Messina, Maria 1887(?)-1944

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Messina, Maria 1887(?)-1944


Born c. 1887, in Alimena, Palermo, Sicily; died 1944, in Pistoia, Tuscany, Italy, of multiple sclerosis.




Alla deriva, Fratelli Treves (Milano), 1920.

L'amore negato: romanzo, Ceschina (Milano), 1928.

Un idillio letterario inedito verghiano (lettere inedite di Maria Messina a Giovanni Verga), Greco (Catania), 1979.

La casa nel vicolo, Sellerio (Palermo), 1982, translation by John Shepley published as A House in the Shadows, Marlboro Press (Marlboro, VT), 1989.

Piccoli gorghi, Sellerio (Palermo), 1988.

Gente che passa, Sellerio (Palermo), 1989.

Ragazze siciliane, Sellerio (Palermo), 1997.

Personcine, Sellerio (Palermo), 1998.

Dopo l'inverno, Sellerio (Palermo), 1999.

Behind Closed Doors: Her Father's House and Other Stories of Sicily, translated by Elise Magistro, Feminist Press/City University of New York (New York, NY), 2007.


Author Maria Messina was born in the town of Alimena in the province of Palermo in Sicily around 1887, and died of multiple sclerosis in 1944 in Pistoia, Tuscany, Italy. She was completely self-taught, with all her learning coming from books. Her writing was reflective of her life, that of an unmarried Sicilian woman at the turn of the century when many of the men were going to America to make their fortunes. Her writing style was called verismo, true to life, and she was often compared to her contemporaries, Italian dramatist Luigi Pirandello and the great Sicilian verist Giovanni Verga, who supported and encouraged Messina in her writing, although he generally disliked women writers.

Messina wrote about her world. The virtual enslavement of women, the abusive and restrictive moral codes, the terror and hopelessness of poverty and abandonment were all common conditions for females in turn of the century Sicily. Her writing was rediscovered by Sicilian writer Leonardo Sciascia and republished in Italy in the late 1980s and 1990s. Two books of her works have been translated into English: A House in the Shadows (Italian title: La casa nel vicolo) and Behind Closed Doors: Her Father's House and Other Stories of Sicily, a collection of ten of Messina's short stories.

A House in the Shadows is about the sad relationships of the impoverished Nicolina, her sister Antonietta, and Antonietta's husband, Don Lucio. The young women leave their native village to live in the city with Don Lucio, who forces Nicolina into a sexual relationship. The household runs according to established Sicilian rules of hierarchy and male dominance, violent repression, and psychological and sexual abuse, with the three main characters becoming dependent upon each other in their dysfunction and with Nicolina unable to break away from her abusers.

Lynne Lawner's review in the New York Times Book Review said of A House in the Shadows: "While the clean narrative line and dispassionate style are impressive, below the surface ripples a Russian emotionalism." She called Messina's writing "simple and straightforward, lucid and elegant," and declared the book "a perfect small work, well deserving of that overused term ‘gem’."

Behind Closed Doors consists of ten short stories that take place in Sicily during the great immigration to America in the early twentieth century, the only known Sicilian fiction written during that time period. La Merica was considered the land of golden opportunity, so men left their families—their wives, fiancées, mothers, sisters, and children—to make their fortunes in the far-off foreign land. This usually meant abandonment for the women and children left behind, because the men would begin new families in America and never return to their Sicilian homes. Those who did return were sick, exhausted, and no richer than they had been when they left. The women lived tortured lives with or without their men, and each of the ten stories included in Behind Closed Doors is written from a woman's point of view. Middle-class women were virtually imprisoned by social conventions, while poor women were forced to marry to keep from starving. Messina fully explores the desperation and misery endured by the Sicilian women of her time.

Ray Olson's review of Behind Closed Doors for Booklist called Messina's writing "honed, polished, [and] devastatingly direct." The reviewer for Publishers Weekly said the stories were "raw and psychologically deft tales … absorbing and culturally rich." The critic for Kirkus Reviews declared that they showed a "devastating picture of Sicilian life in the early 20th century." Writing for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Elizabeth Fox said that Messina wrote "spare, direct, and heart-wrenching prose," and commented: "Messina's stories derive power by providing a window into another time and another culture, [and] their emotion still rings true today…. Messina's words will leave their mark. Their power makes them impossible to forget."



Antioch Review, September 22, 1990, review of A House in the Shadows, p. 546.

Booklist, September 15, 2007, Ray Olson, review of Behind Closed Doors: Her Father's House and Other Stories of Sicily, p. 32.

Kirkus Reviews, August 15, 2007, review of Behind Closed Doors.

New York Review of Books, November 22, 2007, "In Sicilian Shadows," p. 51.

New York Times, December 15, 1990, Herbert Mitgang, review of A House in the Shadows, p. 21.

New York Times Book Review, April 22, 1990, Lynne Lawner, review of A House in the Shadows, p. 31.

Philadelphia Inquirer, October 24, 2007, "Behind Closed Doors: Portraits of Sicilian Women's Despair, Loss."

Publishers Weekly, December 15, 1989, Sybil Steinberg, review of A House in the Shadows, p. 55; August 13, 2007, review of Behind Closed Doors, p. 46.


Ralphmag, (August 5, 2008), Lolita Lark, review of Behind Closed Doors.