Deledda, Grazia (1871–1936)

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Deledda, Grazia (1871–1936)

Leading Sardinian writer and recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1926 who presented, in her most noted works, a profoundly pessimistic view of the human condition. Name variations: Gracia. Pronunciation: GRATZ-ia de-LEAD-ah. Born Grazia Cosima Deledda on September 27, 1871, in Nuoro, Sardinia; died in Rome on August 16, 1936, of cancer; daughter of Giovantonio (Totoni) Deledda (a local landowner and businessman) and Francesca Cambosa (or Cambosu) Deledda; attended primary school in Nuoro, 1878–1882 (some sources indicate she finished in 1881); married Palmiro Modesani (or Madesani), a civil servant, on November 4, 1899; children: two sons, Sardus (b. 1900), Franz (b. 1904).

Published first short story (1886); published first novel, shortly before the death of her father (1892); moved to Cagliari, capital of Sardinia (1899); moved to Rome (1900); film version of her novel Cenere appeared (1916); shifted writing themes from Sardinia to psychological introspection (1921); her novel La Madre (The Mother and the Priest) appeared in English with introduction by D.H. Lawrence (1922); received Nobel Prize for Literature (1926).

Selected works:

Anime oneste (Honest Souls, 1895); Elias Portolu (1903); Cenere (Ashes, 1904); Canne al vento (Reeds in the Wind, 1913); La Madre (Mother or The Woman and the Priest, 1920).

In the first decades of the 20th century, Grazia Deledda was an important Italian novelist and the most distinguished writer to emerge from the island of Sardinia. A prolific author, she completed 33 novels as well as approximately 250 works of lesser scope such as short stories and articles. Although she wrote in Italian, most of her work is set in Sardinia and rooted in the traditions of Sardinian culture. Her achievement as an author received the high honor of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Awarded to Deledda in 1926, it was only the second Nobel Prize in Literature to be given to a woman. Selma Lagerlöf of Sweden had won the first in 1909. Although Deledda wrote mainly in an unadorned prose style about her Sardinian peasant neighbors, her work has been hailed by critics for its deep psychological insight. Recent analysis of her work has explored the particular concern she directed toward the role of women in Sardinian society at the turn of the century.

Grazia Deledda's "Grace" from Unspeakable Women">

So long as I wrote children's stories, no one bothered much. But when the love stories started—with nighttime rendezvous, kisses, and sweet, compromising words—the persecution became relentless, from all my family, and was backed up by outsiders, who were the most frightening and dangerous of all.

—Grazia Deledda's "Grace" from Unspeakable Women

The Sardinia in which Deledda was born and grew to adulthood was a remote and special part of the newly created Kingdom of Italy. Its unique culture dated back to the Bronze Age, and, according to her biographer Carla Balducci , Deledda was profoundly influenced by traditional stories about Sardinia's past. After passing through many hands, the island came under the control of the northern Italian Kingdom of Savoy at the start of the 18th century. When Italy was united in 1860, Sardinia became a part of the new state.

In the latter part of the 19th century, the island remained a primitive region of poverty, illiteracy, and ingrown cultural traditions. It lacked electricity and sewers, and the vast majority of its population was illiterate. In a phrase that all students of her work cite, Deledda herself described her hometown as "a village of the Bronze Age." She did not leave it, even to travel to a larger city in Sardinia, until the age of 28.

The future author was born in the small town of Nuoro, in the mountainous area of central Sardinia known as Barbagia, on September 27, 1871. Deledda's birthplace in this remote region was tied to the outside only by horsedrawn transportation. She was the fourth child and the second daughter born to the Deleddas. Her paternal grandfather was a peasant who had become a small landowner. Her father Giovantonio Deledda (known as Totoni) attended a university, expanded the family's landholdings, and worked as a public notary. Her mother Francesca (Chiscedda) Cambosu was the illiterate daughter of a local family.

The young girl grew up speaking the local dialect, Logudoro, and received only a minimal education, attending a grammar school in Nuoro for four years. This was the basic stint of schooling offered to all Italian children including those on Sardinia. As Balducci has put it, for a typical Sardinian girl who would receive her practical education from her mother it was enough to learn "to count … to read and write in her dialect, and to read some Italian." Grazia left her formal education behind when, not yet 11 years old, she received her primary school diploma. Her future educational development owed much to her mother's brother, a priest named Don Sebastiano, who discerned her strong intellectual powers when she was still a small child.

Deledda had the advantage of a family with a literary bent: her father was an enthusiastic amateur poet. Despite the conventions that limited education for females, the bright young girl was able to continue her schooling in informal fashion. Sebastiano tutored her in Latin, and a neighbor, who taught literature at the local boys' school, taught her Italian grammar and composition. When the neighbor fled the community to avoid paying his sizable debts, Grazia inherited his books. She also remembered his words of encouragement. He had said that her writing, even at this early stage in her life, was good enough to be published. In addition, the local bishop, a friend of the Deleddas, willed his library to the family. Writes Balducci: "Through these books Grazia gave herself a diversified modern education." According to some authorities, she began to write poetry and short stories when she was only eight years old.

In this isolated community, Grazia aspired to be a great professional writer. Remarkably, her study of Italian, the vehicle for her renowned and popular novels, began only in her early teenage years. Her girlhood infatuation with a schoolmate of her brother led to the writing of her first short story, a romantic tale entitled "Sangue Sardo" ("Sardinian Blood"). Sent to the women's fashion magazine Ultima Moda, it was accepted and published in July 1887. Even

more important for Deledda's future, the skill she had exhibited impelled the editors to invite her to submit additional work.

Much of her family as well as their neighbors in Nuoro reacted less favorably. Her father encouraged her to continue her writing, but many of her relatives were shocked that she had written for a corrupt popular magazine. The plot of "Sardinian Blood," in which a jealous young girl kills her sister's boyfriend, then escapes punishment by disappearing, bothered many members of the community. Over the next several years, young Grazia continued to write, although she received no money for her work, only the pride of being a published author. Still struggling to write proper Italian, she drew on a remarkable tenacity in learning the new words she needed to escape the vocabulary of her local dialect. By the time she was 20, she had produced novels and a set of short stories and was being published in Rome and Milan as well as in Cagliari, Sardinia's capital city.

Deledda's novel Fior di Sardegna (Flower of Sardinia), completed in 1891, depicted Sardinian life and society. Quickly accepted, it appeared in early 1892 and presented her work to a wide audience, bringing Deledda extensive correspondence with other authors, as well as editors and members of the reading public. Her letters to one reader revealed important aspects of her view of the future. "I write because I dream of fame," she told him, "which I know intuitively I shall never achieve." But she tempered this pessimism with an expectation that her success would cause her to leave her birthplace. "I foresee that one day I must leave my rock island, and this, indeed is one of my most ardent desires."

The death of Totoni Deledda in 1892 deprived the family of its mainstay and removed from the young author her most ardent supporter within both her family and the town of Nuoro. Now, the townspeople criticized her literary work more openly than ever before. Grazia's brothers, free of their father's supervision, ran wild in a burst of dissipation, squandering the family's resources and ruining their reputations with sexual liaisons among the community's farmwomen. Her brother, Andrea, ended up in prison, although Grazia was able to secure his release. A second brother, Santus, went insane. The death in childbirth of Enza, her elder sister, put an additional cloud over the family's fortunes. Meanwhile, Grazia had to take over the direction of the family's business affairs.

Balducci considers this set of misfortunes a basic influence on Deledda's literary career. In that critic's view, the Italian writer now went into a "pessimistic" decade from 1899 to 1909 "in which everything she wrote was imbued with a sense of the futility of the human condition." An earlier student of Deledda's work, Domenico Vittorini, wrote in 1900: "One feels that a gust of pessimism has passed over Deledda's spirit."

In the view of critic Mario Aste, there was another crucial influence on the young author's future: her work in collecting Sardinian folklore. Between 1892 and 1895, Deledda gathered songs, poems, and other expressions of the culture and primitive beliefs of the average Sardinian for a journal that specialized in Italian popular traditions. The stock figure of the bandit, who loomed large in Sardinian tradition, as well as the average Sardinian's deep affection for the island's rugged landscape were two elements that she incorporated into her writing. Even her plain and sometimes awkward style, criticized by many students of her work, reflected her immersion in Sardinian culture. "As a true bilingual," writes Aste, "she thought both in Sardinian and Italian." In many passages in her work, it is possible to see how she took Sardinian forms, then translated them into standard Italian.

Another force shaping her career, in the view of several critics, was the influence of writers like Giovanni Verga. Verga was a Sicilian who abandoned the romantic tradition that had dominated Italian novels earlier in the 19th century. He presented realistic but psychologically penetrating depictions of the common people of Sicily. Notes Martha King in her introduction to Cosima, from Verga and the similar writer Luigi Capuana, Deledda "learned to curb the highly romantic tendencies absorbed from her early reading." She applied the lessons she learned to the common people of her own island.

While Deledda's writing may have drawn its inspiration from her recent tragedies, her personal life took a series of positive turns at the close of the decade. The financial success of her novel Anime oneste, first published in 1895, gave her a degree of financial independence. The novel had been well received in Italy, and translation rights had been sold to a French publisher for a substantial sum. She now found it possible to leave the limited world of Nuoro. In 1899, her thriving literary reputation brought her an invitation to visit Cagliari, the largest city on the island. Countess Maria Manca , the editor of Donna Sarde (Sardinian Lady), a magazine to which Deledda had long contributed, asked her to make the short journey to the southern coast of Sardinia. For the first time in her life, Deledda left Nuoro.

At one of the literary salons Countess Manca arranged, Grazia met Palmiro Madesani, an Italian government official stationed in Sardinia. They fell deeply in love and in early November, less than three weeks after her arrival in Cagliari, announced their engagement. On January 11, 1900, Grazia became a bride at the age of 28—old by Sardinian standards. Three months later, she accompanied her husband when he was transferred to Rome. Palmiro understood and supported her work, her novel Elias Portolu was soon completed, and she found herself pregnant. In her new surroundings and circumstances, Deledda experienced unprecedented joy. "I am happy with a happiness pure and serene," she declared in a letter. "He loves me. I love him. … We are masters of the entire world."

Deledda's literary career continued without interruption. Even as she became the mother of two sons, Sardus, born in late 1900, and Franz, born in 1904, she continued to write. Her husband muffled the noise he made playing the piano in order to give her the quiet her efforts required. At least two hours each day were devoted to continuing her literary production, and her children recalled in later life how the family was conditioned to provide her with this crucial time to write. Franz, her younger son, put his recollections in striking form when he was an adult: "Unconsciously, we understood that in that room, for those two hours, Genius was rising to creation."

The book she began in the early months of 1900, Elias Portolu, became the centerpiece of her literary reputation. Deledda's most renowned work of literature appeared in serial form in a Roman magazine in the second half of 1900, and it was published in its entirety in 1903. Critics such as Sergio Pacifici have analyzed it extensively to draw the essential themes of her view of human nature. It shows the inability of individuals to draw happiness from life even when such opportunities apparently exist.

The publication of Elias Portolu raised Deledda's standing to a new level, and in 1907 she was nominated for the first time for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Though he remained an Italian government official, her husband Palmiro acted as her financial manager and saw to it that Deledda's works were widely translated and published throughout Europe. The couple divided their time between Rome and a number of second homes ranging from locations on the Italian Riviera to the Adriatic coast. From 1900 to 1911, the two made regular trips back to Sardinia, but Grazia also had the advantage of foreign travel as her husband was assigned abroad. In 1910, for example, they spent the year in Paris. As one of Italy's most widely read authors, Deledda found her work translated into other forms. Her novel Cenere, written in 1904, was made into a film in 1916. Other works were adapted for the stage and for opera.

A notable achievement in her body of work was the novel La Madre. By the time it appeared in 1920, Deledda had already established herself as a best-selling author, but this book had an unusual impact. Translated into all the major European languages at once, its English translation, The Woman and the Priest, featured an introduction by D.H. Lawrence. The colorful and controversial English novelist greeted her achievement with enthusiasm, and Lawrence's sponsorship of her work played a major role in Deledda's growing international reputation. That reputation was now so well established that she became a perennial finalist for the Nobel Prize.

By the early 1920s, Sardinia's most famous writer had little direct contact with her homeland. Deledda's mother had died in 1916, and, in 1922, the last of her brothers also passed away. During the 1920s, Deledda's writing likewise took a new turn. Abandoning her vivid descriptions of Sardinia's people, landscape, and myths, she stressed what Aste has called "psychological introspection … and flights into the fantastic." Many critics now found that her work lost much of its power and originality. Nonetheless, her long-standing achievements earned her the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1926.

Deledda greeted the news with irony. When her husband rushed to tell her, she merely glanced up from working in the kitchen, said "It's about time," and went back to her cooking chores. She told one of the hordes of newspaper reporters who gathered at the Madesani home that her life and working routine would remain as before. "Nothing changes in the direction of my life," she said. "Today I am determined to stay here in my study for several hours." When Italian dictator Benito Mussolini insisted in honoring her at an elaborate reception, she took the opportunity to ask him for a single favor. She requested, and he granted, the release from prison of an anti-Fascist acquaintance.

Deledda traveled to Sweden to accept the honor in person. A shy woman, at the award ceremony she gave only a brief speech, the shortest on record for a Nobel Prize winner. Soon after receiving the award, Deledda found that she was ill with cancer. Despite severe pain and the trauma of two operations, she continued her literary production until her death on August 16, 1936. The noted author left important insights into her life in an autobiography, lightly disguised as a novel. This book, entitled Cosima (her middle name), appeared in the year following her death.

The body of Sardinia's leading author was buried in Rome wearing the suit in which she had accepted the Nobel Prize. Following World War II, officials in Nuoro successfully petitioned the Madesani family to consent to her reburial in Nuoro, her birthplace. The house in which she was born remains in existence, and the street where it stands has been renamed Via Gracia Deledda in her memory.

Recent appraisal of Deledda's work has examined her treatment of women in Sardinian society. In the world Deledda depicted, notes Bruce Merry, women "were prevented, even when they inherited middle-class status, from travel or education," and they had no role whatsoever in the professions or business. They escaped from their restricted circumstances with covert love affairs or a passion for literature or clothes. Deledda, whose own limited education was typical, frequently mentions the opportunities open for boys including the secondary school at Cagliari and the universities on the Italian mainland. Nonetheless, her female characters frequently rise above the adversity of life far better than their male companions. As Merry puts it, Deledda's women "were real creatures, adept at coping."

D.H. Lawrence saw Deledda as "fascinated by her island and its folks, more than by the problems of the human psyche." But characterizing Deledda essentially as a Sardinian writer does not tell the entire story for critics like Sergio Pacifici and Martha King. King finds Deledda's achievement resting in the Sardinian author's depiction of the general course of human trials and tribulations. Thus, while Deledda shows simple Sardinians who "play out their essentially tragic lives against a backdrop of mountains and bare plains, sheepfold and vineyards, … [h]er emphasis on character and the eternal conflicts of love, hate, and jealousy transcends time and place."


Aste, Mario. Grazia Deledda: Ethnic Novelist. Potomac, MD: Scripta Humanistica, 1990.

Balducci, Carolyn. A Self-Made Woman: Biography of Nobel-Prize-Winner Grazia Deledda. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1975.

King, Martha. Introduction to Cosima, by Grazia Deledda. Translated by Martha King. NY: Italica Press, 1988.

Lawrence, D.H. Foreword to La Madre (The Woman and the Priest), by Grazia Deledda. Translated by M.G. Steegman. London: Daedalus, 1987.

Merry, Bruce. Women in Modern Italian Literature: Four Studies Based on the Work of Grazia Deledda, Alba De Céspedes, Natalia Ginzburg and Dacia Maraini. Townsville, Australia: Department of Modern Languages, James Cook University of North Queensland, 1990.

Pacifici, Sergio. The Modern Italian Novel: From Capuana to Tozzi. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University, 1973.

Vittorini, Domenico. The Modern Italian Novel. 1930.

Wasson, Tyler, ed. Nobel Prize Winners. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1987.

suggested reading:

Russell, Rinaldina, ed. Italian Women Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994.

Wilkins, Ernest Hatch. A History of Italian Literature. Revised by Thomas G. Bergin. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1974.

Neil M. Heyman , Professor of History, San Diego State University, San Diego, California