The Secret

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The Secret

by Alba de Céspedes

THE LITERARY WORK

A novel set in Rome, Italy, in 1952; published in Italian (as Quaderno proibito) in 1952, in English in 1957.

SYNOPSIS

While keeping a secret diary, Valeria unexpectedly discovers that she harbors a hidden discontent with her stifling social role as a working wife and mother in postwar Italy.

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

The Novel in Focus

For More Information

Aiba de Cespedes was bom in Rome, Italy, in 1911 to an Italian mother and a Cuban father (serving as Cuban ambassador to Italy at the time). Although de Cespedes was raised to speak both Spanish and Italian, she wrote the majority of her literary works in her mother’s native tongue. De Cespedes’s passion for writing began with the poems she composed as a small child, which were the first products of a talent her father encouraged her to keep developing. Married at the age of 15 and a mother by 16, de Cespedes put her writing career on hold until her divorce at the age of 20. At 24, she published a collection of short stories and then returned to writing poetry. In the 1930s, while Italy was under the Fascist dictator-ship of Benito Mussolini, de Cespedes participated in the Resistance—the anti-German, anti-Fascist struggle in Italy. The writer paid for her involvement in the Resistance. She was arrested and jailed for several days in 1935, and the Fascist government banned her 1938 novel, There’s No Turning Back (Nessuno torna indietro). A few years later she became a commentator for the Resistance radio in Bari, Italy, taking turns with other partisans each evening to speak anonymously about liberating Italy from the grips of Fascism. In 1944, de Cespedes founded the partisan journal 11 Mercurio, and later she collaborated on other journals, such as Epoca and La Stampa. Her post-World War II novels include politically and socially engaged works such as Dalla parte di lei (1949; The Best of Husbands);Quaderno proibito (1952; The Secret); Prima e dopo (1955; Between Then and Now) and II rimorso (1962; Remorse). After years of personal and literary social involvement in Italy, de Cespedes left the country to live in Paris, France, where she died in 1997. The Secret remains de Cespedes’s most successful work. Although its widespread appeal stems from universal portraits of family’s life, the plot and characters are deeply rooted in the real-life experience of bourgeois women in postwar Italy.

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

Women under and against Italian Fascist rule

The role prescribed for Italian women under Fascism was directly affected by the ambitions of dictator Benito Mussolini, who set out to create a large labor and military force as well as an Italian empire (a burgeoning population would justify the colonization of lands abroad). In his determination to boost the Italian population, already at 40 million, Mussolini, or II Duce (“the leader”), initiated various pro-childbirth policies. In 1926, all prostitutes were ordered off the streets and into regulated brothels in an attempt to discourage illicit sex and encourage sex for pro-creative purposes within the confines of marriage. In a further attempt to promote marriage and therefore procreation, the end of 1926 saw the introduction of a celibacy tax, to be paid by men who remained unmarried past the age of 26. The same year the Fascist government outlawed the display, possession, and sale of information about contraception and abortion. Mussolini’s regime also called on the secret police to intervene in any suspected instance of birth-control use.

ALBA DE CéSPEDES AND THE ITALIAN RESISTANCE

During World War II Alba de Céspedes was among the daring women who became active in the Italian Resistance, an experience carefully chronicled in the author’s diaries. An entry on November 17, 1943, reveals her desire to be treated as an equal of her male companions:

The news of a massacre at Sant’ Agata has reached us. The Germans suddenly arrived at a farm where they rounded up the men, threw them against a haystack and they mowed/cut them down with a machine gun. All of the women were spared. This possibility of being saved due only to the fact of being a woman humiliates me profoundly…. I have decided that if they catch us I will scream furiously: ’down with Germany, long live Italy’ so they will not take pity on me.

(De Céspedes in Carroli, “Alba de Céspedes Revisited”, p. 55)

While serving as a female partisan, de Céspedes provided the voice of “Clorinda” for a Resistance radio station in Bari, sharing over the airwaves her desire for the liberation of Italy from Fascist rule. The writer adopted her radio pseudonym from the brazen female character in Torquato Tasso’s epic poem Jerusalem Delivered (also in WLAlT 7: Italian Literature and Its Times), Tasso’s Clorinda cross-dressed as a male warrior and, according to de Cespedes, the partisan women working for Radio Bart always wore men’s trousers.

Mussolini offered both financial rewards and public recognition to enlarge the size of the family’s: 1928 saw the inauguration of tax breaks for families with children, and in 1933 II Duce pro-claimed December 24 to be Italy’s official Mother’s Day. The highlight of this new holiday was a parade in Rome featuring a procession of the women who had the highest number of live births in Italy’s 90 provinces. In 1942 Mussolini took this pro-childbirth propaganda a step further when he started to award a gold medal to the most prolific mothers in the country. Through all of these legal and symbolic actions, the Fascist regime made clear the message that the only acceptable social function for women was that of mother, a submissive and self-sacrificing role limited strictly to the domestic sphere.

Yet at the same time Fascism gave Italian women their first sense of themselves as a political force. The regime organized women, in fact, mass organized them. By the Second World War, membership in the women’s organization of the Fascist Party approached 3.2 million. Conditioned to accept, even promote the male-dominated, authoritarian nature of their society, they nevertheless gained civic experience. The women of Italy acquired a new gender consciousness, a sense of themselves as a political class. This new consciousness emerged not only because of their involvement in Fascist politics, but also because of their resistance to it. A number of anti-Fascist women were involved in clan-destine efforts to help the Resistance movement that took shape following the fall of Mussolini in 1943. While there are no definite figures for the total number of women involved in the Resistance, Victoria de Grazia provides the following statistics: “Forty-six hundred women were arrested, tortured, and tried, 2,750 were deported to German concentration camps, and 623 were executed or killed in battle” (De Grazia, p. 274).

At the conclusion of the war, many of the surviving female Resistance fighters, who had actively participated in an important political cause, found it difficult to return to a limited social role, which confined them to the domestic sphere. Many of these women therefore took action to dislodge the limitations, becoming forerunners of the 1960s feminist movement by struggling for women’s rights in the workplace and home. In 1944, partisan women in northern Italy joined with women in southern Italy to form the Unione donne italiane, or UDI (Italian Women’s Union), an organization that would al-ways remain fairly militant. The union aimed at protecting women’s rights in the labor force, often by organizing strikes among female workers, and dedicated itself as well to more overarching goals, such as the promotion of peace and an end to hunger and homelessness. Among other accomplishments, the UDI is largely responsible for the campaign for and eventual acquisition of female suffrage in Italy in 1945.

Women in postwar Italy: economic hard times

In 1945 Mussolini was captured, along with his mistress Clara Petacci, and executed by Italian partisans. Other major changes followed. World War II ended, and a 1946 popular election abolished the monarchy and declared Italy a republic. The nation ratified a new constitution, and in 1948, Alcide De Gasperi led his party, the Christian Democrats (known as DC, for Democrazia Cristiana), to power. De Gasperi was confronted with an enormous economic challenge: damages to Italy from the Second World War exceeded 7,000 billion lire, or 20 percent of the nation’s property. From the war’s end in 1945 until 1947, Italy’s economy faced a period of great instability, punctuated by uncontrolled inflation and skyrocketing unemployment. Although some relief came when in 1947 Italy entered a phase of relative financial stability, serious financial problems continued to plague the country, and its economy remained stagnant. The picture brightened with Italy’s receipt of $1.5 billion from the United States (about $1.4 billion as a grant, the remainder as a loan) in 1948–52 under the Marshall Plan—the U.S. program of aid to European countries for postwar recovery.

While Europe entered a period of vigorous economic growth lasting for more than a decade (1950–63), the upward trend did not begin in Italy until 1958. Italy experienced its economic “miracle” in the 1960s, transforming in a blink of the eye from a country of peasants to a modern industrial nation, thanks, among other factors, to a cheap labor force and the formation of the European Common Market, which promoted free trade among member nations. With the help of a number of manufacturers, such as the automobile maker Fiat and the typewriter maker Olivetti, the Italian economy experienced an extraordinary boom between 1958 and 1963. Olivetti, for example, increased its production of typewriters fourfold within part of this period (1957–1961).

Having filled in for the drafted soldiers in virtually all fields of work during the Second World War, women continued to make up a large part of the Italian labor force during the postwar years. Article 37 of the 1947 constitution sanctioned equal pay for equal work, although in reality most women kept earning lower wages than their male counterparts. Also, the Christian Democrat Party still emphasized a subordinate role for women—despite their legally prescribed equality in the work force and their active role in the new economy. For example, Guido Gonella, a prominent member of the party, sanctioned inequality in the home, publicly declaring that women were “Equals in civil life, subordinates in family’s life” (Cutrufelli, p. 155; trans. V. Mirshak).

Women in postwar Italy: the constraints of the Roman Catholic Church

One of the most significant influences on gender issues in Italy has been the Catholic Church. Under the Fascist regime in 1929, the Lateran Treaty and Concordat had given the Church sovereignty over its territory (as Vatican City); these same agreements allowed for religious instruction in public schools, and recognized that Catholic marriages were subject to canon law. By forming a strong, centralized organization and directly involving lay people in its interests through the collaborative political group Catholic Action (Azione cattolica, or AC), the Church continued to wield political influence in the postwar period. In fact, many active members of the AC became key political players in the Christian Democrat government. The Italian people found in the stable structure of the Church a bastion of constancy during the tumultuous post-World War II years. Many also found in the Catholic Church a strong ally to counter the threat posed by atheistic Marxism, a threat that solidified the bond of cooperation between the DC and the Church and resulted in its gaining formidable control over everyday life in Italy. Due to its close cooperation with the DC, the Church influenced such issues as the use of contraception and cinematic production.

Pius XII, the pope from 1939 until his death in 1958, led the Catholic Church throughout this term of great sociopolitical influence. In 1946 Pius XII revealed his conservative stance towards women’s liberation when he declared, “What is the woman if not the helper of the man?” (Cutrufelli, p. 149; trans. V. Mirshak). In addition to vehement opposition to abortion and birth control, he also guaranteed the prohibition of divorce, or in more religious terms, the indissolubility of marriage, an institution that remained under Church control during the postwar period.

During Pius XII’s papacy, motherhood and virginity took precedence as the ultimate values to be associated with a woman. In 1947 the pope stressed the need to “rebuild” the Catholic family’s with the mother as the central figure and strongly discouraged women from working outside the home. In a further exaltation of motherhood, Pius XII revived the Marian cult and praised the Virgin Mother as the perfect model of a suffering and self-sacrificing maternal figure. In 1950 Pius XII effectively reinforced the value placed on an unmarried woman’s virginity through the canonization of Maria Goretti, an 11-year-old peasant who had been murdered while resisting sexual molestation.

Thus, women of the Fascist and postwar periods faced numerous legal and social obstacles to an expansion of their roles in Italian society. Although the UDI (Italian Women’s Union) had been working as early as the 1940s to obtain equality in the workplace and female participation in the legislative body, not until the 1960s would women confront more explosive issues, such as the legalization of divorce and abortion. With a conservative church and state at the helm, women’s rights went through a slow but steady building phase in Italy from the close of World War II in 1945 to the early 1960s. It is hardly surprising, given this state of affairs, that the burgeoning of numerous Italian feminist collectives would be delayed until 1968, close to two decades after the release of de Cespedes’s novel The Secret. Inspired by a new left on the political scene at the time, these collectives were no doubt established by thousands of women for whom the years of Fascist and postwar oppression must have been a distant memory.

The Novel in Focus

Plot summary

The novel, written in diary form, opens with an entry describing how the protagonist, Valeria Cossati, comes to possess a sleek black notebook in which she begins to record the everyday events of her life. In Italian the title of the novel is Quaderno proibito (“forbidden notebook”), and the account of Valeria’s purchase of the notebook at the shop of a tobacconist reveals the double meaning of this title. Valeria buys the notebook on a Sunday, a day on which, by law, a tobacconist can sell only tobacco and newspapers. On her way out, she has to walk past the policeman guarding the shop door with the notebook tucked under her coat. This deception foreshadows the intense secrecy that will surround Valeria’s keeping of the diary throughout the novel. She intends to hide her writing from friends and family’s. Valeria feels guilty about her private inclinations and emotions; thus, the first entry in the diary begins with a confession, “I was wrong to buy this notebook, terribly wrong” (De Cespedes, Secret, p. 1).

As Valeria records everyday events, her discontent and frustration with her role as wife and mother begin to surface. The protagonist, who participated in the Resistance movement during the Second World War, feels keenly her lack of independence in postwar Italy. She is disturbed to realize that she does not even have any corner of the house to call her own. She seems even to have lost possession of her own name: she is simply “Baby” to her parents, “Mamma” to her husband and children. After her family’s laughs at the idea of her keeping a diary (“What would you write in it, Mamma?” [Secret, p. 7]), the troubled housewife becomes obsessed with finding new hiding places for it in their cramped apartment. Each new entry in the diary is accompanied by growing pangs of guilt; Valeria detests keeping a secret from her loved ones and regrets the time taken away from her never-ending housework.

Valeria’s discontent in her marriage to Michele was unknown to her before she began to examine her subconscious through the writing process. Gradually this discontent becomes more pronounced as the novel unfolds. The couple married young and now that they are entering middle age, both husband and wife are doing some serious soul-searching. Surrounded by a world at war for the better part of their lives, from childhood to adulthood, Valeria and Michele are accustomed to living under the shadow of political and economic instability. As their children reach the age in which they become more demanding financially, the couple grow increasingly dissatisfied with their meager wages and their constant scrabbling to make ends meet. In fact, a sense of despair prevails in the novel when it comes to the economy and the effects of war: their son, Riccardo, is unable to attend a Christmas social because the family’s cannot afford to rent a dinner jacket; Valeria fears that their daughter, Mirella, will be “bought” by an older gentleman because Valeria and Michele are unable to spoil her with the material things the other girls her age flaunt;

TIMELINE; THE LIBERATION OF ITALIAN WOMEN

1910 Italian feminist groups create a common manifesto demanding female suffrage.
1931 Penal code mandates heavy penalties for illegal abortion, including two to five years in jail for anyone aiding and abetting it.
1944 Formation of the Unione Donne Italime or UDI (Italian Women’s Union), which fought for equal rights for women in the workplace.
1945 Female suffrage is granted in Italy.
1956 The Court of Cassation (highest judicial authority in Italy) rules that the husband does not have the right to exercise “corrective power” (that is, the use of domestic violence) over his wife.
1968 Numerous Italian feminist groups are formed. Law dictating the inequality of the sexes in adultery cases (sanctioning the imprisonment of women convicted of adultery) is declared unconstitutional.
1970 Divorce is legalized.
1978 Abortion is legalized.

the constant threat of a third world war hampers the family’s’s economic hopes. Valeria’s own mother continues to resent the loss of her aristocratic family’s’s fortune during the First World War. Also her mother makes clear her disapproval of working women, so that while Valeria has come to enjoy her job in a bustling office setting, she again feels guilty about the pleasure and ends up constantly reminding herself that she is there by necessity, not by choice.

Meanwhile, Michele, hoping to acquire a more glamorous and liberating lifestyle than the one he experiences in his banking career, writes a screenplay. He manages to keep his writing a secret until the script is finished. Along with her children, Valeria only learns of the screenplay when Michele decides to show it to Clara, a progressive, highly independent family’s friend in the film business. The Cossatis become momentarily hopeful of putting an end to their economic woes when Clara suggests that she might find a buyer for the screenplay. Unhappily the script is rejected, which seals the family’s’s position as part of the struggling working class in postwar Rome.

“WRITING IS A SIN”

An article summarizing a 1954 conference presentation by de Céspedtes provides a glimpse into her ideas about placing social restrictions on women’s writing:

“Writing is a sin,” thus Alba De [sic] Céspedes has defined the attitude of a woman who pursues a literary vocation, in her conference held last Thursday night under the auspices of the Lyceum…. Writing for these women [i.e., the Brontg sisters and Austen] means stealing time from their families, their children, their homes. While men have the right to shut themselves in their studies, protected and undisturbed, women must work in secret, and keep a “forbidden notebook.” like the protagonist in de Céspedes’s latest novel. She [de Céspedes] too had the feeling she was doing something wrong when writing. Only with experience accumulated day by day, spurred on by a tenacious persistence, after long and hard readings, did Alba de Céspedes convince herself and everyone else… that she had the right to be a writer; in short, she was finally rid of her fear and guilt.

(Carroli, “Alba de Cespedes Revisited,” p, 45)

In addition to her financial disappointments, Valeria is troubled by her 20-year-old daughter’s relationship with a man in his thirties. The protagonist tries to sever Mirella’s ties to the prominent lawyer Sandro Cantoni, but instead must face some harsh realities about her own life as a submissive housewife. “If you love me, how can you wish me a life like yours?” Mirella asks her mother (Secret, p. 34). The question highlights the stark distinction between the two women—one, a traditionalist who feels obligated to be the perfect wife and mother; the other, determined to establish a romantic relationship based on intelligent exchanges and mutual respect.

In contrast with the often-hostile relations between mother and daughter in the novel, Valeria reveals only sympathetic tenderness towards her son, Riccardo. Riccardo shares his mother’s traditional mores, and she dotes on him as he works to finish his studies and fulfill his dream of finding success in Argentina. The young man resolves to make his fortune in life instead of repeating his father’s mistake of “settling” for a steady but low-paying job. But despite the resolve, Riccardo’s ambitious plans are shattered when he discovers that his girlfriend, Marina, is pregnant. Suddenly finding himself on the verge of marriage and fatherhood, he ends up accepting his own steady but low-paying position at the same bank where Michele works.

As Valeria, in writing her diary, takes ever greater notice of the distant friendliness that has become the foundation of her marriage, she begins to interpret the seemingly innocent gestures of her boss, Guido, for what they really are: romantic advances. Meeting alone together in their office on Saturdays, Valeria and Guido share their frustration with their respective lives outside the office and indulge in the fantasy of taking a clandestine trip for two to Venice. Guido makes Valeria feel younger and more attractive, restores a piece of her identity by calling her “Valeria” rather than addressing her as mother, daughter, or wife, and provides the listening ear that she fails to find at home.

Yet the unhappy woman ultimately realizes she does not have the courage to leave her husband and children or to abandon the traditional role of self-sacrificing wife and mother that she has so carefully cultivated over the years. Unwilling to let Riccardo’s soon-to-be bride, Marina, take over as matriarch in the Cossati home, Valeria decides to return to her role as submissive wife, mother, and now grandmother as well. Consumed by the irrational fear that Marina will someday find her secret diary and reveal her subversive thoughts to the family’s, Valeria prepares to burn the notebook at the close of the novel. Even as she decides to destroy the diary, Valeria believes that Marina, upon returning to the house and smelling the faint odor of burning, will understand what has happened. The novel closes with this affirmation of the shared bond between women and their similar journeys of self-discovery:

[Marina will] understand, I’m certain, because every woman hides a black notebook, a secret diary, and every woman must destroy it. Now I wonder where I’ve been more sincere, in these pages or in my actions—actions that will leave behind an image of me like a beautiful portrait.

(Secret, p. 249)

The mother-daughter relationship in The Secret

The Secret reveals the effects of the Fascist and then the conservative postwar political regimes on motherhood in Italy. Valeria’s interactions with her own mother are limited to discussions about cooking, cleaning, and the rising price of produce. Her mother disapproves of her daughter having a job outside the home and worries that she is neglecting her duties as a wife and mother. While Valeria aspires to raise her daughter, Mirella, differently, aiming for their relationship to be a friendship, she is shocked to find herself attempting to reinforce in her daughter the traditional, oppressive ideals for females.

Valeria’s insistence on denying the importance of Mirella’s new job as a legal assistant, along with her refusal to accept the emotionally and intellectually fulfilling relationship Mirella shares with an older attorney, results in the breakdown of the mother-daughter relationship, recognized by the protagonist when she laments that her daughter views her as an enemy (Secret, p. 37). Valeria is devastated to realize that Mirella may have good reason to reject her traditional ideas. In a flash of self-awareness, Valeria discovers that she may in fact be harming her daughter by teaching her the female role imposed on women: “I felt she was trying to protect herself against my love, as if against something dangerous; I wondered if I’d have had the strength to do the same with my mother, and I knew I wouldn’t” (Secret, p. 77). In other words, Valeria discovers that she has become for her daughter the same voice that she had grown up hearing in her own mother: a voice that reinforces the very patriarchal system that has been passed down from generation to generation, not only by the men who hold the power, but also by the women themselves.

The dangerous, cyclical nature of the oppression of women as a social construct passed from mother to daughter can be found in Italian women’s writing dating as far back as the mid-1800s. One of the most striking examples is a novel by Neera (pseudonym of Anna Radius Zuccari) entitled Teresa (1886; also in WLAIT 7: Italian Literature and Its Times). In the novel, the primary model that the young protagonist, Teresa, has of femininity is her mother’s entirely weak and passive character. In turn, Teresa grows into a submissive woman, bowing to her father’s wishes and ending her relationship with Orlandi, the man she loves. It is only when both her parents have died and her younger siblings are out on their own that Teresa can bring herself to go to her lover. Sadly by this time, both Teresa’s youth and Orlandi’s health have faded, and Teresa seeks to fulfill for her partner more the role of caretaker than lover.

While Teresa addresses the issue of motherhood’s role in the perpetuation of the patriarchal system, the novel suggests no real solution to the problem. In contrast, the protagonist of Sibilla Aleramo’s 1906 novel, A Woman (also in WLAIT 7:Italian Literature and Its Times), definitively breaks the chain of female subordination. Like the maternal figure in Teresa, the protagonist’s mother in A Woman is described as sad, tired, and entirely acquiescent. However, the protagonist of A Woman is driven by the desire to resist modeling herself on her mother’s negative example. Instead, she makes the painful decision to leave her abusive husband and, in doing so, she is also forced to give up all rights to her young child. In the case of A Woman, the protagonist refuses to let her son see her submit to a tyrannical and oppressive marriage.

With the male-dominated Futurist movement of the 1910s and 1920s, women writers in Italy moved even further away from the ideal of motherhood. For example, in her 1918 novel Un ventre di donna (A Woman’s Womb), Enif Robert creates a protagonist who is eager to have her uterus removed, thereby guaranteeing her sterility. Also, no reference is made to the protagonist’s mother, nor does she think of her own child very often. Although the novel vacillates back and forth between repulsion and appreciation for the female body, the desire for complete equality between the sexes—a desire that effectively eliminates the maternal role—is a dominant theme.

With de Cespedes’s The Secret, the institutionalization of motherhood appeared once again at the forefront of women’s issues. The tortured relationship between Valeria and her daughter echoes the struggles already present in the works of Neera and Aleramo, as well as the conspicuous absence of the mother-child bond in Robert’s novel. In writing her deepest thoughts and emotions in her diary, Valeria realizes that she is indeed guilty of attempting to perpetuate the traditional female role through her strained interaction with Mirella.

However, the historical place and time of The Secret, amidst the turmoil of change taking place in postwar Italy, make Valeria’s situation different from the literary characters preceding her. Near the conclusion of the novel, Valeria discovers that she, as a woman of the postwar period, is not only living in a changing time, but she is also an integral part of the cultural transition taking place:

I feel everything confusedly and can’t talk about it to my mother or to Mirella, because neither of them would understand. They belong to two different worlds, one of which died [during the war] and the other of which was born from it. In me the two worlds clash, and I suffer. … [Mirella] doesn’t realize that it’s I, with my life torn between old reassuring traditions and new emergencies, who have set her free. It fell to me. I’m the bridge she profited from.

(Secret, pp. 237–238)

Although The Secret concludes on a pessimistic note regarding the liberation of women as Valeria burns her secret diary, de Cespedes successfully injects the novel with hope that a true women’s liberation is on the horizon for Italy. In fact, unlike the novels that precede it, The Secret features a female character poised to become a mother who passes on to her daughter not a meek and submissive role, but the strong conviction that women possess their own unique identities. Certainly Mirella is a remarkably lifelike representation of the numerous young women who came of age during the postwar period and continued on to become the key players in the Italian feminist movement of the 1960s.

Sources and literary context

Most of what is known about Alba de Cespedes’s inspiration for the writing of The Secret comes from the comprehensive research and interview with the author conducted by Piera Carroli. Although de Cespedes once alluded to the fact that the idea for the narration of her most popular novel stemmed from a life experience, no specific autobiographical details are available. While her early experiences as a young wife and mother may have influenced her writing, at the time she composed The Secret, the educated, economically independent, and politically active de Cespedes was certainly leagues apart from her story’s protagonist, Valeria. The author denies the claim of some critics that she identifies herself with one of the novel’s most socially progressive characters, the screenwriter Clara, and declares instead that she finds herself in “all and none” of the novel’s characters (Carroli, Esperienza e narrazione, p. 147; trans. V. Mirshak).

Although The Secret is written in diary form, traditionally the most acceptable style of women’s literature in the historically male-dominated field of writing, Alba de Cespedes produced a literary work that exceeded the accomplishments of many other female and male writers of her period. With The Secret, de Cespedes set herself apart from other novelists who examined the feminine condition by delving into the conflicted psychological world of women and painstakingly detailing their daily lives as they were forced to confront the tumultuous cultural changes that characterized postwar Italy. According to Elisabetta Rasy, a leading figure of the 1970s feminist movement, de Cespedes effectively “rewrote” the psychological bourgeois novel in a feminine key (Rasy in Carroli, Esperienza e narrazione, p. 10). Recognizing the immense impact of The Secret and Remorse on women of the period, one scholar thinks it “highly probable that de Cespedes’s novels were indeed instrumental in bringing about individual and social change” (Carroli, “Alba de Cespedes Revisited,” p. 46).

Reception and impact

The Secret, like the de Cespedes novels before it, was initially dismissed by many critics as the product of a scrittrice rosa, or romance novelist, but shortly thereafter received high acclaim both in Italy and abroad. In fact, out of all of de Cespedes’s publications, The Secret has enjoyed the most success worldwide. In a shining review for the New York Times in 1958 Frances Keene praised the Italian writer for the novel’s verisimilitude: “Signora de Cespedes is one of the few distinguished women writers since Colette to grapple effectively with what it is to be a woman. Her brilliant handling of Valeria’s moral Hegira places her in the forefront of contemporary novelists” (Keene in Carroli, “Alba de Cespedes Revisited,” p. 38).

Despite much praise from abroad, The Secret was not well received by everyone in Italy. Many Catholics disapproved of the author’s views regarding the absurdity of remaining faithful to a spouse whose affection was more like that of a sibling than a lover (Carroli, Esperienza e narrazione, p. 75). Also the novel “irritated some Italian males who still hold romantic and unreasonable notions about women’s ’duties’ and their ’place in the home’” (Murray in Carroli, “Alba de Cespedes Revisited,” p. 52). But the 1953 article that discloses this last reaction also indicates that many Italians disagreed with it. Despite the critics, de Cespedes received hundreds of letters a day in fan mail and The Secret enjoyed vigorous sales in Italy. So while the novel encountered some negative feedback from Italians, it also struck a positive chord in many of its native readers.

—Valerie Mirshak

For More Information

Birnbaum, Lucia Chiavola. Liberazione della donna: Feminism in Italy. Middleton, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1986.

Carroli, Piera. “Alba de Cespedes Revisited.” Writing Beyond Fascism: Cultural Resistance in the Life and Works of Alba de Cespedes. Ed. Carole C. Gallucci and Ellen Nerenburg. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 2000.

—— Esperienza e narrazione nella scrittura di Alba de Cespedes. Ravenna, Italy: Longo Editore, 1993.

Cutrufelli, Maria Rosa, et al. il Novecento delle italiane: Una storia ancora da raccontare. Rome, Italy: Editori riuniti, 2001.

De Cespedes, Alba. The Secret. Trans. Isabel Quigley. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1958.

De Grazia, Victoria. How Fascism Ruled Women: Italy, 1922–1945. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.

McCarthy, Patrick, ed. Italy Since 1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Sassoon, Donald. Contemporary Italy: Economy, Society and Politics Since 1945. New York: Longman, 1997.

Smith, Denis Mack. Mussolini: A Biography. New York: Vintage Books, 1982.

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