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The Silent Duchess

Dacia Maraini

Publication Year: 2000

The Silent Duchess is set in early eighteenth century Sicily and is the story of Marianna Ucria, daughter of an aristocratic family and victim of a mysterious childhood trauma that has left her deaf and mute. Forced to marry her uncle, this novel explores life for women in a culture where arranged marriages and endless childbearing are the norm. After the death of her uncle-husband, Mirianna embarks on a journey of self-exploration, and after uncovering the cause of her disabilities, discovers a sense of autonomy and is able take control of her life.

Published by: The Feminist Press

title page, copyright

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The Ucrias - a family tree

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pp. 3

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pp. 9-12

Here they are, a father and a daughter. The father fair, handsome, smiling; the daughter awkward, freckled, fearful. He stylish and casual, his stockings ruffled, his wig askew; she imprisoned inside a crimson bodice...

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pp. 13-15

Here they are, a father and a daughter. The father fair, handsome, smiling; the daughter awkward, freckled, fearful. He stylish and casual, his stockings ruffled, his wig askew; she imprisoned inside a crimson bodice...

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pp. 15-19

Rolling his eyes, the boy watches her, and Marianna returns his look, determined not to let herself be intimidated. But his eyelids are swollen and discharging pus; it is quite likely he cannot see properly, the little girl thinks to herself. Who can tell...

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pp. 19-22

The windows are overflowing with heads. The balconies are tightly crammed with gesticulating bodies leaning out so that they can get a better view. The Ministers of Justice with their yellow robes, the Royal Guard with their...

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pp. 22-27

The brothers and sisters sit in a colourful group posing for her and shuffling their feet: Signoretto looking so like his father the Duke, with the same soft hair, shapely legs and bright trusting expression; Fiammetta in her little nun's dress, her hair...

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pp. 22-29

An hour later, Marianna wakes up in her parents' bed with a wet handkerchief pressing heavily on her forehead. Vinegar runs down through her eyelashes and stings her eyes. Her mother the Duchess bends over her....

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pp. 29-34

A loose pile of tufa stones in the courtyard, buckets full of plaster, great mountains of sand. Marianna walks up and down in the sunshine with her skirt tucked up round her waist so as not to get the hem dirty...

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pp. 34-46

Here they are, a father and a daughter. The father fair, handsome, smiling; the daughter awkward, freckled, fearful. He stylish and casual, his stockings ruffled, his wig askew; she imprisoned inside a crimson bodice...

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pp. 40-46

The son and heir arrived in due course exactly as uncle husband had desired, and is called Mariano. He was born just two years after the birth of Manina. He is fair like his sister, though better looking, but his character...

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pp. 46-52

Duke Pietro Ucrria has never discussed one iota of what his wife has been gradually planning for the villa. He only digs his toes in when a small 'coffee house', as he calls it, springs up in the garden, built of wrought...

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pp. 53-60

Marianna wakes with a start and a sensation of freezing cold. She peers into the darkness to see if her husband's back is in its customary place beneath the sheets, but however much she tries she cannot make...

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pp. 60-67

'Papa's will is creating a real scandal.' 'Cutting out his eldest son in favour of his daughters.' 'Such a thing has never happened.' 'Poor Signoretto!' There'll be a rumpus with Geraldo.' That aunt who is a canoness disagrees.' 'He's left you his half of the...

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pp. 67-70

Part of the yellow room has been cleared to make way for a gigantic Nativity crib. The estate carpenters have worked for two days erecting a mountain that compares with Monte Catalfano. In the distance a volcano can be seen with its outline painted in white. In the centre...

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pp. 81-75

The room is in shadow. There is a brazier on the floor with a pan of boiling water on top of it. Marianna is sunk in a low chair, her legs stretched out on the floor, her head lolling on the cushion. She is asleep...

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pp. 76-84

Her father the Duke has his own special way of mounting the bay horse, catching hold of its raven black mane and talking to it persuasively. What he says Marianna has never known but it is very similar to the affectionate chatter he poured into the ear of the prisoner...

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pp. 84-87

In the mirror Fila's hands move quickly and jerkily, smoothing out the tangle of Marianna's hair. The Duchess watches the young servant's fingers gripping the ivory comb as if it were a plough: each tangle a wrench, each knot a jerk. There is something cruel and angry about these...

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pp. 88-93

'Today auto-da-fe in Piazza Marina. My presence is requested, as is that of Her Grace the Duchess. Advise purple dress with Maltese Cross on chest. And for once, no uncouth country behaviour, please.' Marianna reads uncle husband's peremptory note placed beneath her jar of face powder...

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pp. 94-98

Marianna reads with her chin resting on her hand. Her feet warm each other, sheltering beneath a blanket from the icy draughts that whistle through the closed windows. Goodness knows who left this notebook with its marbled cover in the library. Was it brought from London by her brother...

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pp. 99-107

Rummaging through ancient trunks and demijohns of olive oil Marianna came upon an old canvas, dark and covered with dust, that appeared from nowhere. She pulled it out, dusted it with the sleeve of her dress, and found it was none other than the portrait of her brothers and...

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pp. 107-113

'I don't want my uncle, Mother, I'm telling you.' The note is crumpled between Marianna's fingers. 'But your mother married her uncle', Duke Pietro replies to his daughter. 'But she was dumb and who else would have her?' While writing this, Giuseppa looks at her mother as if to say, Forgive me but for the moment I have to use...

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pp. 113-121

Outside it is dark. Silence envelops Marianna: absolute, barren. In her hands a love story. Words, writes the author, are harvested by the eyes like bunches of grapes hanging from a vine, ground out of thought like the turning of a millstone and then spreading like liquid and coursing...

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pp. 121-137

Saro and Raffaele Cuffa are at the oars. The boat slips over the dark water with a regular rhythmic motion. Beneath a garland of paper lanterns there are gilded seats. Duchess Marianna, looking like a sphinx, is wrapped in a bottle-green cloak, her face...

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pp. 121-142

Whether she is in the garden reading a book, in the yellow room doing the accounts with Raffaele Cuffa, or in the library studying English, she is always coming across Saro, springing up from nowhere and a moment later disappearing back to nowhere always there to stare at her with soft bright eyes that beg for a response. Marianna...

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pp. 125-131

The curtains are drawn. The velvet hangs in wide folds. The vaulted ceiling gathers up the shadows. A few gleams of light penetrate the curtains and dissolve on to the floor, forming bright pools of dust. There is a smell of camphor in the stale air. Water is boiling in a saucepan placed on top...

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pp. 131-138

From far off they look like three large tortoises moving slowly along the narrow path among tall grass and stones. Three tortoises: three litters, each preceded and followed by two mules. In Indian file, one behind the other, between the woods and the steep precipices, following an inaccessible...

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pp. 139-143

'And Don Mariano?' 'Is your son not coming, Your Excellency?' 'What is he doing, is he afraid?' 'We are waiting for him, our new master.' 'With the death of Don Pietro we were expecting him.' Marianna crumples...

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pp. 143-147

The steps disappear into the darkness. The damp makes her dress cling to her. Where does it come from, this heat that smells of rats and straw, and where do they lead to, these steep steps of discoloured stone? Marianna's feet refuse to budge, her face becomes distorted. She turns to Don Pericle...

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pp. 147-151

The hair-brush, dampened with a little orange-flower water, slides into her smooth hair, lightly scenting it with the fragrance of orange peel and brushing out the dust. Marianna tucks her hair behind her aching neck. The orange-flower water is finished; she must have another jug of...

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pp. 151-154

A morning in August. Beneath the shadows of the portico four women are seated round a table of woven cane. Hands move daintily from the crystal sugar bowl to the earthenware cups filled to the brim with milk, from peach jam to buttered rolls, from foaming coffee to...

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pp. 155-162

When Marianna comes down into the gun room she finds her three daughters all ready: light dresses and long aprons, ankle boots to protect against thorns, with sunshades, bundles, baskets and tablecloths. Today is the day of the wine harvest on the estate of Bosco Grande and the girls have decided to go to the vineyard, taking their lunch with them...

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pp. 163-167

Coming into that strange house she is nailed to the threshold by the clammy darkness, heavy with odours. The damp air brushes against her face like a wet cloth; she can only see black shadows submerged in the dark of the room. Then little by...

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pp. 168-172

The two lighted candlesticks are burning with green flames. Marianna watches those little tongues of fire with some apprehension: since when has a small candle of virgin wax burned with such a green light, rising in slender columns towards the ceiling and falling back...

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pp. 172-181

A carriage with a drawn hood, the horse caparisoned with gold trappings. It must be that eccentric character Agonia, Prince of Palagonia. But no, there alights a lady attired in a veil thrown in the Spanish manner over...

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pp. 181-188

Her brother Abbot Carlo offers her a cup of chocolate and smiles at her with a questioning look. Marianna fixes her gaze beyond the tall lilies and the trunks of pomegranate trees, to the city of Palermo stretched out like a pink and green Chinese rug, in a dust-cloud of dove-grey houses....

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pp. 188-194

'Oh Lord, I long for what I cannot will .... ' The books emit a good smell of tanned leather, pressed paper, dried ink. This little book of poetry is as heavy in her hand as a small block of crystal. The words of Michelangelo...

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pp. 195-200

Hurried breathing, the smell of camphor and cabbage-leaf poultices: every time she comes into the room it seems to her as if she were reliving her son Signoretto's illness, the distress of laboured breathing, the foetid smell of sweat sticking to the skin, restless sleep, bitter tastes and mouths...

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pp. 200-204

Will it be compromising for her to go to San Giovanni de' Leprosi with Senator Giacomo Camaleo, Praetor of Palermo? Could it be seen as an act of folly that will put her brothers and her children against her? These questions course through Marianna's head at the very moment she puts her foot on the footboard of the two-horse carriage that awaits her...


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pp. 204-211

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pp. 211-215

Peppina Malaga has come back to the house, two small black pigtails tied behind her ears with a piece of string, her feet bare as usual, her legs heavy and swollen, her protruding belly raising her skirt over her shin-bones....

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pp. 215-219

The brigantine moves along, scarcely swaying on the green water. In front, like a fan, is the city of Palermo, a line of grey- and ochre-coloured palaces, grey and white churches, hovels painted pink, shops with green striped awnings, streets of cobblestones cut in half by rivulets...

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pp. 219-224

It is evening. At the Captain's table, in the little saloon with a barrel roof, are seated an assortment of travellers who do not know each other from Adam: a deaf-mute duchess from Palermo, dressed in an elegant light coat with blue and white stripes, reminiscent of a Watteau painting; an...

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pp. 224-227

A pilgrim? Perhaps, but pilgrims travel towards a destination. Her feet travel only for the joy of travelling; they do not ever want to stop. Escaping from the silence of her own house to other houses, other silences. A nomad wrestling with fleas, heat, dust. But never really...

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pp. 227-236

Every human being and every epoch is constantly being threatened by 'an imminent hidden barbarity', as our friend Gian Battista Vico puts it. Your absence has induced a certain negligence in my thoughts, between which weeds have flourished. I am threatened, seriously...

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pp. 237-258

In the landscape of contemporary Italian literature, Dacia Maraini's novel The Silent Duchess, published in Italy in 1990, constitutes a masterpiece.2 The Italian literary community was unanimously enthusiastic and considered the novel one of Maraini's greatest and most mature works. Positive reviews appeared everywhere...


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pp. 259-261

E-ISBN-13: 9781558617834
Print-ISBN-13: 9781558612228

Page Count: 164
Publication Year: 2000