Ofelia (in designer dress and hat), Sveva Caetani and Miss Juul on the shores of Wood Lake in 1924. (GVMA photo #12289)

Ofelia (in designer dress and hat), Sveva Caetani and Miss Juul on the shores of Wood Lake in 1924. (GVMA photo #12289)

Historic Vernon family’s 25-year isolation resurfaces during COVID-19

Prescient piece of history from Caetani family reappears once again

A true story of a family in social isolation for 25 years has resurfaced amid these unprecedented times.

The Okanagan Online Book Club, an initiative of Greater Vernon Museum and Archives, has chosen a fitting first book – Little Fortress, a novel based on the Caetanis, who, partly in response to Mussolini’s rise through parliament, gave up their royal titles and moved to Vernon, B.C. in 1921.

When Laisha Rosnau started researching the novel, little did she know how prescient the story would become.

“A few months ago, readers connected the story to that of Prince Harry and Meghan, giving up their royal titles and seeking a peaceful life in B.C. – at least at first.”

READ MORE: Vernon’s own Prince Harry and Megan story makes royal reappearance

Though Meghan and Harry left Canada for California, the eccentric branch of the royal Caetani family never left the Okanagan. Instead, when Duke Caetani di Sermonetta passed away in Vancouver in 1935, he left Ofelia, their daughter, Sveva, and their family secretary, Miss Juul to return to Vernon to mourn.

What the women did next is the stuff of local legends – they secluded themselves in their house on Pleasant Valley Road, at first not even going into the yard, and very rarely, if ever, leaving the property. And they did this for 25 years, until the death of Ofelia.

“We’ve been doing this for five weeks now,” said Rosnau, from her home in Coldstream, where she is in isolation with her own family. “Imagine 25 years of this!”

That was what Rosnau set out to do when she began her research at the Greater Vernon Museum & Archives – to imagine what it would be like.

“I wanted to find out what led them into isolation – in Vernon of all places – what it might have been like for them in those 25 years, and what lead them back out.”

As she read the Caetani archives left to the museum, she found herself connecting most closely with one of the historical figures she got to know through their personal correspondence.

“I’d wondered about the woman who was a kind of paid companion to Ofelia – Miss Juul. Who was she, where did she come from, and why did she continue to stay with this family when they not only left their palace in Rome, but exiled themselves from the entire world?”

Rosnau, herself, left Vernon the day after high school, swearing she’d never move back. After countless moves and travel around the world, Rosnau did move back to the Okanagan with her husband and two children, and began research into Little Fortress.

“I wrote about Miss Juul leaving her farm in small town Denmark, striking out into the big, wide world, as I once had done. I wrote about the adventures, romances, tragedies of all three of the women who then ended up secluding themselves from the world for a quarter century.”

The novel was released this past fall. “I released the women, in a fictional form, into the world and now here many of us are, sheltering in place, isolated in our homes.”

As a final thought, Rosnau adds, “Ofelia was quite a germaphobe. She had the women wash all plates and cutlery twice – once after use, and again before eating – bleached toothbrushes and doorknobs. She wouldn’t let strangers near her.

“I found out after the book came out, that even her doctor had to stay on the other side of door when he made house calls to ‘exam’ her. Perhaps she was simply ahead of her time!”

Little Fortress is the first pick of the Okanagan Virtual Book Club on May 21, hosted by the Greater Vernon Museum and Archives, through the Isolate & Create website. For more information, go to www.okcreateonline.com/okanagan-online-book-club.html, or email okanaganbookclub@gmail.com.

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jennifer@vernonmorningstar.com

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