by Sibilla Aleramo
THE LITERARY WORK
An autobiographical novel set in Milan and a southern Italian village around 1900; published in Italian (as Una donna) In 1906, in English in 1908.
A first-person narrative, the novel centers on a young woman forced into an unhappy and abusive marriage, and powerless under earlytwentieth-century Italian law to defend herself against her husband’s transgressions.
Events in History at the Time of the Novel
Journalist, poet, and novelist Sibilla Aleramo (1876–1969) distinguished herself as a leading proponent of women’s rights in turn-ofthe-twentieth-century Italy with the publication of her first novel, A Woman. Born Rina Faccio in Alessandria, Aleramo changed her name in 1906 at the urging of her lover, the poet Giovanni Cena. The daughter of Ernestina Cottimo and Ambrogio Faccio, Aleramo was formally educated only through elementary school, at which time her father relocated his family to the provincial southern town of Porto Marche Civitanova, where the young woman was no longer able to attend school. Aleramo nevertheless developed a passion for literature and writing, which prompted her to contribute articles to various newspapers and magazines. In 1899, Aleramo received an offer to direct L’Italia femminile (Women’s Italy), a Milan-based magazine. This new position put her in contact with many intellectual luminaries of the era, such as Giovanni Cena, who would eventually wield a major influence over her early literary career. The publication of A Woman transformed Aleramo from a struggling writer to an internationally acclaimed author. Thirteen years would elapse before Aleramo published another novel, Il Passaggio (1919; The Passage), which received a tepid reaction from the Italian press, despite earning much praise abroad, in particular in France. In 1921, Aleramo followed up Il Passaggio with two new books, Moment (Moments), a volume of poetry, and Andando e Stando (Going and Staying), a collection of prose works. Another novel, Trasfigurazione (Transfiguration), appeared in 1922, followed five years later by a third, Amo, Dunque Sono (I Love, Therefore I Am). Aleramo published her final novel, Il Frustino (The Riding Crop), in 1932. Out of all of Aleramo’s works, A Woman remains by far the most acclaimed. Appearing at a time when feminism was just beginning to take root in Italy, A Woman quickly became synonymous with the women’s rights movement.
Events in History at the Time of the Novel
The angel in Italy’s house
The Italian states of the nineteenth century struggled hard to shake off foreign rule and to unite for the first time in more than a thousand years, since the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West. They succeeded in the 1860s, thanks largely to the combined efforts of Victor Emmanuel, Camillo Cavour, and Giuseppe Garibaldi. After founding the Kingdom of Italy under Victor Emmanuel in 1861, the activists set about forging a new society, but one that consigned women to fanmiliar roles. Although an earlier patriot, Giuseppe Mazzini, had a radically different vision of the roles women would play in a united Italy, the one finally prescribed fell into line with the conception of women in other European societies. In Italy, as
THE NEW ITALIAN WOMAN—A PATRIOT’S VISION, ABORTED
In February of 1849, Giuseppe Mazzini, a patriot with a dream of Italian unity, founded the Roman republic. Mazzini wasted no time in attempting to incorporate women in his plans for the new Italy. A forward-thinking visionary, he considered women the political and social equal of men. But Mazzini would not have a chance to put his beliefs into practice because his newly minted Roman republic was short lived. The French king Louis Napoleon came to the aid of the pope in Rome, sending in troops that quashed the fledgling republic on July 2, 1849. A month later Austrian forces repressed a republic that had been founded in Venice. In the wake of these defeats, Mazzini fled Italy. A decade later, when unification finally ensued, the Italy that began to emerge differed widely from the one Mazzini had envisioned, in which women were to fill both political and maternal roles. Under King Victor Emanuel, this ideal was replaced by another—maternitá illustri (illustrious motherhood)—which exalted motherhood as the highest female goal, diverging radically from Mazzini’s original plan.
elsewhere, women were mostly confined to the role of dutiful mother and wife. Middle-class women lived sheltered lives; except when attending school, they rarely left home alone. At the start of the twentieth century, there were few women who pursued higher education or a profession. Those who did not marry still had only one other acceptable choice: life in a religious order or convent. The working daughters of laborers and peasants were less confined, but even they were kept under close watch. Female laborers worked in separate shops from men, often in silence under the gaze of nuns. So strict were the mills and factories in this regard that peasants had few qualms about sending their daughters away to work.
Italian women were conditioned to pursue domesticity and motherhood; the emphasis on domestic life reinforced the concept of the angelo del focolare, or angel of the house, the model that women were to emulate. The angel of the house never soiled herself with sexual desires. Nor did she engage in intellectual pursuits, and she remained steadfastly faithful and submissive to her husband. Her unending struggle to preserve and defend her chastity simultaneously preserved and defended her husband’s honor, and by extension, that of the entire family. Nineteenthcentury Italian society repeatedly exalted motherhood and wifehood as every woman’s ideal states of being. Society demanded total, selfless dedication from a mother to her offspring and from a wife to her husband. Women who refused to enter into marriage, motherhood, or the religious life were regarded as rebels; their actions, it was thought, threatened to unravel the very fabric of Italian society.
Unsurprisingly, during the nineteenth and early twentieth century a considerable body of literature reinforcing the stereotype of the angel of the house appeared. Not only did such literature exalt motherhood and domesticity as the highest goals of womankind; it also castigated those who turned away from these goals. (Ironically the criticism of these female “transgressors” often came from women writers of the day.) This literary perception of the proper place of Italian women predominated in 1906, when Aleramo’s book first appeared.
Italian women and the workforce
The role of women in the Italian workforce changed following unification, largely because of the rapidly shifting political climate. In the post-unification days, the new citizens founded several political movements that attracted members of the Italian workforce. Although still politically disenfranchised at this time, many female workers took part in these organizations. Established in 1892, the Socialist Party made significant inroads with factory workers and agricultural laborers, threatening the Catholic Church’s hold on the Italian populace. The Party wasted no time recruiting workers for its so-called “red” labor unions; the Church countered with unions of its own, often referred to as “white” (Meyer, p. 12). These Church-based unions appealed especially to female workers, who joined them in record numbers. The white unions, following the Church’s agenda, tried to prevent women workers from becoming members of the Socialist Party. However, they led to an unanticipated consequence: some of the white unions broke away to form independent groups and the Church found itself struggling to reassert control over them. In the end, the participation of women in these white unions was extremely significant. With them, “a process of indefinite potential for women’s sense of identity had begun” (Meyer, p. 13). In the second half of the nineteenth century the white unions gave rise to an important branch of the early Italian feminist movement, that of the Christian feminists.
The struggle for suffrage
Aleramo’s A Woman appeared around 40 years after the Italian unification of 1861. Unification brought the question of women’s rights to the fore by opening the workforce to women and raising the issue of women’s suffrage. Shortly after the unification of the Italian states in 1861, Italy’s new parliament issued a bill that barred women from voting in national elections. Despite this early setback, some individual members of parliament came out in support of voting rights for women. One of these members, Salvatore Morelli, introduced a bill to grant women’s suffrage in 1867. Despite Morelli’s best efforts, the bill failed and women were once again denied the vote in the newly unified Italy. This continued rejection only encouraged politically active women to campaign more stridently for voting rights.
The Socialist Party included female workers and important feminists, such as Anna Kuliscioff and Anna Maria Mozzoni. But since its constituency in the late nineteenth century consisted mainly of male workers, the leadership chose to cater to its masculine majority. The decision to focus on the interests of male workers lessened the socialists’ attention to questions of interest to women, such as suffrage. Mozzoni, her Socialist ties aside, continued to lead the way (later she would gain renown as the first Italian feminist).
The 1890s saw working women, some of them lower-middle-class, launch a struggle for female emancipation. These female workers—factory hands, teachers, and clerks—followed Mozzoni’s lead. But soon the middle-class activists turned away from her radical stance. Instead of demanding recognition as equal citizens based on natural human rights, they argued for this recognition because, as mothers, they were vital to the social order.
Despite such feminist leaders as Kuliscioff and Mozzoni, the Socialist Party began to see women voters as a potential threat: much of the female population lived in the South, whose constituents tended to vote in favor of the Church’s political agenda, which usually conflicted with that of the Socialists. The fear was that should women gain the vote, they would only boost the ranks of the opposition in this region.
Kuliscioff and Mozzoni nevertheless encouraged debate over suffrage. In 1901 Giovanni Giolitti became prime minister of Italy. He soon took steps to dramatically expand male suffrage but ignored the question of voting rights for women, not because of any strong conviction but because of his political agenda. During his tenure as prime minister, Giolitti entered into deals with Catholic leaders and expanded male suffrage, in part to draw the country’s Catholic voters into the ranks of the electorate. He also wanted to encourage Catholics to participate in the Liberal Party and to discourage the Vatican from attempting to form a new opposition party. Since many staunch Catholics were against women’s suffrage, Giolitti ignored the question to appease them.
The growth of the Italian women’s movement and the committed writer
Late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Italian law reflected the prevailing beliefs about women. The law afforded women no rights whatsoever in the governing of their families and little means of escape from a disastrous marriage. Although divorce was out of the question at the time of the novel, legal separation could be obtained, but only with the husband’s approval. Moreover, in the event of separation, Italian law automatically granted custody of any minor children to the father. Also married women could only inherit money or property with their husband’s permission; hence a separated woman might find it difficult to obtain any material possessions that were willed to her. Along with women’s growing participation in the workforce and their struggle for suffrage, the drive for legal reform sparked the development of an Italian feminist movement that would confront all these pressing questions.
Unsurprisingly the women’s movement in late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Italy was not a monolithic institution. Two opposing currents emerged in the first decade of the 1900s: a Catholic, Christian women’s movement and a secular variety. The first current, the so-called Christian feminists, consisted mainly of activists from the Church’s white labor unions. The early Christian feminists concentrated on service to the community and opposed socialism and concerns of the secular movement, such as the push for women to attain the vote. The secular branch of feminism frequently consisted of members of the Italian bourgeoisie. Focusing on the struggle for equal rights with men, the secular activists championed pertinent causes such as suffrage. A tense relationship, spurred on by fundamental differences in ideology, existed between these competing branches of the women’s movement. Yet both types of activism made profound contributions to Italian society of the day.
The Christian feminist movement produced many influential thinkers and activists. Elena da Persico directed the women’s magazine L’Azione Muliebre (Woman’s Action), which briefly employed Adelaide Coari, who in 1904 founded the women’s journal Pensiero e Azione (Thought and Action) to discuss issues facing young female workers. Dora Melegari explored the nature of the Italian feminist movement itself, examining how Italian women were viewed abroad and attempting to explain why feminism developed much later in Italy than in other nations.
IMPORTANT DATES IN THE EARLY FEMINIST MOVEMENT
|1861||Parliament passes a bill blocking women’s suffrage.|
|1864||Anna Maria Mozzoni publishes Woman and Her Social Relationships.|
|1868||La Donna is founded in Venice.|
|1892||The Socialist Party is founded.|
|1897||L’Associazione Nazionale delle Donne (National Association of Women) is founded in Milan.|
|1899||Fascio Femminile Demoratico Cristiano (Women’s Christian Democratic Party) organizes its journal in Milan.|
|1899||L’Unione Femminile Nazionale (The National Women’s Union) is founded in Milan.|
|1903||II Consiglio Nazionale delle Donne (The National Council of Women) is founded in Rome.|
While the Christian activists were engaged in these enterprises, their anticlerical counterparts were busy making contributions of their own. In 1864 Anna Maria Mozzoni published her first book, entitled Woman and Her Social Relationships, which began to delineate her trademark philosophies of feminism and women’s rights. Addressing her book to young, middle-class women, Mozzoni urged them to forgo restrictive traditions for new horizons. In subsequent writing, she would offer the women’s movements underway in the United States and other parts of Europe as models for Italian activists. Mozzoni advocated improving women’s status in Italy by reforming the educational system. She sought to create an educated female middle class, charged with achieving social and political change for Italian women everywhere. While Mozzoni pitched her views, Kuliscioff kept promoting women’s suffrage, with limited success.
In the meantime, in 1868, La Donna (Woman), one of Italy’s first women’s magazines, began publication in Venice. The magazine featured a variety of articles by authors all over Italy and included items on women’s movements in other countries. Although the publication of La Donna continued only until 1891, it did a great deal to facilitate awareness on issues of central importance to women in Italy.
For her part, Sibilla Aleramo participated in the burgeoning women’s movement by making regular contributions to women’s journals, such as Vita Moderna (Modern Life), an achievement she incorporates in when she describes her character’s initial efforts to pen articles for women’s publications. At the dawn of the twentieth century, Sibilla Aleramo was poised to add her voice to the growing chorus of those demanding a better life for Italian women and in a more dramatic way than she had ever done before, with the publication of her novel.
The Novel in Focus
Structurally A Woman adheres to a strict tripartite division. Part One consists of nine chapters, which document the protagonist’s adolescence, marriage, and entrance into motherhood. The ten chapters that comprise Part Two chronicle her growing marital difficulties, blossoming career as a writer, and efforts to separate from her husband. The last part—just three chapters—focuses squarely on the psychological forces that motivate the young woman to finally abandon the conjugal home and her son.
The novel, a first-person narrative, opens with a description of the unnamed heroine’s longsince-abandoned youth: “I had an active, carefree childhood. If I try to live it again in my memory, rekindle it in my conscious mind, I always fail. I see the child I was at six, at ten years old, but it is as if I am dreaming her” (Aleramo, A Woman, p. 3). In the course of the novel, the young woman will undergo a radical process of transformation; having moved from independent, carefree child to abused wife, she ultimately circles back to independence once again.
The protagonist’s story begins in earnest when her father, an employee at his brother-in-law’s business, returns home and announces that he has just quit his job. Soon enough, he receives an offer to head a chemical plant in southern Italy, so he swiftly relocates his family’s from Milan to this new locale. The change signals a major transformation in the young heroine’s life; now 12 years old and always an intellectually active child, she finds her studies stunted by the backward educational system in her new southern environment. No longer able to attend school, the young adolescent goes to work in her father’s factory and becomes a sort of confidante and business associate to him. The time spent with her father is no hardship for her. She completely identifies with him and rejects her mother’s domestic life: “The servants must have told hair-raising stories about me. I was never seen with a needle in my hand, was rarely at home, and showed no interest in helping with the housework” (A Woman, p. 17). Apparently the narrator rejects typical female roles in the household. The family’s as a whole meanwhile faces a difficult cultural transition because of its move from wealthy northern Italy to the seemingly narrow-minded South. The father especially finds the townspeople to be backward and corrupt. He looks down upon them with an air of contempt, and they return the sentiment.
Amidst all this radical change, the protagonist’s mother begins fighting a losing battle against depression that culminates in a suicide attempt. The heroine relates how her mother’s brush with death shakes the family’s to its very core, particularly her father, who continues to distance himself from his loved ones.
As the protagonist watches her mother gradually slip into madness and her beloved father become increasingly aloof, she faces physical and psychological transformations of her own. Rapidly developing into an attractive young woman, she garners the attention of a male coworker some ten years her senior. Eventually this newfound friend informs the heroine that local gossip suggests her father has been carrying on an affair with another woman. The news is devastating to the young woman, who responds by spending more time with her would-be suitor. Their relationship takes a profoundly disturbing turn when he rapes her one day in their office, thereby plunging her into a dangerous identity crisis, which causes her to ask the question, “Did this man own me?” (A Woman, p. 36). After the rape, Sibilla and her attacker make plans to wed. Her father at first objects to the marriage on the grounds that Sibilla is too young to become a wife. But in a few months he relents, allowing Sibilla to marry her rapist at the age of 16.
Although the new bride leaves her parents’ home, she continues to be plagued by her family’s’s problems. Her mother descends ever more deeply into madness, until the family’s must place her in an asylum. Her father continues to neglect his younger offspring and, scornful of his eldest daughter’s marriage, has very little contact with her despite their earlier closeness when they worked together at his factory. As she faces the pain of her own mother’s madness, the heroine is forced to consider how she feels about motherhood for the first time when she suffers a miscarriage. A successful pregnancy follows, and she gives birth to a son. Her son’s appearance corresponds to the figurative birth of her writing career—the heroine begins documenting her child’s growth in a journal.
Unfortunately all is not well for the young mother—a scandal erupts when she is falsely accused of having an affair with a male friend. Although she has not betrayed her husband, the accusations send him into a rage that leads him to verbally and physically assault her. After receiving a particularly savage beating at his hands, she attempts suicide by ingesting poison and is saved by a local doctor.
The protagonist’s failed suicide attempt signals the beginning of a new life for her, albeit one still dominated by her husband. Although shaken by his wife’s desperate actions, the husband refuses to trust her. He begins locking her away in their home by day while he goes to work in her father’s factory.
Emotionally and physically fragile following her suicide attempt, the protagonist receives a book from her father, which gives her a new lease on life. At this point her husband begins encouraging her to write, albeit only to confess her sins. But the young woman has other ambitions; she begins penning articles for various journals, including one in which she uses the word feminism for the first time. The narrator’s writing soon becomes the main source of financial support for her and her husband, who, after an argument with her father, loses his job at the factory. They relocate to Rome, where the young writer takes a job working for a women’s journal, Mulier (Woman), which brings her into contact with intellectuals for the first time. Thanks to these new acquaintances, and her ongoing writing career, she begins to consider the possibility of legally separating from her husband. Despite her best efforts to convince him, her husband remains opposed to such a separation. Although her marriage becomes more tolerable following the move to Rome, she is terrified when her husband receives an offer to return to their former home to become director of the factory. One by one, her colleagues at the magazine advise her not to follow her husband back, but she is torn over the likelihood of losing her son. When she finds a letter written many years earlier by her mother to her grandparents, the situation becomes even more pressing. The letter reveals that before losing her mind, the mother also grappled with the decision to leave
Finding Their Voices: Inventing Women’s Literature
The unnamed protagonist of A Woman draws an important conclusion: most female authors of her era are producing pale imitations of literary works already penned long ago by men:
I thought them mere parodies of male literary fashion, written by women even more vain and stupid than the society dolls whose “modern style” apartments we featured in our magazine. Didn’t they know that the literary world was already over-crowded? When would these “intellectual” women realize that they could only justify a place in it by producing books which had a strong character of their own?
(A Womm, pp. 137–38)
At the time of Aleramo’s writing, works written by men continued to dominate the literary world; Aleramo believed that these texts presented an idealized image of women, which reinforced the stereotypical roles prescribed for females in traditional Italian society. She identified a willingness on the part of other female writers to imitate the idealized models set forth by established male writers. In Aleramo’s estimation, a style of writing unique to women had yet to be fashioned: men defined the linguistic forms for literary works while women simply imitated them, adopting a language not their own (Wood, p. 84). In Aleramo’s estimation, women writers could learn to manipulate the male discourse, but this achievement would be at the expense of developing distinctly female forms of expression, which for this author had yet to be invented (Wood, p. 84).
her husband and children; in this missive, Sibilla’s mother reveals the depth of her unhappiness as a woman trapped in a loveless marriage. To avoid losing her mind, explains the letter, she must leave her husband, and by extension her children as well. She struggles with leaving her children and the effect her departure will have on them. Reading these revelations at this point in her own life, Sibilla realizes that her mother erred by staying with her family’s. Her mother’s breakdown occurred years after she wrote the letter, but clearly she lost her mind because of the abuse and oppression suffered at the hands of her husband:
“I have to leave … I’m going mad here … he doesn’t love me any more. … And I am so unhappy that I no longer even love my children
… I have to leave them, I have to leave … I’m sorry for my children, but perhaps this will be better for them.”
(A Woman, p. 192)
After enduring more physical abuse from her husband, and realizing that he may have exposed her to venereal disease, the heroine makes the difficult decision to leave both him and her son. At the close of the novel she relates that a year has passed since she last saw her little boy, and it is this separation that convinces her of the need to write about her troubles, so that one day he may understand his mother’s actions.
The Southern Question
Without a doubt, one of the most crucial turning points in the life of Aleramo’s heroine occurs when she relocates from Milan to southern Italy. The move signals a radical shift in culture, as it transports her from an urban northern setting to an economically and socially underdeveloped southern town. Although Aleramo herself moved with her family’s to the southern town of Porto Marche Civitanova, in her novel she takes great care to never name the protagonist’s new home, referring to it only as a southern village.
Aleramo’s anonymous heroine receives her first culture shock in her new environment when she learns that her education will be cut short:
I was twelve. In our village (dignified by the locals to the status of town) there was only an elementary school. A schoolmaster was brought in to give me lessons, but was quickly dismissed because he was unable to teach me more than I already knew.
(A Woman, p. 14)
Women especially are affected by the town’s meager educational resources. The men of the town are of two types: peasants, fishermen, and workers employed primarily in her father’s factory, and middle-class “professional men” (A Woman,
p. 20). Middle-class men managed to establish careers despite the town’s lack of educational resources, while here, as elsewhere in Italy, women had far fewer options at their disposal. Thus, the women found themselves consigned to lives spent caring for a home and family’s: “Cooking, religion, and the lazy, rough and ready care of children was their entire life” (A Woman, p. 49).
The protagonist frowns upon the southern Italian way of life, and is especially critical of the women. The heroine concentrates most of her disdain for southern women on her mother-in-law and sister-in-law, whose child-rearing techniques and superstitious tendencies she condemns as “barbaric practices” (A Woman, p. 59). Aleramo’s young narrator relates that her mother-in-law reacts unfavorably to her insistence that they refrain from adorning her son’s crib with amulets or other talismans, as was often customary in southern Italy during this era.
The author reveals her own bias against southern Italy through her protagonist’s rather condescending sentiments. Although Aleramo sought to improve the condition of women in early-twentieth-century Italy, she did not concern herself with rural women of the impoverished South. Aleramo believed it was most critical to liberate middle-class women from the domination of their fathers and husbands, and that this liberation would lead to the emancipation of women throughout the country (Wood, p. 82). Like many northerners of this era, she regarded the South as a backward region, an attitude tied to one of Italy’s most pressing social issues of the day: the “Southern Question.”
The “Southern Question” refers to the issues facing the provinces south of Rome, where poverty, economic and industrial underdevelopment, organized crime, and patriarchal gender roles were rife. The Southern Question gave rise to deeply entrenched stereotypes of southerners as superstitious, corrupt, and undisciplined. While North-South divergences had plagued literary Italy for some time, they crystallized into a North-versus-South debate in the decades after Unification, especially from 1870 into the 1890s. Northerners came to attribute the South’s lack of economic prosperity to the inherent defects of its residents rather than to “objective economic and political conditions” (Gramsci, p. 71). This stereotype was promoted by sociologists such as Alfredo Niceforo and even reinforced (perhaps unwittingly) by novelists like Aleramo in their writings.
Sources and literary context
Aleramo began formulating her famous novel in a series of diary entries written as early as 1901. Just one year later, she would start writing A Woman at the urging of Giovanni Cena (Drake, p. xiv). While he supported Aleramo’s work to a great extent, his was not the strongest influence on the young author. It is fair to say that Aleramo’s past played the greatest role in stimulating her to compose A Woman. Although the novel only refers to characters by the titles that delineate their social relationship to the protagonist (e.g., mother, father, husband, etc.) and is vague about dates and locations, the details of Aleramo’s life make it clear that her own personal experiences inspired the story. In her preface to the Italian edition, Maria Corti lists aspects of the novel that correspond to events in Aleramo’s life:
- The father’s decision to relocate his family’s to the South
- The young girl’s employment in her father’s factory
- The mother’s depression
- The physical violence the young girl suffers at the hands of her future husband
- The protagonist’s abusive marriage
- The miscarriage
- The birth of the protagonist’s son
- The heroine’s decision to leave her husband and son
(Corti, p. ix)
Also Aleramo, like the heroine, attempted suicide following a severe bout of depression. Her exposure to other works of art was influential too. During her recovery, she read L’Europa giovane (Young Europe) by sociologist Guglielmo Ferrero, a work often credited with igniting her interest in issues such as feminism. Prior to separating from her husband, Aleramo also saw Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, a late-nineteenth-century play that culminates in the heroine’s shocking decision to leave her husband and three young children to make a better life for herself. A Woman has a similar ending.
Despite these obvious autobiographical influences, Aleramo stopped short of labeling A Woman an autobiography. What rendered her work a novel in Aleramo’s eyes was not what the book shared with its readers, but what A Woman failed to reveal. Prior to leaving her husband in 1902, Aleramo had engaged in an extra-marital affair, which is not chronicled in her novel. In addition, after moving out of her husband’s house, Aleramo took up residence with Cena in Rome, another detail not included in A Woman. It was Cena who convinced Aleramo to eliminate all traces of her affairs from the final version of her novel, to strengthen A Woman’s ultimate condemnation of women’s plight in contemporary Italy (Drake, p. xv). In the end, Aleramo did not want to write an autobiography but a story about a woman who resembled many others.
However one might classify it, the publication of A Woman constituted a major development in Italian literature. Although many people were already advocating political and social reforms to improve women’s condition at the time of Aleramo’s writing, very few female authors dealt with these concerns in their works. In this respect, A Woman signals a critical turning point in Italian literature by women, a shift away from a group of writers like those whom Aleramo’s protagonist criticizes during her years of work at Mulier to another group that focused on liberating Italian women. The works of the former did not question women’s traditional role in society, nor did they display any interest in creating a unique style of writing. The popular nineteenth-century author Neera stands out as an important example of some of these tendencies. In her most famous novel, Teresa (also in WLAIT 7: Italian Literature and Its Times), Neera vividly describes the tedious life her heroine leads enslaved as caretaker for her father and younger siblings. However, Neera does not advocate liberating her from the traditional societal roles that imprison her in an unsatisfying life, as Aleramo does in A Woman. Aleramo proved to be a pivotal writer in this regard. Those who followed her shared her interest in criticizing some of the obstacles that oppressed women, and discouraged them from imitating male authors at the expense of creating a new type of women’s literature. In short, Aleramo’s novel laid the groundwork for the new type of women’s fiction for which her heroine yearned.
Following its 1906 publication, A Woman achieved much success both at home and abroad. Numerous Italian critics pondered the question of genre when reviewing Aleramo’s novel. In fact, many early reviewers were as puzzled by the autobiographical question as Aleramo herself may have been. Additionally Italian critics saw in A Woman a very modern literary achievement and were fascinated by its depiction of the heroine’s relationships with different members of her family’s. However, reaction in Italy was mixed, to say the least; many critics attacked the heroine’s decision to forsake her marriage and leave her son behind. Virginia Olper Monis harshly criticized the heroine’s drastic action, pointing out that in the end the child left behind became an innocent victim. She also insisted that Aleramo’s A Woman not be viewed as an example for intelligent women to follow (Grimaldi Morosoff, p. 12). Additional female reviewers found particular fault with the novel on account of other elements in the plot, such as the heroine’s anger towards her husband for infecting her with venereal disease:
But the straw that broke Sibilla’s back is the illness [the venereal disease] which her husband contracts when his wife is absent for some weeks. A malicious argument, because if all wives were to abandon their husbands made ill by human weakness it is plain to all how many hearths would remain deserted.
(Gropollo in Wood, p. 81)
Other critics reacted favorably to Aleramo’s novel, regarding it a triumph in the cause of women’s rights. Far from selfishness, the heroine’s final decision to leave home was seen by Adolfo Sassi as an act of sacrifice to the greater goal of women’s emancipation (Grimaldi Morosoff, p. 11). Gina Lombroso applauded the generational bond established in the work: “The drama … is not so much between this man and this woman but the struggle which the woman carries on with her own mother” (Lombroso in Wood, p. 81). The famed playwright Luigi Pirandello praised the novel’s aesthetic qualities, calling it a “serious” and “profound” work (Pirandello in Grimaldi Morosoff, p. 12; trans. S. Annunziato).
If Italian critics did not quite know what to make of Aleramo’s novel, foreign reviewers had few doubts about A Woman. The German press praised the novel heartily, and other translations appeared in English, French, Spanish, Swedish, Polish, and Russian. French reviewers were perhaps kinder to A Woman than any other foreign audience. Published in 1908, the French translation was met with glowing reviews from critics who acknowledged Aleramo’s young protagonist as “the most complete female character in Italian literature” (Drake, p. vi).
For More Information
Aleramo, Sibilla. A Woman. Trans. Rosalind Delmar. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980.
Amoia, Alba. No Mothers We: Italian Women Writers and Their Revolt Against Maternity. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 2000.
Beales, Derek, and Eugenio F. Biagini. The Risorgimento and the Unification of Italy. London: Longman, 2002.
Corti, Maria. Foreward to Una Donna, by Sibilla Alermo. Milan: Feltrinelli, 1998.
Drake, Richard. Introduction to A Woman, by Sibilla Alermo. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980.
Gramsci, Antonio. Selections from the Prison Notebooks. Trans. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith. New York: International Publishers, 1971.
Grimaldi Morosoff, Anna. Transfigurations: The Autobiographical Novels of Sibilla Aleramo. New York: Peter Lang, 1999.
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