it remains to be seen if Vella's first work will stand the test of time.
Powell, however, offers a clue. "She evokes that period of time in the 19th century better than anyone I have ever read," he says. "She deserves all the kudos and acclaim she receives. Christina is an artist."
Editor's note: Intimate Enemies: The Two Worlds of the Baroness de Pontalba can be purchased from the Tulane bookstore or ordered from LSU Press, 1-800-861-3477.
Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000 email@example.com