- Writing to Delight: Italian Short Stories by Nineteenth-Century Women Writers
Readers in North America may be familiar with contemporary Italian narrators such as Dacia Maraini, Elena Ferrante, Melania Mazzucco and Margaret Mazzantini, to name only a few. The work of contemporary Italian women poets has also been anthologized and Italian women authors of the twentieth century are drawing critical attention, aided, no doubt, by the increasing scholarly interest in the history of the women's movement and feminist literature in Italy, and in issues of gender applied to modernism, fascism and migration. However, Anglophone readers have had little opportunity yet to appreciate the diversity and originality of Italian women's voices in the nineteenth century, a time of political, social and cultural turmoil and excitement surrounding the creation of a unified Italian state. Thus, the main objective and greatest merit of Writing to Delight is to popularize modern Italian women's writing primarily from the post-unification period.
The editors' selection of writers and stories is exquisite. It includes Matilde Serao's keen description of interiors and behaviors in "Checchina's Virtue," Neera's forthright and unsentimental, yet sensitive, representation of abandoned and lonely women in "Paolina," "Aunt Serafina" and "The Lady of the Evening," and Marchesa Colombi's gracefully ironic depictions of family life in "Winter Evenings," "Learn a Trade for a Rainy Day," and "Dear Hope." Serao, Neera and Marchesa Colombi are perhaps the best known authors collected in the volume. Along with them, the lesser known Caterina Percoto, Contessa Lara and the Venetian Jewish Virginia Olper Monis were selected not only for [End Page 150] their vivid storytelling—one need only think of the description of Caròla's beauty and covetousness in Contessa Lara's "The Coral Necklace"—but also because they reflect Italy's regional diversity, as Antonia Arslan explains (195). Olper Monis's tale, which sets Gigetta's fateful love story against Venice's suffocating alleys at the time of Veneto's annexation to the Savoy reign and among spreading anti-semitic sentiments, is exemplary in this respect. So are Percoto's descriptions of Friulan peasant traditions in "The Bread of the Departed" and "The Caning," and her representation of social and power dynamics in rural northern Italy, which the author also intersperses with her own enthusiastic embracing of Risorgimento ideals. Yet, without disregarding their characters' different social status and age, all writers tell of women's experiences that also transcend particular temporal and geographical locations.
Interestingly, the concluding piece of the collection, "Scorn for Life," is not a short story but an essay by Bruno Sperani, celebrating life, the future and the human pursuit of happiness through science and the arts. This piece appears to exemplify further—but in a problematic way—some of the editors' introductory and concluding remarks. Both Gabriella Romani and Arslan helpfully guide the reader in understanding nineteenth-century women's writing by underscoring its importance in post-unification Italy and in the Italian literary tradition. In reproducing the social, familial and cultural mores of the time for a primarily, but not exclusively female readership, these authors also exposed the model of domestic femininity by which contemporary society expected all women to abide. In general, their writing attests to Italian women's increasing cultural and professional achievements at the time, and to their capacity to separate a woman's public persona from her private identity and life. It also draws attention to the contemporary nation-building process as one that confined women, both symbolically and practically, solely to the nurturing function of wives and mothers. The choice of concluding this collection with Sperani's optimistic essay calling for an art that "teach[es] […] the simple love of life, the grace of smiles among tears, and universal piety" (190) appears a little odd to modern readers who undoubtedly acknowledge the new authoritative cultural and social position nineteenth-century women claimed for themselves—a view that is endorsed by the editors—but also unequivocally perceive the ambiguity embedded in Sperani's...